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A Nuclear Nightmare: How a War Between Russia and Israel Could Start

Michael Peck

Key point: In the end, either Israel or Russia will have to back down.

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?

Not that Jerusalem or Moscow are eager for such a fight. “Neither of us desire a military confrontation,” a senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) official told me during a recent interview in Jerusalem. “It would be detrimental to both sides.”

Yet 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.

Relations between Jerusalem and Moscow are far warmer than during the Cold War. The result is a strange embrace reminiscent of the U.S.-Soviet detente of the 1970s. On the surface, a certain friendliness and desire for cooperation.  Yet beneath the smiles is wariness, suspicion and a clash of fundamental interests.

“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.

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