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Netanyahu: Israel, Russia to cooperate on pullout of foreign forces from 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.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Israel and Russia have agreed to establish a joint team to advance the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria.

Netanyahu made the announcement on March 3, days after he visited Moscow to try to persuade Russian President Vladimir Putin that Iran must not be allowed to establish a presence in Syria.

Russia and Iran have given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crucial military and diplomatic backing throughout the eight-year war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.

Israel has 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.

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Addressing a weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu said that he and Putin had “agreed on a common goal: the withdrawal of foreign forces that arrived in Syria after the outbreak of the civil war.”

“We agreed to establish a joint team to advance this goal, together with other elements,” the Israeli prime minister added.

Netanyahu did not elaborate, and Russian officials had no immediate comment.

The Israel prime minister also said that he had made “unequivocally clear that Israel will not allow the military entrenchment of Iran in Syria” and will “continue to take military action against it.”

In recent months, Assad’s forces, supported by Moscow and Tehran, have regained vast territory in the war-torn country from rebel groups and Islamist militants.

The White House said last month that the United States will withdraw the bulk of its forces from Syria, leaving 400 troops in the east of the country, where Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are battling the last pocket held by fighters of the extremist group Islamic State (IS).

Turkey, which is backing differing antigovernment forces, has said that it wants to move in coordination with Russia to establish what it called a “safe zone” in northern Syria.

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The Israeli and Russian militaries have established a hotline to avoid accidental clashes with Russia.

But 15 Russian servicemen were killed in September when Syrian forces accidentally shot down their plane while responding to an Israeli air strike, straining ties between Russia and Israel.

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