Netanyahu, Putin speak as Assad forces poised to control Golan border area

PM Netanyahu and President Putin spoke by telephone four days after Putin’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in Moscow, in which both leaders spoke of the importance of Israel’s security.

By REUTERS
July 20, 2018 15:34
4 minute read.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

 
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Just nine days after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the two men spoke on the phone Friday, with Jerusalem and Moscow choosing to focus on different aspects of the conversation about Syria in the laconic statements they put out about the call.

The Prime Minister's Office issued a statement saying that the two leaders spoke about developments in the region and the situation in Syria. Netanyahu, according to this statement, “noted that Israel will continue to act against the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.”

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The Kremlin statement, however, said the two leaders “continued their discussion on developments in the Middle East with an emphasis on the Syrian settlement process.”

The conversation came as Syrian rebels were due to evacuate the border area near the Golan Heights.

Netanyahu and Putin have met three times this year, and now spoken on the phone at least 10 times, a frequency that underlines the degree of coordination between the two countries.

The phone call came four days after Putin’s meeting with US President Donald Trump in Moscow, in which both leaders spoke of the importance of Israel’s security.

Trump, in a Fox News interview after that meeting, said he and Putin “came to a lot of good conclusions” during the meeting, including “a really good conclusion for Israel, something very strong.”

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Though Trump did not spell out what the conclusion was, he said Putin is “a believer in Israel; he is a fan of Bibi and really helping him a lot – and will help a lot, which is good for all of us.”

Following his meeting with Putin last week in Moscow, Netanyahu said the Russians had distanced Iranian forces and their Shia proxies dozens of kilometers away from Syria’s border with Israel. Netanyahu has repeatedly said that Israel will not accept an Iranian presence in Syria, but made clear in Moscow that “the immediate priorities were to distance the Iranian forces away from the border, and to remove Iranian long-range missiles from Syria.”

Putin, in his press conference with Trump on Monday, said: “The south of Syria should be brought to the full compliance with the treaty of 1974, about the separation of forces of Israel and Syria. This will bring peace to the Golan Heights and bring [a] more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel – and also provide security of the State of Israel.”

Putin said during the press conference that Trump “paid special attention to the issue during today’s negotiations. And I would like to confirm that Russia is interested in this development and will act accordingly.”

Friday's conversation between Putin and Netanyahu came with Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces poised to resume control of Syrian area of the Golan Heights.

"We are awaiting the start of the operation and God willing it will happen today," Hammam Dbayat, the governor of al-Quneitra province, told Reuters, as buses prepared to transport out rebel fighters to the northwestern province of Idlib.

Reuters footage filmed from the Israeli side of the frontier showed men climbing into trucks piled high with belongings and leaving al-Qahtaniya village at the Golan frontier. It was not clear where they were headed.

Tens of thousands of people have been sheltering at the frontier since the government offensive began one month ago.

With the Russian-backed offensive closing in, rebels in Quneitra agreed on Thursday to either accept the return of state rule, or leave to Idlib province in the north, echoing terms imposed on defeated rebels elsewhere in Syria. Idlib's population has been swollen by Syrians fleeing from Assad's advances elsewhere.

The offensive has restored Syrian government control over a swathe of the southwest, strategically vital territory at the borders with Jordan and Israel.

It has been one of the swiftest military campaigns of the seven-year-long war. The United States, which once armed the southern rebels, told them not to expect its intervention as the offensive got underway. Many surrendered quickly.

While swathes of Syria remain outside his control, Assad’s advances over the past two years have brought him ever closer to snuffing out the armed rebellion that grew out of a civilian uprising against his rule in 2011.

It leaves the insurgency with one last big foothold - a chunk of territory in the northwest at the border with Turkey stretching from Idlib province to the city of Jarablus northeast of Aleppo. The deployment of the Turkish military in this area will complicate further gains for Assad.

Large areas of the northeast and east also remain outside Assad's grasp. These areas are held by Kurdish-led militias, supported by 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground.

Reuters contributed to this report

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