Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday that Israel will not seek to unseat Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from power, while urging Moscow to remove Iranian troops from the country, according to an Israeli official.
“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” Netanyahu told Putin, the Reuters news agency reported, citing an Israel official who requested anonymity.
According to a report last month, Israel’s willingness to leave Assad in power echoes the US position.
A Western diplomat told Al-Hayat in June that the US is open to the idea of Assad staying in power and does not oppose the regime retaking all areas it lost to rebels groups during the seven-year civil war.
Media reports suggested that at their meeting in Helsinki on Monday, Putin and US President Donald Trump could reach a deal that would envisage the deployment of Syrian government forces alongside the Israeli border and the withdrawal of Iranian forces and their proxy Hezbollah from the area.
Both the United States and Israel are concerned about Iran’s growing military presence in Syria, where it has provided crucial aid to Assad’s forces.
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria. Tensions were brewing along the border in recent months, with Israel launching attacks on Iranian targets in Syria in response to Iranian rocket fire aimed at Israel.
Russia, another key ally of Assad, has warned it’s unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country but there have been signs of an emerging compromise.
During their Wednesday meeting, Netanyahu also stressed to Putin that Israel would continue to thwart any efforts to breach its borders, adding that Jerusalem is keeping a close eye on regional developments in Iran and Syria.
“We will continue to act firmly against any violation of Israeli airspace or territory,” Netanyahu said ahead of a meeting between the two leaders in Moscow. “We expect everyone to respect our sovereignty and for Syria to carefully abide by the ceasefire agreements.”
Earlier in the day, Israel shot down what appeared to be a Syrian reconnaissance drone which entered Israeli airspace in the north of the country. The military said it had waited over 15 minutes before firing a Patriot missile at the drone, during which time officials verified that it was not being flown by Russia, which is providing military support to the Syrian regime.
The IDF confirmed that Israel had been in touch directly with Russian forces based in Syria in order to ensure that it was not their drone.
“Cooperation between us is a key element in preventing an escalation [of hostilities] and deterioration of the situation of one kind or another,” Netanyahu said.
“It’s clear that our focus is on Syria and Iran,” the prime minister added of the Wednesday evening meeting. “Our opinion is that Iran should leave Syria, but this isn’t something new for you.”
It was the third time the two leaders have met in the last six months.
Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was also traveling Wednesday to Moscow for a meeting with Putin.
While Russia and Iran have both deployed forces to Syria to help prop up Assad’s government, their interests don’t always converge. Russia also has maintained warm ties with Israel and demonstrated a readiness to take its security concerns into account. Israel and Russia have set up a coordination mechanism over Syrian airspace to avoid an inadvertent clash between their forces.
In February, Israel said it intercepted an explosives-laden Iranian drone that flew into its airspace, triggering Israeli airstrikes on Iranian targets in Syria. An Israeli warplane was shot down during the reprisal.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said in an interview with Italian newspaper Il Giornale published Wednesday that Moscow hopes that Israel and Iran will both display caution and avoid a showdown.
“Their use of military force in Syria would inevitably lead to an escalation of tensions across the entire Middle East region,” he said. “In that context, we rely on peaceful diplomatic means to resolve any differences and expect both sides to show restraint.”
Agencies contributed to this report.