Russian foreign minister makes surprise Israel visit for talks on Syria

Netanyahu to meet high-level delegation from Moscow, including military chief, in Jerusalem to discuss border deal

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and others listen during a press conference by Russia's President and US President at Finland's Presidential Palace July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)
Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and others listen during a press conference by Russia's President and US President at Finland's Presidential Palace July 16, 2018 in Helsinki, Finland. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Russian military chief Valery Gerasimov made a surprise visit to Israel on Monday for talks on Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who announced the meeting at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting, said he would meet later Monday with the high-level delegation from Moscow, which was dispatched to the Jewish state at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“The delegation is arriving at the request of President Putin, [made] in a conversation we had days ago,” said the prime minister at the cabinet meeting. “I will present the Russian delegation with the same stance I presented President Putin with during my last visit to Moscow: Israel insists the [1974] disengagement agreement with Syria be honored, as it was honored for decades before the Syrian civil war, and Israel will continue to act against any attempt by Iran or its proxies to establish military bases in Syria.”

The visit had not been announced ahead of time by Moscow or Jerusalem.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said Monday that Lavrov would be departing Moscow on “urgent political-diplomatic business,” without elaborating on the destination, according to local state-run media.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 24, 2011. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

The visit comes amid sky-high tensions in the border region. On Sunday evening, Israeli planes reportedly bombed a military site used by Iranians to manufacture missiles in Syria, hours after Netanyahu vowed Israel would continue to act against Tehran in the region.

On Monday, Israel for the first time deployed its David Sling anti-missile system after detecting missiles from fighting inside Syria near the Golan border.

The area has seen intense fighting in recent days as Syrian and Russian forces have carried out a large bombing campaign to retake areas held by rebel groups, including along the Israeli border.

According to an Israeli news report last week, Israel and Russia are holding talks regarding the imminent return of Syrian regime forces to the border region on the Golan Heights, with a view to reestablishing demarcation lines drawn up in 1974.

A picture taken on July 19, 2018 from the Golan Heights shows smoke rising in an area where Russian-backed government forces in Syria have been carrying air strikes near the village of al-Rafid in the southern Syrian province of Quneitra. (AFP/ JALAA MAREY)

In addition to talks between the two countries’ security establishments, working groups in Israel and Russia have been studying issues such as the no-man’s land, demilitarized zones and the deployment of Israeli and Syrian forces on both sides of the border, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday.

Citing a Russian diplomat, the report said that both Israel and Syria had agreed to return to the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement drawn up in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and that it will be implemented when Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has fully wrestled control of the border region from rebel forces.

The diplomat also reportedly insisted that there were no Iranian forces in southwestern Syria, a subject that has been a key concern for Israel.

Both the United States and Israel are worried about Iran’s growing military presence in Syria, where it has provided crucial aid to Assad’s forces. Russia, another key backer of Assad, has reportedly agreed to remove Iranian troops from the border region but allow them to remain in other parts of Syria.

Netanyahu met two weeks ago with Putin in Moscow, reportedly saying that Israel would not seek to unseat Assad while urging Russia to work to remove Iranian troops from Syria.

A picture taken on July 20, 2018, in the Golan Heights shows an Israeli Merkava tank taking position on the border between Israel and Syria. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” the Reuters news agency quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin on Wednesday, citing an Israeli official.

A spokesman for the prime minister denied the account but Netanyahu the next day signaled Israel would not support efforts to topple Assad.

The subject of Syria and Iran’s involvement in the country was also on the agenda during a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Putin in Helsinki last week.

Putin said he and Trump agreed on securing Israel’s border with Syria in accordance with the 1974 disengagement of forces deal.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and US President Donald Trump shake hands before a meeting in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / Brendan Smialowski)

When rebel forces are wiped out in south and west Syria, Putin said, “the situation on the Golan Heights must be restored to what it was after the 1974 agreement, which set out the terms for the disengagement of forces between Israel and Syria.”

Putin, speaking at a joint press conference with the US leader following a private meeting, said this would “restore quiet to the Golan Heights, bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also provide security to the state of Israel.”

Trump, for his part, noted that “President Putin also is helping Israel.” He said that both leaders had spoken with Netanyahu, “and they would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel… We absolutely would like to work in order to help Israel, and Israel will be working with us. So both countries work jointly [for this purpose].”

Added Trump: “Working with Israel is a great thing. Creating safety for Israel is something that both President Putin and I would like to see very much.”

Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria that could threaten the Jewish state.

Russia has warned it was unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country, but there have been signs of an emerging compromise between Moscow and Jerusalem on the issue. Senior Israeli officials say Russia is working to prevent Iran from entrenching its military along Israel’s northern border with Syria, according to Hebrew media reports.

Just how far the Iranians and their militias are to be kept from the border is a subject of a debate. Whereas Israel has demanded the Iranians be at least 40 kilometers (24 miles), there have been recent reports of military activity by Iran’s proxies at less than that distance.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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