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Israel and Russia team up to get rid of Iran's troops in southern Syria Open in fullscreen

Paul McLoughlin

Israel and Russia team up to get rid of Iran's troops in southern Syria

Israel controls large parts of Syria's Golan Heights [Getty]

Date of publication: 1 June, 2018

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Israeli and Russian leaders have met following recent tensions in southern Syria, where Iran's military presence could be weakened, and Assad's troops bolstered, reports Paul McLoughlin.
Russia has indicated it agrees with Israel on Iranian forces withdrawing from southern Syria and being replaced with Syrian regime troops, to end recent international tensions in the area.

Such a scenario could avert a bloody offensive on Daraa, where Syrian regime and Iranian forces have been gathering in anticipation of a fresh offensive on the opposition-held area.

A pre-arranged withdrawal would likely appeal to neighbouring Jordan, who are concerned by the presence of Iranian-backed Shia militias and Islamist opposition groups close to its border.

Israel also appears it would be comfortable with the idea of Syrian government soldiers replacing both rebel fighters and Iranian militias in areas bordering the occupied Golan Heights.

For the past 40 years this area has remained perhaps Israel's quietest of "borders", and Tel Aviv would likely welcome a return to the former status quo after seven years of uncertainty.

'Cradle of the revolution'

A ceasefire currently covers - at least officially - areas such as Daraa, Quneitra and Suwideh provinces, although recent weeks have seen a build-up of Iranian and Syrian regime forces - and, over the past few months, a number of suspected Israeli airstrikes against Iranian targets.

Despite Moscow's military alliance with Damascus and Tehran against the Syrian opposition, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Israel and Russia had a similar outlook on the situation in southern Syria.  

"We have well-known agreements concerning the southwestern de-escalation zone... [they] stipulate that the zone of de-escalation is expected to consolidate stability and that all non-Syrian forces must be pulled out of that area," Lavrov said.

"I believe this must happen as soon as possible."

Lavrov added that Israel took part in de-escalation zone talks between Russia, Jordan and the US, supposed to cover Daraa.

Tel Aviv is concerned by the Iranian military build-up close to the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, and has launched a number of airstrikes on forces loyal to Tehran and Hizballah in southern Syria.

Israel is concerned by signs that Tehran is setting up a permanent military presence - either directly or through proxies - in southern Syria, and opening weapons supply routes to Hizballah forces in southern Lebanon.

Israel fighter jets have launched airstrikes on Iranian and Hizballah militias since the Syria war broke out in 2011, though its attacks have intensified in recent months.

Despite Russia's links with the Assad regime and Iran, Moscow is still keen to retain its warm relations with Israel and has largely turned a blind eye to these attacks.

Talks

Russian and Israeli leaders held a number of face-to-face and telephone meetings on Thursday to discuss the issue.

Russian Defence Minister Sergey Shoigu met his Israeli counterpart, Avigdor Lieberman, in Moscow on Thursday, where the two discussed the fate of Syrian opposition forces in Daraa province, which is thought to be the next target of the Syrian regime.

"The development of the situation in Syria is demonstrating a positive trend. It has improved after the virtually bloodless reconciliation in Eastern Ghouta and Homs, as well as the liberation of Yarmouk, the southern district of Damascus, from IS," Shoigu told Lieberman, according to Russian state news agency TASS.

Shoigu was referring to former Syrian opposition strongholds which were recently captured by the Assad forces, which saw rebel fighters and civilians depart their homes for other parts of the country following intense Russian and regime bombing.


Lieberman said the 90-minute meeting had concluded "successfully".

"Israel greatly appreciates Russia's understanding of our security needs, especially regarding the situation on our northern border," Lieberman said, according to press reports.

 


Israel's ambassador to Moscow appeared to support a similar outcome for opposition areas in Quneitra and Daraa, but only if Iranian forces withdrew from areas close to Israel and Syrian regime forces took their place.

