Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman set off for Moscow on Wednesday night to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu to discuss Iran’s growing military presence in Syria.
“The primary focus of the defense establishment is preventing the entrenchment of Iran and its proxies in Syria,” Liberman wrote in a tweet before his flight.
Israel has warned that Iran is trying to establish a military presence in southern Syria, and last month accused the Islamic Republic of firing a salvo of rockets at Israel from the neighboring territory.
Shoigu visited Israel in October 2017 when he met with Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Channel 10 reported on Wednesday that a high-level security cabinet meeting earlier in the evening dealt primarily with the sensitive situation in Syria, and not, as expected, with the barrage of rocket and mortar fire from Gaza over the last day and a half.
During the two-hour meeting at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Netanyahu told his ministers he spoke with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and urged the US administration to demand that a proposed US-Russian-Jordanian agreement on the deployment of forces in southern Syria include a stipulation that Iranian forces leave the country altogether, according to Channel 10.
The agreement appears to be set to demand that Iranian and Iran-backed forces stay 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) from the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
Netanyahu’s reported statements came hours after Russian state media outlet TASS quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying foreign militias should leave southwestern Syria as soon as possible.
Lavrov echoed comments he made earlier in the week, when he said that only Syrian troops should be stationed in the rebel-held Daraa province, a region adjacent to the Israeli border that has emerged as a flashpoint in a wider standoff between the Jewish state and Iran.
On Monday, the Haaretz daily reported that Russia was considering trying to keep Iranian forces and their allies from Israel’s northern border, fearing that repeated Israeli strikes may undermine Syrian President Bashar Assad’s grip on the country.
Israel has acknowledged carrying out several aerial raids on Iranian targets in Syria, and is suspected of carrying out several more, the most recent last week, when a military air base in western Syria was hit in an airstrike.
Much of the Iranian infrastructure is set up on Syrian bases and Israel has also frequently hit Syrian air defenses during strikes on Iranian targets. The preemptive effort by the Israel Defense Forces against Iran and its allies in Syria is known collectively as “Operation Chess.”
Last week, Iran appeared to reject remarks from Russia’s leader that it should pull its forces out of Syria after a political settlement is reached in the war-torn country.
“No one can force Iran to do anything,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said, according to the Tasnim news website.
Last November, Russia reportedly made a deal with the Iranians that they would not come within five kilometers (three miles) of Israel’s border, but in practice Tehran has ignored this, and members of the Revolutionary Guard have occasionally been seen right on the border.
Israel suspects there are some 2,000 Iranian troops currently in Syria, Haaretz reported, along with almost 9,000 Shiite militia fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and another 7,000 members of the Hezbollah terror group.
Liberman was also leaving the country after a flare-up on Israel’s southern border with Gaza.
Over the course of 22 hours, from 7 a.m. Tuesday to 5:17 a.m. Wednesday, sirens were triggered at least 166 times in southern Israel, according to the IDF Home Front Command, by mortar fire, rockets or, in some cases, heavy machine gun fire by Palestinian terror groups.
The number of rockets and mortar shells fired over the course of those 22 hours was greater than in the previous three years and 10 months, since the 2014 war, combined.
In response, Israel struck more than 65 targets in the Gaza Strip belonging to Hamas and the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad, including a Hamas attack tunnel that traveled from the Gaza Strip, through Egypt and into Israel.