Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the planned US withdrawal from Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, the Kremlin said.

The leaders stressed the need to strengthen military and diplomatic cooperation in Syria during the phone call, which was initiated by Netanyahu.

“The discussion focused on developments in Syria, including in light of the United States’ plans to withdraw its troops from that country,” the Kremlin said according to TASS.

The two leaders agreed on the need to “defeat terrorism and speedy achievement of a political settlement in Syria.”

“To that end, the parties reaffirmed their mutual determination to strengthen coordination through military and diplomatic channels,” it said.

Netanyahu’s office later confirmed the call, saying that Netanyahu told Putin that “Israel is determined to continue its efforts to prevent Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria.”

“Netanyahu congratulated President Putin and the Russian people on the occasion of the civil new year and expressed his condolences over the disaster in Magnitogorsk,” the statement added.

A US soldier walks on a newly installed position, near the tense front line between the US-backed Syrian Manbij Military Council and the Turkish-backed fighters, in Manbij, north Syria, April 4, 2018. (AP/Hussein Malla)

Israel’s ties with Russia have been both strengthened and strained by events in Syria, where Israeli efforts to prevent Iran from gaining a military foothold have at times clashed with Moscow’s campaign to aid the Syrian regime in the civil war.

The two countries have coordinated their military efforts in Syria in recent years to avoid friction and accidental conflict. 

Tensions recently reached a peak in September following the downing of a Russian aircraft by Syrian anti-aircraft fire during an Israeli airstrike, an incident Russia blamed on Israel.

Despite the Russian anger over the downed plane, Netanyahu has reiterated several times that Israel will continue to act to prevent Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria and the smuggling of advanced weapons into Lebanon.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, January 2, 2019, in Washington. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Israel in recent years has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran, which alongside its proxies and Russia is fighting on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Jerusalem is concerned that Iran will use Syria as a forward base from which to attack the Jewish state. 

The situation in Syria is set to become even more fragile after US President Donald Trump announced earlier this month that he will pull all American ground troops out of the country. The US had been leading the coalition against the Islamic State terror group, while also helping to thwart the establishment of permanent Iranian military infrastructure in Syria.

The surprise announcement rattled Jerusalem, with Israeli officials expressing concern that America’s absence would open the door for Tehran to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and to the Mediterranean Sea.

This week, he sparked further consternation in Israel when he said that Iran “can do what they want” in Syria, appearing to give Tehran free rein to further entrench itself in the country, though he also said Iran was pulling its forces out of the country. 

Netanyahu said that the US pullout will not deter Israel from continuing to attack Iranian military interests in Syria. On Thursday, he told IDF cadets at Bar Ilan University that Israel was continuing to “act determinedly against anyone seeking to endanger us.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Brasilia on January 1, 2019 (Avi Ohayon/GPO)

Meanwhile, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Netanyahu this week the planned withdrawal of forces from Syria would not alter America’s commitment to countering Iranian aggression and maintaining Israel’s security.

“The decision by the president on Syria in no way changes anything that this administration is working on alongside Israel,” Pompeo said at a joint press conference with Netanyahu in Brazil.

Date published: 09/01/2019
Written by: TOI STAFF
Feature image: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin, May 9, 2018. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)
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