Russian Military Buildup in Syria Raises Alarm Bells for Israel

Israeli officials expressed concern about Russia’s growing military deployment in Syria before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Moscow on Monday to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu will present the threats posed to Israel as a result of the increased flow of advanced war material to the Syrian arena and the transfer of deadly weapons to Hezbollah and other terror organizations,” the Israeli government said in an e-mailed statement on Wednesday.

Russia has expanded its military aid to embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in recent weeks, sending tanks, artillery and personnel, as well as setting up what the Pentagon says might be a forward airbase near the port city of Latakia. The increased Russian presence may complicate Israeli military efforts to thwart Syrian arms deliveries to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, and attacks on its Golan Heights frontier emanating from within Syrian territory.

Assad’s regime has blamed Israel for carrying out several airstrikes in Syria over the past two years that targeted arms convoys and weapons depots. While Israel has not taken responsibility for the attacks, Netanyahu and other officials have said they will not allow advanced Syrian weapons to be delivered to Hezbollah.

“If Russian aircraft are now going to help defend the Assad regime against the rebels and Islamist militants, that creates the possibility of potential conflict with those Israeli air forces reported to be carrying out these strikes within Syria,” said Jonathan Spyer, director of the Rubin Center for Research in International Affairs in Herzliya, Israel. While Netanyahu will not have much leverage with Putin on the Syria build-up, he will still definitely want to register a protest with the Russian leader, Spyer said by phone.

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