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Russian Military Confers With Israel On Involvement In Syria

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The Russian army was in Israel this week not for a military operation but to talk, mostly about Russia's new direct involvement in the Syrian civil war. Israel's deputy chief of staff hosted his Russian counterpart to assemble a team of representatives for the two militaries to keep in touch. Despite all the conversation, NPR's Emily Harris reports that Israel is wary about Russia's presence in the neighborhood.

EMILY HARRIS, BYLINE: The Russians, including the Russian military, have a long history in the Middle East, as Israeli president Reuven Rivlin noted today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REUVEN RIVLIN: The Russians - they were here until 1856. In 1956, they were once again in Egypt and in the Middle East. And now there is really deja vu.

HARRIS: Israel's top concern this time around is Moscow's partners. In Syria, Russian president Vladimir Putin backs the fractured nation's embattled leader, Bashar al-Assad - so does Tehran and so does Israel's longtime enemy on its northern border, Hezbollah. Eyal Zisser, a Tel Aviv University expert on Syria, says the Russians are not coming to fight Israel but also not coming alone.

EYAL ZISSER: We see here a joint effort carried out by Hezbollah, Iran and Russia. Nothing good for Israel can come of this unholy alliance.

HARRIS: Former Israeli ambassador to Russia Zvi Magen says the fact that Israeli and Russian military leaders are creating communication channels means Moscow is at least aware of Israel's concerns.

ZVI MAGEN: Russians are very careful about Israel and Israel reaction. After all, Israel is the strongest army and the biggest force, at least in the Middle East. And it's a problem to pull it into the conflict.

HARRIS: Israel says it has not taken sides in the Syrian conflict. But it has allowed rebel fighters into Israel for medical treatment, and Israel is widely believed to have struck weapon stores in Syria to prevent them from being transferred to Hezbollah. Dr. Jacques Neriah is a former head of assessment for Israel's military intelligence. He says Israel will not stop defending its interests in Syria nor let the Russian military in on specific plans.

JACQUES NERIAH: We would be limiting our own forces by saying to the Russians, look; we are going to hit this target. And the Russians would go and maybe defend the target, say, no, this is not the right target; maybe choose something else. No, this goes into the concentrations of national security, which is not to be discussed with the Russians.

HARRIS: But there is concern in Israel that Moscow's planes in the air and advisors on the ground in Syria will limit Israel's ability to strike perceived threats in Syria. Professor Zisser says now that Moscow has gotten directly involved, Israel is waiting to see what the United States will do.

ZISSER: Doesn't matter what you do. At least show that you are a superpower and show leadership. Strong America is an Israeli asset. I mean, the Russian made a move. The Americans can make a move as well.

HARRIS: Israeli analysts don't expect the U.S. to counter Russia. But some say if Russia saves the Syrian regime, at least that's an enemy Israel knows well. Emily Harris, NPR News, Jerusalem. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

International Correspondent Emily Harris is based in Jerusalem as part of NPR's Mideast team. Her post covers news related to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip. She began this role in March of 2013.

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