Israeli officials are consulting with Moscow over its unexpected decision to return home the bulk of Russian troops in Syria, possibly complicating a mechanism to coordinate military action agreed upon by the two countries last fall, officials from both governments said on Tuesday.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria last year on behalf of its embattled Alawite president, Bashar Assad, originally concerned Jerusalem, which routinely conducts covert raids into Syrian territory in order to disrupt shipments of Iranian arms and missiles to Lebanese Hezbollah. But in October, Russia and Israel agreed on methods of communicating that would allow Israel’s defense operations to continue.
Russia’s deputy ambassador to Israel, Alexey Drobinin, said the two governments have an “ongoing dialogue” on both the military and diplomatic levels, specifically regarding Syria operations. Those channels of communication will remain open, he said.
“We will try to ensure that this crisis is resolved, and we will also do everything so that Israel’s national security interests are not harmed in this process,” Drobinin said on Tuesday, the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of Syria’s civil war. “Israel is a neighboring country. It cannot be indifferent to what is happening in Syria. We take this into account, of course.”
President Reuven Rivlin will seek an understanding of how Moscow envisions the future of Syria when he meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on Wednesday.
“There is a need for coordination with Russia regarding the current situation,” Rivlin told reporters en route to Russia on Tuesday. “Everyone understands that Islamic State is a danger to the entire world, but the Shi’ite fundamentalist Islam of Iran is for us no less a threat,” One senior Israeli official said Israel does not understand what was behind Putin’s surprise announcement.
According to the official, the central goal of Rivlin’s talks with Putin will be to discuss the day after Syria’s civil war ends and the efforts in Geneva to negotiate a political solution to the ongoing crisis.
“We don’t want Iran or Hezbollah to come out of this process strengthened,” the official said. “President [Rivlin] will stress these points and discuss how to ensure that this will not happen.”
According to the official, Israel understands fully well the Russian interests in the region, and the Russians also understand Israel’s concerns.
“This is not a zero-sum game,” the official said. “Russia has interests similar to ours. They also do not want to see a strong Iran that will spread terrorism on Russia’s southern border.
The Russians also understand that it will not be good if Hezbollah remains and becomes established in Syria.”
Hours before leaving for Russia on the state visit – reportedly planned well in advance of Moscow’s announcement of the troop pull-back, despite the trip having necessitated his postponing a wellplanned- in-advance official visit to Australia – Rivlin spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eizenkot to coordinate positions. He also received an intelligence and military briefing in the morning before heading for Moscow.
Eisenkot told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that there was no advance intelligence about Russia forces leaving Syria, unlike when they entered.
He said the Russian troops are likely to withdraw gradually and not fully, with the Russians maintaining two naval bases in Syria.
“At this point we need to be careful and modest in trying to understand the developments in the Syrian arena with Russian forces’ departure from the region,” Eisenkot said.
The chief of staff added that Russian involvement strengthened Assad, allowing him to approach talks in Geneva from a position of power.
US Secretary of State John Kerry will also travel to Moscow next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, over the intra-Syrian negotiations now under way in Geneva.
The talks, which began on Monday, are the first serious diplomatic effort on the Syrian crisis in more than two years. World powers and the UN seek to outline a political transition for the war-torn country, to be followed by nationwide elections within 18 months.
While that road map has been agreed upon in principle by the two sides of Syria’s civil war – on the one hand, Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, opposed by a loose group of rebel militias supported by Turkey, the Gulf Arab states and Western powers – the sticking point remains the future of Assad himself, whose refusal to vacate his presidential palace overlooking Damascus has led his country into ruin.
Since the war began there in March 15, 2011, when peaceful protesters in Dara’a, south of Damascus, were met with government bullets, there have been chemical weapons attacks on civilians, countless imprecise barrel bombs dropped from helicopters, migrants flows into Europe unseen since World War II, invasions by at least four foreign armies and over a dozen air forces, and the metastasizing of Islamist terrorist organizations.
More than 300,000 people have been killed. Syria’s population has shrunk to just 16.6m, down from a prewar level of around 22m, and half of those are now homeless internal refugees.
“With the cessation of hostilities largely holding, Russia’s announcement yesterday that it will remove half of its forces immediately and more perhaps from Syria, and with the political negotiations reconvening this week in Geneva, we have reached a very important phase in this process,” Kerry said, noting the world is marking the fifth anniversary of the war faced with “the best opportunity that we’ve had in years to end it.”
Kerry’s spokesman, John Kirby, said on Tuesday the US had no advanced warning of Russia’s decision to withdraw any of its assets in Syria. Moscow’s thinking behind the decision is “difficult to discern, he said, noting that the pullout is only partial.
But the development may ultimately serve to maintain the cessation of hostilities on the ground, now two and a half weeks old, and may further the diplomatic process,” he added.
“This is a moment to seize, not waste,” Kerry said. “We have at this moment the ability to finally take a step towards ending this war and the bloodshed.”
In Geneva, the UN’s special envoy to the crisis, Staffan de Mistura, continued meeting with both Assad regime and rebel delegates for a second day. He praised Russia’s decision to withdraw with a prepared statement on Tuesday morning.
“The announcement by President Putin on the very day of the beginning of this round of intra-Syrian talks in Geneva is a significant development, which we hope will have a positive impact on the progress of the negotiations in Geneva aimed at achieving a political solution of the Syrian conflict and a peaceful political transition in the country,” de Mistura said.
The negotiations are set to take place over three, two-week long sessions: The first, lasting until March 24, followed by a second beginning in early April, and a final round toward the end of the month.
By the end of April, the world will know whether a political solution is viable for Syria, noted de Mistura. “As far as I know,” he said before the talks began, “the only Plan B available is return to war, and to even worse war than we had so far.”
One negotiator with the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiating Committee said they expect detailed proposals from the Assad regime that will prove their seriousness as the talks progress. The HNC, said another delegate, is willing to negotiate directly with the government it seeks to topple.
“We are not against direct talks, but you know de Mistura decided to start with indirect talks,” said Salim al-Muslat, a spokesman for the main Syrian opposition alliance.
The UN is conducting “proximity” talks between the two sides – shuttling between Assad and HNC delegates, camped out in different conference rooms.Lahav Harkov and Reuters contributed to this report.