Russian president assures Israel its actions in Middle East will be ‘responsible’ despite concerns over military presence in Syria
Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to discuss security concerns along Israel’s northern border and how to avoid accidental clashes between Israel and Russian forces supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
Netanyahu’s lightning visit to Moscow on Monday follows concern in Israel that the ongoing Russian military buildup will threaten its defence, through fears that Russian-supplied weapons will end up in the hands of Hezbollah, fighting in Syria on Assad’s side, and because it will make it more difficult for Israeli aircraft to strike there.
In an unusual move, Netanyahu was accompanied by his defence chief of staff, Lt Gen Gadi Eizenkot, and the head of military intelligence, Maj Gen Herzl Halevi, whose presence – according to Israeli analysts and media – underlined the seriousness of the discussions.
“As you know, in recent years and even more so in recent months, Iran and Syria have been arming the radical terrorist organisation Hezbollah with advanced weapons, which are aimed at us,” Netanyahu said.
“Meanwhile, Iran, as the benefactor of the Syrian army, is trying to build a second terror front against us from the Golan. Our policy is to thwart the flow of these weapons, and to prevent the establishment of a new terror front and attacks against us from the Golan.
“I thought it was very important to come here, both in order to make clear our positions, and also to ensure there will not be any misunderstandings between our forces,” he said.
In an attempt to reassure Israel, Putin told Netanyahu that his fears of Syrian and Iranian aggression in the Golan Heights, bordering Syria, were unfounded, adding the Syrian army “has no time for a second front”.
Russia was “mindful of the many former Soviet citizens” in Israel, Putin said, adding: “Every Russian action in the area has always been very responsible. We are aware of the artillery against Israel and we condemn it. I know that these attacks are being carried out by unofficial systems.”
Officials indicated before the visit that Israel was seeking a similar “deconfliction” mechanism to the US and its allies – a term referring to the avoidance of accidental military clashes to allow Israeli jets to operate in Syrian airspace.
The meeting came amid claims that Russia is building up its military forces around an airbase in Latakia near the Syrian coast, with reports of the arrival of modern armoured vehicles, artillery and aircraft including – according to reports – four Russian Sukhoi Su-27 fighter planes.
Israeli jets are believed to have struck targets near the Russian-occupied airfield on two previous occasions, in 2013 and 2014. Moscow has broadly hinted it might be prepared to send combat troops if the Assad regime requested them.
Israel’s desire to maintain its ability to strike targets it says are threatening it in Syria raises the prospect of an increasingly complex and dangerous combination of military forces with a stake in the Syrian civil war, increasing the risk of confrontations between rival players.
In recent months, Israeli jets have struck what sources have described as weapons supply facilities for Hezbollah and convoys, as well as personnel directing what it says has been a Hezbollah buildup close to Israel’s northern border.
The kaleidoscope of groups opposing the Assad regime includes Isis and al-Qaida affiliate the Nusra Front, with Assad backed by Russia and Iran. US airstrikes have been joined by British drones with the possibility of UK military action also under consideration.But while both Russia and the US appear united in seeking to dislodgeIslamic State (Isis) from its strongholds, beyond that the issues become increasingly fraught, not least with Russia’s common cause with Hezbollah and Iran in seeking to prop up Assad’s increasingly beleaguered regime.
The US has said Russia – one of Assad’s few remaining allies – recently sent troops, artillery and aircraft to Syria, sparking fears that Moscow could be preparing to fight alongside government forces.
The face-to-face meeting between Netanyahu and Putin is the first since November 2013. Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, Israel has kept a low profile, attempting to maintain cordial contacts with Moscow, even as the US has criticised Putin’s policies – a balancing act analysts believe will become ever harder to pull off.
Others see the recent Russian buildup as signs of a determination by Moscow to re-engage in the Middle East, raising prospects of fresh instability in the region.
Writing on the Israeli website Ynet, Efraim Halevy, a former head of Israel’s foreign intelligence agency, Mossad, underscored the urgency of the meeting from Israel’s point of view.
“The expanding dialogue between the US and Russia requires Israel not to be portrayed as a neutral player between the battling world powers in the Middle East … When it comes to Syria, it will be important that the US takes care of Israel, just like Russia is taking care of Iran,” he said.
Moscow argues that any military support falls in line with existing defence contracts, but Moscow and Washington on Friday launched military talks on the four-year-old conflict that has claimed nearly 250,000 lives.
Moscow has been on a diplomatic push to get a US-led coalition of western and regional powers fighting Isis to join forces with Assad against the jihadis. The US has continued to voice sharp concerns over Putin’s role in the Syrian civil war.
“Continued military support for the regime by Russia or any other country risks the possibility of attracting more extremists and entrenching Assad, and hinders the way for resolution,” said John Kerry, the US secretary of state.