Putin, Netanyahu talk endgame in Syria, Iran role in region.
Moscow at center of diplomacy
MOSCOW | President Vladimir Putin hosted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and one of Iran’s top security officials in separate meetings Wednesday ahead of next week’s summit with President Trump, a summit widely expected to focus on the Syrian civil war and the future of Iran’s presence in the country.
While Mr. Putin and Mr. Netanyahu’s delegation sat down for talks in the Kremlin, Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was traveling to Moscow.
Separately, Mr. Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Brussels reportedly agreed on a plan to push Middle East allies Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan to start their own talks on way to put an end to Syria’s seven-year civil war. With the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad seen as close to a military victory in the war, the presence of foreign powers inside Syria — including Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and Turkey is emerging as an urgent priority.
Israel in particular has warned it will not tolerate a large Iranian presence inside Syria, particularly in the border region along the Golan Heights.
Mr. Netanyahu underlined warm ties between Russia and Israel, emphasizing what he described as their key stabilizing role for the Mideast.
“Every visit like this is an opportunity for us to act together and try and stabilize the situation in our region and increase security and increase stability,” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Obviously, our focus is on Syria and Iran. Our opinion is known that Iran needs to leave Syria — that is not something new for you.”
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in a postwar Syria.
Mr. Velyati told Iran’s state-owned news service upon arriving in Moscow that he hoped to strengthen his government’s “strategic relationship” with Russia and coordinated policy on Syria in his talks with Mr. Putin.
“Only a strategic and long-term relationship [with Russia] can continue this cooperation,” Mr. Velyati told the news service.
Russia, whose military intervention proved critical to saving Mr. Assad’s regime, has said it understands Israel’s concerns but has also warned it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country.
Media reports suggested that at Monday’s meeting in Helsinki, Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump could reach a deal to deploy Syrian government forces alongside the Israeli border, withdrawing all Iranian forces and their proxy Hezbollah militia from the area.
“We know about your concerns, let’s have a thorough talk about them,” Mr. Putin told Mr. Netanyahu before reporters were asked to leave the room.
Iranian officials have exchanged harsh words with the Netanyahu government, but have largely refrained from Israeli attacks on Iranian positions inside Syria. Tehran is widely seen as hoping to win a large chunk of the work in rebuilding Syria to justify its intervention, a job said to run into the hundreds of billions of dollars.
In a reminder of the volatile situation, Mr. Netanyahu pointed at an incident earlier Wednesday in which the Israeli military fired a Patriot missile to shoot down a drone that had infiltrated Israeli airspace from Syria.
“We will continue to act decisively against any spillover and any infiltration of Israeli territory or airspace,” he said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an interview with Italian newspaper Il Giornale published Wednesday that Moscow hopes that Israel and Iran will both display caution and avoid a showdown.
“Their use of military force in Syria would inevitably lead to an escalation of tensions across the entire Middle East region,” he said. “In that context, we rely on peaceful diplomatic means to resolve any differences and expect both sides to show restraint.”
Both Washington and Moscow have talked of bringing home some of their troops from Syria if the situation can be stabilized.
Mr. Trump has talked of removing some 2,000 U.S. troops in eastern Syria now fighting the remnants of Islamic State and other jihadi forces.
“We’ve had a tremendous military success against ISIS,” he said in an April White House news conference. “I want to get out, I want to bring our troops back home. I want to start rebuilding our nation.”
Late last month, Moscow announced plans for a massive military drawdown in Syria.Just over 1,100 Russian soldiers and over 20 jet fighters and attack helicopters have been withdrawn from frontline positions inside the country.
“We know about your concerns, let’s have a thorough talk about them,” said Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on Wednesday about strategies in Syria.