Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed to Russia Thursday morning for a quick round of a meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin during which the leaders are expected to discuss Syrian fighting and weapons sales to Iran.
Netanyahu will reportedly seek assurances from Putin that Russia’s partial withdrawal from Syria does not result in Lebanese terror group Hezbollah or Iran being able to build up forces on the Syrian Golan Heights, adjacent to Israel’s border.
Netanyahu was to be accompanied by Ukrainian-born Absorption Minister Ze’ev Elkin, air force head Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, National Security Council head Avriel Bar-Yosef, the military secretary to the prime minister Col. Eliezer Toledano, and the head of the Prime Minister’s Bureau.
On the agenda for the meetings was to be continuing the ongoing coordination aimed at avoiding any misunderstandings between IDF and Russian forces in Syria, talks about peace efforts for the war-torn country, the sale of advanced weapons systems to Iran, and preventing advanced weapons from reaching Lebanon-based terror organization Hezbollah, according to a statement from Netanyahu’s office.
Though Moscow recently announced it would withdraw many of its troops from Syria, Russian planes still regularly fly sorties in support of embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Israeli involvement in fighting in Syria has also been the topic of previous high-level meetings between Moscow and Jerusalem.
A number of airstrikes in Syria have been attributed to Israeli efforts to prevent advance weapons from reaching Shiite terror group Hezbollah.
“The Russians come with the right mix of power,” IDF Maj. Gen. Golan told reporter Wednesday, according to Bloomberg news. “We work hard to avoid negative engagements in the air, land and sea.”
Putin extended the invitation to Netanyahu during a visit to Russia by President Reuven Rivlin last month, which came days after the Kremlin announced it was pulling its military forces out of Syria.
During the visit, Rivlin asked Putin to help reestablish the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force presence on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.
Israel is interested in making sure that Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups are not able to use a power vacuum on the Golan Heights to set up a base near the border for attacks against Israel.
According to Channel 2 news, the Israeli president conveyed the message from Netanyahu that the presence of such Israeli enemies along the chaotic Syrian border was a red line for the Jewish state.
Netanyahu is also expected to address Russian-backed peace efforts in Syria, which have reportedly become entangled with the status of the Golan Heights, effectively annexed by Israel in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.
Netanyahu has drawn fire internationally in the past few days after holding a cabinet meeting on the rocky plateau and declaring it would remain Israeli forever.
The prime minister had previously gone on the record saying that Syrian peace talks, brokered between Moscow and Washington, needed to take Israel’s position into account.
According to Israel’s Channel 2, the first clause of a draft agreement aimed at settling the brutal civil war in Syria, being worked on with the support of the US, Russia and other major world powers, specifies that the Golan Heights is Syrian territory and must be returned to Syria.
During the meeting, Netanyahu will likely also lobby for Russia to cancel the sale of the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran, which has already begun to be carried out. Netanyahu has asked Putin to nix the sale on several previous occasions, to no avail.
On Tuesday the head of Russia’s state-owned defense conglomerate said Moscow will complete its delivery of the S-300 system to Iran by the end of the year after months of speculation over whether the advanced weapon would be transferred to Tehran at all.
The Russian-made missile defense system is one of the most advanced of its kind in the world, offering long-range protection against both airplanes and missiles.
Israel has long sought to block the sale to Iran of the S-300 system, which analysts say could impede a potential Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities. Other officials have expressed concern that the systems could reach Syria and Iranian proxy Hezbollah, diluting Israel’s regional air supremacy.
On Sunday, Iran showed off parts of the missile system that had already been delivered during a parade in Tehran. The elements did not include missiles, according to Iranian media.
In an interview late last year, IAF commander Eshel said the S-300 was a “significant but not insurmountable challenge” for the IAF.
“The power of our armed forces is not against our southern, northern, eastern and western neighbors,” he said.
The prime minister and his entourage will return to Israel later in the evening to be home in time for the Passover festival, which starts on Friday night.