When Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sat down with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on April 4 to coordinate Israel’s aerial operations in Syria, he already had in his pocket a US assurance of US Air Force cover. This is revealed here for the first time by DEBKA Weekly’s military sources.
The visit took place after Israel’s first major operation on March 27 against the command centers and weapons stores which Iran had just relocated to the Aleppo district in northern Syria (first reported by DEBKA Weekly on April 5: Beaten in Damascus by Israel’s Raids, Soleimani and his HQ Retreat to Aleppo). Netanyahu understood that for the Israel anti-Iran offensive to continue in Syria, he needed to re-ensure the non-interference of the Russian air force and its S-400 air defense missiles from nearby at the Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia.
Yet few words were exchanged at Netanyahu’s interview with Putin, although Netanyahu took with him Military Intelligence AMAN Director Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman and national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabat.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources reveal that not much remained to be said since Moscow’s non-interference was a foregone conclusion. A short time earlier, Putin received a message through backdoor channels from US President Donald Trump. He was informed that the Israeli air force was now operating against Iranian targets in northern Syria in close conjunction with the United States and any Russian attack would draw an American response. Israel had the US at its back for the next stage of its offensive to root Iran’s military presence out of Syria.
That was one of several steps taken by the Trump administration in the face of military maneuvers in Syria by Russia, Turkey, Iran and Iraq. Those steps are summed up here:
1. Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan’s visit to Moscow ended in arrangements with Putin for their joint patrols to secure Idlib, the rebels’ last stronghold in Syria. It was originally set to consummate Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400 air defense systems, in the face of American fury. Washington informed Ankara and Moscow that the US has reserved northern Syria and the regions east of the River Euphrates as spheres of American influence. Therefore –
2. The Russians must call off their planned offensive against Syrian rebels in Idlib, which is dominated by al-Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al Sham aka the Nusra Front.
3. Washington would not permit Turkey to establish a buffer zone in northern Syria and even less a zone controlled jointly by Turkey and Russia.
4. The US would hold Moscow responsible if Iranian forces in northern Syria attempted to step out of their current zones. Trump administration pressure caused Moscow to back down from the all-out Idlib campaign, planned originally as a joint operation with Syrian government and pro-Iranian forces. Putin’s fallback position was an announcement after his talks Erdogan that “We are basically entering joint patrolling, at least patrolling from two sides.”
5. Erdogan was warned not to finalize his acquisition of S-400s from Russia. The US message, although couched in harsh language, did not say how this transaction was to be prevented, but the transfer of US F-35 stealth fighters to Turkey was suspended. At the same time, Turkish air crews continued to attend courses in the US for the operation of the advanced aircraft, without interruption.
6. Leaned on hard by Washington, the Baghdad government agreed to abandon its plan for the deployment of Iraqi special forces in the western province of Anbar near the Syrian border. The US military suspected that this deployment was intended to camouflage the arrival of Iraqi Shiite Popular Mobilization Units, the PMU, which operates under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers.