Israel and Russia Agree to Remove Iranian Forces From Syrian Border, Report Says

Israel reportedly gets 'green light' to strike Iranian targets as long as it does not endanger Syrian regime. Report follows call between Netanyahu and Putin, meeting between Israel's defense chief and Russian counterpart

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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend the Victory Day parade, marking the 73rd anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via REUTERS
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend the Victory Day parade at Red Square in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018.Credit: \ SPUTNIK/ REUTERS
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

Israel and Russia have reached an understanding on pulling Iranian forces out of southern Syria, the London-based Asharq al-Awsat reported Friday.

According to the paper, the understandings were reached after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the telephone, while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had held talks with his Russian counterpart.

According to the report, which was attributed to both Russian and Israeli officials, the sides agreed it was necessary to remove Iranian forces from southern Syria and allow Israel to freely attack targets it deems a threat – on the condition that these are not sites tied to the regime of Bashar Assad, which Russia supports.

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On Wednesday afternoon, after the Gaza cease-fire was attained, Lieberman left for a short visit to Moscow. At a meeting on Thursday afternoon with his Russian counterpart, Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, he discussed the reduction of the Iranian presence in Syria.

Smokes billows from the southern Syrian Druze village of Hadar on November 3, 2017 as seen from the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. Credit: JALAA MAREY / AFP

A senior official from the Syrian opposition told Haaretz that "Israel is looking out for its defense interests and attacks Iranian targets on Syrian soil – but diplomatically, a waning of Iranian influence only helps bring us closer to a political solution to resolve the conflict."

According to the same official, it is no coincidence that Russia has tacitly permitted Israel to attack in Syria: "The Russians and the Americans can find an agreed on solution without requiring massive Iranian presence on Syrian soil because Iran is leading a clear sectarian line devoid of any clear policy."

>> In Syria, Putin and Netanyahu Were on the Same Side All Along | Analysis ■ Russia and Israel talk pushing Iran back from border <<

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday Iranian advisers and Hezbollah fighters will be withdrawing from the southern regions of Daraa and Quneitra near the Golan Heights.

Later, the Kremlin said Putin had a call with Netanyahu to discuss the situation in Syria. The Kremlin said the conversation focused on “some aspects of the Syrian settlement,” which it didn’t specify, following up on the two leaders’ talks in Moscow earlier this month.

Russian news outlets had recently reported that Moscow wants to cut a deal that would see Russian military police deployed to areas near Israel. The agreement would envisage the pullout of all Iranian forces from the area and require Syrian rebels to surrender heavy weapons.

"The state of Israel appreciates Russia's understanding of our security concerns, particularly regarding the situation at our northern border," Lieberman wrote on Twitter after the meeting with Shoigu. "We'll continue our dialogue with Russia on every matter at hand."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that only Syrian government troops should have a presence on the country's southern border. This was perceived as a hint that Russia was inclined to accept Israel's demand - distancing the Iranian forces and allied Shi’ite militias from the Israel-Syria border.

Netanyahu told the Knesset Monday that "there is no room for any Iranian military presence in any part of Syria."

Last November, Russia and the United States, in coordination with Jordan, forged an agreement to decrease the possibility of friction in southern Syria, after the Assad regime defeated rebel groups in the center of the country. Israel sought to keep the Iranians and Shi’ite militias at least 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Israeli border in the Golan Heights.

The superpowers, however, did not comply with the demand; the agreement stipulated that the Iranians and militias would remain about five kilometers from the lines of contact between the regime and the rebels, around five to 20 kilometers from the Israeli border.

On Sunday, Haaretz reported that Israeli political and military officials believe Russia is willing to discuss a significant distancing of Iranian forces and allied Shi’ite militias from the Israel-Syria border, according to Israeli officials.

The change in Russia’s position has become clearer since Israel’s May 10 military clash with Iran in Syria and amid Moscow’s concerns that further Israeli moves would threaten the stability of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

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