MOSCOW – Israel wants UN peacekeepers to return to its border with Syria on the Golan Heights as part of the cease-fire in the Syrian civil war, President Reuven Rivlin told Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting on Wednesday.
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An Israeli official who attended the Kremlin meeting said Rivlin told Putin that returning the inspectors to the buffer zone between Israel and Syria would improve the security situation on the border. The official said Rivlin was asked by Israel’s Foreign Ministry and defense establishment to convey this message to Putin.
Immediately following the meeting with Putin, Rivlin called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon and Chief of General Staff Gadi Eisenkot to brief them.
“Rivlin asked Putin to see what could be done about this issue and the request was received with great understanding,” the official said. “Rivlin told Putin that bringing back the (UNDOF) inspectors could be an opening toward restoring the situation on the Golan Heights border to what it had been before the Syrian civil war, which was much better than it is now.”
The meeting lasted two hours, an hour of which was in a limited forum. The Syrian issue was the focus of the meeting, through other bilateral issues were raised, as well as the Middle East peace process.
The official said Rivlin made clear to Putin Israel’s concerns about the Syrian situation once the civil war ended, and about Iran and Hezbollah’s abilities to entrench themselves on the border with Israel on the Golan Heights.
“Rivlin told Putin that as far as Israel is concerned, that’s a red line,” the senior official said. “Putin, for his part, reiterated his statements from 2012 to the effect that he and the Russian government are committed to Israel’s security and existence.”
During the meeting Putin supplied Rivlin with clarifications regarding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria, about Russia’s intentions once the forces are removed, and about the negotiations over Syria’s future between the Assad regime and the opposition, which are being held in Geneva under international auspices. The official said Rivlin told Putin that despite the thinning out of Russian forces in Syria, Israel wants the coordination mechanism established a few months ago between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian army to continue operating.
“The Russian interests in Syria are clear to us,” the official said. “President Putin opened his heart and explained his plans clearly, and President Rivlin will pass the messages on to the prime minister. Netanyahu will be coming to Moscow himself soon and will meet Putin.”
The UN’s observer force on the Golan, known as the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), was established in 1974 as part of the separation of forces agreement between Israel and Syria following the Yom Kippur War. The agreement set up a buffer zone of a few kilometers on the Syrian side of the cease-fire line in which UN soldiers were deployed, and where Syria was forbidden to station its military. Until 2013 some 1,000 UN observers separated the IDF and the Syrian army along what was dubbed the “purple line” in the Golan Heights and oversaw the maintenance of the agreement.
The escalation of the Syrian civil war, however, changed the nature of the observers’ activity. The battles in the Syrian Golan Heights, the seizure of border areas by Syrian opposition groups, including those affiliated with Al-Qaeda like the Nusra Front, as well as attacks on UN personnel, nearly paralyzed the force’s ability to operate.
In March 2013 the Croatian government decided to pull its forces out of UNDOF, and in June of that year the Austrian government also withdrew its troops, which had served as UNDOF’s main armed combat force.
Diplomatic efforts by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, supported by Israel, persuaded countries such as Ireland, Fiji and India to send soldiers to man the force. But the attacks on the UN troops continued, and over the past few months they have abandoned most of their positions along the front line and the force has moved its headquarters from the Syrian to the Israeli side of the border. Soldiers in the unit now man very few positions and are barely effective.