Netanyahu planning Moscow trip to talk Syria with Putin

Netanyahu planning Moscow trip to talk Syria with Putin

Prime minister accepts Russian leader’s invitation to discuss security in April, latest in series of high-level meetings between countries

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, September 21, 2015. (Courtesy Embassy of Israel in Russia)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, September 21, 2015. (Courtesy Embassy of Israel in Russia)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow later this month to discuss regional security issues, officials said on Tuesday.

Netanyahu is set to spend one day in the Russian capital on April 21 with the situation in Syria at the top of the agenda. The next day is the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover, when Netanyahu will likely aim to be back in the country.

Putin extended an invitation to Netanyahu during a visit to Russia by President Reuven Rivlin earlier this month, which came days after the Kremlin announced it was pulling its military forces out of Syria.

During the visit, Rivlin asked Putin to help reestablish the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force presence on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria.

Israel is interested in making sure that Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed groups are not able to use a power vacuum on the Golan Heights to set up a base near the border for attacks against Israel.

According to Channel 2 news, the Israeli head of state conveyed the message from Netanyahu that the presence of such Israeli enemies along the chaotic Syrian border was a red line for the Jewish state.

Putin told Rivlin that Russia and Israel “have a large number of questions to discuss linked with the development of bilateral trade and economic relations and questions of the region’s security,” according to Russian reports.

“I hope that we’ll be able to discuss them in the short run with the Israeli prime minister, with whom we have made arrangements for a meeting,” he added.

Netanyahu previously went on the record saying that Syrian peace talks, brokered between Moscow and Washington, needed to take Israel’s position into account.

Israel has also lobbied for Moscow to nix the sale of advanced S-300 air defense systems to Iran, and that issue may be on the agenda as well.

On March 14, Putin made a surprise announcement that Russia would withdraw its military force from Syria, where it had been carrying out bombing runs against jihadists and rebel groups in support of President Bashar Assad’s army.

Netanyahu last visited Putin in September, shortly after Russia began its military buildup in Syria, to discuss coordination between the countries’ militaries over Syria’s crowded skies.

Russia has been a major backer of Assad and has continued to support Syria’s army from the air, including during this week’s retaking of the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group.

An unnamed senior Israel Air Force officer told Defense News that coordination between the countries has worked well.

“The [Russian-Israeli] deconfliction mechanism is being preserved and managed well,” the IAF officer said in an interview published this week. “Both sides agreed upon rules; and each side guards his own boundaries.”

The officer said the Russians had only swapped units and equipment rather than making a significant downgrade in their deployed forces, in an article published this week.

“He changed the shape of the forces, but he didn’t evacuate,” the officer said of Putin in an interview published on Monday. “He’s brought in different assets and returned things he had less use for. Now there’s more emphasis on air support by attack helicopters.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense has been candid about the ongoing airstrikes, boasting in a statement at the beginning of the week that 40 sorties against rebel positions had “eliminated eight command centers, 12 strong points, more than 80 terrorists, two tanks, three artillery guns … and six munitions depots.”

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