A Russian and Syrian solider stand guard on the Syrian part of the Quneitra border crossing with the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights during last October. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

With U.S. Withdrawing From Syria, Strained Israeli-Russian Relations Take Center Stage

After airing out their disagreements at the UN, Jerusalem and Moscow have signaled a willingness to move beyond crisis over beyond downed Russian plane

Following United States President Donald Trump’s announcement that Washington will immediately begin withdrawing troops from Syria, analysts believe it is more important than ever for Israel to mend strained ties with Russia.

Israeli-Russian relations deteriorated sharply in the aftermath of the downing in September of a Russian plane in Syria that came amid an Israeli airstrike targeting Iranian assets. Though the aircraft was shot down by Syrian-manned air defenses—killing all 15 people on board—Moscow blamed Israel for failing to issue adequate advance warning before it attacked targets close to a Russian military base. Israel has denied the charge.

There have been several attempts at a rapprochement, including last week when Israel sent a military delegation to Moscow to brief Russian officials on Operation Northern Shield, launched by the Israeli army to uncover and destroy Hizbullah attack tunnels stretching into Israel.

On Wednesday, Moscow sent a special delegation to Israel to help ease tensions, potentially signaling a willingness by the Kremlin to move beyond the dispute over the downed plane.

Before the delegation’s arrival, however, the discord played out at the United Nations, with both governments taking contrasting positions on resolutions in the General Assembly. For its part, Russia helped defeat a United States-sponsored resolution that would have condemned Hamas, the Palestinian terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip. The Kremlin also invited Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh to visit Moscow later this month despite opposition by Jerusalem.

Israel seemingly retaliated diplomatically when earlier this week it voted for a UNGA resolution that denounced Russia’s “progressive militarization of Crimea.” The measure also called on Moscow to “end its temporary occupation of Ukraine’s territory.” Up until that point, Israel had notably been silent on the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

“We are still figuring out the [Israeli-Russian] relationship after the downing of the Russian aircraft,” Zvi Magen, a former Israeli ambassador to Russia and the Ukraine, told The Media Line.

“The Russians tried to change the rules of the game [by courting Haniyeh] and the Israelis didn’t like that. Russian officials, on the other hand, wanted to teach Israel a lesson that they will assert their own independent interests.

“Generally speaking,” he elaborated, “Israel’s relations with Russia are very tense. It is a problematic country that exerts a huge influence in the region. It is in Israel’s security interest to maintain good bilateral relations.”

With respect to President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria, Magen expressed skepticism the move will actually be carried out. “This could just be a version of ‘fake news’ because we are talking about the potential withdrawal of only 2,000 American soldiers. The U.S.’ main military capabilities would still exist as it maintains naval fleets and air force bases around Syria. Therefore, it can quickly intervene in any conflict.

“For Israel, this is not a big blow because it has learned to manage its own problems,” he concluded.

By contrast, Dr. Samuel Barnai, an expert on the history and politics of East-Central Europe at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, believes that the current tensions over Syria can have a long-term impact on Israel’s ties to Russia.

“The Russians supply the Assad regime mainly with air support while Iran and its various Shiite militias provide boots on the ground. This partnership forces Israel to reckon with Moscow’s military presence in the region but makes it difficult for Jerusalem to maintain a good relationship with Russia,” he noted.

“It is a question of life and death for Israel because it can’t allow Iran-backed proxies to become stronger. It can cooperate with the Russians on certain matters, but not when it comes to the terrorist group’s hostile stance toward Israel.”

(Tara Kavaler, an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program, contributed to this report)

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