There was a remarkable succession of events in the skies over Syria earlier this month. I see lessons in what happened that none of us should miss. These lessons have to do with Russia’s emerging role as a diplomatic presence—in the Middle East, yes, but far beyond the region, too. There is also Russia’s desire to act as a stabilizing force on the international scene, America’s refusal to countenance any such prospect, and the many lost opportunities the United States inflicts upon itself and all others as a result of what I describe as willful blindness.
Let’s begin with what happened between Syria and Israel a couple of weeks ago.
After a drone aircraft alleged to be Iranian strayed into what was alleged to be Israeli airspace from a position in Syria, Israeli jets struck across the Syrian border, reportedly knocking out a command-and-control center. The hostilities escalated when Syrian artillery brought down an Israeli F–16—which prompted a new wave of Israeli airstrikes. At that point, it looked as if Prime Minister Netanyahu was prepared to escalate his campaign against the Iranian presence on Syrian soil even further—effectively opening a new front in a war that finally shows promise of ending.
Notable enough. But it is what happened next that interests me most.
Benjamin Netanyahu and Vladimir Putin had a telephone conversation.
No one is saying who placed the call, but, given what was said, it is a good guess the Russian president telephoned the Israeli prime minister. By the official accounts from Moscow, Putin told Netanyahu to cut it out. “The president of Russia spoke out in favor of avoiding any steps that could lead to a new round of confrontation, which would be dangerous for everyone in the region,” the Kremlin’s terse summary stated.
Read that sentence carefully.
Putin seems to have issued his veiled warning in part because Israeli bombardments of this kind might come close to involving Russian ground units and interfering with Russian air operations. How close is not clear; closer than Moscow likes, we can say with confidence. But in my interpretation Putin had a larger point: He sought to remind Netanyahu that Russia is committed to stability in the region, Syrian sovereignty, and the peace process Moscow is now trying to advance in a partnership with Iran and Turkey.
Haaretz published an interesting analysis of these events and the conversation that followed. “Putin put an end to the confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria and both sides accepted his decision,” the Israeli daily suggested.
That may prove to be an overstatement. And it is not clear Putin or Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister, are prepared to pick up the phone every time an Israeli jet flies a limited sortie into Syrian airspace, as was the occasional practice long before the war in Syria erupted seven years ago. It is far more likely, however, that the Israeli leadership will exercise more caution than it ordinarily displays. This is where the significance of last weekend’s events lies.