Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, has met the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to discuss concerns over Russia’s continuing military buildup in Syria in support of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, The Guardian reported.
Netanyahu’s lightning visit to Moscow on Monday follows concern in Israel that the recent Russian presence will threaten Israel’s defence, both through fears that Russian-supplied weapons will end up with Hezbollah, an ally in Syria on Assad’s side, and make it more difficult for Israeli aircraft to strike there.
In an unusual move, Netanyahu was accompanied both by his defense chief of staff, Lt Gen Gadi Eizenkot, and the head of military intelligence, Maj Gen Herzl Halevi, whose presence – say Israeli analysts and media underlined the seriousness of the discussions.
Speaking on his arrival, Netanyahu said his visit to Moscow was aimed at preventing clashes between Russian and Israeli military forces in the Middle East. Putin said Russia’s actions in the region would always be “responsible”.
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”.
Announcing the visit last week, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said the Israeli leader would speak about “the deployment of Russian military forces in Syria”.
“He will describe the threats to Israel following the military reinforcement in the Syrian arena and the supply of weapons to Hezbollah and other terrorist organisations,” it read.
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 norther border.
But while both Russia and the US appear united in seeking to dislodge Islamic State 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.