Netanyahu visits Moscow for talks on Russia moves in Syria

Friday 18/09/2015
Concerns over Russian military buildup in Syria

MOSCOW - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Monday as Israel frets over a Russian military buildup in war-torn Syria.

Netanyahu is accompanied by his army and intelligence chiefs in a rare step for an overseas visit, underlining its strategic importance.

In a statement last week announcing the talks, Netanyahu's office said the Israeli leader would speak about "the deployment of Russian military forces in Syria".

"He will describe the threats to Israel following the military reinforcement in the Syrian arena and the supply of weapons to Hezbollah and other terrorist organisations," the statement said.

Reports in the Israeli press said that the visit's aim was to avoid any possible clashes between Israeli and Russian jets that could operate over Syria.

Israeli military officials reportedly fear that any Russian air presence could cut their room for maneuvre after several purported strikes on Iranian arms transfers to Hezbollah through Syria in recent months that were not officially acknowledged by Israeli authorities.

The United States has said Russia -- one of the few remaining allies of President Bashar al-Assad -- recently sent troops, artillery and aircraft to Syria, sparking fears that Moscow could be preparing to fight alongside government forces.

Moscow argues that any military support falls in line with existing defence contracts, but Moscow and Washington on Friday launched military talks on the four-year-old conflict that has claimed nearly 250,000 lives.

Moscow has been on a diplomatic push to get a US-led coalition of Western and regional powers fighting the Islamic State group to join forces with Assad against the jihadists.

Israel opposes President Bashar al-Assad's regime, but has sought to avoid being dragged into the conflict in neighbouring Syria.

It also fears that Iran could increase its support for Hezbollah and other militant groups as international sanctions are gradually lifted under a July nuclear deal that Moscow helped negotiate between Tehran and world powers.

Netanyahu is set to fly to the United States for talks with President Barack Obama in November in a bid to ease tensions over the Iran deal between the two long-standing allies.

But Israeli left-leaning daily Haaretz said the visit to Moscow appeared to reflect Netanyahu's "lack of faith in the ability and willingness of the US to protect Israeli security interests."

Netanyahu and Putin will also discuss the lack of progress in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the Kremlin said, with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas set to meet Putin in Moscow on Wednesday.