April 25, 2018 / 9:25 AM / a month ago

Russian envoy plays down tensions with Israel over Syria strikes

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Russia’s ambassador to Israel on Wednesday played down tensions between the countries over Israeli attacks in Syria, saying they were not the reason for Moscow’s proposed supply of an advanced air defence system to Damascus.

Since intervening in Syria’s civil war on behalf of President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, Russia has generally turned a blind eye to Israeli air strikes there against suspected arms transfers and deployments by his Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

But Russia was quick to blame Israel for an April 9 raid that killed seven Iranian military personnel, and which came as the United States, France and Britain faced off with Damascus and Moscow over an alleged gas attack on a Syrian rebel area.

Asked whether Russia would now curtail Israel’s freedom of action in Syria, Ambassador Alexander Shein sounded circumspect.

“It is of course in our interest that these actions not take place, because they worsen the Syria situation,” he told Israeli news site Ynet. But he added: “We of course understand the reasons for Israel deciding to carry out actions of this kind, and would of course also prefer that these reasons not exist.”

The Israelis say their strikes aim to prevent Iran’s pro-Assad garrison from entrenching in Syria and linking with Hezbollah in Lebanon to form a broad front against them.

Russia has said it might provide Syria with the S-300 missile defence system, which could clip the wings of Israel’s air force. Israel has warned against any such deal.

“If anyone shoots at our planes, we will destroy them,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Ynet on Tuesday.

Shein said the idea of the S-300 delivery - on which Russia has yet to decide - was a result of the punitive April 14 missile strikes by U.S., British and French forces on Syria.

“I emphasise that the question arose in the context of Western aggression against Syria, and has nothing to do with Israel,” he said.

The ambassador also played down the risk of a physical confrontation between Russia and Israel over Syria.

“I can’t imagine any such scenario,” he said in response to Lieberman’s threat. “We are mutually coordinating and updating about Syria ... So far, there have been no incidents between us, nor even hints at incidents, and I hope there will not be.”

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens

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