MOSCOW – Russia is beginning to remove Iranian forces from Syria’s border with Israel, a senior diplomatic official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s entourage to Moscow said Wednesday following a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The official said that while this was not complete, it was not insignificant.
Netanyahu has said repeatedly that Israel wants to see the Iranians removed from all of Syria. The source said that what was most important for Israel was the removal of Syrian missiles that could strike deep inside of Israel.
The sources said that Russia’s main interest in Syria is to ensure the continued existence of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, and that Israel’s main interest is in the removal of Iran. While those interests can collide, the source said, discussions such as the ones held on Wednesday are designed to ensure that they don’t.
Netanyahu, following the meeting in the Kremlin, said that it focused on both continuing to ensure that Israel retain the freedom of action over Syrian skies to continue to hit Iranian and Hezbollah targets, and on discussing future overall arrangements in Syria, something that is expected to be a focus of discussion when Putin meets US President Donald Trump next week in Helsinki.
In a brief press opportunity with the two leaders before the meeting began, Netanyahu said that Israel will vigorously protect its airspace from any attempted incursion. This comment came just hours after the IAF shot down a Syrian reconnaissance drone over Lake Kinneret.
IDF used Patriot missile to strike a Syrian drone that entered Israeli airspace, July 11, 2018 (IDF Spokesperson's Unit)
“A few hours ago a Syrian aircraft penetrated Israeli airspace, and we shot it down, and we will continue to act aggressively against any infringement of Israeli sovereignty, either by land or air,” Netanyahu told Putin. “We expect that everyone will respect our sovereignty, and that Syria will carefully abide by the  Separation Agreements.”
Israeli officials said that the drone was the result of “spillover” from the fighting near the Golan Heights border. The Syrian drone was shot down over northern Israel while Netanyahu was en route to Moscow. Netanyahu was kept abreast of the situation during the flight.
Putin, along with Iran, is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s major backer. The Russian president did not respond to news of the drone infiltration.
Netanyahu told Putin that the “cooperation between us is a central component to preventing the escalation and deterioration of situations like this and others, and I want to thank you for the possibility of speaking to you about this, and other matters.”
Putin and Netanyahu greeted each other warmly in a stately Kremlin room, the third time they have met since the beginning of the year, and the ninth time since Syria became actively engaged militarily in Syria in September 2015.
Putin was joined by his Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and other top aides. Among those accompanying Netanyahu were his national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israel’s ambassador to Russia Gary Koren, and the PM’s chief of staff Yoav Horowitz.
Even as Netanyahu was meeting Putin, Ali Akbar Velayati – a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei – said in Moscow that his country’s relationship with Russia is strategic.
“The relationship between Iran and the Russian Federation is a strategic relationship and in recent years the collective bilateral and regional relations have expanded,” he was quoted as saying.
Netanyahu would not comment on Velyati’s visit.
The visit, according to Israeli officials, is an indication of how the Russians are keen on showing that they have good ties with everyone. A Hamas delegation was in Moscow two weeks ago, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is scheduled to visit at the end of the week.
Netanyahu arrived early Wednesday for a 24-hour trip to Moscow.
Before taking off, Netanyahu told reporters he “very much appreciates the excellent direct contact I have with President Putin. It is very important to Israel’s national security.”
Following the meeting with Putin, Netanyahu and his wife Sara attended – albeit a bit late – the World Cup semi-final in Moscow between England and Croatia. Accompanying the couple were cancer patients Mika Lipsker, 18, from Katzir, and Alon Ezrayev, 13 from Petah Tikva.
Netanyahu is scheduled to fly back to Israel Thursday morning, arriving in the late afternoon.
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