Israel troubled by potential conflict with Russian forces in Syria

During trip to Moscow, Netanyahu set to quiz Putin over military assistance to Assad that could threaten IDF operations

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) hold a joint press conference after their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, November 20, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) hold a joint press conference after their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, November 20, 2013. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

A key element of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s upcoming brief visit to Moscow will be to prevent a scenario in which the Israeli army and Russian forces deployed in Syria fire at each other.

Netanyahu is scheduled to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin next Monday during a trip that will span just a few hours before he returns to Israel.

The prime minister hopes to hear from Putin about the purpose of a recent Russian military buildup in Syria, which borders northeastern Israel, how extensive it will be, and how long it will continue, the Hebrew-language Haaretz newspaper reported Thursday, citing sources in Jerusalem.

Netanyahu will discuss the dangers Israel faces if Lebanese -based Hezbollah and other terror groups obtain Russian advanced weapons shipments, his office said.

Channel 2 reported that Netanyahu is particularly concerned by Russian and Iranian efforts to shore up the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is fighting a four-year insurgency that has torn the country into competing militia groups.

There are already hundreds of Iranian military personnel on the Syrian Golan Heights on Israel’s northern border and many more are on their way, Israeli officials say.

Israel is also worried about the kind of weapons that the Russians are bringing with them. In addition to the six tanks and dozens of armored personnel carriers Moscow has already deployed in the area of Latakia, an Assad military stronghold, it is also believed to be sending batteries of advanced SA-22 anti-aircraft systems that could pose a serious threat to ongoing Israeli Air Force activities in the region.

Russian forces are reportedly preparing the ground for a much larger contingent that could also include combat aircraft.

A number of airstrikes inside Syria attributed to Israel over the past several years were apparently aimed at keeping advanced weaponry from being transferred to Hezbollah, but the presence of the Russian forces could hamper such operations or even lead to a clash.

Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese militia against which Israel fought a devastating war in 2006, is a staunch ally of Assad and Iran and has sent thousands of fighters to support his forces.

Relations between Israel and Russia have been negatively affected by Moscow’s willingness to sell advanced military equipment to Iran, whose leaders often voice a desire to see the State of Israel destroyed.

The shadowy commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds force, Major General Qasem Soleimani, was also reported to have made a second visit to Moscow recently to coordinate Russian and Iranian support for Assad.

Israel has also expressed fears that the nuclear deal reached in July between six world powers — among them Russia — and Iran could see money freed up with the removal of sanctions flowing to Hezbollah and other terror groups.

Netanyahu last traveled to Moscow in 2013 to lobby Putin to cancel the sale of advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran. Those missiles are now en route to Tehran, recent reports say.

The US has also expressed its concern to Russia regarding an alleged recent increase in military buildup in Syria, including apparent moves to set up an airbase near Latakia, where Russia once maintained a naval base.

Moscow, however, denied the reports as false and said its aid to the Syrian government was nothing out of the ordinary.

Netanyahu’s entourage for the quick visit, which was announced on Wednesday, was to include just a handful of advisers and Immigration Minister Ze’ev Elkin, who will also act as a translator between the two leaders when they meet, Haaretz reported.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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