Russian defense minister to make first official visit to Israel next month

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September 24, 2017 15:00

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman are expected to discuss Jerusalem's concerns about Iran.

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 Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu salutes

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu salutes. (photo credit:REUTERS / YURI KOCHETKOV / POOL)

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu will make his first official visit to Israel in mid-October to discuss the Jewish State’s ongoing concerns regarding Iran’s presence in Syria.

Shoigu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman are expected to discuss the cooperation between Russia and Israel; the continuing coordination of the two militaries over Syria; as well as the Iranian entrenchment in the war-torn country and transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah by Tehran through Damascus.

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Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concern about the entrenchment of Iran and its proxies, such as Hezbollah, in Syria, and is reported to have passed messages to that effect to Tehran through Russia.

Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015.

Although Shoigu’s visit will be the first of a Russian defense minister to Israel in several years, officials from the two countries meet regularly to discuss the deconfliction mechanism implemented over Syria to coordinate their actions in order avoid accidental clashes.

Nevertheless, Shoigu’s visit will be the first of a Russian defense minister to Israel in several years.

Jerusalem has stressed that it would not allow Iran to set up a permanent presence in Syria, and Liberman, in the past, has warned that while Israel has no interest in entering Syria’s seven- year civil war, there are redlines Jerusalem has set including the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah and an Iranian presence on its borders.

Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role Iran plays in the war-torn country.

The Russian defense minister met with Syrian President Bashar Assad in mid-September and discussed the ongoing military cooperation between the two, the Russian Foreign Ministry said at the time. Shoigu’s surprise visit to the Syrian capital was followed by a visit by Iran’s Javad Zarif to Sochi to meet with the Russian defense minister.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly criticized a US-Russian cease-fire deal in Syria, saying it does not include any provisions to stop Iranian expansion in the area.

Last month, Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi where he re-emphasized the danger the growing Iranian presence in Syria poses as a threat not only to Israel and the Middle East but the entire world. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, later stated that Israel’s security interests in southern Syria were being taken into account in the cease-fire deal.

Following Netanyahu’s return from Moscow, Liberman warned that Israel will not remain a bystander as Iran creates a new reality in the Middle East.

“Iran, through the Revolutionary Guards, is trying to create a new reality around us with Iranian air and naval bases in Syria, with Shi’ite militias with thousands of mercenaries and precision weapons being produced in Lebanon,” he said.

As the war in Syria seems to be turning in Assad’s favor due to Moscow’s intervention, Israel fears that Iran will help Hezbollah produce accurate precision-guided missiles and help Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias strengthen their foothold in the Golan Heights.

Russia is reported to have rejected a request from Jerusalem for a 60-kilometer buffer zone between the Golan Heights and any Iranian-backed militias in Syria, agreeing only to make sure that no Shi’ite fighter comes within five kilometers of Israel.

Israel’s Defense Ministry, meanwhile, has been strengthening its defenses along the northern border over the past several years, creating obstacles such as artificial cliffs and building high concrete barriers to help prevent any such ground attacks by Hezbollah.

While Israel already has walls near northern communities with reinforced concrete panels several feet high and concrete blocks and fortified watchtowers, a new six-meter high steel and barbed wire “smart fence” stretching several kilometers with information collection centers and warning systems is being built along two stretches of the Lebanese border.

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