Russian Navy Cruiser.

Russia Seeks to Reassure Israel Over Syria Pullout Plan

JERUSALEM - A Russian diplomat sought to reassure Israel on Tuesday that its security would not be harmed by the winding down of Moscow’s intervention in the Syrian civil war, but Israel’s armed forces chief said the ramifications were not yet clear.

Israeli officials have privately said Russian forces sent in last year to help Syrian President Bashar Assad turn the tide against a now five-year-old rebellion also served to restrain his anti-Israeli allies - Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

Israel was further helped by a hotline to the main Russian airbase at Hmeymim in Syrai, which let it continue covert strikes to foil suspected Hezbollah or Iranian operations against it on Syrian turf without fear of accidentally clashing with Moscow.

Russia blindsided world powers on Monday by announcing that the main part of its forces in Syria would start to withdraw. Russia’s deputy ambassador to Israel on Tuesday described the two countries’ Syria coordination as remaining intact.

“We will try to ensure that this (Syria) crisis is resolved, and we will also do everything so that Israel’s national security interests are not harmed in the process,” the envoy, Alexey Drobinin, told the Ynet news site, without elaborating.

In separate remarks to Israel’s Army Radio, Drobinin said Russia would maintain its military presence at Hmeymim airbase as well as a Mediterranean naval center at Tartus.

“Israel is a neighboring country. It cannot be indifferent to what is happening in Syria. We take this into account, of course,” he said. “We have an ongoing dialog with the Israeli side on all levels - the military level and diplomatic level.”

Israel has occasionally fired across the Golan Heights in response to spillover shelling or bombed advanced arms it suspected were to be transferred to Assad’s Lebanese guerrilla allies, Hezbollah.

Past Israeli strikes in Syria killed Syrian troops as well as Hezbollah fighters, according to both countries and the guerrilla group - though the exact number remains unclear.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday. Drobinin said that would be “a very good opportunity to air opinions and provide answers for any questions the Israeli side might have.”

Rivlin’s role is largely ceremonial. His Russia trip was set before the Syrian withdrawal announcement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government declined to be drawn on the issue.

But the Israeli armed forces chief, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eizencot, told lawmakers Israel had no advance knowledge of Russia’s pullback plan, whose impact he deemed hard to gauge.

“At this stage, humility and caution are required in trying to understand the vector in which the Syrian theater will develop with the exit of Russian forces,” Eizencot said in the closed-door briefing, according to a parliamentary spokesman.

Eizencot said that the Russian intervention had so far strengthened Assad’s position in ceasefire talks with rebels.

Israel has voiced doubt about the truce prospects in Syria, which it anticipates will end up partitioned on sectarian lines.

Eizencot predicted that the Russian withdrawal would be carried out gradually, but not fully, with Moscow maintaining two bases in Syria while thinning out overall troop deployments.

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