Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu salutes.
(photo credit: REUTERS / YURI KOCHETKOV / POOL)
Sergei Shoigu will land in Israel on Monday for meetings with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his first visit to the Jewish state since becoming Russia’s defense minister in 2012.
Just days before Liberman flies to Washington to meet Defense Secretary James Mattis for talks on Iran and other regional issues, the meetings with Shoigu are expected to cover the cooperation between Russia and Israel and continued military coordination over Syria, as well as the Iranian entrenchment in the wartorn country and transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah by Tehran through Damascus.
Moscow intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015, and officials from Israel and Russia meet regularly to discuss the deconfliction mechanism implemented over Syria to avoid accidental clashes.
Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
As the war in Syria seems to be winding down in President Bashar 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 to strengthen their foothold in the Golan Heights.
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. 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.
Following Shoigu’s visit, Liberman will leave Wednesday night for a four-day trip to the United States – his fifth meeting with Mattis since the general assumed his role as defense secretary in the Trump administration. During their last meeting, the two discussed issues such as the war in Syria and the threats posed by Iran.
According to his office, the timing of Liberman’s trip to the US capital is not related to President Donald Trump’s speech on Friday decertifying the nuclear deal with Iran.
While Trump stopped short of walking away from the nuclear deal, he warned that if Congress could not fix the accord to bring about better terms and enforcements, he would “terminate one of the worst deals” in history.
Liberman responded to the speech in an interview with Channel 2 on Saturday night, calling it “brave” and warning that “everything that is happening in Syria is all because of Iran.”
While in Washington, it is believed that Liberman will ask Mattis for the US to act against Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria. Last week, Liberman stated that Lebanon’s army has become an integral part of Hezbollah’s network, warning that the next war on Israel’s northern border will not be confined to one front but will see conflict with both Syria and Lebanon.
Israeli officials, including Liberman, have repeatedly voiced concerns over the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah and the growing Iranian presence on its borders, stressing that both are red lines for the Jewish State.
Referring to Tehran’s continued support for Assad and Shi’ite proxy groups, Liberman said in the television interview that “without the Iranian regime, Hezbollah would not exist” and that, “due to the lifting of sanctions [on Iran, in the framework of the nuclear deal], Iran was able to increase its support for and strengthen Hezbollah.”
Israel, according to Liberman, “knows how to manage alone and we’ll know how to deal with the challenges even without the US’s help.”
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