Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu phoned President Vladimir Putin Wednesday Feb. 24, to find out how the partial Syrian ceasefire due to go into effect Saturday Feb. 27 will affect Israel’s northern border security. According to the Kremlin statement, “The two leaders discussed the Middle East and reached agreement to hold a number of high-level contact meetings.”
Agreement was also reached on “a range of contact [meetings] on the high and highest level, taking into consideration the 25tyh anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries,” the communiqué went on to say.
The language and content of this communiqué struck debkafile’s diplomatic sources as oddly off the point compared with statements that came after past conversations.
It is hard to believe that the Russian President, while deeply immersed in tense exchanges with President Barack Obama and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani for tying up the ends of the approaching Syrian ceasefire, would give his attention to the celebration of a historic event.
The words did however convey the impression that the Russian leader was making an effort to calm Israel’s apprehensions about the coming stage of the Syrian crisis.
According to our sources, Netanyahu put in the call to Putin when he learned that the Russian and American presidents had agreed to get the partial ceasefire started in southern Syria, namely on the front closest to the borders of Israel and Jordan.
Israeli and Jordanian military officials have been trying to get a picture of how these arrangements would work and affect their national security, but Washington and Moscow are similarly tightlipped on information. This is also the reaction the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Director General Dore Gold found when he called on Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow on Feb. 18. The minister was polite but avoided direct answers to questions.
Israel is most deeply troubled by the possibility that Syrian army, Iranian and Hizballah forces currently in offensive momentum in South Syria will exploit the cessation of hostilities to advance towards its Golan border with hostile intent.
With only three days to go before the truce goes into effect, Israel has still not received any clear answers about whether the Russian air force will continue to strike Syrian rebel elements deemed “terrorists” unabated in close proximity to its northern borders.
US officials have tried in the last 24 hours to assuage Israel’s concerns, but they are no more forthcoming with clear information than the Russians.
Netanyahu therefore picked up the phone to the Russian president, with whom he maintains a friendly dialogue, to find out what was ahead in the wake of the truce and to ask for guarantees that Syrian, Iranian and Hizballah forces would not permitted to take advantage of the lull to gain ground.
The prime minister also asked Putin about the huge $14bn arms deal in negotiation with Tehran.
He is most unlikely to have been appeased by the bone the Russian president threw him about a joint celebration of an anniversary. The record is not assuring. In early January, Putin promised Netanyahu that he would make sure that Hizballah forces would not be part of the Russian-backed Syrian army offensive in the South. But then, on Jan. 27, a large Hizballah force entered the southern town of Daraa and Russian air strikes drew ever closer to the Israeli border, until explosions could be heard in Israel from a distance of no more than a few hundred meters.