Despite Russia’s decision to withdraw some troops from Syria, Moscow was not “abandoning the region,” the Russia’s deputy ambassador to Israel said Tuesday. In an interview with Yediot Aharonot, Alexei Drovinin said that Russia was leaving some of its forces – notably air and naval – behind, while it evacuated most of its forces from Syria. “We are not leaving the Middle East,” he said.
Israeli officials were as puzzled as commentators elsewhere regarding Moscow’s sudden announcement Monday that it was pulling most of its forces out of Syria after five months, during which Russian planes backed the forces of Bashar al-Assad, bombing bases belonging to various anti-Assad groups.
Speaking on Israel Radio, MK Tzachi Hanegbi (Likud), chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, said that it was possible that Russia was sending Assad a message, in light of the cease-fire talks going on now in Geneva.
“It could be that Moscow is telling Assad that the time has come to let go, to realize that the Syria of five years ago when he was in charge of a large country will never return. I have heard that among the proposals is one that would turn Syria into a series of cantons, with separate areas for Sunnis, Shiites, Kurds and other groups. By leaving Syria, Moscow is telling him that the time has come to talk,” Hanegbi said.
While not confirming this, Drovinin said in the interview that the withdrawal “is sending a clear message that we need to give negotiations a chance. The talks between the opposition and the government are making progress, and we are doing everything we can to encourage this.”
Israeli officials speaking Tuesday said that they did not know if Russian President Vladimir Putin had informed Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of his decision in advance, but he said that Russia was cognizant of Israel’s security needs. “We are working to ensure that whatever agreement comes about will not harm Israel’s security interests. We are very aware of Israel’s security needs and concerns regarding Syria,” he added.
President Reuven Rivlin is set to meet Putin Wednesday, as he leaves Israel for an official state visit in Russia. Hanegbi said that he did not know whether or not Rivlin would discuss the Russian withdrawal with Putin, but as the role of Israel’s president was ceremonial, as opposed to Putin’s operational role, Israelis should not be surprised if the talks between the two do not touch upon the subject of Syria.