Russian defense minister lands in Israel for talks on Syria, Iran

In first official visit, Sergei Shoigu arrives in Tel Aviv to meet Liberman amid tensions following IAF airstrike near Damascus

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot take part in an honor guard at the Israeli army's Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 16, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot take part in an honor guard at the Israeli army's Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 16, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Monday told his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, that Israel will take action against Iran and its proxies if they continue to entrench themselves along the Syrian border.

Shoigu arrived in Tel Aviv on Monday for his first official visit to Israel. His trip had a rocky start, coming hours after the IDF bombed an anti-aircraft battery belonging to Russia’s ally, Syria, after it had earlier fired an interceptor missile at an Israeli plane.

“We will not get involved in internal matters in Syria,” Liberman told the Russian defense minister, “but, on the other hand, we will not allow Iran and Hezbollah to turn Syrian territory into a forward operating base against Israel.”

Liberman told the Russian defense minister that Israel is “operating responsibly and with determination” in Syria.

“We will not allow the transfer of advanced weaponry by Iran, through Syria to Lebanon,” he added.

Israel attributed great importance to Shoigu’s visit, his first since taking his position in 2012, and the first visit by a Russian defense minister to the Jewish state in many years.

“I am very glad to see the Russian defense minister in the State of Israel. This is the first visit, and the first visit of a defense minister has exceptional importance,” Liberman said.

“We greatly appreciate our relations with Russia,” he said. “We don’t always agree, but we always speak directly and openly. We believe that the moment there’s open dialogue, you can overcome all problems.”

Avigdor Liberman, right, and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu shaking hands with veterans at the IDF’s Kirya headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 16, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The Russian defense minister was greeted with an honor guard at the IDF’s Tel Aviv headquarters, known as the Kirya, where he also met briefly with World War II Red Army veterans who live in Israel.

“We greatly appreciate our memory of World War II. Many of our grandparents and grandmothers fought in the ranks of the Red Army and we value the way Russia treats and remembers them today, and how [Russia] treats the memory of those who fought and died in the Second World War,” Liberman said.

After the honor guard, Shoigu and Liberman met privately in the latter’s office. They were then joined by IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, head of IDF Military Intelligence Maj. Gen. Herzl Halevi and the head of the powerful political-security affairs bureau of the Defense Ministry, Zohar Palti, as well as by members of the Russian defense minister’s entourage.

The discussion was focused primarily on Syria and the increasing influence of Iran and Shiite militias there.

As the Syrian civil war appears to be coming to a close, or at least stagnating, Israel’s attention has increasingly turned to the threats posed by Syria’s other ally, Iran, which is believed to be establishing bases and military infrastructure near the Israeli border on the Golan Heights.

Israel has reportedly asked Russia and the United States to include in ceasefire agreements for the Syrian conflict that Iran-backed Shiite militias not be allowed within 60 kilometers (37 miles) of the border. However, according to reports, these requests have been denied.

While this is Shoigu’s first visit to Israel in his five years as defense minister, he has made multiple trips to Syria, including one earlier this month, as well as a surprise stop in Iran last year.

Syrian President Bashar Assad addresses the newly-elected parliament in Damascus, Syria, on June 7, 2016. (SANA, the Syrian official news agency, via AP)

The soft-spoken defense minister is seen by many analysts as a driving force behind Russia’s aggressive support for Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

The visit is a departure from recent years, which have seen Israeli leaders travel to Russia multiple times for diplomatic meetings, but almost no such sit-downs had taken place in Israel.

The rare meeting came on the heels of the brief exchange of fire between Israel and Syria on Monday morning.

Shortly before 9:00 a.m., the Syrian military launched an SA-5 anti-aircraft missile at Israeli reconnaissance planes, which it said had entered Syrian airspace from Lebanon. The IDF denied that its aircraft crossed the border, maintaining that they had been flying only over Lebanon, collecting intelligence.

According to the IDF, no Israeli planes were damaged by the interceptor, but the Syrian military said in a statement that it “directly hit” one of them.

Approximately three hours later, Israeli fighter jets retaliated to the attack on the reconnaissance planes, bombing the SA-5 missile defense battery that was believed to have launched the interceptor.

The IDF said the battery was “incapacitated,” if not destroyed.

As Russia maintains a heavy presence in Syria in order to assist its ally, Assad, an IDF spokesperson said the military informed Moscow of the impending attack on Assad’s army “in real time.”

The nearly three-hour delay between the initial attack on the Israeli aircraft and the retaliation was attributed by analysts to the potential problems that a reprisal could cause, coming so close to Shoigu’s visit.

Israel has repeatedly stated that it will act militarily in Syria if one of its “red lines” is violated, notably the transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah or, in this case, a direct attack on Israeli aircraft.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) meets with the Russian army Chief of Staff Valery Grasimov in Moscow, Russia, on September 21, 2015. (Israel Defense Forces)

In order to avoid friction and accidental conflict, for the past two years Israel and Russia have coordinated their military efforts in Syria.

Israeli officials do not generally discuss the full extent of that coordination, but they stress that the Israeli military does not seek Russian permission before carrying out operations.

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