Netanyahu: Israel will continue operating in southern Syria

PM says he informed ‘our friends’ in Washington and Moscow that the state will keep up military action ‘in accordance with our security needs’

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, November 12, 2017. (AFP/Pool/Abir Sultan)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, November 12, 2017. (AFP/Pool/Abir Sultan)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday that Israel would continue operating in southern Syria when necessary, in his first response to a reported ceasefire deal clinched between the United States, Russia, and Jordan to distance foreign fighters from Israel’s northern border.

Speaking at the weekly meeting of his Likud faction in the Knesset, the prime minister said he had informed the White House and Russia of Israel’s position. Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes in Syria on weapons convoys bound for the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, though it rarely acknowledges individual raids.

In order to avoid friction and accidental conflict, for the past two years Israel and Russia, which is fighting to bolster the Bashar Assad regime, have been coordinating their military efforts in Syria. Israeli officials do not generally discuss the full extent of that coordination, but they stress that the Israeli military does not seek Russian permission before carrying out operations.

“I have clarified to our friends in Washington and our friends in Moscow that we will operate in Syria, including southern Syria, in accordance with our understanding and in accordance with our security needs,” Netanyahu said, describing Israel’s security policy as “the right combination of firmness and responsibility.”

The agreement, announced in a joint US-Russian statement Saturday, affirms a call for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from southern Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (3rd L), Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (L) and IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (2nd R) tour the northern border in the Golan Heights, on July 25, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90)

According to reports, the deal applies to Iranian proxies fighting on behalf of Assad’s regime, which would be required to leave the border area and eventually Syria.

But according to an unnamed Israeli official, under the deal, militias associated with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as close as five to seven kilometers (3.1-4.3 miles) to the border in some areas, Reuters reported Monday.

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz speaks during an interview with The Associated Press, in his office in Tel Aviv, Israel, November 9, 2017. (AP/Dan Balilty)

On Sunday, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told The Associated Press the agreement was a positive development. But he stressed that Israel was not a party to the deal and would defend its interests.

“We have proved that before and we will prove it again in the future,” he said.

While the agreement seeks to distance Iranian-backed militias from the border, a key Israeli demand, Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi said it did not go far enough.

The pact “does not meet Israel’s unequivocal demand that there will not be developments that bring the forces of Hezbollah or Iran to the Israel-Syria border in the north,” he told reporters Sunday, according to a Reuters report.

“There’s reflection here of the understanding that Israel has set red lines, and will stand firm on this,” Hanegbi said.

Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have long said Israel will not tolerate an Iranian presence along the Golan nor allow Iran to entrench itself military in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to the weekly government meeting at the PM’s office in Jerusalem, on November 12, 2017. (Olivier Fitoussi/POOL)

Jordanian government spokesman Mohammad Momani confirmed no non-Syrian fighters would be allowed in the “de-escalation zone” under the agreement, which he said was built on a previous ceasefire reached in July.

He also said the deal was a “key step” in ending the fighting in Syria and would help lead to a political solution to the Syrian civil war, according to the country’s al-Ghad newspaper.

Following the announcement of the previous ceasefire agreement in southern Syria brokered by the US and Russia, Netanyahu came out against the deal, saying it did not sufficiently address Iran’s military ambitions in the area.

The prime minister said that while the plan officially aimed to keep Iran 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the Israeli border, it did not address Iran’s plans to cement its presence in Syria, which, he said, included the establishment of a naval and air force bases.

Satellite image of alleged Iranian base in Syria (Airbus, Digital Globe and McKenzie Intelligence Services/BBC)

The reports on the new ceasefire agreement came after the BBC published satellite photos on Friday said to show the construction of a permanent Iranian military base in Syria.

According to the BBC report, the base is situated at a site used by the Syrian army near El-Kiswah, 14 kilomters (8 miles) south of Damascus, and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Israeli border.

Also over the weekend, the Israel Defense Forces shot down a Syrian drone above the Golan Heights, as it approached the border with Israel.

Israeli security officials said the drone’s operators had deliberately attempted to fly the aircraft across the Israeli border from Syria, but the craft was shot down before it crossed into Israel.

AP and Alexander Fulbright contributed to this report.

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