In phone call, Putin tells Netanyahu military cooperation in Syria must improve – The Times of Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the two countries must improve their military cooperation in Syria, the Kremlin said in a statement Saturday.

Putin emphasized the importance of upcoming consultations between defense experts from the two countries during the conversation, which was held at the initiative of Netanyahu, the Kremlin said.

The two leaders were said to be considering holding a meeting in person.

Ties between the two countries have been strained since Russia’s delivery of the the S-300 missile defense system to Syria following the September 17 downing of a Russian spy aircraft by Syrian forces, which were responding to an Israeli strike over Syrian airspace.

Russia has blamed Israel for the incident, which killed 15 Russian crew members. Israel has emphatically denied responsibility.

Russian S-300 air defense missile systems drive by during the Victory Day military parade marking 71 years after the victory in WWII in Red Square in Moscow, Russia, on May 9, 2016. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

Although Putin initially told reporters that the incident was due to a “chain of tragic accidental circumstances,” the Russian defense ministry later declared Israel was responsible, saying the Israeli Air Force jets used the Russian plane as cover. Israel rejected the accusation.

Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria. It has launched numerous attacks on targets it says are a threat to its security.

Russia, which is a main backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, has maintained a deconfliction hotline with Israel, allowing the Jewish state to carry out the attacks as long as it is informed beforehand.

Putin and Netanyahu also discussed Israeli operations on the border with Lebanon, according to the statement.

On Tuesday the Israel Defense Forces announced the start of Operation Northern Shield to find and destroy cross-border attack tunnels dug by the Lebanese Hezbollah terrorist group. It has said it has found two such tunnels thus far.

Israeli soldiers show UNIFIL commander Maj. Gen. Stefano Del Col a Hezbollah tunnel that penetrated Israeli territory from southern Lebanon on December 6, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Putin “stressed the importance of ensuring stability in the region in strict accordance with Resolution 1701 of the UN Security Council,” the statement read, referring to the 2006 UN Security Council resolution calling for Hezbollah to withdraw from southern Lebanon following the Second Lebanon War, the last major conflict between the IDF and the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group.

A senior Israeli minister said Friday that Israeli forces may need to go into Lebanon to deal with the tunnels.

“If we think that, in order to thwart the tunnels, one needs to operate on the other side, then we will operate on the other side of the border,” Israel Katz, who holds the Intelligence and Transport ministries, told Radio Tel Aviv, according to Reuters.

An IDF incursion into Lebanon would likely spark a major confrontation with Hezbollah.

Russia on Wednesday expressed tacit support for the efforts to expose Hezbollah’s cross-border attack tunnels, while calling on both sides to show restraint lest the volatile situation on the Lebanese border escalate.

Russia does not consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization.