Russia politics: Quick View - Israel-Iran clash escalates in Syria, Russia's tack unclear
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- Economist Intelligence Unit
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On February 10th an Israeli fighter jet was shot down and multiple military targets operated by Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria were destroyed in clashes.
The fighting was provoked by an Iranian drone that entered Israeli air space. It was shot down by Israeli forces, which then bombed the Iranian-operated launch site near the Syrian town of Palmyra. One of the eight Israeli F-16s on the mission was brought down over Israeli territory by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile. Israel then retaliated by hitting what it said were 12 Syrian and Iranian targets inside Syria. The fighting stopped after six hours, shortly after Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, called Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister; the incident took place near Russian military positions in Syria.
The incident comes amid growing Israeli concern about Iran's widening military presence in Syria. The Israeli government claims that the build-up is not connected with Iran's role in fighting Syrian rebels but in creating a joint front with Iran's Lebanese proxy, Hizbullah, to threaten Israel. Although the US issued a statement unequivocally supporting Israel after the incident, there is no domestic appetite there for an expanded role in a foreign conflict.
Russia therefore remains the main military power in Syria, although it has declared plans to withdraw from the conflict. So far Russia has not taken a clear position on the Israel-Iran issue. On the one hand, Russia benefits from Iran's military support in what it calls an anti-terror operation against rebels opposed to the Syrian regime. On the other, security in Syria could be undermined by a conflict between Israel and Iran. In addition, Russia is conscious that an open conflict between Iran and Israel would help Donald Trump, the US president, to impose new financial sanctions on Iran (he has repeatedly threatened to do so); it is unclear whether these sanctions would benefit or negatively affect Russian business interests. Until now Russia has given Israel a relatively free hand to act in Syria, and Mr Netanyahu has worked to maintain good relations with Mr Putin. However, Russia probably knew about the Iranian drone provocation and did not try to stop it.
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