Netanyahu to Putin: Syrian 'Safe Zones' Must Not Serve as Bases for Iran, Hezbollah

Netanyahu did not object on principle to 'safe zones,' but Iran's role in deal raised concerns in Jerusalem; Israel did not commit not to attack in 'safe zones,' Arab report says

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin attend a joint press conference at the the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem. June 25, 2012.
Kobi Gideon / GPO

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday and addressed the arrangement to see "safe zones" set up in Syria, agreed upon by Russia with Iran and Turkey last week.

A senior Israeli official who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, told Haaretz that Netanyahu did not voice opposition to the move to set up the "safe zones," but did stress that they cannot serve to allow Iran or Hezbollah to set up near the border with Israel.

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A week ago, Russia, Turkey and Syria announced that four "safe zones" – or de-escalation zones – would be set up in Syria where Russian and Syrian aircraft would not attack. These are areas that are under the control of rebels that are not identified with ISIS jihadists or the Jahbat al-Nusra group, and freedom of movement will be permitted in them as well as access to humanitarian aid.

The final location of the safe zones has yet to be finalized, but according to assessments one of the four will be on the border between Syria and Jordan, and it is also possible that the Golan Heights will be designated as such.

In principle, Netanyahu supports the idea of setting up "safe zones" in Syria. At the beginning of April, Haaretz reported that Netanyahu wants any future deal to end the war in Syria to include "buffer zones" on the border between Israel and Syria on the Golan Heights, as well as the border between Syria and Jordan, to prevent Iran and Hezbollah for setting up bases there.

Senior Israeli officials and Western diplomats said that Netanyahu raised the issue with the U.S. government and with international forces. He wants the "buffer zones" to be erected on the Syrian side of the border.

Still, the fact that Iran was partner to the agreement with Russia and Turkey stirs fear in Jerusalem that those "safe zones" are liable to turn into areas in which Iranian forces and Hezbollah militants will be able to operate freely and to prepare the groundwork for attacks against Israel.

The Al-Arabiyya network reported on Wednesday night, citing Israeli security sources, that Israel stressed to the Russians that it does not see itself as obliged to desists from carrying out attacks on "safe zones" in cases of "ticking time bombs." In other words, Israel will attack if it identifies attempts to deliver arms to Hezbollah through those areas.  

Transportation and Intelligence Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz, who recently visited Washington, met with senior U.S. intelligence officials and discussed with them the situation in Syria and the issue of "safe zones." Katz sought clarifications about Iran's and Hezbollah's presence in Syria in general and in southern parts of Syria near the Israeli border in particular. Katz stressed in his talks in Washington the need to reach understandings between the two countries about meeting the Iranian threat in Syria and for American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met with U.S. President Donald Trump and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington on Wednesday. One of the main topics in the talks was the situation in Syria. Trump stressed to Lavrov that the U.S. expects Russia to rein in Iranian and Hezbollah operations in Syria, according to a White House statement.