Russia reassures Israel over Iranian presence in Syria — report

Following alleged Israeli airstrike, Moscow said to tell Assad regime and Hezbollah to hold back and ‘concentrate on the bigger picture’

Illustrative image of a tank flying the Hezbollah terror group's flag seen in the Qara area in Syria's Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
Illustrative image of a tank flying the Hezbollah terror group's flag seen in the Qara area in Syria's Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

Russia has reportedly reassured Israel that it will not allow Iran and its Hezbollah proxy to threaten the Jewish state from Syria, where Moscow is fighting alongside Tehran and the Lebanese terror group on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Israel has of late repeatedly warned of Iran’s ambitions to establish a military foothold in Syria that would threaten Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin last month in order to stress the threat posed by Iran’s presence on Israel’s northern border.

In light of Netanyahu’s vow that Israel was willing to act to prevent a continued Iranian military presence in Syria, a senior Russian official said Moscow was aware of Jerusalem’s concerns and would not allow Iran and Hezbollah to “go overboard” in Syria.

“If Iran and Hezbollah go overboard in their involvement in Syria, we will restrain them,” the Yedioth Ahronoth quoted the unnamed Russian official as saying in a report on Tuesday.

“We are aware of Israel’s concerns and things were clarified during the latest meeting between Putin and Netanyahu,” he added.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in Sochi on August 23, 2017. (AFP Photo/Sputnik/Alexey Nikolsky)

The Russian promise to limit Iran and Hezbollah’s activities in Syria came days after Israel allegedly carried out an airstrike in Syria on a facility reported to be used by the Assad regime to stockpile chemical weapons and missiles.

Analysts speculated that the strike was meant to send a message to Russia and the US that Israel would not tolerate violations of its red lines in Syria concerning Iran and to signal its displeasure over a ceasefire deal in southern Syria brokered by Washington and Moscow that reportedly allows Iranian-backed militias to take up positions in Syria less than ten kilometers from the Israeli Golan Heights.

With the potential for a retaliatory attack to lead to a wider flareup, the Russian official told Yedioth that Russia has told Syria and Hezbollah “not to respond and to concentrate on the bigger picture” in Syria.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman warned that any future provocation against Israel from its northern neighbors would end “very badly” for them.

“I strongly suggest to our neighbors from the north not to try and provoke or threaten us because we take these threats seriously,” Liberman said at a ceremony honoring fallen Bedouin soldiers.

Liberman was referring specifically to comments made by Syrian deputy foreign minister Faisal Mekdad, who told a Lebanese television outlet Sunday that Israel would “pay a heavy price” for carrying out airstrikes in Syria.

Concerning Netanyahu’s meeting with Putin last month, the Yedioth report said the prime minister and Mossad chief Yossi Cohen told the Russian president about Iran’s attempts to deepen its military presence in Syria through the deployment of members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and Shiite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The two presented Putin with intelligence on Iran’s efforts to set up a naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus and a missile production factory in Lebanon. They also told Putin that Iran’s interests were not aligned with Russia’s and that Tehran would pursue its own plans in Syria.

“The long term Iranian plan does not include Russia. The Iranians will also try to boot you from there,” the Russian official quoted Netanyahu and Cohen as telling Putin.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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