JERUSALEM: 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 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.