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Netanyahu, Putin to meet to discuss Iran’s presence in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (en.Kremlin.ru/Released)
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This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow later this month for talks on Iran’s presence in Syria, the Israeli leader has said.

The February 21 talks will focus on Israel’s efforts to prevent Iran from “creating another front against us right here on the other side of the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said on February 5.

There was no immediate comment from Moscow.

If confirmed, the talks will be Netanyahu’s third meeting with Putin since July 2018.

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Russia and Iran have provided Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with crucial military support throughout the seven-year civil war in Syria, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions.

Israel has repeatedly pledged to stop Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria, carrying out hundreds of air strikes there against what it describes as Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including the Lebanon-based Shi’ite militant group Hizballah.

The secretary of Iran’s National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, warned Israel on February 5 of a “firm and appropriate” response if it continued attacking targets in Syria, according to Fars news agency.

Shamkhani made the comment during a meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, ahead of a summit of the leaders of Russia, Turkey, and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on February 14 about the situation in Syria.

Last week, Netanyahu met with Russian officials in Jerusalem to discuss “strengthening the security coordination mechanism between the militaries” to avoid possible “friction” in the war-torn country, his office said at the time.

Israel and Russia maintain a hotline to prevent their air forces from clashing over Syria.

But in September, a Russian Il-20 reconnaissance plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses in the northwestern province of Latakia following an Israeli raid.

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All 15 servicemen on board were killed and the Russian military accused the country’s military of using the Russian plane as a cover to dodge Syrian air-defense systems.

In response, Moscow announced that it will deliver the S-300 missile system to improve Syria’s defenses and will provide Syrian government forces with updated automated systems for its air-defense network.

Netanyahu’s planned visit to Moscow also comes after President Donald Trump in December announced that he intends to withdraw all 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria.

Critics have said that a vacuum left by the departure of U.S. troops from Syria could result in a resurgence of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and Al-Qaeda in the country or neighboring Iraq.

There are about 2,000 U.S. troops currently deployed in Syria, where they are assisting a Syrian Arab and Kurdish alliance fighting against some of the last IS-held areas and other forces

Addressing the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 5, the head of the U.S. military’s Central Command warned that the fight against IS militants and other extremists “is not over and our mission has not changed.”

The militant group “retains leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources, and the profane ideology that fuels their efforts,” General Joseph Votel said.

He also said that there were currently up to 1,500 IS fighters in the small area they still control in the southern part of the Euphrates River Valley near Iraq’s border.

The remainder have “dispersed” and “gone to ground,” he added.

A Defense Department watchdog report released on February 4 warned that IS could make a comeback within six to 12 months after the U.S. troops leave Syria and “regain limited territory.”

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