(JTA) – Russian President Vladimir Putin scolded Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for blaming Syria’s Assad regime for a devastating chemical weapons attack on civilians.
Russian media Thursday quoted Putin as saying “it was unacceptable to make groundless accusations against anyone without conducting a detailed and unbiased investigation.” Reports cited a Kremlin statement that said Netanyahu initiated the call to Putin.
The attack earlier this week on a rebel-held village killed at least 72 people, including many children.
U.S. President Donald Trump, among others, has blamed Bashar Assad’s regime for the attack, but Russia has insisted that no blame should be assigned until the attack is investigated. Russia and Syria routinely frustrate attempts by human rights groups to inspect alleged atrocities in Syria.
Putin’s direct reproach to Netanyahu and its mention in the official Kremlin statement suggest that Russia is signaling to Israel that it should not take sides in the conflict.
Israel wants assurances that Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, will not have stakes in southwestern Syria, where the country borders Israel, in a final status agreement. Russia, the Assad regime’s ally in a bid to crush the rebellion, would be key to making that happen.
Netanyahu’s office confirmed to the Israeli media that the call took place but did not elaborate further.
According to RT, the Kremlin-run broadcaster, Netanyahu initiated the call to discuss bolstering efforts to combat terrorism in the Middle East. Both sides “expressed readiness to expand [cooperation] in the interest of assuring stability and security in the Middle East and, first of all, in Syria,” RT quoted the Kremlin as saying.
Netanyahu, when he condemned the attack on Wednesday, did not name Assad, but called again for the removal of chemical weapons from Syria. Putin may have been irked by an interview that Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman gave to Yediot Acharonot on Thursday in which he said the attack was made on Assad’s direct orders.
Syrian human rights groups say Tuesday’s attack in northern Syria killed at least 86 civilians, including 30 children and 20 women. U.S. intelligence, the World Health Organization and Doctors Without Borders all said the attack may have involved a banned nerve agent.