Russia reassures Israel over implications of Syria pullout

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After the surprise announcement of its intent to withdraw from Syria, Russia on March 15 sought to reassure Israel that the two countries’ coordination on Syria would remain intact.

Israel wants assurances that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s anti-Israel allies Iran and Hizbullah would continue to be restrained after Moscow’s pullout.

Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia's "main forces" to withdraw from Syria.
Vladimir Putin has ordered Russia’s “main forces” to withdraw from Syria.

“We will try to ensure that this (Syria) crisis is resolved, and we will also do everything so that Israel’s national security interests are not harmed in this process,” Russian envoy Alexey Drobinin told the Ynet news site, without elaborating.

Israel was assisted greatly by a hotline to the main Russian airbase at Syria’s Hmeymim, which let it continue covert strikes on suspected Hizbullah or Iranian operations against it on Syrian turf without fear of an accidental incident with Russian forces.

Drobinin said Russia would maintain its military presence at Hmeymim airbase as well as a major Mediterranean naval center at Tartus.

“Israel is a neighboring country. It cannot be indifferent to what is happening in Syria. We take this into account, of course,” he said. “We have an ongoing dialogue with the Israeli side on all levels – the military level and diplomatic level.”

But Tzachi Hanegbi, a lawmaker from Prime Minister Benjmain Netanyahu’s Likud party who heads parliament’s foreign affairs and defense committee, told Israel Radio: “There is uncertainty here about the reason for the implementation of this withdrawal and what the practical ramifications will be.”

“I am not sure – or at least, I don’t know – that yesterday’s declaration by President Putin did not surprise all of the sides, including Israel,” Hanegbi said.

Meanwhile, some analysts said Putin’s move may indicate he is open to Assad’s ultimate ouster, though the Russian president had assured Assad would remain in power.

“The Russians are mainly doing this to force Assad to make concessions in negotiations,” said Firas Abi-Ali, an analyst at IHS Country Risk, a consultant firm.

The regime’s military gains are reversible, which Russia hopes will compel Assad to negotiate a settlement, Abi-Ali said.

“The Russians know Assad can’t stay forever.”

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