When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sat down with Presidential Vladimir Putin at the Ogaryovo Presidential Residence outside Moscow Monday, Sept. 21, it was not generally known that this was not the first, but the second, Russian-Israeli official meeting in ten days about the Russian military buildup in Syria.
Tuesday, Sept. 7, the Israeli national security adviser Yoram Cohen was received in Moscow by Nikolai Patrushev, Secretary of Russia’s Security Council.
The Russian official was warm and welcoming, but his replies to Israel’s concerns were general rather than specific and, on some key points, downright misleading. For example, he stated that Moscow was sending small military units to Syria and had no intention to involve them in combat.
So what are they doing there? He was asked. “Defending Russian interests in Syria” – was the reply.
When the prime minister was not satisfied with the answers Cohen brought back to Jerusalem about Moscow’s intentions in Syria and their likely bearing on Israel’s military situation, it was Moscow which suggested a follow-up meeting at summit level between Netanyahu and Putin.
This would to be an opportunity to clear up doubts about Russian actions in so far as they affected Israel in the present and the future.
Netanyahu is first Western leader Putin sees since Russian buildup in Syria
Netanyahu and Putin have stayed in touch and maintained friendly ties for some years. And so, after engaging briefly in polite pleasantries, the prime minister quickly got down to brass tacks.
DEBKA Weekly has obtained exclusive access from its intelligence military sources to the content of their conversation of two and-a-half hours – the first face-to-face Putin has conducted with a Western leader since he began pumping troops and top-of-the-line military hardware into Syria.
Netanyahu first broached Israel’s overriding concern, which was to prevent Russian bombers, fighters and assault helicopters clashing with Israeli Air Force aircraft operating over southern Israel, the Golan and southern Syria.
The Russian president’s answer was terse and to the point: The Russian air force will not operate south of Damascus, he said.
Israel could therefore rest assured that its air force would not run into Russian warplanes, helicopters or drones in missions over southern Syria or in the airspace over the Golan and Quneitra.
The prime minister then turned to two further items concerning Russian aerial activity in Syria:
1. Israel conducts aerial surveillance over Syria to gather intelligence on the Iranian convoys heading for Lebanon laden with advanced weapons systems and rockets for Hizballah. From time to time, Israel conducts air strikes against those convoys when they are found to be delivering long-range surface-to-surface missiles for aiming against Israel.
Putin: No Russian air umbrella for Hizballah in Lebanon
Israeli conducted the last of these air strikes on Jan. 27, 2014 in an area where Russia is currently building its new air bases.
So would Russian warplanes henceforth challenge future Israeli air strikes over this area? Netanyahu asked.
Hanging over this question was an episode that both tactfully avoided mentioning:
Last October, Syria rebel groups backed by Israel and Jordan attacked and captured a line of Syrian army fortifications on the Tel Al-Harra hill near the southern Syrian town of Deraa. Hidden at the site was a highly advanced Russian early warning station that kept track of Israeli air force movements in the area and passed the information on to the Iranian officers installed at Syrian headquarters in Damascus.
The rebels dismantled the station and sent its components to Israel, who passed them on to Washington.
2. Putin was more forthcoming on Netanyahu’s second question: Would the Russian air force umbrella over Syria extend to Hizballah in Lebanon? He replied in the negative. Russian aircraft in Syria would not fly over Lebanon or provide Iran’s Shiite proxy with air cover.
As to the first question, the Russian leader proposed setting up a hot line between Russian staff headquarters in Moscow and Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv to synchronize flights.
Putin unyielding on total Russian-Iranian partnership in Syria
Our military sources report the technical arrangements for setting up and running this hot line were referred on the spot to the two chiefs of staff present at the Netanyahu-Putin encounter.
And so Gen. Valery Gerasimov and Lt. Gen. Eisenkot stepped aside for a separate discussion.
They agreed that the hotline would be administered by their deputies, Gen. Nikolay Bogdanovsky and Maj. Gen. Yair Golan.
They also agreed on the format of the question each would communicate through the hot line when necessary to avert a collision: Are any of your aircraft flying at this time in the… vicinity?
Whether this question would require aircraft to be pulled out of the designated patch of sky was not specified.
Thursday, Sept. 24, an Israeli military officer added a clarification: He reported that an Israeli-Russian coordination team set up to prevent the countries accidentally trading fire in Syria will be headed by their deputy armed forces chiefs and hold its first meeting by Oct. 5.
Speaking on condition of anonymity, the officer said the talks would focus on aerial operations in Syria and "electromagnetic coordination” – referring to agreement not to scramble each other’s radio or radar-tracking systems and identifying each other’s forces in the heat of battle.
Israel and Russia will also coordinate sea operations off Syria's Mediterranean coast, where Moscow has a major naval base.
Three days ago, debkafile reported that the two deputy chiefs would operate a hot line between them and meet in person to maintain contact.
Iran upgrades Hizballah’s Lebanon arsenal against Israel
Where Netanyahu and Putin were most at odds was on Iran’s deep-seated presence in Syria and how far Moscow would go in its defense. Throughout their meeting, the Russian leader harped incessantly on one point: Moscow and Tehran are fully coordinated on their political and military policies for Syria and no outside interference in these relations from any quarter would be tolerated.
Netanyahu, for his part, accentuated the hazards posed to Israel’s security by Iran’s stronghold in Syria, maintaining that Russia, by its total embrace of the Iranian presence, would end up causing Israel harm.
He produced two pieces of intelligence data as supporting evidence for his argument.
Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has recently ordered Iran’s arms industry to adapt its production to the needs of Hizballah and its relentless campaign against Israel.
Hizballah forces have already been sighted driving around in South Lebanon for first time in made-in-Iran high-powered Raad-2, Raad-1, Thunder-1 and Thunder-2 armored personnel carriers.
Raad-2, for instance, has been converted into a self-propelled howitzer fitted with a turret. It is similar in layout to the M109A1 155mm/39-cal self-propelled howitzer manufactured by the Iranian Defense Industries.
Netanyahu also informed Putin that Iranian tanks based on T-72S fitted with 155 Kontact1 explosive reactive armor blocks are on their way and Tehran is trying to get them delivered to Lebanon via Syria.
He warned the Russian leader that Israel would not think twice before sending its air force to bomb such convoys.
To this Putin made no response.
Netanyahu identifies Iranian general leading anti-Israel “terror front” from Syria
The second piece of intelligence Netanyahu shared with his host referred to Tehran’s preparations for opening a terrorist front against the Golan and the Galilee of northern Israel. He disclosed that Al Qods Brigades chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, after visiting Moscow last month, had established a new forward command post in the Syrian town of Khan Arnabah near Quneitra opposite Israel’s Golan border for launching this front. The prime minister knew the name of its commander, Iranian Brig. Gen, Saeed Azadi.
This general had taken over from the late Iranian Gen. Ali Allah Dadi, who was killed in an Israeli air strike last January, before he could get started. The prime minister told Putin in no uncertain terms that Israel would not hesitate to liquidate Azadi as well, at the first opportunity.
All the Russian president had to say about this was:“The Syrian army is in no situation for opening a new front.” He condemned the shelling and mortar attacks Israel has suffered from Syrian soil, but he said they were carried out by “home networks” a term the Russians use to distinguish between industrial grade and homemade weaponry.
Netanyahu almost certainly took Putin’s words with a large pinch of salt. And just as well, since three days later, Russian forces were discovered by our intelligence sources on their first combat mission, fighting alongside Syrian army and Hizballah special operations troops to dislodge the Islamic State from the Kweiris air base east of Aleppo.