Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stepped up his pressure on Russia over its involvement in Syria, ahead of his meeting with Vladimir Putin next week.
Russia has long supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, in part because Russia has a strategic naval base on the Syrian coast, but Netanyahu now fears an escalation along Israel’s northern border after an influx of Russian tanks.
As preparations were being made for his visit to Moscow, there was mounting concern in Jerusalem that Russian weaponry could make matters worse.
A spokesman said Netanyahu would “present the threats against Israel that arise as a result of the increased flow of advanced weapons into the Syrian arena and the trickle of deadly weapons to Hezbollah and other terrorist organisations”.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has also raised concerns with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov after U.S. officials reported seeing seven Russian T-90 tanks move into a Syrian airfield at Latakia, one of President Bashar al-Assad’s strongholds.
Russian military personnel are already stationed at the airbase, but the new positioning and recent military build-up suggests that Russia wants to create a “forward air operating base,” said analysts.
Netanyahu is expected to ask Putin what lies behind the recent activity, and to try to understand his long-term plans. Russia already has several elite units operating in the area, and has bolstered its position with advanced radar and anti-missile systems.
As yet, there are no indications that Russian jets are flying out of Latakia, but if this were to follow, Israeli military chiefs would want to minimise the chances of any unplanned altercations between Russian and Israeli aircraft.
The relationship between Israel and Russia is tricky. Putin is known to be an admirer of Netanyahu, but the two have been at odds on several issues, most recently Russia’s plan to sell its advanced S-300 missile system to Iran, after world powers concluded a nuclear agreement with Tehran.