Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Friday denied that Moscow is allied with Iran in Syria, and said Israel’s security was one of his government’s “top priorities.”
“We in no way underestimate the importance of measures that would ensure very strong security of the State of Israel,” Ryabkov told CNN in an interview. “The Israelis know this, the US knows this, everyone else, including the Iranians, the Turks, the government in Damascus [know this]. This is one of the top priorities of Russia.”
Ryabkov said it was inaccurate to categorize Russia and Iran as allies, as the two countries only “worked together” in Syria.
“[The Iranians] were very helpful when we convened the National Congress of the people of Syria in Sochi, but we do not see at any given moment completely eye-to-eye on what happens,” he said.
Ryabkov said Russia last year managed to convince Iran to withdraw its forces some 85 kilometers (53 miles) from Israel’s northern border. He said Moscow was “prepared to go even further” at the time, but negotiations with Iran fell apart over the reimposition of US sanctions.
Ryabkov’s comments came days after a flare-up between Israel and Iran on the Syrian frontier.
On Sunday, Israel conducted a rare daylight missile attack on Iranian targets in Syria. In response, Iran fired a surface-to-surface missile at the northern Golan Heights, which was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system over the Mount Hermon ski resort, according to the Israel Defense Forces.
Hours later, in the predawn hours of Monday morning, the Israel Air Force launched major retaliatory strikes on Iranian targets near Damascus and on the Syrian air defense batteries that fired upon the attacking Israeli fighter jets, the army said.
Twenty-one people were killed in the Israeli raids in Syria early Monday, 12 of them Iranian fighters, a Britain-based Syrian war monitor said on Tuesday.
The IDF released video footage of its airstrikes on Syrian air defenses, including on social media. Photographs published by ImageSat Tuesday indicated storehouses and radar systems at Damascus International Airport were destroyed in the strikes.
In recent years, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran, which alongside its proxies and Russia, are fighting on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. A number of the strikes have targeted the Damascus airport in a bid to halt weapons transfers from Iran to its militias in Syria and Lebanon. The strikes are coordinated with Russia.
However, the number of airstrikes in Syria attributed to Israel has dropped in recent months, after a Russian military plane was downed by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli attack on Latakia last September, killing all 15 servicemen aboard.
Russia blamed the Israeli military for that incident — a charge rejected by Jerusalem — and has supplied Syria with the advanced S-300 air defense system. The systems were delivered to Syria late last year, but they are not yet believed to be in use, as the Syrian air defense teams still need to be trained to operate them.
Military officials in Moscow and Jerusalem have been engaged in talks to restore trust over the incident.
On Wednesday, Moscow’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Israel should stop its “arbitrary” strikes in Syrian territory, which she warned could “provoke a new round of chaos in the Middle East.”
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in post-war Syria. The IDF said this week that Iranian troops in Syria launched the missile at the Golan in a “premeditated” attack aimed at deterring Israel from conducting further airstrikes against Iranian military targets there.