The Russian government has reportedly asked Israel to halt its airstrikes against Iranian targets near the Damascus airport, the pan-Arab al-Quds al-Araby reported on Friday.
According to the report, Russian military officials said Moscow was preparing to renovate the airport that has been damaged in the eight years of fighting in the Syrian civil war. The unnamed officials said the Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in the vicinity of the airport were causing foreign airlines to reconsider resuming flights to the Syrian capital.
The report came as Israeli and Russian militaries on Thursday completed a series of meetings aimed at improving relations between the two armed forces, following the downing of a Russian spy plane by Syrian air defenses, which Moscow blames on Israel.
A delegation of senior Russian military officers visited Israel for the discussions, which were led on the Israeli side by the head of the IDF’s Operational Division, Brig. Gen. Yaniv Assur, who previously served as commander of the IDF division that defends the Syrian border. “The delegations reached understandings and agreed on continued collaboration,” the IDF said in a statement.
Israel in recent years has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran, which alongside its proxies and Russia is 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.
Israel has accused Iran of seeking to establish a military presence in Syria that could threaten Israeli security and attempting to transfer advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
The reported Russian request followed less than a week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broke with longstanding Israeli policy and publicly acknowledged the IDF was behind a raid in Syria days earlier. The strike destroyed a number of weapons caches in the Damascus airport, Netanyahu said.
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.
At a farewell ceremony for outgoing IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot this week, Netanyahu said Israel’s intention to strike only the Iranian and Iranian-linked targets in Syria was “understood by all,” including Russian President Vladimir Putin and his military chief.
The prime minister’s remark appeared to be an effort to assuage concerns that Israel’s ability to operate in Syria was being curbed by Russia at a time when the US is withdrawing its military presence from the country.
Trump’s abrupt decision to pull America’s 2,000 troops from Syria stunned regional players, US politicians, and military leaders, who expressed surprise that such a major decision would be announced after apparently so little advance consultation, and against the advice of his national security advisers. Trump’s secretary of defense, James Mattis, resigned over the withdrawal.
US soldiers have been leading the coalition against the Islamic State terror group, while also helping to thwart the establishment of permanent Iranian military infrastructure in Syria.
Israeli officials have warned that America’s absence would open the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.
Trump’s announcement also was the first significant point of contention between Washington and Jerusalem since he took office — Netanyahu reportedly pleaded with him to rethink the decision — and has fortified the perception that he views the US relationship with Israel as transactional.
Last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Netanyahu the planned withdrawal of ground forces from Syria would not alter America’s commitment to countering Iranian aggression and maintaining Israel’s security.
The pullout announced before Christmas was initially expected to be completed within weeks, but the timetable has slowed as the president acceded to requests from aides, allies and members of Congress for a more orderly drawdown.
Last week, a US official said Washington would be “very supportive” of Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria. Speaking ahead of a visit to Israel by National Security Adviser John Bolton, the source said the White House had sent Bolton to Israel to ally its fears regarding the growing Iranian activity in the region.