Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu headed for Moscow Monday morning for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that is expected to center on the implications of Russia’s increasing military engagement in the civil war in Syria.
According to early assessments, the two leaders will likely discuss three key topics: keeping advanced weapons out of the hands of the Lebanese Hezbollah militia, preventing attacks on the Israeli Golan Heights, and coordinating Israeli operations in Syrian airspace.
“It could come down to Israel and Russia agreeing to limit themselves to defined areas of operation in Syria, or even that they fly at daytime and we fly at night,” a former adviser to Netanyahu told Reuters.
Netanyahu, who will be in Russia for only a few hours, is accompanied by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and the head of the IDF’s Military Intelligence Directorate, Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi.
The prime minister will seek answers 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, amid concerns that Israeli and Russian forces could inadvertently fire at each other, Israeli officials have said.
The Israeli delegation planned to present to Putin evidence of Hezbollah culpability in attacks on Israeli forces along the Israeli-Syrian border as well as Iranian funding of the terror group.
“What’s important is Putin’s commitment not to get mixed up in arming Hezbollah, which should help Israel, if it goes in there, to keep a safe distance from the Russians. It is pretty clear that Putin is not looking for a fight with Israel,” Netanyahu’s former adviser was quoted by Reuters as saying.
Israel is also concerned about the kind of weapons that the Russians are bringing with them. In addition to the six tanks and dozens of armored personnel carriers that Moscow has already deployed around the coastal city 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.
US officials said last week that Russia had sent a small number of fighter jets to a base in Syria, hours after US Defense Secretary Ash Carter talked with Russia Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in the first military contacts between the two countries in some time.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said over the weekend the military-to-military talks with the Russians are designed to make sure there are no incidents between Russian and American forces, which have been using Syrian airspace in their campaign against the radical Islamic State group. The discussions also amount to a tacit acceptance of the Russian buildup, after weeks of warnings from Washington against any Russian escalation in Syria.
The goal, Kerry said, is to make sure “there’s no potential of a mistake or of an accident of some kind that produces a greater potential of conflict.”
Russia says its recent military buildup in Syria is also designed to fight the Islamic State group. While IS lacks an air force, the Russian aircraft are capable of striking ground targets and providing close air support for ground forces, a US intelligence official said.
Israeli officials say a number of airstrikes inside Syria attributed to Israel over the past several years were aimed at keeping advanced weaponry from being delivered 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.
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.
AP and AFP contributed to this report.