Israel is holding “advanced talks” with Russia on a potential withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria, Hadashot TV news reported Thursday.
Diplomatic sources in Jerusalem said the talks with Russia — conducted with US backing — were heading in the right direction, Hadashot reported, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed the situation in Syria in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Kremlin said the conversation focused on “some aspects of the Syrian settlement,” which it didn’t specify, following up on the two leaders’ talks in Moscow earlier this month.
An Israeli diplomatic source told Hadashot: “Even if it takes time and even if we have to accept [Syrian President Bashar] Assad coming back, at the end of these talks the Iranian threat in Syria will be lifted.”
The report came amid claims by the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier that Iranian advisers and Hezbollah fighters were preparing to withdraw from the southern regions of Daraa and Quneitra near Israel’s Golan Heights.
A Syria-based official with the Iran-led “axis of resistance” denied the report, saying it was “untrue.”
Meanwhile the Kan public broadcaster reported that Jerusalem was demanding that Tehran’s troops be banned from moving closer than 70 or 80 kilometers (40-50 miles) from the border.
The demand was reportedly made during back-channel talks between Israel and Russia.
According to the report, the withdrawal of Iran’s armed forces to beyond the Damascus-Sweida road is an interim demand on the way to eventually getting all of Tehran’s forces out of the country.
But Israel has also reportedly stressed that, more crucial than the forces’ distance from the border, is what their activities consist of.
Moscow was said to be interested in seeing Assad’s forces returning to the Syrian side of the Golan Heights as quickly as possible and with coordination with Israel.
A Channel 10 news report on Thursday said a senior Israeli official has explicitly said the country won’t object to Assad staying in power, provided that Iran’s presence in Syria is eliminated.
National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat was said to to have made the remark to his French counterpart, Philippe Etienne, who briefly visited Jerusalem on Sunday to prepare for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting next Tuesday in Paris with French President Emmanual Macron.
Hadashot said that Israel agreeing to such a reality would come with conditions, including a reaffirming of the 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria, and guarantees that Iranian officials don’t enter the territory in disguise.
Russian news outlets had recently reported that Moscow wants to cut a deal that would see Russian military police deployed to areas near Israel. The agreement would envisage the pullout of all Iranian forces from the area and require Syrian rebels to surrender heavy weapons.
On Wednesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said foreign militias — including Iran — should leave southwestern Syria as soon as possible, state media outlet TASS reported.
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday thanked Russia for “understanding” Israel’s security concerns, during a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow.
“The State of Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security needs — especially on our northern border,” Liberman told Sergei Shoigu. “It is important to continue the dialogue between us and to keep an open line between the IDF and Russian army.”
Before leaving Israel for Russia, Liberman had tweeted, “The main focus of the security forces was and remains preventing Iran and its offshoots from establishing themselves in Syria.”
The return of the Syrian army to Israel’s northern border in return for the distancing of Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah from the area has been the subject of back channel discussions between Israel and Russia over recent weeks.
Liberman visited Russia with a defense establishment delegation, hoping to flesh out the understandings to give Assad control over the Syria-Israel border region.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu told ministers that he had spoken with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, primarily to urge the US government to demand that an evolving agreement on troop deployment in Syria between the US, Russia, and Jordan make clear that Iranian forces must leave the whole of the country.
Long-simmering tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria stepped up considerably in recent months, beginning in February when an Iranian drone carrying explosives was flown from the T-4 air base in central Syria into Israeli airspace and was shot down by an IAF helicopter.
Earlier this month, the Israeli Air Force carried out its biggest operation in Syria in 40 years when it attacked more than 50 Iranian targets in response to an Iranian rocket barrage at the Golan Heights, amid warnings from Jerusalem that it would not tolerate Tehran’s attempts to entrench itself militarily on Israel’s northern border.
AP and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.