Russian diplomats are stressing that Israel’s national security interests will not be hurt by the country’s sudden announcement of its plans to withdraw troops from Syria, which Israel’s top general admitted took him by surprise, Ynet reported Tuesday.
“We will try to ensure that this (Syria) crisis is resolved, and we will also do everything so that Israel’s national security interests are not harmed in the process,” Alexey Drobinin, Russia’s deputy ambassador to Israel, told Ynet. Russian troops have been aiding the Iran-backed regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad since last fall.
Russia’s goal in withdrawing much of its forces from Syria is to send a “clear message” that “it’s time to give political dialogue a chance,” Drobinin said. He added that it was still necessary to fight terror organizations like ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, and that Russia would continue to do so alongside a international coalition.
Drobinin also told Israel’s Army Radio, that Russia is aware of Israel’s security concerns in the region, and that the Russians “have an ongoing dialogue with the Israeli side on all levels – the military level and diplomatic level.”
After Russia’s withdrawal was announced, IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Gadi Eisenkot told members of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Russian intervention had strengthened Assad’s position, and it was unclear at this point what the ramifications of the withdrawal will be. “At this stage, humility and caution are required in trying to understand the vector in which the Syrian theatre will develop with the exit of Russian forces,” he said.
In How Israel Navigated through the Hurricane of the Syrian Civil War, which was published in the March 2016 of The Tower Magazine, Jonathan Spyer highlighted aspects of Israel’s coordination with Russia regarding Syria.
It is no less important that Israel has been careful to maintain communication with the Russians, and a “deconfliction” regime appears to be in effect between Russian and Israeli air power over Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, and Military Intelligence chief Herzl Halevi travelled to Moscow immediately following the Russian intervention, presumably to lay the groundwork for a channel of communication. As of now, this appears to have permitted Israel to continue to operate in the skies over Syria. Thus, while the emergence of a fledgling Russian-Iranian strategic alliance in the Middle East is surely of concern to Israel, the evidence to date suggests that the alliance by no means implies carte blanche for the Iranians to pursue all their regional goals under the umbrella of Russian air cover. On the contrary, the Russians, as the senior partner in the relationship, dictate when and to what extent cooperation takes place.
Netanyahu, according to the Times of Israel, told Russian President Vladimir Putin in “no uncertain terms” that Israel would not tolerate Tehran’s efforts to arm Israel’s enemies in the region, and that Jerusalem has taken and will continue to take action against any such attempts. The Times quoted the prime minister saying, “This is our right and also our duty.… There were no objections to our rights.… There was readiness to make sure that whatever Russia’s intentions for Syria, Russia will not be a partner in extreme actions by Iran against us.”
Israel appears to have taken at least two actions over Syrian soil since the Russian intervention, indicating that, for now, the agreement appears to be holding. Nevertheless, given Israel’s general satisfaction with the situation east of Quneitra under the present arrangement, Jerusalem will no doubt be watching the situation carefully and with some concern regarding the possible return of the regime and other Iran-backed forces to the area.
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