Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is urging that any agreement to end the Syrian civil war include the establishment of buffer zones on both the border between Syria and Israel and the border between Syria and Jordan, to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from establishing a presence in those areas.
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According to sources involved in the issue, who asked to remain anonymous, Netanyahu has raised this idea in his talks with the U.S. administration and with other international actors in recent weeks.
During these talks, Netanyahu argued that if Iran and Hezbollah were to establish themselves along either the Syrian-Israeli border, which is located in the Golan Heights, or the Syrian-Jordanian border, this would undermine the stability of the region and threaten the security of both Israel and Jordan. He therefore wants buffer zones established on the Syrian side of the border, to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from approaching the border fence and make it harder for them to launch attacks.
Netanyahu has not explained how he thinks such buffer zones could be established or who would control who enters them and supervise what happens within them. But he wants them to be on the Syrian side of the border, and does not want Israeli troops to be present in them.
Despite the lack of detail, this proposal constitutes a significant evolution in Israel’s position on a solution to the Syrian civil war. Until now, Israel has refrained from presenting a position on what such a solution should look like, so as not to be accused of intervening in the civil war. Instead, it has merely said it opposes allowing Iran and Hezbollah to consolidate their presence in Syria.
The Prime Minister’s Office did not deny this report, saying merely that Netanyahu “has brought up Israel’s opposition to the presence of Iran and its satellites in Syria and along our northern border” in his conversations with both U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The issue of Iran’s presence in Syria once the civil war ends was also discussed by the security cabinet at its meeting last Thursday. A minister who attended that meeting said Iran is increasingly consolidating its position in Syria, with all that implies for Israel. Another issue discussed at the meeting, the senior minister said, was Israel’s growing fear that its air force’s freedom of action in Syria is becoming more complicated.
On Sunday, the security cabinet is supposed to hold another meeting on the Syrian situation, especially in light of the recent chemical weapons attack near Idlib, which Israel and other Western countries say was perpetrated by the Assad regime. Several members of the security cabinet, including Interior Minister Arye Dery, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz and Education Minister Naftali Bennett have recently called for Israel to increase its aid to Syrian refugees or even take in Syrian children whose lives are in danger.
A few weeks ago, Channel 10 television reported that Dery and Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky were pushing a plan to bring about 100 Syrian orphans who are currently in refugee camps to Israel and grant them residency here. So far, however, Netanyahu hasn’t agreed to this proposal.
On Thursday Netanyahu and Putin spoke by telephone. Netanyahu was the one who made the call, whose official purpose was to express condolences over the terror attack in St. Petersburg. But the two leaders also discussed the Syrian situation and the chemical weapons attack near Idlib. The attack killed more than 100 people, many of them children, and wounded hundreds of others.
The Prime Minister’s Office said Netanyahu told Putin he was deeply shocked by the chemical weapons attack, and that “the international community must complete the effort to rid Syria of chemical weapons, as agreed in 2013.” Putin, for his part, said it was unacceptable to make unfounded accusations about which of the parties to the civil war was responsible for the Idlib attack before a thorough, objective international investigation has taken place.
Over the last few days, America, Britain and other Western countries have openly accused the Syrian army of responsibility for the attack. But Netanyahu, despite harshly denouncing the attack, has thus far refrained from directly blaming the Assad regime.
In contrast, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman asserted in an interview published in Yedioth Ahronoth on Thursday that Syrian President Bashar Assad was responsible for the attack. “This was a Syrian action by Assad, from A to Z,” Lieberman said. “I say this with 100 percent certainty.”