Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Monday that Russia could “play an important role” in preventing a military clash between Syria and Israel.
Assad’s comments came after Syria fired a number of surface-to-air missiles at Israeli fighter jets carrying out airstrikes in Syria on Friday, marking the most serious incident between the two countries since the start of the Syrian civil war six years ago. The missiles did not threaten the Israeli jets, but Israel used its Arrow missile defense system to intercept one of the three Syrian missiles fired.
In a rare point of agreement between the two long time enemies, Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Gary Koren — who was summoned on Friday by the Russian government to provide clarifications on the Israeli airstrikes — told the Russian state-sponsored Sputnik news agency on Monday that he also believes Russia can help prevent an escalation between the sides.
“We hope that Russia and Syria’s allies will use (their) influence to bring Damascus to reason,” he said.
Despite his hope that there will not be any further escalation, Koren said that Israel cannot rule out the possibility of future clashes and would be “prepared for everything.”
Speaking to Russian reporters on Monday in Damascus, Assad also defended the decision to fire anti-aircraft missiles at the Israeli warplanes, saying it was an issue of protecting the Syrian sovereignty.
“Defending our borders is our right, and it’s our duty, not only our right. If we don’t do it as officials, when we can do it, we should be blamed by the Syrian people, we should be held accountable,” the Russian state-sponsored Sputnik news agency quoted him as saying.
On Sunday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman vowed that Israel would destroy Syrian air defense systems if they again fire on Israeli jets.
“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes, we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said on Israel Radio.
Asked to respond to Liberman’s comments, Assad said Syria’s decision-making would not be dictated by statements by Israeli leaders.
“We don’t have to ask ourselves that question, whether there were statements by Israeli officials or not. We don’t base our policy and decisions on their statements.”
On Monday, Liberman said that while Israel does not seek to intervene in the Syrian conflict, the Jewish state will continue to carry out airstrikes in Syria if provoked in order to defend its interests, saying, “we have no intention of changing our policy.”
Speaking at a faction meeting of his Yisrael Beytenu party, Liberman said that the IDF only carries out raids for three reasons: when Israel comes under fire, to prevent arms transfers, and to avert a “ticking timebomb,” namely to thwart imminent terror attacks on Israel by groups on its borders.
In a rare public admission of an Israeli airstrike in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday that the target of the raid was a weapons convoy intended for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.
Although neither Netanyahu nor Liberman explicitly signaled what the IDF was targeting in the most recent airstrikes, senior Israeli officials have previously vowed to prevent “game-changing” weapons such as advanced missiles and chemical weapons from falling into the hands of Hezbollah.
In April 2016, Netanyahu admitted for the first time that Israel had attacked dozens of convoys transporting weapons in Syria destined for Hezbollah, which fought a 2006 war with Israel and is now battling alongside the Damascus regime.
Israel does not usually confirm or deny individual raids, but it may have been led to do so this time by the circumstances of the incident.
Marissa Newman and AFP contributed to this report.