In a warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad, a defense official on Wednesday told local television that Israel considers Syrian regime forces that enter the demilitarized buffer zone between the two countries to be a legitimate target.
The Israeli official told Channel 10 the military has deployed units from the Combat Intelligence Corps near the border to track Syrian forces returning to the area as part of the regime offensive to retake rebel-held territory in southern Syria.
The official stressed that Israel would strictly abide by the 1974 ceasefire agreement with Syria.
“The agreement is the basis for any future security reality after Assad returns to [Israel’s] northern border,” he said. “Any Syrian troops who break it will be attacked.”
The Disengagement of Forces agreement between the two countries says Syria may have no more than 75 tanks and 6,000 soldiers within 10 kilometers of the United Nations buffer zone.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also called for upholding the 1974 UN ceasefire agreement, which established the buffer zones between the two countries.
The United Nations Disengagement Observation Force (UNDOF), responsible for supervising the ceasefire between Israel and Syria, asked the two countries several months ago for permission to install warning systems — like ground radar to warn of unauthorized infiltrators and equipment to check for explosive devices — in the zone, Channel 10 news reported on Wednesday.
According to the 1974 deal, both Israel and Syria must approve any new equipment brought into the zone by the UN.
Senior UN officials and Israeli security officials told Channel 10 that Jerusalem had agreed to the request but Damascus rejected it.
According to the report, Israel believes the Syrians were reluctant to approve the request over fears the UN supervisors will use radar to track the activities of the Syrian army or other Assad-aligned forces when they regain control of the border area.
During the Syrian civil war, which began in 2011, most of the UN forces have withdrawn from the buffer zone out of concern for their safety. The UN sought the new equipment so that it can ensure the security of its troops and allow them to ultimately return to the area, an outcome the TV report said Israel favors and the Syrians oppose.
Earlier on Wednesday, the Walla news site reported that Israel was quietly working with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in order to set up “safe zones” near the border where Syrian civilians can be spared the Assad regime’s onslaught.
Israel and Syrian regime forces have sporadically exchanged fire over the past seven years, frequently due to errant fire landing on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights. The exchanges have largely been contained, with both Assad troops and Israel said avoiding a broader confrontation. Israel has also targeted Syrian military facilities and air defense systems in the dozens of airstrikes it carried out across the border to curb Iranian military entrenchment in the country.
On Wednesday, IDF chief Gadi Eisenkot and other top military officers traveled to the Israel-Syria border to hear updated assessments from soldiers in the field about the battle raging next door between Assad’s forces and rebel groups in the Daraa province, the army said.
Last month, Assad and his Russian allies launched a renewed offensive against rebel holdouts in the country’s southwest. Bombing raids by the Russian and Syrian air forces, along with a ground offensive, have resulted in dozens of deaths and the displacement of over a quarter of a million Syrians, according to UN assessments.
Tens of thousands of displaced Syrians have made their way toward the Israeli Golan Heights, settling in overflowing, under-resourced tent cities near the border. In some cases, the displaced person camps are located some 100 meters from the security fence, clearly visible from Israel.
Israel, which has technically been at war with Syria since 1948, has offered humanitarian assistance to residents of the country’s southwest, including taking in injured Syrians for medical treatment, but has repeatedly stated that it will not allow refugees to cross the border.
The US, Russia and Jordan are said to be in negotiations over the fate of the largely rebel-held Daraa and Quneitra provinces of southern Syria.
Since the start of Assad’s offensive, a number of towns in Daraa have surrendered, while others have rebuffed offers for so-called “reconciliation” and vowed to fight.
After a failed attempt at reaching an agreement on a government takeover, on Wednesday evening Syria’s regime and its ally Russia resumed airstrikes on the south of the country.
Judah Ari Gross and AFP contributed to this report.