Russia has breached Israeli airspace more than once since it began intervening in Syria, a top Israeli defense official revealed Saturday. Because Jerusalem and Moscow maintain close security coordination, however, Amos Gilad added, these violations do not lead to crises such as the one now flaring between Moscow and Ankara after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet that entered its air space last week.
“Russian air force pilots at times cross into Israeli air space. [But] thanks to the excellent security coordination [between Israel and Russia], which started right after the meeting between [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin [two months ago], and in which defined areas of operation were set, the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian military agreed on security agreements,” Gilad, who is the director of the political-security division in the Defense Ministry, said at a public event in Beersheba.
“If there is a violation [of Israeli airspace], we know what to do and how to prevent an escalation,” Gilad noted.
His revelation came four days after a Russian warplane was downed by Turkey, after Ankara claimed it breached Turkish airspace — a claim Russia denies — triggering a diplomatic spat between the two countries that has threatened to escalate further and to draw in other countries.
Netanyahu visited Moscow in September for talks with Putin on coordinating Israeli and Russian operations in Syria’s airspace, a meeting that led to the setting up of a Russia-Israel “hotline” to prevent aerial clashes.
Netanyahu said at the time that he told Putin in “no uncertain terms” that Israel will not tolerate Iran’s efforts to arm Israel’s enemies in the region, and that Jerusalem has taken and will continue to take action against any such attempts.
Israel has vowed to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry from Iran via Syria to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah. Several airstrikes on Syrian soil, said to have targeted weapons depots and convoys, have been attributed to Israel over the past few years.
Netanyahu told the Russian president during their meeting that Israel’s policy is to prevent these weapons transfers “and to prevent the creation of a terrorist front and attacks on us from the Golan Heights.” The prime minister went to the Kremlin to “clarify our policies, and to make sure that there is no misunderstanding between our forces,” he said.
In his remarks on Saturday, Gilad said that “in understandings with the Russians, Israel has the freedom to operate to prevent the transfer of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah.”
He also addressed the Russia-Turkey standoff over the plane incident, saying that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has every reason to be sorry” for downing the aircraft.
On Saturday, Erdogan told supporters in Ankara that he wished the incident had not happened.
Gilad also gave his assessment of the ongoing, bloody civil war in neighboring Syria, saying that “Syria is a dead state, and Israel must understand this and prepare accordingly.”
“[Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s grip on the country is faltering, it is a land without rule,” Gilad said, according to Army Radio.
With swathes of Syria falling into the hands of opposition forces, including jihadist groups, Assad has increasingly relied on support from allies Iran and Hezbollah.
Russia is currently conducting air strikes in Syria that, while ostensibly targeting the Islamic State group, have also attacked Assad’s Western-backed foes.
Unconfirmed Syrian media reports said Tuesday that Israel carried out four airstrikes on Syrian regime and Hezbollah positions in the area of Syria’s Qalamoun mountains on Monday night.