Israel to Russia: don't let Syria pullout boost Iran, Hezbollah

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will ask Russia on Wednesday to ensure that its partial pullout from Syria does not embolden Iranian and Hezbollah forces there, an Israeli official said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin addresses attendees at the "Haaretz Q: with New Israel Fund" event at The Roosevelt Hotel in the Manhattan borough of New York City, December 13, 2015. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Rivlin is in Moscow to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose withdrawal announcement on Monday blindsided world powers. Israel believes the Russian intervention in Syria’s civil war served to restrain Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, anti-Israeli foes which are also fighting for Damascus.

In his afternoon talks with Putin, Rivlin will “seek assurances that Russia will not allow its Syria withdrawal to bolster Iran and Hezbollah”, an aide to the Israeli president told Reuters.

Rivlin, whose role is largely ceremonial, conferred with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before departing for Moscow, the aide added.

Israel deems Hezbollah its most potent enemy, and worries that the Iranian-backed guerrillas, who hold sway in southern Lebanon, are also becoming entrenched on its Syrian front and acquiring advanced weaponry from Damascus.

Though formally neutral on the civil war, Israel has carried out occasional air strikes in Syria to foil suspected Hezbollah arms transfers. An Iranian general and two senior Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria strikes attributed to Israel.

The Israelis have also fired into Syria across the Golan Heights frontier zone in what they called responses to spillover shelling or deliberate attacks by Iranian-linked militias.

When Russia began its Syria intervention last year, Netanyahu was quick to set up an operational hotline with Putin to prevent Israel accidentally coming to blows with Moscow.

On Tuesday, the Russian deputy ambassador to Israel said the countries would continue their military coordination on Syria.

“We will also do everything so that Israel’s national security interests are not harmed in the process,” the envoy, Alexey Drobinin, said.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Robert Birsel