Russia has drawn down forces in Syria, including removing a sophisticated air defense system that has been a major threat to Israeli Air Force operations in the country, according to a Wednesday night report.
The New York Times said the development could open the door for Jerusalem to upgrade its level of support for Kyiv, as Russia’s presence in Syria has been a major consideration for Israel’s position on the matter.
The transfer of the S-300 anti-aircraft system out of Syria comes amid a larger Russian drawdown in the country as it seeks to bolster its faltering offensive against Ukraine, according to a senior Israeli defense official and two senior Western diplomats cited by The Times.
In August, satellite images captured by Israeli firm ImageSat International appeared to show an S-300 battery being moved from Masyaf in northwest Syria to a port at Tartus and then on to Novorossiysk, a Russian port on the Black Sea near Crimea.
The officials offered different estimates on how many troops have been pulled from Syria. Two put the number at a couple of battalions, or 1,200-1600 soldiers, while the third said the number was much higher. The senior Israeli defense official said the withdrawn troops had been replaced with military police officers.
The three officials said the redeployment would decrease Russian leverage on Israel, and this may lead Jerusalem to reconsider its support for Ukraine.
Kyiv has repeatedly pressed Israel to supply it with air defense systems and military equipment.
Though it has on several occasions harshly criticized Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Jerusalem has so far avoided providing direct military aid to Kyiv — neither offensive arms nor advanced defensive technology — in an attempt to avoid sparking a crisis with Moscow.
The Israeli position is believed to be based on its desire to maintain freedom of operations in Syria, as well as to avoid causing problems for Russia’s large Jewish community.
Moscow has already moved to curb Jewish institutions in the country: Over the summer Russia’s Justice Ministry filed a petition to liquidate the Russian offices of the Jewish Agency for Israel — a semi-governmental organization that encourages and facilitates Jewish immigration — in what analysts view as a reaction to Israel’s criticism of the invasion.
On Wednesday Defense Minister Benny Gantz stressed that while Israel will continue its support for Ukraine over the invasion, “it will not deliver weapon systems to Ukraine, due to a variety of operational considerations.”
However, he said Jerusalem could supply an early-warning system to the beleaguered nation to warn of incoming strikes, like the one used in Israel.
“We have sent a request to the Ukrainians to share information about their needs for air defense alerts. Once we gain this information, we will be able to assist in the development of a life-saving civilian early-warning system,” Gantz told a group of European Union ambassadors a day after Ukraine said it would submit a formal request for Israeli air defense systems like Iron Dome.
There is debate within the cabinet on the matter of providing the Ukrainians with military aid. Diaspora Minister Nachman Shai tweeted Sunday that Russia’s recent increased strikes on civilian areas had removed “any doubt where Israel should stand in this bloody conflict. The time has come for Ukraine to receive military aid as well, just as the USA and NATO countries provide.”
On Monday, Dmitri Medvedev, the deputy head of the Russian Security Council, warned Israel in a social media post that any “reckless” supply of military equipment to Ukraine “will destroy all interstate relations between our countries.”
Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes in Syria aimed at preventing Iran from establishing a military foothold there and to stop its supply of advanced weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group, an Iranian proxy. Russia, meanwhile, has provided thousands of troops and military hardware to ally Syria as the regime battles to suppress a grinding civil war.
Israel and Russia set up a direct line of communication between their local militaries in an effort to prevent their respective forces clashing in Syria. An encrypted phone connection was installed in 2017 between a Russian air base in western Syria and the Israeli Air Force command center in Tel Aviv.
The S-300 system was moved to Syria is 2018. Control of the batteries was never handed over to Syrian government. According to the NY Times, the threat of the S-300 system to Israeli operations in Syria was a key reason that Israel has turned down Ukrainian requests for air defense systems such as Iron Dome, which Israel has used to intercept rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip.
In May this year, Russian forces opened fire on Israeli jets using the advanced system at the end of an Israeli Air Force attack on targets in the Masyaf area.
The incident was first reported by Channel 13 news a week after the strike on May 13, and later confirmed in July by Defense Minister Gantz, who said “it was a one-off incident.”
Russia still maintains its more advanced S-400 air defense system in Syria, but the missiles are reportedly tasked only with defending Russian assets.
Despite the benefits, Israel is also concerned that as Russia pulls out its military presence in Syria, Iran will be able to increase its influence, according to the report.
Israel has in the past provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine, operating a field hospital for several weeks in the early days of the conflict, and also protective military equipment such as helmets and flak jackets. More recently, however, it has also provided the Ukrainians with intelligence about Iranian drones, according to Ukrainian and Israeli officials, who say that Israel has also offered to examine the remains of drones that crashed.