Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has told Russian President Vladimir Putin that he should encourage Iranian forces to leave Syria.
Netanyahu said on Facebook late on July 11 that he conveyed this message during a meeting with Putin at the Kremlin during which they discussed the longrunning civil war in Syria and the role Iran has played supporting the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
The meeting between Netanyahu and Putin occurred one day ahead of a scheduled meeting between Putin and a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, who on July 11 hailed what he called Tehran’s “strategic relationship” with Russia.
Putin’s visits with top Israeli and Iranian officials on the war on Syria highlight his efforts to act as a peace broker in Syria and the broader Middle East.
Putin has developed warm relations with Israel even while backing Iran and intervening in the Syrian civil war since 2015, helping Assad to turn the tide in favor of government forces.
Russia recently has turned a blind eye as Israel’s military has staged multiple air strikes against Iranian and Hizballah positions and facilities in Syria which reportedly have killed dozens of Iran-allied fighters.
Israel most recently has been on high alert as Assad’s forces and allied Iranian and Hizballah militias have advanced toward the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in a campaign to regain territory in the southwest that as been held for years by armed Syrian rebels.
Israeli officials have said they are concerned that Assad will let his Iranian and Hizballah allies entrench near the Golan Heights, which Israel captured and annexed from Syria in 1967.
“It was a very important meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin,” Netanyahu said on Facebook. “I stressed Israel’s clear position: we are against any presence of Iran in Israel,” he said.
Netanyahu said he also informed the Russian leader that Israel had downed an unmanned Syrian surveillance drone that flew over the Golan Heights on July 11, and said any future intrusions into its airspace will be treated the same way.
Russia has warned Israel that it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to completely withdraw from Syria, where Tehran has stood by Assad throughout the civil war that has killed more than a half million people and displaced millions more.
Both Tehran and Damascus have vehemently rejected Israel’s demand.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an interview with the Italian newspaper Il Giornale published on July 11 that Moscow hopes that Israel and Iran will both display caution and avoid a showdown.
“Their use of military force in Syria would inevitably lead to an escalation of tensions across the entire Middle East region,” he said. “In that context, we rely on peaceful diplomatic means to resolve any differences and expect both sides to show restraint.”
Reuters quoted an anonymous Israeli official as saying that Russia has been working to distance Iranian forces from the Golan Heights and has proposed a compromise to Israel — that they be kept 80 kilometers away from its border.
Media reports on July 11 also said that a compromise appears to be emerging between Russia and the United States that would envisage the deployment of Syrian government forces along the border frontier with Israel, with Iranian and Hizballah troops withdrawing from the area.
Media reports suggested that Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump might announce such a compromise deal at their scheduled summit on July 16 in Helsinki, Finland.
But the Israeli official told Reuters that Russia’s plan to distance Iranian forces from Israel falls short of the demand Netanyahu said he conveyed to Putin for a complete withdrawal of Iranian-allied forces.
Russian officials had no immediate comment after Putin’s meeting with Netanyahu.
“We know about your concerns. Let’s have a thorough talk about them,” Putin told Netanyahu before the meeting.
With reporting by AP, dpa, and Reuters