Russian defense minister to make rare Israel visit for talks on Syria
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Russian defense minister to make rare Israel visit for talks on Syria

In first official trip to the Jewish state, Sergei Shoigu to meet counterpart Avigdor Liberman, discuss security cooperation

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 29, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/Sputnik/Michael Klimentyev)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) speaks with Defense Minister Sergey Shoigu during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 29, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/Sputnik/Michael Klimentyev)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu will visit Israel next month to discuss the two countries’ ongoing security coordination in Syria, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s office confirmed on Sunday.

It will be Shoigu’s first official visit to Israel, and the first visit for a Russian defense minister to the Jewish state in many years.

According to Liberman’s office, the two defense ministers will “discuss the continuing coordination of the two militaries, the cooperation between the two countries and Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, in which the Iranians are transferring advanced weapons to Hezbollah through Damascus.”

Liberman’s office would not give a specific date for Shoigu’s trip, but said it would take place sometime in mid-October.

Israel Radio, which first reported on the planned visit, said Israeli defense officials ascribe great importance to the trip.

While Shoigu has yet to visit 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.

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 would be a departure from recent years, which have seen Israeli leaders travel to Russia multiple times for diplomatic meetings, but almost no such sit-downs taking place in Israel. Last month, for instance, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladmir Putin in the Russian resort town of Sochi.

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. This is potentially problematic for the Jewish state’s relations with Russia, as Moscow has aligned itself with Assad, who is also allied with Iran and Hezbollah.

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

Image made from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry press service on August 18, 2016, shows a Russian combat fighter bomber Su-34 unload its bombs over a target in Syria. (Russian Defense Ministry Press Service photo via AP, File)

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.

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, in 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.

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