Israel is not coordinating its operations in Syria with Russia, Israel’s defense minister said Tuesday, despite officials indicating cooperation between Jerusalem and the Kremlin as Moscow ramps up its involvement in the war-torn country.
Moshe Ya’alon made the comments a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly expressed unhappiness with an Israeli strike on Syrian army positions following the landing of an errant shell in the Israeli Golan Heights.
Israeli chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot met with his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov in Moscow last week, some hours after the heads of the two countries also met in the Russian capital, and the two military chiefs agreed to set up a work group which will establish a mechanism of cooperation between the two armies. Their deputies are slated lead this effort, with an initial meeting planned early next month.
Despite that development, Ya’alon said that Israel “doesn’t coordinate our operations with Russia.”
Speaking during a visit to communities along the Gaza border, Ya’alon said Russia’s growing presence in Syria was along the coast, far from Israel. But he said Israel will not tolerate advanced weapons reaching Hezbollah, which has fought alongside Syrian Army troops.
“But also there we’ve clarified to the Russians in this instance, particularly in the framework of the meeting between Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu and Russian President [Vladimir] Putin, that we have no intention of giving up our ability to defend our interests,” he said.
Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow last week to discuss Russia’s military involvement in Syria and keep Israel from tangling with Russia during forays into the country to stymie planned or weapons transfers to Hezbollah.
Ya’alon said Netanyahu told Putin that Israel had no interest in trying to depose the Bashar Assad regime, an ally of Russia.
“We are not involved and we don’t have any interest to intervene in the civil war in Syria, but we have to keep our interests,” he said Netanyahu told the Russian leader.
“Whoever tries to violate our sovereignty, we’ll strike them, whoever tried to transfer advanced armaments to terrorist groups, particularly Hezbollah, we’ll strike them, and whoever tries to transfer chemical weapons to terrorist groups, or Hezbollah, we’ll strike them,” Ya’alon said.
Russia has increased its military presence in Syria in recent weeks, and reportedly deployed advanced Su-34 fighter bombers to an airbase near the city of Latakia, on the Mediterranean coast. At least six of the sophisticated bombers were spotted landing near the airbase, the Aviationist reported Tuesday.
A French news crew also managed to film advanced Russian planes at the Latakia airbase, the first on the ground confirmation of Moscow’s stepped up involvement in Syria.
Ya’alon said Israeli warplanes on Monday targeted two Syrian artillery guns suspected of shelling inside the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights.
The IDF launched artillery strikes on two Syrian military targets across Israel’s border on the Golan Heights on Sunday night, responding to errant mortar fire launched from Syria that has landed in Israel in the past two days.
At least two Syrian soldiers were killed in the IDF shelling, according to an unconfirmed report by the Israel Hayom website.
Former Israeli ambassador to Russia Zvi Magen said Tuesday that Moscow would likely make do with condemning Israeli actions but stop short of any meaningful response to Israeli strikes against Assad’s forces.
Russia has characterized its military build-up as normal aid to Assad meant to help him fight the Islamic State group.
In spite of the recent moves, retired Israeli army Col. Jacques Neriah said Russia has a “moderate presence” in Syria.
“It will help in stabilizing the area, and especially if Russia has the intent to fight the Islamic State together with the United States and the Western coalition,” said the former deputy head for assessment of the Israeli army’s military intelligence.