Israel's Netanyahu heads to Russia for Syria talks

Israel's Netanyahu heads to Russia for Syria talks
Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu met with Russia's President Vladamir Putin to seek assurances about Moscow's increased involvement in the Syrian conflict as it reportedly begins drone surveillance missions.
3 min read
21 September, 2015
Netanyahu wants to identify 'ground rules' with Putin [AFP]

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday met with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and sought to assuage Israel's fears of potential Iranian and Syrian aggression.

Netanyahu was accompanied by his army and intelligence chiefs in a rare step for an overseas visit, underlining its strategic importance.

The West has been concerned about Russia's military buildup in Syria, suspecting that the intention is to support the government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia has insisted that its aim is to help Syria, a longtime ally, fight the Islamic State group.

Netanyahu told Putin at the start of the meeting at his residence outside Moscow that Iran and Syria have been supplying Hizballah with advanced weapons and are "trying to set up a second terrorist front on the Golan Heights," which Israel captured from Syria and effectively annexed in 1981.

Putin responded by saying the fears of Syrian aggression against Israel were unfounded.

"We know that the Syrian army and Syria as a whole are in such a state that they have no time for a second front. They need to save their own state," Putin told Netanyahu in televised comments. "But still, I understand your concerns."

Netanyahu told Putin that Israel's policy was to prevent these weapons transfers and thus he felt it was important to inform Russia of this, "to make sure that there was no misunderstanding between our forces."

Monday's meeting was the first between the two leaders since November 2013, although they have spoken by telephone three times this year, the Kremlin said.

Russia starts drone surveillance missions in Syria

The talks come as Russia reportedly started flying surveillance missions with drone aircraft in Syria, two US officials said on Monday, in what appeared to be Moscow's first military air operations in Syria since staging a rapid buildup at an airfield there.

The US officials, who spoke to Reuters news agency on condition of anonymity, could not say how many drone aircraft were involved in the surveillance missions. The Pentagon declined to comment.

The United States has previously warned that Russia's movement of tactical aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to Syria could pose a threat to American and allied forces fighting Islamic State.

Satellite imagery also has shown the recent arrival of Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and other military equipment at an air base near the Syrian coastal city of Latakia.

The United States has said Russia recently sent troops, artillery and aircraft to Syria, sparking fears that Moscow could be preparing to fight alongside government forces.

Moscow argues that any military support falls in line with existing defence contracts, but Moscow and Washington on Friday launched military talks on the four-year-old conflict that has claimed nearly 250,000 lives.