Agreement ensures tactical situations do not result in unintended clashes in Syrian airspace. However the larger strategic picture created by Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil is still very murky, and could prove highly problematic for Israel.
During the meetings that preceded the entrance of Russian forces in Syria, the two countries reached a formula designed to ensure the two countries’ air forces do not accidentally get into dogfights with each other while operating in Syrian airspace.
According to the agreement, both countries have agreed to notify each other an hour before launching a planned aerial combat mission, to make sure the other side has no plans for a similar operation in the same area. In the event the other side plans an operation at the same time, they will decide which side gets priority, depending on the planned targets and operational time sensitivity of the mission.
In addition, the agreement also covers the air defense systems Russian has introduced into the theater, to ensure IAF aircraft will not be accidentally downed by Russian air defense operators.
Russian air operations against IS (ISIS) should not bring the two air forces into close proximity. Most IS targets are in central and eastern Syria, areas where the IAF rarely, if ever flies. There is no reason this should change, unless Israel decides to take a more active role in the US led campaign against IS. The only reason this would happen is if IS once again attempts to conquer Kurdish held territory, and no other force comes to their aid.
Western and southwestern Syria is another matter. The IAF regularly carries out both aerial reconnaissance and bombing missions in this area, to keep track of Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah, and when necessary bombing convoys it suspects are carrying long-range missiles and other advanced weapons Israel is unwilling to see Hezbollah obtain.
Russian aircraft stationed in Syria can be expected to operate quite frequently in this area, much of which comprises the Alawite heartland, which roughly extend from the port cities of Tartus and Latakia to an imaginary line connecting Hama, Homs and al Qusayr, not far from the Lebanese border. This is the area Russia is determined to see remain under Assad’s control, so it ensures it retains use of its large naval base at Tartus.
If Russian air operations are limited to this area, this should not be a problem for Israel. Iran however, which has entered into a de facto pro-Assad axis with Russia wants to see the Assad regime maintain control of the area between Homs and Damascus and the Golan Heights and the Syrian-Lebanese border. Iran is determined to ensure this area remain in Assad’s hands, as it is the key to ensuring it can continue to supply its Hezbollah proxy. In addition, as long as Assad retains control of this area, Iran has the option of building up a large military force on Israel’s border, posing a direct threat to Israel. For the past several months Hezbollah has, on Iran’s orders, been fighting in this area, to ensure the border area between al Qusayr and al Zabadani remains in Assad’s hands.
Iran is totally dependent on Russia for providing air cover to Hezbollah and other pro-Assad forces in that area. Its air force is underequipped, undermanned and undertrained, and it knows any Iranian combat aircraft flying in Syrian airspace will be intercepted and downed by the IAF, which has already attacked Iranian ground forces attempting to probe the area near the Golan Heights.
The question that most concerns Israel is what, if any commitments Putin has made to Iran regarding providing air cover to Iranian ground forces that may be deployed in those areas.
At some point Putin will have to decide how much he is willing to out on a limb for his Iranian partners. If he decides that no matter what he does, Obama is too chicken to challenge him, he may decide to increase cooperation with Iran, figuring Israel will be very hesitant to challenge Russian aircraft when it knows America is not going to intervene, no matte what.
On the other hand, he also knows that if he miscalculates, and Israel decides confronting Russian aircraft is less of a risk than an Iranian military buildup in Syria, his air force is no match for the IAF.
Forty-five years ago, during the War of Attrition, the USSR sent Russian piloted planes into combat missions against the IAF, to try to stop its bombing raids over Egypt. Several Russian pilots were killed in the resulting dogfights, the IAF sustained no losses. After a few weeks, the USSR pulled its pilots out of the battle zone, unwilling to risk further humiliation.
Israel is incomparably stringer today than it was then, and for all of Putin’s bluster, Russia is a long way from being the superpower the USSR was in the early seventies. For all of Russia’s build up in Syria, its forces there are no match for the IDF.
In addition, Putin would have to carefully assess what the US would do under such a scenario. So far he has not bothered to hide his contempt for Obama, who he regards as a wimpy poltroon, to the point where has rebuffed American attempts to reach a similar agreement to ensure Russian and US aircraft operating in Syria do not end up in dogfights. Obama’s response has not been encouraging, US aircraft have been ordered to back down and retreat if they make any inadvertent contact with Russian aircraft.
Khamenei has also not wasted any time showing his contempt for Obama, by forming an alliance with Russia after having gotten from Obama a 150 billion dollar gift thanks to the agreement and lifting of sanctions.
