How Israeli-Designed Drones Became Russia’s Eyes in the Sky for Defending Bashar al-Assad

Though their alliances ostensibly put them on opposite sides, the Syrian war has paradoxically deepened the relationship between Israel and Russia.

YEKATERINBURG, RUSSIA. FEBRUARY 12, 2016. A Panasonic laptop computer running a programme, with a Forpost unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV, drone) behind at UWCA Ural Works of Civil Aviation. JSC Ural Works of Civil Aviation (UWCA) is a major aircraft repair company offering repair services for power units of helicopters designed by MIL Moscow Helicopter Plant and Kamov. Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS (Photo by Anton NovoderezhkinTASS via Getty Images)
A laptop runs a program in front of a Forpost unmanned aerial vehicle at the Ural Works of Civil Aviation, a major aircraft repair company in Russia, on Feb. 12, 2016. Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images

Last summer, Israel shot down yet another military drone near the line that separates the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from the rest of Syria. The confrontation would have been business as usual, if not for a twist: Images of the destroyed drone showed Cyrillic tail markings and other identifiable components of a Forpost belonging to Russia. The findings presented an awkward geopolitical moment: Syria and Russia are allies, and Syria and Israel are bitter enemies — but the Russian Forpost shot down by Israel was designed in Israel itself.

How Israeli-designed drones ended up supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a case study in the complicated relationship between Israel and Russia. Though Russia has been instrumental in protecting the Assad government, which appeared to be on the brink of collapse four years ago, it has also carefully cultivated a military relationship with Israel over the past decade.

How Israeli-designed drones ended up supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a case study in the complicated relationship between Israel and Russia.

After more than seven years of war, the skies over Syria are saturated with aircraft from multiple militaries and armed groups, each pursuing their own goals, including using the country as a weapons-testing ground. American airpower and Kurdish ground forces helped grind the Islamic State’s caliphate down to a tiny pocket before it dramatically collapsed this past spring. Meanwhile, Turkish occupation forces and their proxies are conducting a brutal campaign of repression in the Syrian-Kurdish canton of Afrin.

In the last five years, Israel has taken full advantage of the Syrian conflict to tighten its grip on the Golan Heights, a part of Syria that Israel has occupied since the Six-Day War in 1967, in violation of international law. Israeli forces treat the airspace above the territory as their own and use the conflict as a smoke screen to hit Hezbollah and Iranian ground targets, as well as UAVs. Periodically, Israel has shot down unmanned aerial vehicles like the Russian Forpost. The Forpost incident sheds light on one of the worst-kept secrets in the Middle East: that Russia is largely willing to ignore Israel’s air war against Iran and Hezbollah — both of which are Russian allies.

A Delicate Marriage of Convenience

The appearance of Israeli-licensed drones in Russia’s arsenal has its roots in an entirely different conflict: the 2008 Russo-Georgian war. When the Georgian military shot down Russian jets, the loss of equipment prompted Russia to invest in the sort of sophisticated UAV program that other nations, like the United States and Israel, already had. “Russia has shown a lot of interest in drones over the last years and decade. In the Georgia war, Russia realized that it had to build up its capabilities,” said Ulrike Franke, a drone researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations. In an attempt to close this technological gap and reduce the risk to its pilots, Russia found an unlikely partner in Israel.

By 2010, Israel Aerospace Industries had made a $400 million deal for the transfer of UAV technology to Russia. The Israeli press speculated that Israel’s openness to the transaction was part of a yearslong series of quid pro quos, in exchange for Russia agreeing to withhold S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Iran and Syria. Despite possible concerns from the U.S. government about the proliferation of advanced weapons technology from its Israeli ally to its Russian adversary, the Israeli military went ahead with training Russian officers to operate the drones.

In 2015, Russia and Israel made another significant deal after Russia intervened in a potential Israeli drone sale to Ukraine. Israel had planned to sell a number of advanced military UAVs to Ukraine, which was in the middle of a war with Russian-backed separatists. However, the Israelis reneged on the deal after Russia raised objections and ended up selling another batch of drones to the Russians.

As Russia has deployed drones in multiple theaters of war, its military has honed their use, Franke said. “It remains a bit tricky to determine how advanced Russia’s capabilities really are,” she said, “but they have certainly gained a lot of experience with systems such as the Forpost in Ukraine and Syria.”

Of the drones in Russia’s arsenal, the Forpost is among the most widely used and has the longest range. Unlike its American counterparts, such as the Predator and the Reaper, the Forpost is not an attack drone. Rather, its principal role is intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, known as ISR. “Drones can remain over a point or person of interest for a very long time — hours or even days and weeks if drones are used in a relay,” Franke said. “This means that the kind of ISR a drone can collect of one target is much more detailed and much better than anything that was available before.”

