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.
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.
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