MOSCOW - President Reuven Rivlin will tell Russian President Vladimir Putin at their meeting on Wednesday that any future agreement in Syria must not end up strengthening Iran and Hezbollah.
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“Given the situation we’re in, we have to coordinate with Russia,” Rivlin told reporters on the plane en route to Moscow. “Everybody understands that the Islamic State is a danger to the entire world, but for us, fundamentalist Iranian Shi’ite Islam is no less of a danger.”
Rivlin, who landed in Moscow Tuesday evening, will be the first foreign leader to meet with Putin since the latter announced on Monday that he would start withdrawing Russian forces from Syria.
Tuesday morning, a few hours before talking off for Moscow, Rivlin spoke by phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot to get the latest information and coordinate positions. He also received updated reports from the defense establishment and the intelligence community before departing.
A senior Israeli official, who asked to remain anonymous due to the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, noted that Israel still doesn’t completely understand what lies behind Putin’s recent decision to withdraw his forces from Syria. One of the goals of Rivlin’s meeting, the official said, is to find out from Putin what he is planning and where he is heading in Syria.
During a briefing to the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Tuesday morning, Eisenkot said that Israel was surprised by Putin’s announcement, as it had no prior indications, from intelligence sources or anywhere else, of his intent to start withdrawing his forces. The IDF’s assessment, he added, is that the withdrawal will be gradual, and that the Russians will retain control of two bases in Syria. Thus, by the end of the process, Russia will have reduced its presence in Syria but not ended it entirely.
“When the Russians decided to begin actively intervening in Syria a few months ago, we did have indications that were picked up by Military Intelligence, so we were able to prepare accordingly,” Eisenkot told the lawmakers. “We had no prior information about the Russian announcement of a reduction in its involvement, just as others didn’t. At this stage, what is needed is modesty and caution in an effort to understand where the Syrian arena is heading upon the departure of Russian forces from the region.”
The senior official who asked to remain anonymous said the main goal of Rivlin’s meeting with Putin will be to discuss the day after the Syrian civil war – specifically, the international negotiations slated to take place in Geneva on an agreement to end the fighting and find a political solution for the divided country.
“What we want is that Iran and Hezbollah not emerge strengthened from this process,” he said. “The president will stress these points and begin a conversation on how to ensure that this doesn’t happen.”
The official said Israel is well aware of Russia’s interests in the region, but the Russians also understand Israel’s interests.
“This isn’t a zero-sum game,” he said. “The Russians also have interests that are similar to ours. They also don’t want to see a strong Iran that will sow terror along Russia’s southern border. The Russians also understand that it won’t be good if Hezbollah remains in Syria and consolidates its position there.”