Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin met with Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday in Moscow and discussed the implications of Russia’s sudden military withdrawal from Syria.
Putin surprised the world on Monday, announcing that Moscow’s six-month military presence in Syria will come to an end, as “the task … has, on the whole, been fulfilled.” The Russian intervention has bolstered Syria’s President Assad, whose forces have reversed the military situation against opposition forces in several parts of the country. However, Russia’s withdrawal has sparked Israeli concern over an impending growing Iranian influence in Syria, especially via its Hezbollah proxy which has launched infrequent attacks on Israeli forces across the Syrian border.
Rivlin and Putin met for two hours yesterday. According to a widely quoted official, Rivlin expressed concerns over Iran and Hezbollah’s ambitions to establish a strong presence along the Israel-Syria border and “told Putin that as far as Israel is concerned, that’s a red line.” Rivlin apparently added that Israel will “not allow Iran or Hezbollah guerrillas to entrench on the Golan.” The official added that, “Putin, for his part, reiterated his statements from 2012 to the effect that he and the Russian government are committed to Israel’s security and existence.”
As a practical suggestion, Rivlin reportedly asked Putin to help re-establish the United Nations (UN) observer force on the Golan border between Israel and Syria. The UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) was established in 1974 in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, administering a buffer zone between the two countries. Until 2013, the force comprised around 1,000 soldiers, but the chaos of the Syrian Civil War has seen the UN troops endangered and even kidnapped. Consequently, member countries have reduced or withdrawn their forces from UNDOF.
Rivlin is said to have updated Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Moshe Ya’alon and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eizenkot after yesterday’s meeting with Putin. Meanwhile, it is reported that Netanyahu will himself soon meet Putin in Moscow.