JERUSALEM – Israel has set up a joint mechanism with the Russian military to coordinate their operations in Syria and avoid any accidental confrontations, a senior Israel military official said Thursday.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of military regulations, said that teams headed by each of the militaries’ deputy chiefs will hold their first meeting in two weeks and will discuss coordination of aerial, naval and electromagnetic operations around Syria.
Russia has backed the Assad regime throughout the nation’s civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people, and recently deployed forces there to help Syria in its battle against Islamic militants.
Russia has sought to cast arms supplies to Assad’s government as part of international efforts to combat the Islamic State group and other militant organizations in Syria.
The United States and its allies see Assad as the cause of the Syrian crisis, and Washington has warned Moscow against beefing up its presence. But those warnings have been softer in tone, compared to the original American position that demanded Assad’s ouster.
The joint mechanism is a result of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting this week in Moscow with President Vladimir Putin, in which Netanyahu raised concerns over the new Russian involvement.
Israel has mostly stayed on the sidelines throughout the Syrian war, though it has returned fire when rockets or mortar shells have strayed into Israeli-controlled territory. Its primary concern has been the potential transfer of advanced weaponry to the Shiite Hezbollah militant group in Lebanon and Israel has occasionally carried out airstrikes against suspected weapons shipments.
Israel has no interest in seeing Assad, a long-time nemesis and key ally of Iran and Hezbollah, prevail. But before the civil war the Assad family maintained decades of relative quiet along the frontier, and Israel fears that if the government falls Syria could be overrun by Islamic extremists.
Israeli officials believe that Iran has recently sent hundreds of fighters into Syria to help Assad’s beleaguered forces. Hezbollah forces, sent in from neighboring Lebanon, have suffered heavy losses.