Russian servicemen rest on top of an armoured personnel carrier (APC) as S-300 air defense missile systems launch missiles during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017.
(photo credit: MAXIM SHEMETOV/REUTERS)
Russia has made clear to Israel that “arbitrary attacks on sovereign Syrian territory should be stopped,” and has not seamlessly moved past the downing of the Russian spy plane in September, Deputy Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin said in an interview posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website.
Vershinin, who along with Alexander Lavrentiev, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy on Syria, visited Jerusalem last month and met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said “absolutely not” when asked if Moscow was ready to close its eyes to Israeli attacks in Syria even if Russians are not in the line of fire, and whether Russia has moved past the downing of its spy plane that it blamed indirectly on Israel.
Just prior to their meeting in Jerusalem, Moscow censured Israel for a raid on Iranian targets that the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said killed 21 people, 12 of them believed to be members of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. That raid followed Iran’s launching of a missile from near Damascus toward Mount Hermon, which was intercepted by an Iron Dome battery.
Strikes inside Syria “further destabilize the situation,” Vershinin said, adding that no one should do anything in Syria that goes beyond the goals of “fighting terrorism” – which is the justification Moscow gives for both Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria to fight Islamic State and rebel forces, and bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad.
When reminded in the interview that Israel views Hezbollah as a terrorist target, Vershinin said that Moscow disagrees, and does not view the Lebanese Shia group as a terrorist organization.
Netanyahu is scheduled to travel next week to Moscow for a meeting with Putin, and when announcing the visit last week, he said one of the issues to be discussed would be strengthening the deconfliction mechanism that exists between the two countries to prevent accidental engagement between the two militaries.
Vershinin refused to go into details about whether the deconfliction mechanism – established in 2015 – changed as a result of the downing of a Russian intelligence plane in September by the Syrians, and whether Jerusalem agreed to give Moscow more notification before attacks.
“We naturally want the deconfliction mechanism to become more efficient,” was all that he would say on the matter.
Asked about the Russian claim that the Iranians have moved their forces 85 kilometers from the border with Israel – something that proved to be false with the firing last month of the Iranian rocket toward Mount Hermon from near Damascus, which is less than 85 kilometers away from the border – Vershinin repeated the standard Russian line that the Iranians were invited into Syria by the legitimate Syrian government to fight terrorism. This activity, he added, should “not pursue other goals other than the task related to defense and counter-terrorism.”
Asked whether Russia is still conducting a dialogue with Iran to get them to remove their forces, Vershinin said that “the Iranian partners are well aware of our principled position,” which is that they should be there solely to fight terrorism.
In January, the Russian Federation’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Ryabkov said in an interview with CNN that Israel’s security is one of Russia’s top priorities. When asked if this was truly the case, Vershinin replied, “the security of any sovereign states in the region, including Israel and Syria, is important for us.”
Vershinin addressed a meeting of Fatah and Hamas representatives scheduled next week in Moscow, saying that the goal is to allow them to “find a common language between themselves.” He said Palestinian unity “is the key to many things,” and without it, there will not be progress on the Israeli-Palestinian track.
“We try not to dictate anything and not to impose on the Palestinians,” he said. “We invited them [Fatah and Hamas representatives], and they will come to talk among themselves, to try to go in the direction of restoring their unity.”
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