Israel and Russia are reportedly holding talks regarding the imminent return of Syrian regime forces to the border region on the Golan Heights, with a view to reestablishing demarcation lines drawn up in 1974.
In addition to talks between each country’s security establishments, working groups in Israel and Russia have been studying issues such as the no-man’s land, demilitarized zones and the deployment of Israeli and Syrian forces on both sides of the border, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday.
Citing a Russian diplomat, the report said that both Israel and Syria had agreed to return to the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement drawn up in the wake of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and that it will be implemented when Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime has fully wrestled control of the border region from rebel forces.
The diplomat also reportedly insisted that there were no Iranian forces in southwestern Syria, a subject that has been a key concern for Israel.
Both the United States and Israel are worried about Iran’s growing military presence in Syria, where it has provided crucial aid to Assad’s forces. Russia, another key backer of Assad, has reportedly agreed to remove Iranian troops from the border region but allow them to remain in other parts of Syria.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, reportedly saying that Israel would not seek to unseat Assad while urging Moscow to work to remove Iranian troops from Syria.
“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” the Reuters news agency quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin on Wednesday, citing an Israeli official.
A spokesman for the prime minister denied the account but Netanyahu the next day signaled Israel would not support efforts to topple Assad.
The subject of Syria and Iran’s involvement in the country was also on the agenda during a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
Putin said he and Trump agreed on securing Israel’s border with Syria in accordance with the 1974 disengagement of forces deal.
When terrorist forces are wiped out in south and west Syria, Putin said, “the situation on the Golan Heights must be restored to what it was after the 1974 agreement, which set out the terms for the disengagement of forces between Israel and Syria.”
Putin, speaking at a joint press conference with the US leader following a private meeting, said this would “restore quiet to the Golan Height, bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also provide security to the state of Israel.”
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria that could threaten the Jewish state.
Russia has warned it was unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country, but there have been signs of an emerging compromise between Moscow and Jerusalem on the issue. Senior Israeli officials say Russia is working to prevent Iran from entrenching its military along Israel’s northern border with Syria, according to Hebrew media reports.
Just how far the Iranians and their militias are to be kept from the border is a subject of a debate. Whereas Israel as demanded the Iranians be at least 40 kilometers (24 miles), there have been recent reports of military activity by Iran’s proxies closer than that distance.
In recent weeks, Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power have been able to seize control of most of Daraa province in the south of the country, including the eponymous provincial capital that was the cradle of the uprising against Assad more than seven years ago.
They have stepped up their military offensive on the remaining opposition pockets in the southwestern region that includes Daraa and Quneitra provinces that straddle the border with Jordan and the frontier with the Israeli Golan Heights. In recent days, they have turned to the last pockets of the opposition near the border with Israel.
Agencies contributed to this report.