Israeli, Russian armies plan Syrian coordination talks

Military chiefs agree to set up work group on preventing conflict in volatile region, with first meeting to take place in two weeks

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) meets with the Russian army Chief of Staff Valery Grasimov in Moscow, Russia, on September 21, 2015 (Israel Defense Forces)
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) meets with the Russian army Chief of Staff Valery Grasimov in Moscow, Russia, on September 21, 2015 (Israel Defense Forces)

The military leaders of Israel and Russia will meet in two weeks’ time to begin discussing coordination of their activities in Syria, officials said Monday night.

Israeli chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot met with his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov in Moscow, some hours after the heads of the two countries also met in the Russian capital.

The two military chiefs agreed to set up a work group which will establish a mechanism of cooperation between the two armies. Their deputies will lead this effort, with an initial meeting planned in about two weeks.

The location of the group’s meetings has not yet been determined and it is not clear whether they will take place in Israel or Russia.

Earlier on Monday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Vladimir Putin of Russia and the two agreed to establish a mechanism to avoid military confrontations between the two countries in chaotic Syria.

“My goal was to prevent misunderstandings between IDF forces and Russian forces. We have established a mechanism to prevent such misunderstandings. This is very important for Israel’s security,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters during a telephone briefing from the Russian capital.

Netanyahu said he was particularly concerned about efforts led by Iran to transfer arms from the Syrian army to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“There was readiness to make sure that whatever Russia’s intentions for Syria, Russia will not be a partner in extreme actions by Iran against us,” the prime minister said.

Russia has deployed 28 combat planes in Syria, US officials said Monday, confirming the latest move in Moscow’s increasing military presence in the war-torn nation.

“There are 28 fighter and bomber aircraft” at an airfield in the western Syrian province of Latakia, one of the officials told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A second official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed the figure, and added there were about 20 Russian combat and transport helicopters at the base.

That official also said Russia was operating drones over Syria, but did not give additional details.

Washington in recent weeks has expressed growing concern over Russia’s increasing military presence in Syria to support President Bashar Assad.

The United States has warned that Russian military backing for the Syrian regime only risks sending more extremists to the war-torn country and could further hamper any effort at bringing peace.

Moscow, meanwhile, has been on a diplomatic push to get the coalition of Western and regional powers fighting the Islamic State group to join forces with Assad against the jihadists.

US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu on Friday, ending an 18-month freeze in military relations triggered by NATO anger over Moscow’s role in the Ukraine crisis.

They agreed to continue discussions, which are crucial to lessen the risk of incidents involving coalition forces and Russian forces operating in the same air space.

The US-led coalition is carrying out almost daily strikes against the jihadists in Syria.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.

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