What makes Israel’s downing of the Russian Forpost last summer so interesting, Franke said, is that the UAV is based on the Israel Aerospace Industries’ Searcher II — an Israeli drone. “It’s license-produced in Russia,” she said. “So, in a way, Israel shot down an Israeli drone.”

YEKATERINBURG, RUSSIA - JANUARY 20, 2017: Russia's minister of defence Sergei Shoigu (2nd R) and Sverdlovsk Region governor Yevgeny Kuivashev (R) examine the Forpost complex of UAVs (drones) for reconnaissance and target designation, at Ural Works of Civil Aviation (UWCA). UWCA can start supplying Forpost UAVs in 2019. Donat Sorokin/TASS

Russia’s Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, second from right, and Sverdlovsk Region Gov. Yevgeny Kuivashev, far right, examine Forpost UAVs at Ural Works of Civil Aviation on Jan. 20, 2017.

Photo: Donat Sorokin/TASS via Getty Images

Despite the vehicle’s Israeli origins, the Russian military has been eager to put its face on the Forpost. Russian television featured close-up shots of the Forpost during a segment filmed at the Hmeimim airbase in Syria, and Russia has been surprisingly open about the significant role that UAVs like the Forpost have played in the Syrian conflict. Russian homegrown technical capabilities have also appeared to be improving, with rumors that the Russian military is testing a new model of an attack-capable drone called the Orion-E.

The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed that “at the start of the conflict, there were 400 UAV sorties per month. By late 2017, there were over 1,000 sorties per month,” according to Sam Bendett, an expert on Russian UAV technology at Virginia-based think tank CNA.

The presence of Israeli-licensed Russian drones on the battlefield exemplifies the complexities of Israel and Russia’s relationship in Syria, which also extend into diplomatic relations between the two governments.

A Bizarre Status Quo

Despite Israel’s complicity in Russia’s use of its military technology to aid Assad — and, by extension, Hezbollah and Iran — the Israeli position on Russia’s intervention in Syria is far from hostile. In fact, the tacit coordination between Russia and Israel has been extensively reported in the media. As the Russian military initiated its Syrian intervention in 2015, then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon brushed off concerns that Russia would curtail Israel’s military goals. “We don’t interfere with them and they don’t interfere with us,” he said during a radio interview.

The Israeli and Russian militaries appear to have established a so-called deconfliction hotline to prevent accidental clashes. The peripheral nature of the Israeli-Russian relationship has also allowed both sides to enjoy a certain degree of freedom to operate according to so-called red lines — actions that would trigger diplomatic or possibly military retaliation — that are rarely discussed publicly.

The policy of noninterference has enabled both countries to focus on their military priorities in the region: Russia wants to protect Assad’s throne and avoid casualties among Russian troops, while Israel is heavily focused on preventing a Hezbollah buildup near its airspace and blocking the transfer of advanced weapons to the Lebanese militant group. The Israeli government seems to have accepted Russia’s goal of keeping Assad in power and was publicly open to the Syrian regime’s reconquest of territory bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last year; better to have the known enemy of Assad than unpredictable rebels, the thinking goes. Though Israel provided limited assistance to rebels in southern Syria, Israeli media has reported that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aggressively lobbied to prevent his allies from giving anti-aircraft weapons to the Syrian opposition. He reinforced that Israel is focused on Iran and Hezbollah as opposed to ousting Assad. “We haven’t had a problem with the Assad regime,” Netanyahu said at a press conference in Moscow last year. “For 40 years, not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Photo by Alexander Zemlianichenko / POOL / AFP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 4, 2019.

Photo: Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool/AFP/Getty Images

Though Israel and Russia occasionally do butt heads, the public relationship between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin has remained amiable. Earlier this year, Russia objected to the Trump administration’s recognition of Israel’s Golan Heights annexation. Shortly thereafter, Israel struck Russian allies in Syria — and Netanyahu made a friendly visit to Moscow in the immediate aftermath.

The relationship between Netanyahu and Putin is so cordial that Russia helped facilitate a pre-election photo op for Netanyahu with the return of the body of Zachary Baumel, an Israeli soldier who went missing in southern Lebanon in 1982 and was later buried in Syria. The recovery of Baumel’s remains was seen as a boost to Netanyahu in the lead-up to Israel’s close elections in April. At a public meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Putin said, “Our military together with Syrian partners established the place of his burial. … We are very pleased that at home, they can give him the necessary military honors.”

