Ever since it invaded Ukraine, Russia has succeeded in preventing Israel from providing meaningful support to the Ukrainians, using its presence in Syria and Israel’s security interests there as its justification.
Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Israel set up a “deconfliction mechanism” with Russia to prevent inadvertent clashes when Israel struck Iranian deployments and arms transfers in Syria. Officially Russia never condoned the Israeli strikes, consistently calling them “violations of Syrian sovereignty” (ironic terminology in view of its subsequent incursion into Ukraine). Unofficially, Russia agreed to turn a blind eye, provided it was given sufficient advance warning of forthcoming Israeli actions.
The Russian embassy in Israel once explained: “Our military officials discuss the practical issues of this substantively on a daily basis. This mechanism has proven to be useful and will continue to work.”
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes, but has acknowledged carrying out hundreds to counter Iranian efforts to turn Syria into an advanced military hub in its own right, and as a route to supply hardware to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel is obliged to make every effort to prevent possible future attacks on the nation.
So, in the national interest, Israel has continued to strike at Iranian military hardware being transported across, or stored within, Syria. For example, Syria claims that Israel carried out a strike against Damascus International Airport on October 21. According to the respected Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Israel also targeted sites on September 15, near the airport where Iranian-backed groups were stationed. During August Israeli airstrikes were twice reported to have targeted Aleppo airport. In June, the Syrian Observatory reported that Israeli strikes put Damascus airport out of service for nearly two weeks when weapons depots belonging to Iran-backed militias were targeted.
Just before Russia invaded Ukraine, Israel condemned any potential incursion as “a serious violation of international order”. In response, Moscow summoned the Israeli ambassador for talks, and in the UN Security Council the Russian spokesman condemned Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. The message was clear enough. Subsequently, though foreign minister Yair Lapid did denounce Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Israel has remained largely silent on Russia’s actions, while Moscow has indicated that it would continue coordinating with Israel in Syria.
Events, however, have not stood still. It is now clear that Russia has purchased thousands of Iranian drones which it is using against Ukrainian civilians in the course of its military actions. There are reports that Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps) technicians are actually on the ground in Ukraine, helping the Russians deploy the drones. On October 16 the Washington Post reported that Iran is expected to enhance its support. In addition to the Shahed-136 “kamikaze” drones and the Mohajer-6 attack drones it has already provided, Iran is expected to start supplying Russia with precision-guided, short- and medium-range missiles.
With Russia and Iran growing ever closer, how long can the delicately balanced Russo-Israeli arrangement in Syria continue? Will the Iranians start demanding a price beyond dollars for supplying their military equipment to Russia? In short, can the agreement hold, or will Israel finally have to run the risk of clashing with the Russian military? If so, how much of a risk would that be? Would Russia actually initiate such clashes?
The same questions would arise if Israel took the initiative and provided Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, with the defensive hardware he is asking for.
On October 15 the Ukrainian government sent Israel an official request for air defense systems that will allow it to counter Iranian ballistic missiles and attack drones used by Russia in Ukraine. The letter confirms that Russia has started using Iranian-made drones against cities and civilian infrastructure.
“According to available information,” the letter runs, “…there is a high probability of prompt deliveries to the Russian Federation of Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar ballistic missiles from Iran.” In order to protect its civilians, Ukraine wants to initiate cooperation with Israel on air and missile defense.
“Ukraine is highly interested in obtaining from Israel…defense systems, in particular: Iron Beam, Barak-8, Patriot, Iron Dome, David’s Sling, Arrow Interceptor, and Israeli support in training for Ukrainian operators.”
The letter made the point that experience gained by Iran of using these weapons in Ukraine would “significantly contribute in strengthening Iran’s potential of producing offensive weapons and, as a result, will increase the security threats for the State of Israel and the Middle East region.”
The day before the letter was sent, defense minister Benny Gantz said in a meeting with EU ambassadors that Israel supports Ukraine via humanitarian aid and the delivery of life-saving defensive equipment, but emphasized that Israel will not deliver weapon systems to Ukraine due to a variety of operational considerations.
“We will continue to support Ukraine within our limitations,” said Gantz.
The question is: have Israel’s limitations been drawn too narrowly? To what extent can Israeli anti-missile defense systems be considered offensive military equipment? They can only be deployed after rockets, missiles or drones have actually been launched. They are, as the saying goes, “exactly what’s written on the tin” – namely defensive. In which case, there can be no reasonable objection to providing the Ukrainians with this means of defending themselves. Given the unjustifiable misery Putin has inflicted on Ukraine and its people, Israel would surely be justified in complying with its urgent request for assistance – and dealing with any consequences.