In the fall of 2015, Russia and Israel held their first talks on “deconfliction,” a disconcerting, vague military arrangement, the aim of which was “preventing misunderstandings” in the Syrian civil war. Russia had just formally entered the conflict, and Israel had already been informally participating through occasional strikes on Hezbollah targets in Syria and some cross-border exchanges of fire. The purpose of deconfliction, it seemed, amounted to a diplomatic version of Ma$e rules: Stay out of my way.
But late last week, something changed. As Israeli jets returned from Syria after bombing a weapons convoy reportedly bound for their foe Hezbollah—allied with Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Iran—Syrian forces fired missiles at them, sparking the most serious incident between the two countries in the six-year war. In a first, the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles triggered Israel’s missile defense system, which intercepted one of the rockets, causing debris to fall over neighboring Jordan. Last Friday, following the incident, an Israeli army official confirmed the Israeli strike on the convoy publicly for the first time.
Shortly after the episode, Russia took the unusual step of summoning the Israeli ambassador in Moscow to explain what happened. This may have had to do with the Israeli admission or the strike itself; according to one Israeli report, Russian troops were reportedly stationed not far from where the Israeli jets struck in Syria. However, Syria’s unprecedented military response could suggest that the dynamic is shifting, as pro-Assad forces continue to gain ground with Russian and Iranian help and as a new U.S. administration slowly settles in—leaving Israel uncertain of its place in the conflict.