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Netanyahu: Russia wants to get Iran out of Syria

March 1, 2019 at 1:45 pm

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) greets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) during their talks at the Kremlin on 27 February 2019 in Moscow, Russia [Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images]

Russian President Vladimir Putin wants all Iranian forces to leave Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters on Wednesday.

A senior Israeli military delegation headed by Netanyahu arrived in Moscow this week to discuss bilateral cooperation and the Syrian file in particular; Israel has intensified air strikes on Iranian targets in Damascus in recent months, having called the presence of militia groups in the country a provocation.

The Israeli prime minister said that the meeting was “good and productive,” stressing that Putin accepted his invitation to visit Jerusalem in the near future. The delegation reportedly brought intelligence materials to the meeting, and discussed the entrenchment of Iranian forces in Syria, which Tel Aviv considers a threat to its national security.

An Israeli diplomatic source close to the talks said that the two states had also agreed to set up “a working group with participation of Russia, Israel and several other countries to work on the issue of removing foreign forces from Syria”, without elaborating further on which other nations would be part of the committee.

Regarding Israel’s actions in Syria, the Israeli source told reporters that “the policy is that we will continue to act and it’s accepted with understanding”, indicating that Putin will not limit Tel Aviv’s operations against Iranian operatives.

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Israel has been carrying out air strikes in Syria against suspected arms transfers and deployments by Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, since 2013. Whilst Tel Aviv initially shirked responsibility for the attacks, it has recently openly admitted striking Damascus airport and other military targets.

Such operations were largely ignored by Russia, Damascus’s big-power backer, until last September when a Russian aircraft was accidentally downed by the Syrian regime, who mistook it for an Israeli jet. All 15 Russian personnel on board were killed, and Moscow accused Israel of being indirectly at fault due to its “hostile” attacks on Syrian territory.

Whilst Israel usually informs Russia prior to its air strikes via a dedicated hotline set up in 2015, the Defence Ministry said it was only informed of the planned operation one minute beforehand, breaking the protocol previously in place. The incident caused a rift between Tel Aviv and Moscow, with Putin reportedly avoiding a meeting with Netanyahu at the Paris Peace Forum in November.

However ties seemed to have mended at this week’s meeting, the first since the plane was downed, with the diplomatic source adding that the crisis was “behind us”.

Both Iran and Russia have backed the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad in the eight-year long conflict against revolutionary forces in the country. Whilst Iran has emphasised that its militia units will remain in Syria and contribute to its reconstruction, Tehran is facing challenges of its own following the reimposition of US sanctions by President Donald Trump last year.

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