Russian spy chief said to visit Israel for Syria talks briefing

Security heads said to tell Sergey Naryshkin Israel not bound by southern Syria ceasefire, peace plan advanced by Russia, Iran and Turkey

Sergey Naryshkin. (CC BY-SA 4.0, Svklimkin, Wikimedia Commons)
Sergey Naryshkin. (CC BY-SA 4.0, Svklimkin, Wikimedia Commons)

The director of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service reportedly visited Israel on Thursday to brief Israeli security officials following a meeting between the presidents of Russia, Turkey and Iran on reaching a political solution to the Syrian civil war.

While in Israel, Sergey Naryshkin met with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, and National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat, Channel 10 reported Monday.

During the meeting, Naryshkin updated the Israeli officials on Vladimir Putin’s meeting in Sochi a day earlier, with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in which the three leaders discussed steps to help broker a peaceful end to the over six-year long conflict in Syria.

The Israeli officials, for their part, reiterated to Naryshkin that Israel is not bound by a ceasefire deal in southern Syria reached earlier this month, nor by any agreements resulting from Putin’s meeting with Erdogan and Rouhani. The Israeli officials also said Israel would continue to act militarily in order to ensure its security interests, according to Channel 10.

In response to the report, a spokesman for the defense minister said, “We never comment on meetings with foreign intelligence officials that may or may not have taken place.”

Last week, Putin held phone conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, US President Donald Trump, and other leaders, to brief them on a meeting he held with Assad and the talks with Erdogan and Rouhani.

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)

Naryshkin’s visit to Israel came ahead of a fresh round of UN-backed peace talks set to begin in Geneva this week.

As Syria and its Iranian and Russian backers seek to cement their gains following a string of recent battlefield successes, Israel has become increasingly vocal in its opposition to an Iranian military presence in its northern neighbor.

According to a report on Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2) Sunday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Syrian President Bashar Assad via a third party that Israel will intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war if Assad gives formal permission to Iran to establish a military presence in the country.

The warning specified that Israel will depart from the policy of non-intervention it has maintained throughout the six years of the civil war to date if Assad “invites Iranian forces to establish themselves in Syria via an agreement of any kind.”

Iran has provided significant logistical, technical, training and financial support for Assad’s regime and forces, as well as deploying military advisers and some combat troops in Syria. It also arms, trains and funds Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group that has sent thousands of gunmen to fight alongside Assad’s troops.

Thus far, Israel has provided medical and humanitarian aid to victims of the war across its border, has hit back when gunfire has crossed the border, and has used air strikes to target weapons stores and convoys intended for the Hezbollah terrorist organization.

The report noted tellingly that this non-intervention contrasted with previous Israeli policy. In 2006, for instance, Israeli jets broke the sound barrier flying over Assad’s presidential palace in Latakia, in what was seen as a warning to him against supporting Palestinian terrorist groups.

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, (r), Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, (c), and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani pose for the media members in Sochi, Russia, November 22. 2017. (Kayhan Ozer/Pool via AP)

The reference to any formal Syrian “invitation” or “agreement” with Iran, the TV report elaborated, stems from the fact that Iran and Russia have been discussing future arrangements for Syria, under which all foreign forces would have to leave the country, except those which are present by agreement with, or invitation from, Assad.

Russia’s forces are engaged in Syria on the basis of such an invitation, and Netanyahu’s aim in issuing the warning “is to deter Assad from issuing” a similar invitation to Iran.

The Iranians, the TV report noted, want to build “a naval base, possibly for submarines, an air base and arms factories for precision weapons.”

Earlier this month, the BBC, citing a Western security official, reported that Iran was setting up a permanent base on a site used by the Syrian army near el-Kiswah, 14 kilometers (8 miles) south of Damascus, and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Israeli border.

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