"The Russian authorities are aware of Israel's position, which has been clarified many times... I can say that despite some disagreements, Israel is satisfied with Russia's stance," Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren said, according to Russian state media.

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a research fellow focusing on Syria at the Forum for Regional Thinking, an Israeli think-tank, said she believes it could be difficult to exclude Iran - which has been the linchpin of most other regime ground offensives - from such an operation.

"I think it is quite possible that the agreement between Russia and Israel will be reached. The million dollar question is whether Russia, through pressuring Assad, can actually compel Iran to abide by the agreement in the long-term," she told The New Arab.

"It is possible to exclude Iranian militias from the operation - as the Ghouta offensive has shown - but then it's not certain whether the Assad regime will be capable and interested in preventing Iranian-backed militias from operating in the southwest."

For many years, the powerful Free Syrian Army militias in Daraa were some of the most moderate, best-armed and effective opposition groups - until the US-Jordanian military command in Amman pulled its support.

Numerous regime offensives have failed to break the anti-Assad resistance in Daraa, which has been described as "the cradle of the revolution" due to the early protests in the southern province back in 2011.

Jordan has been pushing the rebels to hand-over the al-Nassib crossing to the Syrian regime, eager to re-open trade with Syria after losing around $800 million a year when Amman closed the border in 2015.

Jordan has been gripped by strikes and protests this week, after it hiked taxes and slashed fuel subsidies due to economic difficulties.

Russian state media said that Russia, Jordan and the US would hold talks on the de-escalation zone in the south and the possible deployment of regime troops to the border.

Closer relations

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made a high-profile visit to Moscow on May 9, attending a military parade at Red Square to celebrate V-Day.

There, talks between the two leaders focused primarily on Syria, and a follow-up telephone call took place on Thursday after meetings between the countries' defence ministers.

Russia, of course, sees the utility of having Iranian-backed militias in the country, due to the weakness of the regime's army and local militias
- Elizabeth Tsurkov, research fellow, Forum for Regional Thinking


"As a follow-up to the May 9 talks in Moscow, the two sides discussed some aspects of the Syrian peace settlement and the pressing issues on the bilateral agenda," read a Kremlin statement issued late on Thursday.

According to Israeli media reports, Tel Aviv has demanded that Iranian and Hizballah forces withdraw to 70 to 80 km [40 to 50 milies] from "the Israeli border" - presumably referring to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights which Israel captured and illegally annexed in 1967.

This would be a first step towards Israel's demand for a complete Iranian withdrawal from Syria, according to the Times of Israel.

Putin has also stated that he wants "foreign forces" to pull-out of Syria "soon".

Syrian regime Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad and Iran have rejected the call and analysts have indicated this could indicate a significant difference of opinion between Russia and its allies in Syria.

"There are clear signs of a rift between Iran and Russia and both compete for dominance in Syria and for the ability to have a greater say in shaping post-war Syria," said Tsurkov.

However, the analyst was also keen to not overplay the possible differences on the future of Syria, while the Assad regime remains weak.

Comment: Assad brazenly denies what the whole world knows

"I don't think Russia is keen to back Israel. I think it sees an alignment of interests with Israel: both countries are fine with the regime remaining in power and are disinterested in long-term Iranian presence in Syria," said Tsurkov.

"The two countries differ on the short-term: Russia, of course, sees the utility of having Iranian-backed militias in the country, due to the weakness of the regime's army and local militias."

An Israel diplomat told local media this week that Tel Aviv would accept Assad's survival in return for an Iranian withdrawal from Syria.

"Even if it takes time and even if we [Israel] have to accept Assad coming back, at the end of these talks the Iranian threat in Syria will be lifted," a diplomat told Israeli news programme Hadashot.

On his return to Israel, Lieberman also seemed happy with the conclusion to his meeting in Russia.

"The main focus of the security forces was and remains preventing Iran and its offshoots from establishing themselves in Syria."

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin

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