Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is traveling to Moscow next week with the aim of reaching understandings with Russian President Vladimir Putin that will prevent confrontations between the Israeli army and Russian forces deployed in Syria, senior Jerusalem officials said Wednesday.
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Crack Russian units have been sent to Syria, along with tanks, radar systems and advanced anti-aircraft missiles. Russian forces have been stationed at a Syrian air force base near Latakia, a stronghold of Syrian President Bashar Assad, raising speculation that they are preparing for the arrival of Russian fighter jets.
The Israeli officials said Netanyahu wants to hear directly from Putin about the purpose, scope and expected duration of the deployment.
Israel fears that Russian fighter jets and missile systems in Syria may restrict the Israel Air Force’s freedom of movement in the area or lead to unplanned altercations between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian army. According to foreign reports, the IAF has attacked several weapons convoys traveling from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Netanyahu will fly to Moscow on Monday for a visit of a few hours. His small entourage will include a few advisers and Immigrant Absorption Minister Zeev Elkin, who has accompanied the premier on previous trips to Moscow and can double as a Russian interpreter.
Netanyahu will reiterate Israel’s concerns about Russia’s supplying arms to Syria, particularly advanced anti-aircraft missiles. In an announcement, the Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu “will present the threats posed to Israel as a result of the increased flow of advanced war materiel to the Syrian arena and the transfer of deadly weapons to Hezbollah and other terror organizations.”
Netanyahu has not been to Russia for a while. He has refused invitations, citing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The Prime Minister’s Office informed the U.S. administration of Netanyahu’s plan to visit Moscow. Last week, even before the trip was set, Netanyahu spoke with Secretary of State John Kerry about the Russian deployment in Syria.
The Syrian civil war is also a source of tension between Russia and the United States, with Russia supporting Assad’s regime and the Americans supporting some of the rebel groups and calling publicly for Assad’s removal.
U.S. President Barak Obama has tried to isolate Putin over his Ukraine and Syria policies and has refused to meet with him lately. The new deployment in Syria, however, may force a meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York in two weeks.
In recent months, Netanyahu and Putin have held two difficult phone conversations. On April 14, two weeks after the framework nuclear agreement was reached between Iran and the world powers, Russia announced it was renewing the supply of its advanced S-300 missile system to Iran. Netanyahu called Putin to protest the move.
In late July, after the Iran deal was finalized in Vienna, Netanyahu and Putin spoke again and issued statements with totally opposing views on the agreement.