Netanyahu and Putin Discuss 'Efforts to Ensure Security on Syrian-Israeli Border'

Phone call comes amid Israeli concerns that Iran and Hezbollah could reaffirm presence on border, now begin retaken by regime

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, May 9, 2018. (Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool Photo via AP)
Sergei Ilnitsky/AP

The Kremlin says Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have discussed the situation along Syria's border with Israel.

The Kremlin said the leaders discussed "the situation in Syria in the context of joint efforts to ensure security around the Syrian-Israeli border" on a Friday call. It added they "voiced readiness to strengthen coordination on Syria, including on combating international terrorism."

The conversation follows up on the two leaders' talks in Moscow and the Israeli defense minister's visit to Russia last month.

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The Syrian government's plans to recapture rebel-held areas near the border raised Israeli concerns its other backers besides Russia — Iran and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah — could reaffirm their presence there. Israel has warned it wouldn't allow Iran to maintain a military presence in Syria.

There have been reports from the past months about plans to see Iran pulled back from southern Syria and the border with Israel.

At the end of May, the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that Syria was ready to guarantee the retreat of Hezbollah and Iranian militia forces to 25 kilometers away from the Israeli border in the Golan Heights,

The report added that Syria is interested in discussing the potential revival of the 1974 disengagement agreement it signed with Israel. According to Al-Sharq, which quoted diplomatic sources, Syria conveyed these messages to “neighboring countries” through mediators.

A Western diplomatic source confirmed to Haaretz's Zvi Barel that it was Russia that relayed these messages from Assad to Israel and that this was not the first exchange of such messages. The same source told Haaretz that Putin was pressing Assad to lower Iran’s military profile in Syria in order to avert a major military clash with Israel.

The 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria mandates that a UN-supervised buffer zone be established between the two countries, and that on either side of the demilitarized zone there should be a 10-kilometer wide strip where minimal forces are located. In addition, it outlines that surface-to-air missiles may not be placed within 25 kilometers of the separation lines. 

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Syrian President Bashar Assad said on Wednesday his government is still pursuing a political solution for Syria's rebel-held southwest, but will use military force if this fails.

"We are giving the political process a chance. If that doesn't succeed, we have no other option but to liberate it by force," Assad said in an interview with Iranian channel al-Alam News published in an English translation by Syrian state news agency SANA.

The southwest, bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, is one of the remaining parts of Syria still outside the control of the state after seven years of conflict. Assad's forces have recovered swathes of territory from rebels with the help of Russian air power and Iran-backed militias.

Assad has repeatedly pledged to take back "every inch" of Syria. Since last year, a "de-escalation" deal brokered by Russia, the United States and Jordan has contained fighting in the southwest.

Washington has voiced concern about reports of an impending Syrian army offensive there, warning of "firm and appropriate measures" in response to any violations of the ceasefire.

"Contacts are still ongoing between the Russians, the Americans and the Israelis," Assad said, when asked whether the situation in the southwest would be decided through reconciliation or military means.