Surprised by Russia's Withdrawal From Syria, Israel Gets Assurances

Israeli chief of staff tells Knesset members the Russian move caught Israel off guard, sources say.

Russian air force personnel load cargo on board a Syrian Il-76 plane at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, January 20, 2016.
AP

A Russian diplomat sought to reassure Israel on Tuesday that its security would not be harmed by the winding down of Moscow's military intervention in Syria's civil war, as Israel's army chief told Knesset members that the announcement of the withdrawal caught Israel off guard.

Russia blindsided world powers on Monday by announcing that "the main part" of its forces in Syria would start to withdraw. Russia's deputy ambassador to Israel on Tuesday described the two countries' Syria coordination as remaining largely intact. 

"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 this process," the envoy, Alexey Drobinin, told the Ynet news site, without elaborating. 

On Tuesday morning, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot told Knesset members at a briefing in Jerusalem that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement also caught Israel off guard, according to two Knesset members present at the meeting, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to comment on the matter.

Russian soldiers loading ammunition on a cargo plane at Hemeimeem air base in Syria, March 15, 2016.
AP

“In past, we had an indication but now it came as a surprise,” said Eisenkot, speaking to the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee at the Knesset.

He remarked that when Russia decided months ago to intervene in the fighting in Russia, Israeli intelligence read the signals and Israel was able to prepare accordingly. “We had no preliminary information prior to the Russian announcement last night about reducing involvement, just as others did not,” said Eisenkot, according to the MKs. “At this stage, modesty and caution are required in trying to understand where the Syrian front is headed with the withdrawal of Russian forces from the area.”

The chief of staff observed that Russia is pulling out the main part of its force from Syria but is not completely cutting itself off from the country. He praised the effectiveness of coordination established between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian army to prevent unwanted aerial or naval clashes around Syria.

Eisenkot added: “Russian intervention buffered Assad, and he can approach talks in Geneva from a position of strength. In our estimation, the Russian withdrawal is expected to happen in stages, with the Russians probably continuing to hold two bases in Syria, while the spread of its forces will be reduced but not completely."

In separate remarks to Israel's Army Radio, Alexey Drobinin said Russia would maintain its military presence at Hemeimeem airbase as well as a major Mediterranean naval center at Tartus.

"Israel is a neighboring country. It cannot be indifferent to what is happening in Syria. We take this into account, of course," he said. "We have an ongoing dialogue with the Israeli side on all levels - the military level and diplomatic level." 

Israeli officials have privately said Russian forces sent in last year to help Syrian President Bashar Assad turn the tide against an almost 5-year-old rebellion also served to restrain his anti-Israeli allies - Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah militia. 

Israel was further helped by a hotline to the main Russian airbase at Syria's Hemeimeem, which let it continue covert strikes to foil suspected Hezbollah or Iranian operations against it on Syrian turf without fear of accidentally clashing with Moscow. 

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was due to meet President Putin in Moscow on Wednesday. Drobinin said that would be "a very good opportunity to air opinions and provide answers for any questions the Israeli side might have". 
Rivlin's role is largely ceremonial. His Russia trip was set before the Syrian pullback announcement, about which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government declined to be drawn. 

But Tzachi Hanegbi, a lawmaker from Netanyahu's Likud party who heads the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Israel Radio: "There is uncertainty here about the reason for the implementation of this withdrawal and what the practical ramifications will be." 

"I am not sure - or at least, I don't know - that yesterday's declaration by President Putin did not surprise all of the sides, including Israel," Hanegbi said.