Netanyahu and Putin Spar Over Syrian Threat to Israel – Neil MacFarquhar/The New York Times

by NewsStand

     A poster of Assad, Putin and Nasrallah on a van in Lebanon.  Caption translatio:  Hands Off Syria.

MOSCOW — President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, disagreed here on Monday over the level of threat to Israel from Syria, backed by Iran.

Mr. Netanyahu said that Iran and Syria had sought to provide modern weapons to the militant group Hezbollah to open a second front against Israel.

But Mr. Putin differed, saying the Syrian Army was in such a dire situation that it could not possibly take part in a war against Israel. He also sought to reassure Mr. Netanyahu that increased Russian military support for Syria would not have a negative impact on Israel.

“We know that the Syrian Army and Syria as a whole are in no condition to open a second front; they need to save their own state,” Mr. Putin said with a brief chuckle in remarks broadcast by Russia’s state-run satellite television channel, Rossiya-24.

He acknowledged attacks by Hezbollah, however, and said it was important to prevent the transfer of weapons to the organization. Iran has long supplied Hezbollah through Syria.

Mr. Putin said Moscow condemned those attacks but emphasized that the weapons used were not Russian. “As far as I know, these attacks are carried out using improvised missile systems,” he said.

Israel has been able to bomb suspected convoys to Hezbollah with impunity since the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria turned into a civil war in 2011, forcing Syria to concentrate on the internal threat.

Mr. Netanyahu said that Iran and Syria had provided Hezbollah with “thousands” of rockets fired at Israel over the years. “Iran, under the auspices of the Syrian Army, is attempting to build a second terrorist front against us from the Golan Heights,” he said, according to a transcript released by his office.

He added that Israel wished to continue blocking arms deliveries, although the government has always been somewhat coy about acknowledging its cross-border air raids.

Mr. Netanyahu had flown to Moscow to seek reassurance that, among other things, new Russian hardware and forces — in particular, fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles — would not target Israeli forces. Israel also does not want Russian weaponry flowing to Hezbollah.

“All actions taken by Russia in the region have always been and will be very responsible,” Mr. Putin told him.

In the past month, Russia has begun bolstering both Mr. Assad’s forces and its own presence on the ground in Syria. The effort is seen as having two main aims. First, it is meant to buttress Syria, Russia’s most important ally in the Middle East, as the government there loses ever more ground to various insurgent forces. Second, and equally important, Mr. Putin is seeking to divert attention from the crisis in Ukraine and force the West to acknowledge that Russia still has an important role as a global power.

New Russian deployments in Syria include surface-to-air missiles and combat aircraft with air-to-air capability, much of it concentrated on an air base near Latakia. The Kremlin has painted these deployments as a mustering of forces to confront the Islamic State militant group, and it is unclear how such capabilities would be used against extremist ground forces that have virtually no air force.

Prefabricated structures that Russia has built on the base could now house 2,000 military advisers and personnel.

The United States defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, began a dialogue Friday with his Russian counterpart, Sergei K. Shoigu, on ways to make sure the two countries’ forces avoided conflict or accidents as they deployed in the same air space. American bombers have been attacking Islamic State positions for many months.

Mr. Netanyahu, who traveled to Moscow with a group of senior officials from the Israeli military, said he was looking for similar guarantees that Russian and Israeli forces would not clash.

In its lead editorial on Monday, the Russian daily Nezavisimaya Gazeta noted that no matter what his intentions, Mr. Putin had forced the West to take Russia into account in a way that it had sought to avoid since the Ukraine crisis erupted.

“Washington and the leaders of the E.U. were counting on breaking the Kremlin’s will with the help of sanctions and political pressure, and to turn it into a secondary player on the world stage,” the editorial said, referring to the European Union. “By sending ships to Syria’s shores and deploying a few helicopters and tanks to Latakia, if one believes American intelligence, Moscow is demonstrating that international problems can’t be fixed without its help.”

Isabel Kershner contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

Netanyahu and Putin Spar Over Syrian Threat to Israel – The New York Times