Netanyahu Disputes Claims: Russia's Policy on Israeli Strikes in Syria Hasn't Changed

After Syrian figures say Putin restricted Israel's freedom to strike in Syria, Netanyahu stresses Israel will continue to strike Hezbollah weapons convoys.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a dialogue with Robin Li (not pictured), founder and chief executive of Chinese search engine Baidu, in Beijing, China March 21, 2017.
Jason Lee, Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stressed Tuesday that Russia's policy regarding Israeli airstrikes on Hezbollah weapon convoys in Syria hasn't changed. Netanyahu, who is in China, made the remarks at a press briefing in the wake of claims by senior Syrian figures that Russia has made it clear that it will no longer allow Israel to operate freely in Syria's airspace.

The prime minister said that during his visit to Moscow two weeks ago, he told Russian President Vladimir Putin that Israel will continue striking Hezbollah weapon convoys in Syria. A few days later, Israel mounted such a strike, the last in a series. "We have a policy on this matter, and it won't change," Netanyahu said. 

"If there's intelligence and operational feasibility, we strike, and we will continue to do so," he said. "We make efforts not to hit anyone who shouldn't be hit." 

A senior Israeli official said that Israel does not brief the Russians before each strike in Syria due to concern for Air Force troops' safety.

Israeli jets struck a Syrian target early on Friday. In response, Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime fired a number of missiles toward Israeli jets. A day later, the Israeli Ambassador to Moscow Gary Koren was summoned for clarifications at the Russian Foreign Ministry. The Russians said that the talk between Koren and Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov dealt with the situation in Syria.

Assad said on Monday that Damascus is counting on Russia to prevent Israeli strikes on Syria.

Assad told Russian media in the Syrian capital that "Russia can play an important role in preventing a military conflict between Israel and Syria." 

"Protecting our borders is our privilege and a duty," he added. "We are not basing our decisions and policy on statements by senior Israeli officials."

Assad was responding to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's warning that next time, the Israel Air Force will destroy any anti-aircraft missile battery that targets its warplanes.

On Sunday, Syria’s ambassador to the United Nations said that Russia has sent a clear message to Israel that the rules of the game have changed in Syria and its freedom to act in Syrian skies is over.

“Putin sent a clear message,” said Bashar Jaafari, speaking on Syrian television. “The fact is that the Israeli ambassador [to Russia] was summoned for a conversation only a day after he submitted his credentials [to the Russian Foreign Ministry last Thursday], and was told categorically that this game is over.”