Israel, the United States and Russia held a series of secret meetings early last month in Amman and in a European capital regarding the cease-fire in southern Syria. The parties focused in part on the establishment of “safe zones” on the Syrian-Israeli and Syrian-Jordanian borders, according to Israeli officials and Western diplomats.
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At these meetings, which were held a few days before Russia and the United States announced the cease-fire agreement, Israel presented numerous objections to the deal, saying the two powers were not paying enough attention to the importance of removing Iranian forces from Syria.
Israeli officials and Western diplomats who asked to remain anonymous told Haaretz that leading diplomats and security officials from Israel, Russia and the United States took part in the talks. The Israeli team included top representatives of the Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces. The American team was led by President Donald Trump’s special envoys on Syria, Michael Ratney and Brett McGurk. The Russian team was headed by President Vladimir Putin’s envoy on Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev.
On the day of the meeting in Amman between the Israelis, Russians and Americans, another tripartite meeting was held in Amman between Israel, the United States and Jordan about the cease-fire. At the first meeting Israel presented its positions to the United States and Russia while at the second meeting, Israel and Jordan presented their positions, which are very close, to the Americans.
A few days later, the Israelis met with the Americans and the Russians in a European capital. A senior Israeli official said the meeting in Europe involved higher-ranking officials than the talks in Jordan. At this meeting, too, Israel presented its list of reservations about the cease-fire deal in southern Syria.
Sought departure of Iranian, Shi'ite forces
Senior Israeli officials said that the main dispute was that the Americans and the Russians see the cease-fire in southern Syria and the safe zones as a practical and tactical means of stabilizing the situation and enable a focus on wiping out the Islamic State and lowering the flames of the civil war. Israel, however, believes that the agreement should be considered from a long-term, strategic perspective and should focus on what the extent of Iranian influence will be in Syria after the civil war ends.
The Israelis told their interlocutors that the agreement should provide a solution not regarding Iranian presence in the 20 kilometers from the Israeli border, but for the rest of Syria as well. A senior Israeli official said the Israelis told the Russians and the Americans that they had to demand from the Iranians that the Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and the Shi’ite militias in Syria must leave the country.
If the Iranians do not leave Syria, Israel warned, according to the official, the country will become a base for missiles that will threaten Israel and Jordan, like the situation in Lebanon and Gaza. Iranian presence in Syria could also change the balance in Syria between Shi’ites and Sunnis and undermine the stability of nearby Sunni states, Israel further warned.
On July 8, a few days after these talks between Israeli, American and Russian representatives, Washington and Moscow announced that a cease-fire agreement for southern Syria had been reached, but stressed that talks on the details of the agreement were still continuing. When the draft agreement was sent to Israel a few days later, Jerusalem was shocked to discover that both the letter and spirit of the document contradicted virtually all the positions Israel had presented to the Americans and Russians.
A senior Israeli official said the disappointment in Jerusalem stemmed from the fact that the agreement never even mentioned the words “Iran” or “Hezbollah,” but merely talked in general terms about the need to prevent armed parties from foreign elements from entering the de-escalation zones to be established along the Syrian-Israeli and Syrian-Jordanian borders. Moreover, the agreement made no mention whatsoever, even in the vaguest terms, of Iran’s presence in the rest of Syria.
These details of the draft agreement are what led Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to come out against it publicly during his visit to Paris on July 16. Netanyahu said at the time that the agreement effectively perpetuates Iran’s presence in Syria.
Last week the security cabinet held its first discussion of the cease-fire agreement. The ministers were told it was a bad deal that does not take Israel’s security interests into consideration. Over the past three weeks, talks have continued between Israel, the United States and Russia over the agreement, with Israel still attempting to make changes and pressure the two powers to ensure that Iran does not gain a foothold in Syria.
Public criticism of the agreement by Israel has borne its first fruits, but it is still unclear whether this will produce changes. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said publicly two weeks ago that Russia will make sure that Israel’s security interests are taken into consideration.
And last week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that America’s condition for cooperating with Russia in the Syrian theater was that Iranian forces be removed from Syria.
“The direct presence of Iranian military forces inside of Syria, they must leave and go home, whether those are Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces or whether those are paid militias, foreign fighters, that Iran has brought into Syria in this battle,” Tillerson said at a press conference at the State Department last Wednesday.