by Michael Peck
Yes, this could happen.
As always with the Arab-Israeli (or Iranian-Israeli) conflict, the real danger isn’t the regional conflict, but how it might escalate. In the 1973 war, the Soviets threatened to send troops to Egypt unless Israel agreed to a cease-fire. The United States responded by going on nuclear alert.
Could Israeli air strikes in Syria trigger war between Israel and Russia?
Israel remains determined to continue pounding Iranian forces in Syria in a bid to keep Tehran’s forces away from Israel’s northern border. At the same time, Russia has thousands of troops in Syria that could be caught in the crossfire—or even become belligerents if Moscow tires of its Syrian ally being pummeled.
And if Israel and Russia come to blows, would Israel’s big brother—the United States—feel compelled to intervene?
Israel’s policy boils down to this: it will do whatever it sees as necessary to eject Iranian forces from Syria. And if Russia doesn’t like it, then that’s just the price of ensuring that Syria doesn’t become another Iranian rocket base on Israel’s border.
“No one in Israel is confused about who the Russians are and who they are aligned with,” said the IDF official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “The Russians are not our allies, to put it mildly. We have one ally, and that is the United States. The Russians are here for totally different objectives. They are supporting a regime [Syria] that has an outspoken goal of annihilating Israel if it only could. They are also part of a coalition that supports Iran.”
Just how easily Israeli military operations can trigger an incident became evident during a September 2018 strike on ammunition depots in western Syria. Anti-aircraft missiles launched by Syrian gunners accidentally shot down a Russian Il-20 surveillance aircraft, killing fifteen people. Israel denies Russian accusations that it deliberately used the Russian plane as cover, or failed to give Moscow sufficient warning of the raid. Yet Russia still blamed Israel for the mishap and retaliated by supplying advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
Still, the Kremlin has denounced Israeli strikes in Syria as “illegitimate.” Syria has been a Russian ally for more than fifty years, and it was Russian air strikes—along with Iranian and Hezbollah troops—that saved Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s faltering regime from ISIS and other rebel groups. At least 63,000 Russian troops have served in Syria since 2015. Though Putin has promised since 2016 that Russian forces would withdraw, Russia currently retains more than 5,000 troops and private military contractors in Syria, backed by several dozen aircraft and helicopters.
And Russia is in Syria to stay. The Syrian port of Tartus is Russia’s only naval base in the Mediterranean: in 2016, Moscow and Damascus signed a forty-nine-year agreement that allows nuclear-powered Russian warships to operate from there. In addition, Russian aircraft and surface-to-air missiles, including the long-range S-400 air defense system, operate from at least two air bases in western Syria.
Israeli officials warn of Tehran’s plan to station 100,000 Iranian and allied troops in Syria. Hezbollah, with its estimated arsenal of 130,000-plus rockets, already menaces Israel’s Lebanon frontier. Syria joining Lebanon as a second Iranian rocket base is the stuff of Israeli nightmares.
To be clear, the IDF is neither boastful nor belligerent about its capabilities versus Russia, a former superpower with the largest nuclear arsenal on the planet. The IDF official likened Israel to “The Mouse that Roared,” the classic novel of a tiny nation that challenges the United States.
But if Israel resembles any mouse, it’s Mighty Mouse: small, powerful and not afraid to use its fists. In fact, what makes a potential Israel-Russia battle so dangerous is that it is not hypothetical. After the 1967 Six-Day War, Soviet fighters were sent to Egypt. This led to a notorious July 1970 incident when in a well-planned aerial ambush over the Suez Canal, Israeli fighters shot down five Soviet-piloted MiG-21 jets in three minutes.
Were the Israelis and Russians to come to blows, or if Moscow were to seriously threaten military force against Israel, could the United States risk a grave loss of prestige by not intervening to back its longtime ally? Could Russia—whose Syrian intervention is a proud symbol of its reborn military muscle and great power status—not retaliate for another downed Russian plane or a dead Russian soldier?
Which leads to the ultimate question: could tensions between Israel and Russia lead to a clash between American and Russian troops?
In the end, somebody will have to back down. But Iran isn’t about to give up its outpost on Israel’s border, and Russia probably can’t force them to. Then there is Israel, which is grimly determined to stop Iran.