Russia rejected a request from Jerusalem for a 60-kilometer buffer zone between the Golan Heights and any Iranian-backed militias in Syria, and is only promising that the Shi’ite fighters would not come any closer to Israel than 5 kilometers, according to media reports late on Thursday night.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had raised the issue with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump, including in July in advance of Syrian cease-fire talks.The news of the Kremlin’s rejection broke in advance of Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump in New York on Monday. It also came as a senior Russian negotiator said that Russia, Turkey and Iran are close to finalizing an agreement on creating four de-escalation zones in Syria.The prime minister has repeatedly warned about Iran’s expanding influence in Syria. In an interview with CNN on Tuesday, he said, “Aside from trying to build atomic bombs,” Tehran is “trying to place the Iranian Army in Syria. They want to colonize Syria the way they colonized Lebanon.”Netanyahu and Israeli defense officials have warned against the Islamic Republic opening a second front in Syria.Iran has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in support of President Bashar Assad’s forces and of Hezbollah in Lebanon. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has said that Israel will do everything to prevent the establishment of a Shi’ite corridor from Tehran to Damascus. Earlier this month, Syria accused Israel of striking an Assad regime military center believed by analysts to produce and house chemical weapons and advanced precision missiles.Russia, Turkey and Iran are discussing details of the proposed de-escalation agreement at meetings in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan, according to Alexander Lavrentiev, who leads the Russian delegation.“Our main task at this international meeting on Syria is to finalize and establish four de-escalation zones,” Lavrentiev said. “We are very close to reaching an agreement on creating these four zones.”
The meetings, which also involve representatives of the Assad government and some rebel factions, will continue on Friday. Meanwhile, a senior official in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's entourage said on Thursday that Israel never asked the Russians or Americans for the creation of a 60 kilometer buffer zone in Syria where Iran or Shia militias would not be allowed to operate, denying reports to the contrary that appeared during the day.According to the official, Netanyahu – during his visit to Sochi last month – did not ask anything. Rather, he just made clear that Israel was opposed to a permanent Iranian presence in Syria after the civil war ends there -- period. According to the official, Netanyahu also made clear that Israel would act if necessary to back up that position. Lavrentiev said the agreement was likely to include provisions on the deployment of monitors – such as military police servicemen – in the four zones and, more specifically, on their borders.The previous round of Syrian peace talks in Astana in July ended with no agreement after Turkey raised objections.Russia and Iran, which back Assad’s government, and Turkey, which supports some of the rebels, have been holding talks in Kazakhstan since January, and the meeting this week is their sixth.Reuters contributed to this report.
Netanyahu to discuss Syrian civil war developments in meeting with Putin in Moscow on Thursday (credit: GPO)