Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to express concerns about an ongoing expansion of the Russian military’s presence in Syria.
Accompanied by military and intelligence chiefs, Netanyahu told the Russian leader that Israel is determined to stop the delivery of arms to Hezbollah, the Lebanese movement fighting along Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Syria.
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Speaking on Russian television, Putin dismissed Netanyahu’s claim that Syria and Iran are attempting to open a “second front” against Israel.
“We know and understand that the Syrian army and Syria in general is in such a state that it isn’t up to opening a second front – it is trying to maintain its own statehood,” the Russian president said.
Russia has been a staunch backer of the Syrian government throughout the more than four-year conflict with rebel groups that has claimed more than 250,000 lives.
Russian officials have claimed that providing Syria with surface-to-air missiles and combat aircraft, as well as building up a government-controlled military base near Latakia, is for the purpose of fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.
“It was very important to come here in order to clarify our position and to do everything to avoid any misunderstandings between our forces,” Netanyahu said during the meeting.
Reporting from Moscow, Al Jazeera’s Peter Sharp said that Israel had made it clear “that they don’t see Russia as a threat” in Syria.
US Secretary of State John Kerry has also said that the Obama administration is “disturbed” by the growing Russian military presence in Syria.
The Israeli-Russian talks come at a time when Moscow is pressing the US to expand its ongoing military campaign against ISIL and other hardline rebel groups in Syria by cooperating with Assad.
Syrian rebel groups have denounced Russian involvement in the conflict. “The information we have is that Russia has taken on the task of protecting the coast and it is leading the battles we are now fighting near Joreen,” Abu Anas al-Lathkani, a commander in al-Nusra Front, told Reuters.
Another rebel group, Jaish al-Islam, has claimed to launch a missile attack on a Latakia-area airbase being used by Russian soldiers.
Abu Ghaith al-Shami, a spokesperson for the Alwiyat Seif al-Sham group, said any potential increase in Russian involvement “represents a continuation of the struggle”.
“Russia has no aim for a political solution,” Shami told Reuters. “It only wants the preservation of the Syrian regime.”