As Syria troops near border, PM tells Putin he won’t tolerate Iranian presence
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As Syria troops near border, PM tells Putin he won’t tolerate Iranian presence

Netanyahu speaks with Russian president as Assad forces prepare to take control of Golan Heights border area with Israel; defense ministers also speak on Syria coordination

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke by phone Friday with Russian President Vladimir Putin as Israel continues to press its demands that there be no Iranian military presence in Syria.

The call came Friday with an evacuation effort underway to transfer rebel fighters and civilians from a southwestern sliver of Syria near the Golan Heights to opposition territory further north.

The transfers come under a surrender deal agreed this week between Russia and Syrian rebels in Quneitra province that will see the sensitive zone on the Israeli border fall back under regime control.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu noted that Israel would continue to act against the establishment of an Iranian military presence in Syria,” his office said in a statement on the call.

The Kremlin said Putin and Netanyahu discussed regional developments “with an emphasis on the Syrian settlement process.”

Netanyahu has spoken and met with Putin regularly in recent years about Syria and military coordination between the two countries there, most recently during his visit to Moscow last week. Along with Iran, Russian forces are backing the regime of President Bashar Assad in the country’s civil war.

Israel has warned it will not tolerate the military presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria and has carried out airstrikes against Iranian targets.

The Syrian army and its allies since June have been on an offensive in southern Syria, raising concerns Iranian backed-forces could take up positions in formerly rebel-held areas bordering the Golan Heights. Israel has called for the 1974 disengagement agreement between it and Syria to be upheld and warned Syrian forces against entering the demilitarized buffer zone along the border.

A picture taken on July 20, 2018, in the Golan Heights shows an Israeli Merkava tank taking position on the border between Israel and Syria. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

Also Friday, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, his office said. The talks reportedly focused on the coordination mechanisms set up between Israel and Russia to avoid accidental conflict between their respective forces operating in Syria.

While Russia has called for all non-Syrian troops to leave southern Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this month it is “absolutely unrealistic” to expect a complete Iranian pullout from the country. Iran has said its forces will only leave Syria at Assad’s request.

During a joint press conference after his meeting in Helsinki with US President Donald Trump this week, Putin said the two agreed on securing Israel’s border with Syria, in accordance with the 1974 disengagement of forces deal following the Yom Kippur War.

Putin said this would bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also provide security to the state of Israel.”

The Russian leader said that during his “very successful” one-on-one meeting, Trump paid “special attention” to the issue, “and I would like to confirm that Russia is interested in this development and will act accordingly.”

Trump, for his part, noted that “President Putin also is helping Israel.” He said that both leaders had spoken with Netanyahu, “and they would like to do certain things with Syria having to do with the safety of Israel… We absolutely would like to work in order to help Israel, and Israel will be working with us. So both countries work jointly [for this purpose].”

US President Donald Trump (L) listens as Russia’s President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint press conference after a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, on July 16, 2018. (AFP/Yuri Kadobnov)

Added Trump: “Working with Israel is a great thing. Creating safety for Israel is something that both President Putin and I would like to see very much.”

Trump later told Fox News the meeting was “very good” for Israel and said Putin was “a believer in Israel.

“He’s a fan of Bibi,” he said, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “Really helping him a lot and will help him a lot, which is good for all of us.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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