Israel can hardly be said to hold a balance of power with super-powerful Russia. But there are certain understandings in the eastern Mediterranean, where Israel remains a regional power, economically and militarily. And those understandings, carefully calibrated yet shifting during the course of the Syrian civil war, may have been rattled – despite the lack of official comment – by last week’s discovery of a Russian intelligence base in Tel el-Hara, Syria.
The Free Syrian Army revealed in an October 5 video that the Russian Main Intelligence Directorate’s OSNAC unit – its signals intelligence unit, much like the American NSA or Unit 8200 in Israel – had been operating from within a Syrian regime base near the border with Israel.
Russian troops had been collecting intelligence against Syrian rebels. This makes sense: Russia is deeply involved in the Syrian civil war and has often filled the role of international bodyguard for Bashar Assad. But the video also revealed that OSNAC officers had been collecting operational intelligence on Israel. This raises the question: To what extent has Russia been spying on Israel, and to what end?
“Russians are Russians,” Zvi Magen, a former head of the semi-clandestine Nativ Liaison Bureau within the Prime Minister’s Office and a former ambassador to Russia, currently working as a senior researcher at the INSS think tank in Tel Aviv, said of the disclosure. “So this is not entirely surprising.” But both the nature of the intelligence being collected and the fact that the Russian officers left traces, he said, were rather unexpected.
Magen said it was hard to tell how long ago the Russian troops had abandoned the base or under what circumstances, but suggested that Russia, as befits a former superpower and an intelligence powerhouse, has deep intelligence penetration into Israel, including other signals intelligence collection posts, likely on Russian navy boats in the Mediterranean Sea.
The reason for this has less to do with Syria and more to do with Russia. He suggested that Russia might be repaying Syria for its agreement to allow Russia to operate, and that its motivation was not merely to improve Syria’s understanding of Israeli actions and deployments, but primarily to move the information to Iran and Hezbollah – as a currency to improve Russia’s regional standing and as part of its larger effort to track US allies.
“As part of Putin’s moves to restore the glory days of old,” Russia has redoubled its efforts to exert influence in the Middle East, investing its prestige and power in near-unprecedented ways in Syria and seeking to coax Egypt out of the US orbit into which it was lured after Camp David, said Dr. Jennifer Shkabatur, a Russia affairs lecturer at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.
She described an alliance between Syria and the Soviet Union that began promptly with the founding of the Syrian state in 1946 and lasted throughout the Cold War, with the Soviet Union providing arms and advisers to Syria and establishing a naval base of its own in Tartus. During the nineties, as the Soviet Union collapsed, Russia turned inward; its influence in the Middle East faded.
The Arab Spring revolutions, coming amid a Russian resurgence, or rather a Russian attempt to recover its old spheres of influence and to globally counter the US wherever possible, presented several opportunities. Most recently, Egypt in mid-September was said to have reached a preliminary $3.5 billion arms deal with Russia, including the purchase of an S-300 air-defense system. Syria, which has relied heavily on Russia, reportedly constitutes 10 percent of Russia’s annual arms export sales.
And yet, Magen said, Russia is careful not to explicitly cross certain lines. Aware that Israel could topple the Assad regime if it deems it necessary, Russia has taken pains to demonstrate an unflappable allegiance to its client in Damascus, but has not, and likely will not, supply Assad’s regime with balance-of-power-altering weapons like the S-300 air defense system, which could threaten planes in Israeli air space and severely limit Israel’s ability to fly over Lebanon or Syria.
Nor did Russia openly criticize Israeli actions in Gaza during the 50-day war this summer, he noted, while Israel, for its part, kept very silent about Russian actions in Ukraine.
“The two parties usually take precautions with one another,” he said.
The discovery of the intelligence collection facility at Tel el-Hara, therefore, was a bit like “walking in on someone in an embarrassing position.”
In other words, the facts had been basically known but the evidence, publicly presented, is damaging.
“Generally, Russia walks between the mines,” he said, “not on them.”