Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday. Netanyahu, who is visiting Moscow amid a build up of Russian troops and military aid flowing into Syria, will be accompanied by top Israeli army generals.
The Russian intentions in Syria and the recent developments involving Russia in the region appear to be on the top of the Israeli agenda for discussion.
According to the Jerusalem Post, Israeli Defense Forces [IDF] Chief-of-Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence chief Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi are accompanying Netanyahu on his “lightning trip” to Moscow.
Putin’s meeting with Netanyahu and the Israeli top brass is reportedly sheduled to take three hours and will be closed to the press.
In a move described as incredibly “rare” by various Israeli media sources, Netanyahu usually only takes the military attache on formal visits. Therefore, this move has given a serious hue on the much anticipated talks.
Israel has been concerned on the extent to which Russian arms can boost the viability of Hezbollah, an Iranian-basked Shiite militant group based in Lebanon that battled Israel in the past and currently backs the Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad.
“Over the years we have raised our concerns about the transfer of Russian military equipment to the region, where Russian equipment ends up in Hezbollah’s hands,” one government official told the Jerusalem Post, adding that “unfortunately over the last two years we have seen an increase in the weapons reaching Hezbollah.”
Halevi, the Israeli military intelligence chief, reportedly has a clear record of what type of weaponry is “leaking” from Syria to Hezbollah. And so comes the Israeli visit to Russia, to ensure to Russian weaponry does not reach Hezbollah, so as to dodge an “unnecessary clash between Russian and Israeli fighter jets.”
Israel’s interest in the region
Israel sits amid a war-torn and largely unstable Middle East, including the Golan Heights, which was annexed from Syria in 1981. Assad's regime forces completely withdrew from the region after the onset of Syria's civil war in 2011.
Throughout the Syrian civil war, which has displaced millions and left more than 240,000 dead, Russia and Iran have been key allies to the Syrian regime.
The conditions of war and poverty have pushed thousands of Syrian refugees to take dangerous sea journeys to Europe. Hundreds died along the way, and hundreds are still missing.
Israel reserves the right to intervene in the region, and intends to inform Russia of such right if any of their “red lines” are crossed. The nature of those red line is not clear or made publicly explicit.
Russian troops have recently been deployed in Syria’s coastal governorate of Latakia, to provide supplies to areas under the control of Assad’s regime.
The Syrian regime sees Russia’s military enhancement to the Syrian army as a "game changer" when it comes to the war on the ISIS militant group, in spite of an already existing US-led coalition of 60 countries battling ISIS in Syria via targeted airstrikes.
“More important than the supply of arms to Syria is Russia’s participation in the fight against ISIS and the Nusra Front,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem told Russia Today on Sunday, referring to Al-Qaeda’s franchise in the country.
Moallem argues that Russia’s role would naturally be more efficient than that of the US, as the US sees Assad as a president who "has lost the legitimacy" to lead Syria and that a "political transition away from Assad" should occur, according to White House spokesman Josh Earnest.
“Russia would wreck the plans of all those who have been plotting against Syria and also show up America’s lack of a clear strategy against the militants, Russia is making no secret of its desire to take part in the fight against terrorism, and Syria has faith in the Russian leadership,” Moallem said.
The US, as a traditional ally to Israel, have repeatedly reiterated that Israeli security is a top American priority. However, relations between the two countries are not currently in the best shape, following the US sponsorship of an Iranian nuclear deal, which Russia fully supports.
Israel has described the Iran deal as a "historic mistake," and urged the international community to speak against it vocally, which did not happen as the deal gains more support by the day after enough votes were secured in the US congress to support the deal.
Russia, along with Iran, have long been standing on common ground in their support for Assad's wavering legitmacy, which the US no longer recognises. The US also denied Russian brokered calls for Assad support, calling them "destabilizing and counterproductive."
Syrian opposition says Russia to make war more bloody
Reuters interviewed a number of Syrian rebel fighters, they all agreed that Russian involvement in the Syrian war via troops and enhanced weaponry will make the war more bloody, and potentially elongate it.
"A serious Russian intervention in Syria - beyond the reports we are hearing - will represent a continuation of the struggle," said Abu Ghiath al-Shami, spokesman for Alwiyat Seif al-Sham, a "Free Syrian Army" rebel group in southern Syria.
"Russia has no aim for a political solution. It only wants the preservation of the Syrian regime. As for the states that support us ... I think there will be a change in their attitude towards us, via support, or perhaps a political shift."
Abu Yousef al-Mouhajer, a rebel fighting in the Latakia area where Russian forces have been deployed at an airfield, was also interviewed by Reuters. He argued that the Russian presence will make the war at least a few years longer that it would have been without the Russians.
"The Russian intervention has come to save the regime," said a fighter with Ahrar al Sham group, which has recently advanced in the Assad-held west.
"The Russian presence will change the nature of the battle. The pace of our advances will become slightly more difficult," Nusra Front commander Abu Anas al-Lathkani also told Reuters via the internet.