Russia Considers Pulling Back Iranian Forces From Israel-Syria Border

Russia fears Israel's strikes in Syria will undermine Assad's rule. Israel believes Moscow may agree to move the Iranians 60 kilometers away from the Israeli border

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Smoke rises during fighting near the Israel border in Syria, June 17, 2015.
Smoke rises during fighting near the Israel border in Syria, June 17, 2015.Credit: \ REUTERS
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

UDPATE: Russia says only Syrian army should be on border with Israel

Israeli political and military leaders believe Russia is willing to discuss a significant distancing of Iranian forces and allied Shi’ite militias from the Israel-Syria border, Israeli officials say.

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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Russia recently renewed efforts to try to get the United States involved in agreements that would stabilize Syria. The Russians might be willing to remove the Iranians from the Israeli border, though not necessarily remove the forces linked to them from the whole country.

Iranian President Hassan Rohani and Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting in Ankara, April 4, 2018. Credit: Tolga Bozoglu/Pool Photo via AP

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, east of the Damascus-Daraa road (or, according to another version, east of the Damascus-Suwayda road, about 70 kilometers from the border).

The superpowers, however, did not comply with the demand; the agreement stipulated that the Iranians and militias would remain about 5 kilometers from the lines of contact between the regime and the rebels, around 5 to 20 kilometers from the Israeli border.

But the Iranians did not uphold this demand either. Members of the Revolutionary Guards and militias were periodically seen near the border, while forces linked to the Assad regime even violated the 1974 separation agreements with Israel by occasionally entering the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights.

As far as is known, Russia and the United States have not yet resumed direct talks on Syria, but the Russians are signaling a willingness to reexamine their positions. Israel believes that in the new circumstances, following the Israel Air Force’s many attacks and the Trump administration’s public support for Israel’s moves, Moscow will agree to move the Iranians east of the Damascus-Daraa road, conforming with Israel’s original demand.

It seems Assad himself has become less enamored with the Iranian military presence, which is creating friction with Israel. In February and May, in the latest round of tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria, the IAF destroyed a raft of Syrian air-defense batteries after they fired at Israeli fighter jets. According to various estimates, nearly half the regime’s air defense system was disabled.

According to Israeli intelligence, in Syria there are now around 2,000 Iranian officers and advisers, members of the Revolutionary Guards, around 9,000 Shi’ite militiamen from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and around 7,000 Hezbollah fighters. Israel believes that the Americans are now in a good position to reach a more effective arrangement in Syria in coordination with the Russians under the slogan “Without Iran and without ISIS.”

On May 17, at the end of a meeting with Assad in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the progress of the talks on Syria’s future must speed up the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Syria. The next day, the president’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, said Putin meant the forces of Iran, Hezbollah, the United States and Turkey, but added that it was “a very complex matter.”

Israeli tanks near the Syrian border, May 2018.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The Iranian Foreign Ministry dismissed Putin’s statements and said Iranian forces would remain in Syria as long as the regime needed them and as long as there was a terrorist threat there.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting that Israel was working in Syria against Iran’s military buildup against Israel. “We are acting against the transfer of lethal weapons from Syria to Lebanon or their manufacture in Lebanon, all of which is aimed at Israel, and it’s our right, based on the right to self-defense, to prevent their production or transfer,” he added.

On Thursday, Syria reported an air strike near the Homs airport in the center of the country, where a military site linked to Hezbollah was hit. Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech in Beirut that this was an Israeli attack launched from Lebanon’s skies.

Last week IAF chief Amikam Norkin released a photograph of an Israeli F-35 over Beirut. Norkin said the plane had taken part in the air force’s most recent operations in two different places.

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