Russia reassures Israel over Syria withdrawal as Rivlin visits Moscow

Russia’s Ambassador to Israel Alexey Drobinin has assured that Moscow will do everything to guarantee Israel’s interests during the process of Russia’s military withdrawal from Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised the world on Monday, announcing that Moscow’s six-month military presence in Syria will come to an end with immediate effect, as “the task put before … Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.”

Although Russian forces will be depleted and air strikes will presumably end, a Russian airbase and naval base in Syria will remain intact.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R)  with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu

Moscow established a military presence and began carrying out air strikes in Syria in September, in support of Syria’s embattled President Assad. The Russian intervention appears to have bolstered Assad, whose forces have reversed the military situation against opposition forces in several parts of the country, with the help of Russian air strikes.

Ambassador Drobinin said that an “ongoing dialogue” with Israel will continue regarding Syria, adding “we will also do everything so that Israel’s national security interests are not harmed in this process.” He explained, “Israel is a neighbouring country. It cannot be indifferent to what is happening in Syria. We take this into account, of course.”

During the past six months, Israel and Russia have established a high-level chain of communication, in order to coordinate their respective military operations in and around Syria. Such cooperation has provided a degree of stability from Israel’s perspective.

However, the Russian withdrawal has sparked Israeli concern over an impending growing Iranian influence in Syria, especially on Israel’s border where infrequent attacks on Israeli forces have taken place.

Israel is also thought to have prevented attempts by Iran’s proxy Hezbollah, which is fighting alongside Assad, from receiving advanced missiles amid the fog of Syria’s civil war, which could then be used against Israel.

Israel’s Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Monday during a lecture in Washington, that “To leave us with an Iranian-dominated Syria… we can’t agree with it.”

Israel’s concerns were also highlighted by President Reuven Rivlin and in the Israeli media.

On a official visit to Moscow, Rivlin is expected to address the situation in Syria with President Putin.

“There’s a need for coordination with Russia in the current situation. We want Iran and Hezbollah not to emerge strengthened from this entire process,” said Rivlin, adding that ‘’Shi’ite Iranian fundamentalist Islam is for us just as dangerous” as ISIS.

Russia’s Ambassador to Israel Alexey DrobininRussia’s Ambassador to Israel Alexey Drobinin

Israeli analysts fear an increase of Iran’s influence

Israeli analysts and media commentators have discussed what the Russian withdrawal from Syria might mean for Israel.

Yediot Ahronot’s defence correspondent Alex Fishman says that “this is not great news,” as “the Russian presence in Syria was actually a moderating factor. The dialogue that was created between the two armies, Israeli and Russian, also opened diplomatic options.” He contends that “The Russians are leaving—the Iranians are returning,” as Assad’s main ally and partner.

In Maariv, Yossi Melman expresses similar sentiments, saying “Now Iran will return to playing the role of Assad’s main crutch.” He says that Putin’s decision “is both a blessing and a risk,” as on the one hand Israel will enjoy greater freedom of movement. However, “On the other hand, the Israeli freedom of action is liable to encounter the renewed dominance of Iran in the Syrian theatre.”

Dan Margalit in Israel Hayom writes : “At first, Israel was concerned by Russia’s intervention, but the coordination mechanism that was established put Israel at ease. So now, Israel is watching with some uncertainty as Russia leaves the scene. Russia’s military presence in Syria somewhat mitigated the chances of a clash between Israel and Iran (and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group). If Israel now finds itself under fire again from Iran and Hezbollah, it will have greater freedom of action due to the Russian military pullout from Syria. But Israel has no interest in such a conflict erupting.”