Netanyahu meets top Russian envoys ahead of summit with Putin

Prime minister reiterates Israeli position that it will not allow a permanent Iranian military presence in post-war Syria

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, May 9, 2018. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, May 9, 2018. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday met with senior Russian officials ahead of his visit to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin.

A statement form the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu discussed “regional developments” with Putin’s special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin.

During the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s position that it would “not tolerate a military presence by Iran or its proxies anywhere in Syria and that Syria must strictly abide by the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement.”

Netanyahu is scheduled to travel to Russia on Wednesday for talks with Putin for their second meeting in under a month. Netanyahu has spoken and met with Putin regularly in recent years regarding Syria, where Russia is fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The two most recently met in Moscow on June 15. Shortly after that meeting, an airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel targeted an Iranian military base. Like Russia, Iran is a key backer of the Syrian regime.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

Israel has repeatedly vowed it will not tolerate any Iranian military presence in Syria and has carried out strikes against Tehran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Both Syria and Iran deny there is an Iranian military presence in Syria, a claim repeated recently by Assad. This is routinely dismissed as nonsense by Israeli, Arab, and Western defense officials.

Late Sunday night, Syrian air defenses were activated near the T-4 air base in response to an airstrike on the facility, which state media attributed to Israel.

Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP that the missile bombardment killed an unspecified number of “Iranian and pro-regime fighters” at the T-4 base and the source of the strike was “likely to be Israeli.”

Israel has attacked the T-4, or Tiyas, air base on multiple occasions.

In addition to the Syrian army, Iranian fighters and Lebanese Hezbollah troops are also stationed at the air base, according to the Observatory.

An opposition news site claimed nine fighters allied with the Syrian regime had been killed in the strike. The report could not be confirmed, and Israel declined to comment.

Israeli defense officials have claimed the base is being used by Iranian forces as part of the Islamic Republic’s efforts to entrench militarily in Syria.

The Tiyas, or T-4, Air Base, outside of the Syrian city of Palmyra, which Israel claims is being operated by Iran and its Quds Force. (Screen capture/Wikimapia)

For years, Israel has been waging a quiet campaign against Iranian interests in Syria. That campaign came to light and began stepping up considerably in February, when the IDF said an armed Iranian drone entered its airspace. Israel shot down the drone, then struck Iranian targets deep in Syria before one of its warplanes was downed.

Then, in early May, Israel attacked what it said was dozens of Iranian targets in Syria in response to Iranian rocket fire aimed at Israel. The rocket fire was retaliation for earlier Israeli strikes.

Since then, Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria. An Israeli military official last week said the concern is that Iran will use these forces to launch a low-level “war of attrition” with Israel.

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