Netanyahu to visit Putin – after Russia delivers S-300 missiles to Syria


ISRAELI Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu says he will soon meet President Vladimir Putin amid tensions over the downing of a Russian aircraft during Israel’s bombing of Syria last month.

Netanyahu made the announcement at a cabinet meeting on Sunday, without citing a specific date or venue for the talks with Putin. Netanyahu has travelled to Russia several times in the past in order to mollify Moscow over frequent Israeli airstrikes in Syria under the pretext of confronting Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Last month, Israel angered Putin after a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance aircraft was shot down and all 15 servicemen on board were killed during Israeli airstrikes in the northwestern Syrian province of Latakia.

The Russian leader held Israel responsible for the downing and ordered the delivery of advanced S-300 missile system to Syria, which Netanyahu had successfully prevented in the past with his visits to Moscow. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told Putin during a meeting on Tuesday that the delivery of the surface-to-air missile system to Syria had been completed.

Russia’s military says Israel is fully responsible for the downing of the plane in Syria. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin told Sputnik news agency last Thursday that the delivery of the S-300 systems will be followed by additional steps, but did not provide any further details.

He also issued a veiled warning to Israel, saying Russia hoped the Tel Aviv regime would exercise ‘good judgement’ on the shipment of the S-300 batteries to Syria and other steps being taken. Russia urges Israel to exercise good judgement on Moscow’s delivery of S-300 missile defence system to Syria.

Russia will further start to electronically jam aircraft flying in to attack targets in Syria, Minister Shoigu said last Sunday. ‘We are convinced that these measures will calm down some hotheads and keep them from careless actions which pose a threat to our troops,’ he said.

Netanyahu had earlier warned that giving the S-300 to Syria was ‘irresponsible,’ and vowed to continue airstrikes against what he called Iran-related targets in Syria.

A senior Israeli official has admitted that Russia’s delivery of the systems to Damascus would pose a serious ‘challenge’ to Tel Aviv.

General Joseph Votel, who heads the US Central Command in the Middle East, called the Russian deployment of advanced anti-aircraft missiles in Syria a ‘needless escalation’.

The delivery of the anti-aircraft batteries constitutes a game-changer in the seven-year-old war in Syria, with Israel and the United States trying to adjust to the new realities. The Israeli intelligence website DEBKAfile reported on Saturday that the United States had decided to provide Israel with more F-35 stealth fighter jets in response to Russian measures in Syria.

• In a move of defiance towards the Israeli regime, Arab Druze inhabiting the occupied Golan Heights have gathered at the Syrian border to declare their loyalty to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, celebrating what they describe as Syria’s victory in the country’s war.

The crowd marked the Saturday event by wearing their traditional black garbs and white hats while waving Syrian flags and pictures of Assad. The gathering Druze shouted support for the president into megaphones and were answered by Syrian soldiers who were standing behind a security fence on the opposite side of the border.

The Druze are an Arab religious minority who practice an offshoot of Ismaili Islam and are known to have historically good relations with the ruling government in Syria. Some of Syria’s Druze population, however, fell under Israeli control after the Golan Heights were occupied by Israel in the 1967 Third Arab-Israeli War. The territory was officially annexed in 1981 by Tel Aviv in a move that was never recognised by the international community.

Today, more than 20,000 Arab Druze continue to live in the occupied land. The population has been pressed to apply for Israeli citizenship but the offer that has been turned down by 90 per cent of the community.

• Former US secretary of defence Chuck Hagel says the limited number of American troops in northeastern Syria can do nothing to drive Iranian forces out of the Arab country. ‘The US doesn’t even control half of Syria. You’ve got 2,000 (US) troops up in the northeast corner. ‘I mean, come on, you’re not going to drive Iranians out of Syria with 2,000 American troops,’ Hagel said, rejecting US National Security Advisor John Bolton’s call for the removal of Iranian forces from Syria.

‘It’s complete folly to think you’re going to threaten the Syrians or the Russians or the Iranians into anything,’ Hagel said in an interview with Defence One. He said the Iranians live in this region as opposed to the Americans that had involved themselves in the Syrian war from afar. ‘Unless you’re going to somehow eliminate the geopolitical realities of that – well, good luck Mr Bolton. There is no other way around this, you’re going to have to find some resolution based on the common interests of those countries,’ he added.

‘You tell me what the foreign policy objective is over using 2,000 American troops stationed in Syria and then I’ll give you an answer. I don’t know what our foreign policy objective is in the Middle East or almost anywhere else,’ said Hagel, one of the US Senate’s top Republican foreign policy leaders from 1997 to 2009.

‘How do you accomplish some stability in Syria?… You’re not going to do that without the Russians, without the Iranians, without the other players in the country, in the region,’ he added, questioning the US policy in the Middle East.

His comments came after Bolton ignited speculation last week that the Trump administration may be beginning to lay out legal justifications for military strikes against Iranian or Iran-backed forces. Bolton told reporters on September 24 that the American forces were not going to leave Syria ‘as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders.’

Hagel’s criticism echoed earlier comments by US Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey, who said last week that neither Russia nor the US could force the Iranians out of Syria as their presence was at the official request of the Damascus government.

The US admits the presence of Iranian advisers in Syria is at the request of Damascus, expressing hope the government would discharge them. ‘We are not going to force Iranians out of Syria. We don’t even think the Russians can force the Iranians out of Syria because force implies force, military action,’ Jeffrey said on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly last Thursday. ‘This is all about political pressure’ and ‘technically this is the Syrian government that has invited the Iranians in,’ he noted.

However, it was ‘our expectation that the Syrian government… at the end of the political process or at some point of the politics process will no longer feel the need to have the Iranian forces there,’ he added.

Jeffrey said the US president wanted American troops to remain in Syria until Iranians left the Arab country but this did not necessarily mean having American boots on the ground. At the request of Damascus, Iran has been providing military advisory assistance to the Syrian government forces who are fighting an all-out foreign-sponsored militancy.

In an interview with the al-Alam News Network in June, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said Iran did not have any military bases in Syria, stressing however that Syria would not hesitate to give the go-ahead to the Iranians to have bases in the county if necessary. Assad said Damascus had invited Iran and Russia to Syria, unlike the American, French, Turkish and Israeli troops who he described as ‘occupying forces’.