Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) during their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow yesterday. — AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) during their meeting in the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow yesterday. — AP

NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia: Israel and Russia agreed yesterday to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a visit to Moscow. Recent Russian reinforcements for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, which regional sources say include warplanes and anti-aircraft systems, worry Israel, whose jets have on occasion bombed the neighboring Arab country to foil suspected handovers of advanced arms to Assad’s Lebanese guerrilla ally Hezbollah.

Briefing Israeli reporters after he met Russian President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu said he had come with the goal of “prevent(ing) misunderstandings between IDF (Israel Defence Force) units and Russian forces” in Syria, where Assad is fighting Islamist-dominated insurgents in a civil war. Netanyahu added that he and Putin “agreed on a mechanism to prevent such misunderstandings”. He did not elaborate. There was no immediate comment from the Kremlin.

In earlier remarks as he welcomed Netanyahu to the presidential residence of Novo-Ogaryovo, outside Moscow, Putin said Russian actions in the Middle East would always be “responsible”. Underlining the importance of Netanyahu’s one-day visit to Moscow, Israel’s premier took along the chief of its armed forces and the general in charge of Israeli military intelligence. Putin, who shares Western concern about the spread of Islamic State influence, has pledged to continue military support for Assad, assistance that Russia says is in line with international law. Russia has been focusing forces on Syria’s coast, where Moscow keeps a big Mediterranean naval base. The United States, which along with its allies has been flying missions against Islamic State insurgents in Syria, has also been holding so-called “deconfliction” talks with Russia.

Keeping US Informed
Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that he had informed the Americans “on each and every detail” of his Moscow visit, adding: “Everyone has an interest in avoiding an unnecessary clash” over Syria. A US official told Reuters that US-Israeli coordination allowed the allies to share classified technologies for identifying Russian aircraft over Syria: “We know how to spot them clearly and quickly,” the official said.

Separately, US officials said Russia had started flying surveillance missions with drone aircraft in Syria in what appeared to be Moscow’s first air operations there since beginning its build-up. The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, could not say how many aircraft were involved. A former Netanyahu adviser said Israel was concerned that Russia’s help for Assad in battling an insurgency now in its fifth year could create a de facto axis between Moscow, Iran and Hezbollah.

Iran, Israel’s arch-foe, is Assad’s other foreign backer and patron of Hezbollah, which fought Israel to a standstill in the 2006 Lebanon war. Israel worries that top-of-the-line Russian military hardware being deployed in Syria could end up in Hezbollah’s arsenal. “Our policy is to do everything to stop weapons from being sent to Hezbollah,” Netanyahu told Putin at their photo-op. He also set out Israel’s policy of striking at guerrillas suspected of preparing to attack it from the Syrian Golan, on the northern frontier – an apparent signal to Russia to steer clear there.

The former Netanyahu adviser, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the issue, said any understandings reached with Putin “could come down to Israel and Russia agreeing to limit themselves to defined areas of operation in Syria, or even that they fly at daytime and we fly at night”.

Heavy bombardment by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad killed at least 18 civilians yesterday in a residential district of the northern city of Aleppo, a monitor said. “Regime forces fired on the Al-Shaar neighbourhood in Aleppo city’s east, which is controlled by the opposition, and killed at least 18 civilians,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. “A surface-to-surface missile hit the Al-Shaar neighbourhood. People started gathering, and that’s when the army fired more missiles at the same area,” he said.

Abdel Rahman said dozens of people were wounded and others were still trapped under the rubble. Chaos reigned as screaming men carried wounded civilians from collapsing buildings. “The civil defence came here to pull people out of the rubble, put out fires and save people,” one emergency worker told AFP. A man standing on the charred carcass of a car held his head in his hands as he stared into the lobby of a partly destroyed building littered with debris. “This is a public market and all of these people were shopping. Every time he (Assad) suffers a defeat, he takes it out on civilians,” a resident said.

Aleppo, once Syria’s economic powerhouse, has been devastated by fighting since 2012. It is now divided between government control in the west and opposition control in the east. Much of Aleppo has been left in ruins as regime forces carry out aerial attacks and rebels retaliate, despite criticism of both sides from humanitarian organizations. Further east along Syria’s border with Turkey, four people were killed in twin car bomb attacks on the frontier town of Ras al-Ain, the Observatory and Syria’s official news agency said. The Observatory said that Kurdish security forces were among the dead.

SANA said that “terrorist suicide bombers… detonated a huge amount of explosives” just outside the town and that another four people were wounded. Ras Al-Ain, in Hasakeh province, was the site of ferocious fighting in 2013 between Kurdish militia and the Islamic State group before the former drove the jihadists from the town and its nearby border post. – Agencies