This Russian-Iranian axis is based on common contempt for a common enemy, and a temporary meeting of interests. Both countries want to see Assad remain in power, preferably over the whole of Syria. If that proves an unobtainable goal, as seem likely, they want to see the establishment of a rump “Alawistan state” in northwestern Syria, which would remain under Assad’s rule.
Each country however has its own motive for supporting Assad. Russia’s is more limited. Its key interest is to ensure it keeps its naval base at Tartus. Humiliating the US at the same time is a bonus.
Iran’s interests are far more ambitious. Unlike Russia, which can live with the Alawistan scenario, Iran still wants to see the whole of Syria remain within the Shiite orbit. The only way this can happen is if the Alawite minority (a sub sect of Shiite Islam regarded by Sunnis as heretics), to which the Assad clan belongs, remains in power. To achieve this, Iran has fully cooperated in Assad’s ethnic cleansing policies, which have already transformed almost half the country’s Sunnis into refugees in Turkey, Jordan and Europe. If, before the civil war the Alawites constituted 15% of Syria’s population, they now constitute a third.
Iran must be able to ensure the unfettered access to its Hezbollah proxy it needs to be able to provide it with ongoing support and supplies. In addition, Iran also wants to have the option of confronting Israel from Syria, in effect giving it access to a land border with Israel. This requires that the Homs-Damascus-Deraa corridor remain under Alawite control, even though it is not an Alawite majority area (most of the Alawites live in the area between the coast and Homs and Hama).
The key question is to what degree will Russia take risks for an agenda that is primarily Iran’s, not its own. The answer to this question will determine which of the possible scenarios emerges.
One possible scenario is that Putin decides not to take any risks beyond what assuring Russia’s core interests require. Since Russia does not need Alawistan to include the Homs-Damascus-Deraa corridor, it will refrain from assisting any Iranian attempt to achieve this goal. Israel should be hoping for this outcome.
There is however an alternative scenario which has an equal probability. Russia may decide that its alliance with Iran is valuable enough to warrant a greater degree of risk. In this case, Putin may decide to support Iran’s “greater Alawistan” ambitions, and provide air cover and air defense to Iranian forces. If this scenario comes to pass, Israel will have to choose between two bad options. Either accept the threat of Iranian ground forces on the Golan border, or risk conflict with Russian air and air defense forces in Syria.
Obama is the wild card, as he is currently the most unpredictable player. Normally one could assume that the US would warn Russia conflict with Israel risks conflict with the US. This happened in 1967 and 1973, and would likely be a safe assumption if any other President was currently residing in the White House.
However no one, probably not even Obama knows how he would react, or be forced to react under such circumstances. The really scary scenario plays out as follows: Putin and Khamenei, deciding the US will stay out no matter what, and figuring they can browbeat Israel into submission, pursue the greater Alawistan option. Israel decides it cannot accept the presence of Iranian ground forces south of Homs, and attacks them even at risk of conflict between Israeli and Russian aircraft. The conflict escalates, Turkey, which has already sent its jets to pursue Russian aircraft that have violated its airspace, becomes embroiled in the conflict. Since Ankara is a NATO member, the US would have no choice but to get involved. Result, an unintended regional war.
Such a bad situation could be made even worse by American prevaricating. This could further emboldening Putin to the point where he makes a move in Europe beyond Ukraine, probably targeting the Baltic States, which are NATO members. Only then, does Obama finally get it and the US intervenes, by which time the conflict that started in Syria would have totally spun out of control.
Another particularly ominous scenario for Israel is a regional war, which turns into a war of attrition. Israel is too small, both demographically, physically and economically to be able to endure a protracted war. This would leave it no choice but to request US aid, and anyone who thinks such aid would not come with strings attached is delusional. Perhaps this is Iran’s long-term strategy, to embroil Israel in a war it cannot, because of the Russian presence win, forcing it to accept US assistance that come at a price.
Iran would then negotiate an end to the war with the US. One of the terms of any such agreement would be an Israeli withdrawal and the establishment of a Palestinian state. Israel would be in no situation to resist such a demand.
Iran achieves its aim of ensuring its status as the region’s dominant power, the first Muslim country to defeat Israel. Such an achievement would finally enable Shite Iran to realize is centuries old ambition of achieving Shite dominance throughout the Islamic world, ending over ten centuries of the Shiites being the Muslim world’s eternal underclass.