Russian Envoy Secretly Visits Israel for Talks on Syria

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Russian President Vladimir Putin with Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Mikhail Fradkov (L) and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov in Moscow, Dec. 19, 2015.
Russian President Vladimir Putin with Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) Director Mikhail Fradkov (L) and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov in Moscow, Dec. 19, 2015.Credit: Reuters

Russia’s special envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, visited Israel secretly last Thursday, where he held talks with senior Israeli officials regarding international contacts over a potential diplomatic agreement to end the Syrian civil war.

The UN Security Council passed a resolution a week ago on launching UN-backed negotiations between Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime and members of the opposition and rebel groups. Israel did not object to the resolution publicly. However, there is concern in Jerusalem that an international agreement over Syria will strengthen Iran and Hezbollah.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone last Tuesday. According to a statement from the Kremlin, Putin told Netanyahu that there is no substitute for UN-backed negotiations toward a diplomatic solution to the Syrian crisis. It is not clear whether the Russian envoy’s subsequent visit was agreed on during that phone call.

The Russian visit with members of the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office was shrouded in great secrecy in Israel. The Foreign Ministry declined to respond to questions from Haaretz about the meeting, and Netanyahu’s bureau declined to say whether the premier was going to meet Lavrentiev.

Lavrentiev was personally appointed by Putin and only took office a few weeks ago. He arrived in Israel in a special Russian Air Force aircraft at the head of a large delegation, which included Sergey Vershinin, the head of the Middle East desk in the Russian Foreign Ministry, and representatives of Russian intelligence.

The delegation was hosted by National Security Adviser Yossi Cohen, who is set to take up the post of Mossad chief in a few weeks.

A senior Israeli official said Cohen and the other Israeli officials presented Israel’s interests to the Russians. Their key points included maintaining the freedom to thwart terror attacks from over the border in Syria, and preventing advanced weaponry from moving from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The Israelis made clear that in any future diplomatic agreement formulated by the world powers involving Syria, the latter would have to stop using its territory for direct or indirect attacks on Israel.

Lavrentiev’s visit to Israel was part of a whistle-stop tour to five capitals in the region, where he presented the Russian plan for a diplomatic agreement in Syria. He began his trip in Baghdad, where he met the Iraqi national security adviser, Faleh al-Fayyad. From there he continued on to Amman, where he met with senior Jordanian officials. He flew from Jordan to Israel on Thursday, and on Friday afternoon left for Egypt. On Saturday, Lavrentiev met with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi, after which he flew to Abu Dhabi to meet with senior officials in the United Arab Emirates.

Unusually, the Russian envoy did not visit Saudi Arabia. Western diplomats said Lavrentiev had originally planned to continue on to Riyadh after his visit to Egypt. However, his plans may have changed due to the assassination of Syrian rebel leader Zahran Alloush over the weekend in an alleged Russian airstrike. Alloush and his Jaysh al-Islam organization receive massive support from the Saudis as part of their fight against the Assad regime. The Saudis object strenuously to the UN Security Council resolution on a diplomatic solution in Syria, fearing it could perpetuate Assad’s rule.