Less than 24 hours after Russia and Turkey agreed not to launch an offensive in Idlib, a Russian reconnaissance plane was shot down in Syria. Though it has a recent history of shooting down Russian military aircraft, Turkey was not the culprit. No, the plane was shot down by Russian-made S-200 missiles operated by Syria. That didn’t stop the Russian Defense Ministry from placing the blame squarely on Israel. According to the ministry, Israel was bombing positions in Latakia, a city in northwest Syria, without giving Russia enough advance warning. In an ominous statement, Moscow said it reserved “the right to take appropriate action in response.”
Not so long ago, Russia-Israel relations had never seemed better. Earlier this year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow listening to a Russian military band playing Israel’s national anthem before holding deliberations with President Vladimir Putin. Almost a year ago to the date, Russia, Iran and Turkey announced they had reached an agreement to create a de-escalation zone in Idlib province – the same territory over which so many were afraid Russia and Turkey might soon fight but which will soon become another demilitarized zone. (Syria and Iran will have more to say about whether anything besides short-term disaster has been averted in Idlib.)
So how did we get here? The answer is partly explained by the fact that alliances in the Middle East no longer exist. In their place are short-term partnerships governed by temporary benefit. Take Turkey and Russia. Three years ago, Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet – to no lasting effect. Not even their disagreement over the very survival of the Syrian government itself prevented Russia and Turkey from compromising on Idlib, however temporary the agreement may be.
It appears as though the damage to Russia-Israel relations will likewise be short-lived. Israel Defense Forces denied responsibility for the attack, and Putin chalked it up to a “chain of accidental circumstances” – hardly the hawkish accusation made by his Ministry of Defense.
This is why no one should read too much into Russia’s entente with Turkey or its kerfuffle with Israel. They are, at most, tactical ephemera. Russia’s long-term objectives in Syria are to prop up President Bashar Assad and then to leave. Turkey wants to replace Assad with a more pliable Sunni Arab government. Israel wants to block any regional power from gaining a foothold inside Syria, so while the more immediate threat to Israel is Iran by way of Hezbollah, the longer-term threat increasingly appears to be Turkey. At times these interests overlap, and at other times they don’t, but the overall song remains the same.
So far, things haven’t gone Turkey’s way. Assad is still in power, and autonomous Syrian Kurds are on its border. But unlike Russia, Israel and even the United States, Turkey is the only country involved in Syria that can play a longer game. Delaying the conflict in Idlib means Turkey can solicit help from Russia and Assad against Syrian Kurds. As for Russia-Israel relations, what happened might have been an accident, or a Syrian attempt to undermine Russia-Israel relations, or a Russian show of goodwill to Turkey. Either way, Russia can’t afford to make an enemy out of Israel right now. They’ll find a way to patch things up.