Israel and Russia agreed Monday to set up a mechanism to avoid inadvertent confrontations between their air forces over Syria in the latest measure of the growing complexity of the crisis in Syria.
The accord reached in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin came as the Kremlin’s military buildup in the war-torn country showed no sign of slackening. At least two dozen Russian aircraft capable of supporting Syrian army ground operation arrived in Syria over the weekend.
The expanding Russian presence at an airfield near Latakia has sparked concerns in Israel over the potential for accidental entanglements or misunderstandings between Israeli and Russian pilots overflying Syrian territory, which is only 72,000 square-miles in area or roughly the same size as Washington State.
After his talks with Putin, Netanyahu said that he and the Russian leader agreed to establish a “joint mechanism in order to prevent misunderstanding between our forces.”
He gave no details of the arrangement, which usually involves creating a special military-to-military communications channel through which the sides inform each other of the positions of their forces and ongoing operations.
The need for such a channel has taken on greater weight with what a U.S. official said was the deployment of two Russian anti-aircraft missile batteries.
“The importance of preventing a misunderstanding is very great,” Netanyahu said in remarks broadcast on Israel Radio.
Netanyahu was accompanied to Moscow by the Israeli army chief of staff and the head of Israeli military intelligence.
The United States, which is leading an international coalition in airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, also is worried about inadvertent interactions between Russian and U.S.-led coalition aircraft. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter agreed in a telephone call last week with his Russian counterpart to hold military-to-military talks on creating a deconfliction mechanism.
“The fact that they . . . have additional military capabilities in Syria continues to give us concern, and that’s why we’re in favor of some level of military-to-military communication for the purpose of deconfliction,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.
Israel has conducted occasional forays into Syria, staging airstrikes against Syrian facilities and military convoys suspected of transporting advanced weapons to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia movement that dominates Lebanon and has sent fighters into Syria to bolster Assad.
Those weapons are believed to have included advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft systems destined for Hezbollah, which frequently has clashed with Israeli troops and fought a 2006 war with Israel.
Israeli jets also have struck at Hezbollah militants inside Syria, opposite the border in the Israeli-held Golan Heights.
Israel is continuing its efforts to prevent arms transfers from Syria to Hezbollah and attacks by the group across the Golan frontier, Netanyahu said.
“When Israel acts, it is important that everyone, including Russia, knows how we are acting,” Netanyahu said. “Better to prevent a misunderstanding before it happens than afterwards.”
In public remarks before their meeting, Netanyahu and Putin disagreed on the nature of the threat that Israel faces from Syria along the Golan frontier, where Israel asserts there have been sporadic attempts to target Israeli soldiers.
Netanyahu said that Iran, with the help of the Syrian army, is trying to open a “second terrorist front against us from the Golan.”
But Putin scoffed at the idea. “The Syrian army and Syria as a whole are in no condition to open a second front. They need to save their own state.”
Putin has portrayed the Russian force as intended to fight the Islamic State, which has declared a caliphate on the large swaths of northern Syria and neighboring Iraq that it has overrun.
The Obama administration, however, is worried that Putin’s goal is to bolster Assad, who has been losing territory in northern Syria and is suffering serious manpower shortages after four years of conflict that has killed some 250,000 people and uprooted some 11 million.
“If Russian looks to play a constructive role against ISIL, that is one thing,” said Kirby, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “But if what they’re doing is, in fact, propping up the Assad regime, then that’s an entirely different issue altogether because it is the Assad regime that has been a magnet for extremists inside Syria.”
The Russian presence has complicated the administration’s formula for finding a political settlement to the war, which has gained urgency as tens of thousands of Syrian refugees flood into Europe.
Washington has insisted that Assad must step aside. But the Russian intervention may force the administration to adjust its position to giving the Syrian leader play some kind of role in a transitional government and pressuring the main Syrian opposition leaders into dropping a demand that he have no part in a settlement.
In Washington, a U.S. official said the Russian buildup has continued unabated, with 24 jetfighters arriving over the weekend, boosting the number of fixed-wing aircraft deployed at the Bassel al Assad International Airport to at least 28.
The new arrivals were Sukhoi 25s and Sukhoi 24s. The former, known by NATO as the Frogfoot, is a Soviet-designed tactical fighter jet designed to provide close air support to ground troops, while the latter is an all-weather swing-wing bomber which is known by NATO as a Fencer and is capable of flying low-level ground attack missions.
The arrival of the aircraft would increase the Russians’ capacity to provide close air support to Syrian troops fighting the Islamic State as well as the plethora of other rebel groups, some of which have been supported by the United States.
The U.S. official, who requested anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the issue publicly, said the Russians also have set up two anti-aircraft missile batteries, boosted to nine the number of advanced T90 tanks it has in Syria, and deployed 16 helicopters.