US, Russia commit to expelling Iranian forces from Israeli-Syrian border

Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the growing Iranian presence on its borders and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria.

IDF tanks are seen along the Golan Heights border with Syria (photo credit: REUTERS)
IDF tanks are seen along the Golan Heights border with Syria
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Russia has committed to removing Iranian-backed forces from the border of the Golan Heights as part of a cease-fire agreement in southern Syria signed with the United States and Jordan, a senior State Department official said on Sunday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested, meanwhile, that Israel would keep up its military strikes to prevent any cross-border attacks from Syria, telling the cabinet on Sunday: “We will take a very firm stance against anyone who tries to attack us or attacks us from any area. I mean any source: rogue factions, organizations – anyone.”
The US official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said that the US-Russia- Jordan Memorandum of Principles (MoP) “enshrines the commitment of the US, Russia and Jordan to eliminate the presence of non-Syrian foreign forces” – including Iranian forces, Iranian-backed militias like the Lebanese Hezbollah, foreign jihadis working with Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups – from Syria’s southwest.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin say Islamic State can be defeated in Syria, November 11, 2017. (Reuters)
“These elements – these extremists groups and these foreign-backed militias – have used the Syrian conflict over the last five years to increase their presence in this part of Syria, which has undermined the cease-fire and poses a threat to Jordan and Israel,” he said.
Moscow has agreed to work with the Syrian regime to remove all Iranian-backed forces from opposition-held territory as well as the borders of the Golan in Jordan, said the US official.
“The bottom-line principle is that all foreign terrorists and militia fighters must leave these areas and ultimately leave Syria altogether,” the official told reporters via teleconference.
The State Department official admitted to having many differences with Russia, which had intervened in the Syrian conflict on the side of President Bashar Assad. “We have made clear we will not work with the Assad regime.
We will not, obviously, work with the Iranians, who share fundamentally divergent interests from ours,” he said.
Jordan’s State Minister for Media Affairs Muhammad Momani was quoted by the country’s Al-Ghad newspaper as saying that the MoP stipulates that non-Syrian forces should not be present in and around the de-escalation zones in the specified areas.
These zones in the agreement, Momani said, “back the cease-fire along the confrontation lines in southwestern Syria, which went into effect on July 9.”
Israel’s regional cooperation minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, sounded circumspect about the deal, telling reporters that it “does not meet Israel’s unequivocal demand that there not be developments that bring the forces of Hezbollah or Iran to the Israel-Syria border in the north.”
“There’s reflection here of the understanding that Israel has set redlines, and will stand firm on this,” Hanegbi said, alluding to Israeli military strikes across the Golan frontier, carried out in response to cross-border attacks.
In the latest such incident, the IDF said it shot down a spy drone on Saturday as it flew over the Golan.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman blamed the drone on the Syrian government.
Damascus did not immediately respond.
Repeating Israel’s warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, Liberman said: “We will not allow the Shi’ite axis to establish Syria as its forefront base.”
Netanyahu has publicly criticized the US-Russian cease-fire deal in Syria, saying that it does not include any provisions to stop Iranian expansion in the area.
In recent months, Israel has held talks with Moscow and Washington – and according to media reports with Amman as well – in an attempt to ensure that the agreement would define the buffer zone as far from the borders of the Jewish state as possible.
Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role that the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
As the war in Syria seems to be winding down in Assad’s favor due to Moscow’s intervention, Israel fears that Iran will help Hezbollah produce accurate precision-guided missiles, allowing them and other Shi’ite militias to strengthen their foothold on the Golan Heights.
Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly told Israel that Moscow agreed to expand the buffer zone in which Iranian and Hezbollah forces would not be allowed to enter along the Israeli-Syrian border.
The statement, attributed to an Israeli diplomatic official by London- based newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, said Russia had refused the Israeli request for a 40-km. buffer zone, but expressed willingness to extend a 10- to 15-km. off-limits zone.
According to the report in Asharq al-Awsat, Shoigu told Israeli officials that the 40 km. demand was unrealistic and that Iranian and Hezbollah troops have not approached the border since Russian troops entered Syria, saying that, therefore, the request was “exaggerated” and “superfluous.”
Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the growing Iranian presence on its borders and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are redlines for the Jewish state.
On Friday, the BBC news agency reported that Iran has established a military base at a Syrian Army site south of Damascus. According to the report, which is based on a Western intelligence source, the Iranian base is around 50 km. north of the Israel-controlled part of the Golan Heights and has several buildings that likely house soldiers and military vehicles.
While the BBC stated that it could not independently verify the purpose of the base or the presence of Iranian troops, Israel has warned of the growing entrenchment of Iran in Syria.
Reuters contributed to this report.