PM said to have rejected Russian promise to boot Iran from Syria for US pullout

Report says Netanyahu rebuffed September offer as it would have also included halt to reimposition of American nuclear sanctions on Tehran

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, July 11, 2018. (Israel Foreign Ministry)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, July 11, 2018. (Israel Foreign Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly rejected a Russian proposal three months ago that would have committed Moscow to expelling Iran and its proxy forces from Syria in exchange for a withdrawal of US troops from that country.

The offer was part of a pitch Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev gave to his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat in September, and was aimed at fostering better ties between the United States and Russia through a deal on Iran and Syria, the Axios news site reported Thursday.

The proposal was however rebuffed by Netanyahu as it would have also included suspending US sanctions on Iran that took effect last month as part of US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the international accord meant to limit the Iranian nuclear program, the report said, quoting unnamed Israeli officials.

“For Netanyahu, stopping the Iranian nuclear program was above everything else, and this is why he refused to show any flexibility on the issue of US sanctions,” one of the officials was quoted saying.

Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 1, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

The report came just a day after Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of all US troops from Syria, asserting they had accomplished their mission of defeating the Islamic State jihadist group.

The announcement sparked concerns among Israeli and US lawmakers, who saw the American presence as also helping curb Iran’s military efforts in Syria, where alongside Russia and its proxies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah it is fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Another official quoted by Axios said if Israel had not rejected the offer, the US pullout could have also been accompanied by the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria.

The report said Patrushev presented the proposal to Ben-Shabbat in Moscow on September 13, just days before ties between Jerusalem and Moscow were sent into a tailspin after 15 Russian servicemen aboard a military aircraft were killed by Syrian air defenses during Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

Screen capture from video showing the delivery of Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. (YouTube)

Russia has blamed the Israeli military over that incident — a charge rejected by Israel — and later sent advanced S-300 air defense systems to Syria.

The deployment of the S-300s was protested by the US and Israel, which could complicate ongoing Israeli efforts to prevent Iran deepening its military presence in Syria and to thwart the transfer of weapons in Syria to Hezbollah.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years against targets linked to Iran, whose leaders have called for the destruction of the Jewish state.

Netanyahu spoke with Trump on Thursday about the US military drawdown in Syria, with his office saying they discussed “ways to continue cooperation between Israel and the United States against Iranian aggression.”

Earlier Thursday, Netanyahu said Israel would increase its activity in Syria to counter Iran’s influence and proxy militias.

Though Trump has in the past said he intended to pull American troops out of Syria, Wednesday’s announcement caught many State Department and Department of Defense officials off guard.

Many details of the plan to remove the approximately 2,000 US troops from Syria remain unclear, notably the exact timeline.

US forces, accompanied by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, drive their armored vehicles near the northern Syrian village of Darbasiyah, on the border with Turkey, April 28, 2017. (Delil Souleiman/AFP)

For Israel, the pullout leaves it without a staunch ally in the fight against Iran in Syria and potentially opens the door for the Islamic Republic to create a so-called “land bridge” from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, into Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea.

Until now, American troops have been stationed in northeastern Syria, along the Iraqi border, blocking such a corridor, through which Iran could more easily distribute advanced weapons and technology throughout the region, especially to its Lebanese client the Hezbollah terrorist army.

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