Israel has no intention of giving up its freedom to operate in Syria, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon insisted Tuesday morning, a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he and Russian President Vladimir Putin had reached an understanding to avoid any military entanglements between their respective troops as Israel acts to thwart attacks on its territory from the war-torn country.
Ya’alon told Israel Radio that the Jewish state is determined not to let Russian weapons end up in the hands of Hezbollah, a Lebanon-based Islamist ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
“We have something to say on this matter. We have no intention of giving up our freedom to act and defend our clear red lines – not allowing the transfer of advanced weapon systems to Hezbollah, [and] certainly not chemical weapons,” he said, pointing out that Moscow has a military attaché as well as an ambassador in Israel.
Ya’alon also described a reality in which the Middle East “changes every day, and one of the main changes is happening in Syria.”
He said that Assad today controls some 25 percent of Syrian territory, mainly along the coast and in Damascus, which is threatened by Islamic State. Putin, Ya’alon said, has made a decision to bolster Assad and not let him fall.
“This is the background to the Russian military deployment we see along the beach, in the Latakia area,” the defense minister said.
Russia has recently sent 28 combat aircraft to Syria, according to US officials, and a source in Moscow said 2,000 Russian military personnel would be arriving at the airbase near Latakia.
The military buildup “cannot be compared to the Cold War, when Russian jets fought with Arab armies against us, or anti-aircraft missiles were operated with Arab armies against us – this activity [today] is meant to protect Assad,” Ya’alon said.
There is a need, in such a situation, to coordinate “on an operative level,” the defense minister said. “Everyone who is active in the theater, there are coalition forces flying [missions] against Islamic State and we are active in the theater – this necessitates coordination.”
Netanyahu was in Moscow on Monday for talks with Putin regarding the recent surge in Russian troops in Syria. Signaling the gravity with which Israel views the Syrian situation, the prime minister was accompanied by IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, who met with his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov.
Eisenkot and Gerasimov agreed on the establishment of a joint work group headed by very high ranking officers — the armies’ deputy chiefs of staff — in order to prevent “misunderstandings” between the IDF and Russian forces in Syria.