Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disagreed over the threat to Israel’s security from Syria as they began talks in Moscow on the crisis in the war-torn country.
Israel and Russia have a “common interest in ensuring stability” in the region and “the security situation is becoming more and more complicated on our northern border,” Netanyahu told Putin on Monday. Iran and Syria are arming Hezbollah with modern weapons, and trying to open a second “terrorist front” on the Golan Heights, while Israel is doing everything to prevent this, Netanyahu said.
‘In these circumstances, I felt it was very important to come here to explain our position and to do everything to avoid any misunderstanding between you and our forces in the region,” Netanyahu said.
Russia has always acted responsibly in the region, while Syria and its army are in no condition to open a second front and are “trying to preserve their statehood,” Putin said. “Nevertheless, I fully understand your concerns.”
The talks are taking place after Russia said on Friday that it’s willing to consider sending troops into combat in war-torn Syria if President Bashar al-Assad requests help. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter spoke about Syria by phone with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu on Friday in their first conversation since he entered the Pentagon in February.
The U.S., which says Assad must go as part of resolving the four-year civil war, accuses Russia of increasing military aid to Syria in recent weeks by sending tanks, artillery and personnel, and setting up what the Pentagon says may be a forward airbase near the coastal city of Latakia.
Netanyahu’s visit seeks to “present the threats posed to Israel as a result of the increased flow of advanced war material to the Syrian arena and the transfer of deadly weapons to Hezbollah and other terror organizations,” the Israeli government said in a statement last week.
Israeli army chief General Gadi Eisenkot is accompanying Netanyahu to Moscow, an Israeli official said, reflecting the military dimension of the Moscow discussion.
The campaign to defeat Islamic State should take precedence for the global community over changing the Assad regime, Putin said last week. Shoigu and Carter discussed “the need to coordinate bilateral and multilateral efforts to combat international terrorism,” Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov said on Friday, according to the Interfax news service.
Russia-Israel ties may suffer as a result of Putin’s military build-up in Syria, according to Andrew Weiss, the vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington D.C.
“Netanyahu has had a very, I think, constructive dialog with Putin over past years, they clearly see the world in a very similar way, but here’s an instance where the Russian path and the Israeli path are likely to diverge,” Weiss said in a phone call with reporters. “Israelis are concerned that some of the systems the Russians are putting in place would interfere with their ability to operate over Syrian airspace.”
Israel is suspected of carrying out several airstrikes in Syria over the past two years targeting arms convoys and weapons depots. While Israel has not taken responsibility for the attacks, Netanyahu and other officials have said they will not allow Syria to deliver advanced weapons to Hezbollah, or allow the Lebanese militia to operate on Syria’s Golan frontier.
The Obama administration’s decision to renew top-level defense contacts with Moscow, which were cut off over Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, reflects an effort to “get clarity on what Russia’s intentions are, what they intend to do” in Syria, State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters in Washington on Friday.