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Elephants in the Room

Moscow Holds the Key to Peace Between Jerusalem and Damascus

Russia is more important than the United States in averting war between Israel and Syria.

An Israeli soldier stands next to a sign on Mount Bental, near the the Syrian border of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on May 10. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)
An Israeli soldier stands next to a sign on Mount Bental, near the the Syrian border of the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on May 10. (Photo by Lior Mizrahi/Getty Images)

Israel shot down a Syrian fighter jet this week—the first time it has done so since 2014. This does not necessarily mean the two countries are about to go to war. The Israelis are not interested in a conflict along the Syrian border—their hands are quite full with the tensions along the Gaza Strip. For his part, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has yet to finish off the rebels whom he has fought for seven years. He knows full well that his forces are no match for those of Israel, which U.S. News & World Report ranked the world’s eighth most powerful country, just behind France and Japan.

The Syrian plane that Israel shot down—a Sukhoi Su-22 or Su-24, according to the Israeli military—was an export variant of the 1970s-era Su-17. It was no match for Israel’s advanced Patriot missiles. And it came a day after the country deployed its state-of-the-art David’s Sling missile defense system for the first time to parry rockets originating from Syria. (The missiles were ordered to self-destruct once it became clear the Syrian rockets would land on Syrian soil.) The Israelis may well have been sending a message to Assad that he would do best to return to the 1974 disengagement agreement that then-U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had negotiated between Israel and Assad’s father, the wily Hafez al-Assad. The senior Assad never broke that agreement, and for years, neither did his son. Despite harsh rhetoric constantly emanating from Damascus, the border remained quiet.

Israel is less concerned about Assad than it is about the Iranians, who, with the Russians and Hezbollah, have been responsible for the Syrian leader’s clear victory over the rebels. It has looked to Moscow to push the Iranians out of Syria. In the meantime, Israel has coordinated its operations with the Russians. Before shooting down the plane that took off from Syria’s Tiyas Military Air Base headed for Israeli airspace, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government first checked with Moscow that it was Syrian, not Russian.

Netanyahu, who has become a frequent visitor to Moscow, pressed Russian President Vladimir Putin to expel the Iranians from Syria. In response, Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s longtime foreign minister, offered to keep the Iranians from approaching to within 60 miles of the Syria-Israel border, but Netanyahu rejected the offer as inadequate. No doubt Jerusalem and Moscow will reach some sort of understanding; whether Iran cooperates is an entirely different matter.

It is noteworthy that the United States has not figured in Israel’s efforts to push the Iranians out of Syria. Jerusalem, like the rest of the region, recognizes that at least for the time being Moscow is the arbiter of the Middle East. On the other hand, Israel’s employment of David’s Sling underscored the importance of its ongoing relationship with the United States. The system was developed with U.S. funds and might not have come into existence without that support.

As long as Israel remains dependent for its defense needs on U.S. funding—and it is only in the first year of a decade-long, $38 billion assistance agreement established in the final months of the Obama administration—Washington will still have considerable influence over Israel’s policies. But the Trump administration’s clear determination to exit from Syria, and perhaps from Iraq and elsewhere in the region, has forced the Israelis, like their Arab neighbors, to give far greater weight to Russian concerns than ever before.

The lesson of the shootdown is therefore not that a Syrian-Israeli war is imminent but that Russia, not the United States, holds the key to peace along the Golan Heights border. Only Russia can press Assad to abide by the 1974 agreement. Only Russia has any chance of maneuvering Tehran into agreeing to withdraw its forces sufficiently far from the Golan Heights to assuage Jerusalem.

The United States remains Israel’s primary arms supplier and its military bank. But it no longer can resurrect the degree of influence that enabled Kissinger to negotiate a border agreement that lasted the better part of four decades.

Correction, July 26, 2018: Israel deployed two Patriot missiles to shoot down the Syrian fighter jet. An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that Israel shot down the aircraft using its David’s Sling missile defense system.

Dov Zakheim is the former Under Secretary of Defense.

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