Israeli Security Cabinet Convenes for First Time to Discuss Concerns Over Southern Syria Cease-fire

Israel working with U.S. and Russia to ensure de-escalation zones do not become foothold for Iran or Hezbollah, senior official says

Fighting in Southern Syria near the Israeli border on June 17th, 2015.
Reuters

The Israeli security cabinet held its first meeting on Sunday discussing the cease-fire reached by the U.S. and Russia in southern Syria, an agreement that has raised concerns in Jerusalem. The meeting lasted four hours.

A senior Israeli official with knowledge of the meeting's content said the ministers were briefed that the U.S. and Russia have not yet cemented all elements of the cease-fire, and that Israel is working with Washington and Moscow to improve the agreement and ensure it does not harm Israel's security interests.

The senior official, who asked to not to be named due to the issue's political sensitivity, said those present at the meeting included IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot, Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and a number of senior figures in the military, the Foreign Ministry and the Defense Ministry. The official added that a large part of the meeting focused on briefings on the situation in Syria and on the cease-fire, including the de-escalation zones to be established as part of the agreement on the Syria-Israel border and Syria-Jordan border.

During the meeting, the ministers were briefed that the American-Russian announcement of the cease-fire in southern Syria was only an initial step, and that the two countries are now negotiating, alongside Jordan, all components of organizing the de-escalation zones. The central issue that remains unresolved is the question of who would guarantee those arrangements in the zones, monitor the cease-fire and guarantee no entry of Iranian, Hezbollah or Shi'ite militia forces. 

The ministers were also presented with the reasons why Israel opposed the draft agreement as it stands, particularly the monitoring of de-escalation zones on the border. A month ago, Russia and the U.S. announced they had reached a cease-fire agreement in southern Syria, which will include de-escalation zones on the borders between Syria and Jordan and between Syria and Israel.

The Russian Ministry of Defense announced the deployment of military police in the buffer zone established between Syria and Israel last week. According to the ministry's announcement, Russia notified Israel in advance about its troop deployment and stressed that would remain 14 kilometers away from the border fence between Israel and Syria.

"The whole issue of monitoring is not resolved yet," said the senior official. "The talks between the U.S., Russia and Jordan on the matter are continuing in order to iron out the details. The Americans heard our message about opposing the agreement and there are complex talks with them," he said.

The cabinet meeting took place a few days after a visit to Mt. Hermon by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who were briefed on the situation along the border. "The reality here is changing quickly, ISIS is in a great retreat, and Iran is trying to fill the vacuum," Netanyahu said. "Iran, together with Hezbollah, is creating a northern arc, assisted by precision weapons."

In the weeks leading up to the agreement Israel held talks with senior U.S. administration officials and presented a number of demands and reservations. Israel's central demand was that the de-escalation zones serve to keep Iran, Hezbollah and Shi'ite militias away from the Israeli and Jordanian border, and not allow an Iranian foothold in Syria. Israel also made clear to the U.S. it opposes enforcement of the cease-fire by Russian military forces in the de-escalation zones near its border.

In mid-July Israel received the cease-fire agreement draft, and realized that despite expectations in Jerusalem, the Russians and Americans hardly took its positions into account. Senior Israeli officials said at the time that "the agreement, as is, is very bad, and does not take into account almost any Israeli security interest, and creates a worrisome reality in southern Syria." They added that "there is not one word in the agreement about Iran, Hezbollah or Shi'ite militias in Syria."

When Netanyahu met in Paris with French President Emmanuel Macron some two weeks ago, he raised Israel's concerns from the emerging agreement. In a press conference after the meeting Netanyahu said that Israel opposes the cease-fire agreement in south Syria, because it perpetuates the Iranian presence in the country.

Netanyahu's statements against one of the most significant moves Russia and the U.S. have pushed in Syria in the past few months exposed a deep disagreement between Israel and the two powers on the Syrian issue, which until then had been kept in quiet diplomatic channels and had not been expressed publicly.