What happened: Earlier this week Russia and Syria took part in an unusual joint air patrol over the Syrian Golan Heights, which borders Israel.
- According to Russian media, Syrian planes took off from the Damascus area, while Russian aircraft joined them from Hmeimim Airbase, near Latakia. The planes met mid-air.
- The Russian Defence Ministry said the patrol included Su-34 and Su-35 planes along with command-and-control A-50 planes, as well as Syrian Mig-23 and Mig-29 fighter jets.
- The aircraft practiced a range of manoeuvres, including covering one another and firing at aerial and ground targets.
- The joint patrol is still being interpreted by Israeli analysts, but some argue that they could signal a shift of Russian policy that would complicate further Israeli airstrikes in Syria.
- An alternative explanation suggests the joint patrol is a message to the US in the context of tensions over Ukraine, or an effort to use Israel to persuade the US not to interfere.
Context: Russia has had a military presence in Syria since 2015. The Russian air force was a vital component in securing President Bashar Assad’s control during the civil war.
- The Russian air force has regularly been involved in bombing campaigns again rebel groups, most recently in the north-western city of Idlib.
- Since establishing their presence, Israel and Russia agreed to a “deconfliction mechanism” that has enabled the Israeli air force to strike Iranian military targets in Syria, including weapon shipments destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
- The mechanism was reached between former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Putin. The good relations between the sides have continued with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Putin, who he met in Sochi last October. On his return, Bennett said they “reached good and stable conclusions and I found President Putin to be attentive to Israel’s security needs”.
- The pair most recently spoke two weeks ago where, according to Bennett, they discussed “primarily matters of regional security” and agreed on “continued close cooperation in this area”.
- In December, the Israeli air force twice struck Iranian weapon containers in the port in Latakia. These were viewed as rare precision strikes because of their close proximity to the Russian naval presence.
- Due to the Russian presence in Syria, Israeli officials have referred to the Russians as “our new neighbours,” necessitating factoring in their interests when relating to Israel’s security agenda in Syria.
- Russia continues to play both sides. Last week Putin hosted Iranian President Raisi in the Kremlin. Putin said they shared efforts in “helping the Syrian government overcome the threats posed by international terrorism”.
- Israel and Russia have a shared interest in restraining Iran’s military presence in Syria, as Russia seeks foreign investment to rehabilitate Syria, devastated by the civil war.
Looking ahead: According to Russian Ministry of Defence, the plan is to continue to make these coordinated flights a regular occurrence.
- These new air patrols raise questions over the viability of continued Israeli airstrikes in Syria.
- Israeli military officials are thought to be in conversations with their Russian counterparts to clarify if this is a temporary development or a permanent change in stance.
- In their conversation two weeks ago, Putin invited Bennett and his wife to visit St. Petersburg.