Israel is not concerned by Russia’s military presence in neighboring Syria because Moscow is a “pragmatic actor” with whom deals can be struck, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said during a visit to Washington on Friday.
“What is important to understand is that the Russians, they are very pragmatic players,” Liberman said during a discussion on the alliance between Russia, Syria and Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“At the end of the day, they are reasonable guys, it’s possible to close deals with them and we understand what is their interest,” said Liberman, a Russian-speaker who grew up in the Soviet Union.
“Their interest is very different from our interest but we respect their priorities,” he said. “We try to avoid direct frictions and tensions.”
The Russian military has an air base at Hmeimim in the northwest of Syria, and has maintained port facilities at Tartus on the Mediterranean coast in the west for several decades.
But Liberman said the expanded Russian presence in Syria was “not our business. We try only to protect our own security interests.”
Liberman was talking three days after threatening to attack Russian S-300 anti-aircraft batteries that could be delivered to the Syrian military and used to target Israeli aircraft.
On Monday, the Russian daily Kommersant reported that Moscow was getting closer to delivering its S-300 missile defense system to Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, despite Israel’s efforts to prevent it. Liberman responded by saying that if the powerful S-300 was used against Israeli jets, the system would be destroyed.
Even though Israel has insisted it will not get drawn into the Syrian civil war, it has carried out dozens of airstrikes on regime positions and has targeted weapons convoys it says were coming from Iran and were destined for Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror organization that has frequently clashed with Israel.
The RIA news agency reported Wednesday that Russia will supply the Syrian regime with new air defense systems in the near future, citing the Russian Defense Ministry. The report did not specify what type of systems Moscow will give its Damascus ally.
Defense analysts have questioned whether an S-300 system in Syrian hands could threaten Israel’s air power in the region and prevent it from being able to conduct strikes against targets in Syria.
Russian military sources told Kommersant that if Israel tried to destroy the anti-aircraft batteries, it would be “catastrophic for all sides.”
Moscow first announced that it was considering reversing its longtime policy against supplying the S-300 system to the regime following a series of airstrikes against Syrian targets by the United States, United Kingdom and France earlier this month in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad.
Speaking to the Ynet news site on Wednesday, Russaian Ambassador to Israel Alexander Shein stressed that Israel was not the intended target of any defense system delivery.
Russia had originally agreed to sell the system to Syria in 2010, but scrapped the plan at Israel’s behest.
The Russian-made system, made up of radar arrays and missile launchers, offers long-range protection against both fighter jets and missiles. The system has been supplied by Moscow to Tehran, and deployed by the Russian army in Syria, alongside its more advanced iteration, the S-400.
In what many saw as a direct reaction to the looming proliferation of the S-300 and other missile defense systems throughout the Middle East — but especially in Iran — Israel has purchased a fleet of F-35 stealth fighter jets from the American Lockheed-Martin defense contractor.
The state-of-the-art planes are meant to offer a solution to the challenges posed by the S-300, whose radar systems can detect aircraft from some 300 kilometers (186 miles) away.
In addition to the American-led coalition’s strikes against Assad targets, Israel has increasingly carried out air raids in Syria, which it says are meant to prevent the transfer of advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terrorist group and halt the military entrenchment of Iran in the country.
While Israeli officials acknowledge that these strikes are carried out in general, Jerusalem rarely takes responsibility for specific attacks.