The Syrian government balked at the suggestion that it helped Russia locate the body; the state-owned Syrian Arab News Agency released a statement that Syria had “no information on the entire matter.” After the election results — a short-lived victory for Netanyahu, before he had to call another vote set for September — two prisoners held by Israel, Ahmad Khamis and Zidan Tawil, were released to Syria.

Airstrikes and Escalation

Though Russia and Israel’s complicated relationship has held steady for much of the Syrian war, things have become more discordant as Israel has stepped up its air raids on targets inside Syria.

Israeli officials have admitted to carrying out hundreds of attacks in Syria in recent years. In 2018, Israel made a rare public admission to over 200 strikes throughout the previous 18 months; the strikes continued on Assad-allied forces through the rest of the year. The Israeli military’s announcements about the strikes indicate its access to Syrian airspace, despite the presence of Russian forces, which have met Israel with little or no opposition from the advanced anti-aircraft systems deployed at the start of Russia’s intervention. In other words, Russia has proved willing to look the other way while Israel has struck Iranian-allied forces inside Syria.

“Both sides try to do as much as they can to avoid direct confrontation because neither needs or wants it.”

“Both sides try to do as much as they can to avoid direct confrontation because neither needs or wants it,” said Evgeny Finkel, an expert in Israeli-Russian relations and an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “Even if they” — the Israelis — “down a UAV, Russians will almost certainly let it slide.”

The status quo held until a friendly-fire incident last September, when an Israeli raid triggered a launch from a Syrian anti-aircraft missile system; the missile or missiles destroyed a Russian aircraft, killing 15 military personnel. Publicly blaming Israel for the deaths, Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Igor Konashenkov complained that Israel had warned the Russian military “less than one minute before the strike, which left no chance for taking the Russian plane to safety.” Israeli officials rejected the claim that they hadn’t given adequate warning to their Russian counterparts. In response to the incident, Russia delivered advanced S-300 missiles to the Syrian regime, breaking with its precedent of withholding modern anti-aircraft systems from its allies.

Despite the missile transaction and less frequent airstrikes at the end of 2018, the Israeli Air Force resumed its attacks against regime-allied targets. For instance, there was nothing particularly unique about the Israeli airstrikes against targets in the area of Al-Nayrab airport and Aleppo’s Sheikh Najjar industrial zone this March. The opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that seven Iranian-backed fighters were killed. Al-Masdar News, a pro-government website, released photos of the damage and reported that the buildings Israel targeted were used by the Syrian and Iranian militaries. The following month, another round of Israeli strikes hit the Syrian governorate of Hama.

A rebel fighter inspects what purportedly are the remains of a Syrian regime drone that was shot down by Israel the day before, in a field near Barqah, a few dozen kilometres from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on July 12, 2018. (Photo by Ahmad al-Msalam / AFP)

A rebel fighter inspects what purportedly are the remains of a drone that was shot down by Israel the day before, in a field near Barqah on July 12, 2018.

Photo: Ahmad al-Msalam/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli strikes have continued into the summer; the latest on July 1 came on the heels of a high-profile meeting between Russian, American, and Israeli security officials in Jerusalem. The strikes, which targeted alleged Hezbollah armament depots, the headquarters of Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps, and a research center in the Damascus countryside, killed about 10 regime-allied fighters and at least six civilians, half of them children, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

Though Syria’s air defenses were activated and missiles were launched, there is no evidence that the advanced S-300s delivered from Russia were fired. Despite a June 30 report from the Israeli satellite image firm ImageSat International that Syrian S-300s were in operational or near-operational condition, Syrian air defenses appeared to not yet be up to the task of repelling or dissuading Israeli attacks. An older Syrian S-200 that was fired, very likely in response to the air raids, ended up landing in Turkish-occupied northern Cyprus. According to the monitoring group Airwars, it is not clear if civilians were killed by Israeli weapons or by the Syrian military returning fire. Government outlets and pro-regime commentators have often made outlandish claims about many Israeli projectiles being shot down, but the ineffectiveness of Russian and Syrian air defenses has started to raise eyebrows among supporters of the Assad regime.

Though their alliances ostensibly put them on opposite sides, the Syrian war has paradoxically deepened the Russian-Israeli relationship: The two countries have engaged in persistent arms deals, deconfliction, and attempts to influence each other in pursuit of their respective interests. Amid speculation that the Syrian conflict will soon end with a regime victory, powerful militaries, including Russia and Israel, continue to fight their own battles. Whatever the outcome, Russia and Israel are likely to proceed with their strategically contradictory movements in the skies.

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