Israel Sends Military Delegation To Moscow Amid Frayed Ties Over Syria
Visit comes after IDF launches mission to destroy ‘terror tunnels’ built by Iranian proxy Hizbullah
A delegation of senior Israel Defense Forces (IDF) officers was dispatched to Moscow to brief their Russian counterparts on “operational issues” relating to developments along the borders with Lebanon and Syria.
The trip comes as relations between the countries remain strained following the downing in September by Syrian forces of a Russian reconnaissance plane. The Kremlin nevertheless blamed the incident on Israel which minutes earlier had conducted an aerial strike on a nearby Iranian weapons depot.
In response, Moscow delivered to the Assad regime the advanced S-300 missile defense system, which most analysts agree constrains the IDF’s freedom of action in Syrian skies.
Despite the tensions, there have been recent signs of a rapprochement, including Russia’s reserved support for Operation Northern Shield, in the form of a statement that Israel maintains “the right to defend its national security.” The IDF mission was launched last week to uncover and destroy cross-border tunnels constructed by Iranian proxy Hizbullah.
On Saturday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke by phone with Russian President Vladimir Putin, during which he reiterated Jerusalem’s commitment to thwarting Iran’s attempt to establish a permanent military presence in Syria and to transfer advanced weaponry to Hizbullah in Lebanon. For his part, President Putin underscored the need for improved military-military coordination to ensure regional stability.
“The main message of the visit is: Israel needs to do this in order to appease the Russians” Dr. Marcel de Haas, a Research Fellow at Haifa University’s National Security Studies Center, contended to The Media Line. “The Israeli delegation won’t confide too many operational details,” however, given prevailing apprehension over Moscow’s close ties to Tehran.
“And if that’s the case,” he noted, “then there is no reason for the meeting except for maintaining a good political relationship [with Russia] following the event in September.”
Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies agrees that the main objective of both parties is to “reset” ties while “coordinating a new understanding about security measures.” He likewise believes that Israel will provide Russia with only “general level” details relating to Operation Northern Shield due to the Kremlin’s relations with the Iranian mullahs.
Nevertheless, citing reports that Russia’s missile defense shield in Syria also covers Lebanese air space, Magen stressed that Israel needs to expand its cooperation with Moscow to avoid any unintended confrontations in that arena as well.
Notably, this week’s meeting comes after Beirut accepted $5 million in Russian military aid, the culmination of a diplomatic effort by the Kremlin to forge stronger ties with the Lebanese government and, as a corollary, further reduce American influence in the region.
“While Russia can try to increase its position by providing support this doesn’t actually effect the southern part of the country because that territory is under the control of Hizbullah,” explained Dr. de Haas, a retired Lieutenant Colonel in the Royal Netherlands Army who in the 1980s served as a United Nations peacekeeper in the buffer zone separating Israel and Lebanon.
That force’s mandate was renewed in accordance with UN Security Council resolution 1701, which set the terms for ending the 2006 war between the Jewish state and Shiite Hizbullah. The resolution also called for the complete disarmament of Tehran’s underling and endowed the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) with the exclusive right to operate along the frontier.
“I know the area in the south well,” Dr. de Haas concluded, “and because it is in the hands of Hizbullah any talk of deals between Lebanese leaders and UNIFIL is a farce because the LAF does not have any influence there.”
It is a point undoubtedly emphasized by Israeli generals in Moscow, as Jerusalem maneuvers to advance its over-arching goal of rolling back Iran’s expansionism into its own back yard.