JERUSALEM/BEIRUT: Israel launched its newest air defense system on Monday on the Syrian frontier, where Damascus’ Russian-backed forces have been routing fighters, as Moscow sent envoys for what it called “urgent” talks with Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
Netanyahu met Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and its armed forces chief, Gen. Valery Gerasimov — a visit the Israeli leader said was arranged last week at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Israel has been on high alert as Syrian President Bashar Assad regains ground from southern fighters, bringing his forces close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
In a sign of high tensions, Israel launched two David’s Sling interceptor missiles at rockets which the Israeli military later said fell inside Syrian territory and were part of the internal fighting there.
It was Israel’s first published operational use of the mid-range missiles, which are jointly manufactured by US firm Raytheon. The incident triggered sirens in northern Israel and on the Golan.
Israel deployed the system last year to complement its short-range Iron Dome and long-range Arrow interceptors.
Netanyahu held talks with Putin in Moscow on July 11 amid Israeli concern that Assad, an old foe, may defy a 1974 demilitarization deal on the Golan or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there.
Russia has said it wants to see the separation of forces on the frontier preserved. Lavrov’s deputy, Grigory Karasin, told Russian media the foreign minister's trip was “urgent and important.”
Netanyahu earlier said he would tell the envoys that “Israel insists on the separation of forces agreement between us and Syria being honored, as they were honoured for decades until the civil war in Syria broke out.”
Syrian pro-regime television said on Sunday an Israeli airstrike hit a military post in the city of Misyaf in Syria’s Hama province but caused only material damage. An Israeli military spokeswoman said it does not comment on foreign reports.
Also on Monday, hundreds of Syrian refugees left Lebanon for their neighboring home country — the latest such return coordinated between Beirut and Damascus.
In Lebanon's eastern border town of Arsal, men, women and children of all ages piled into vehicles.
Security forces checked the identity papers of those about to make the journey back to Syria with suitcases, boxes of food and even live poultry, an AFP photographer said.
“The voluntary repatriation of around 850 Syrian refugees started” on Monday morning.
Syria’s pro-regime news agency SANA said the first of “hundreds of Syrians coming from Lebanese territory” were heading to Qalamun outside the capital.
Russia has also put forward plans to the US to cooperate for the safe return of refugees to Syria.
Moscow has proposed the establishment of working groups in Lebanon and Jordan, to where many refugees have fled, a Russian Defense Ministry official said on Friday.
An advisor to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri has met Russia's deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov to find out more about the initiative, the premier's office said on Saturday.
The step would "help solve the refugees' crisis in Lebanon and put an end to their suffering and its social and economic repercussions on the host countries, mainly Lebanon," it said in English.