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Photo: EPA
UN peacekeepers observing Syria from Israeli side of border
Photo: EPA
Russia: UN peacekeepers back on Golan Heights-Syria frontier
Russian military police accompanies UN peacekeepers on patrols Thursday, with 8 Russian-manned observation points added opposite the UN points 'to rule out possible provocations'; the Russian posts will be handed over to Syrian army when situation stabilizes.

BEIRUT - UN peacekeepers returned Thursday for the first time in years to the frontier between Syria and Israel, conducting joint patrols with Russian military police in a reflection of Moscow's deepening role in mediating between the decades-old foes in the volatile region.

 

 

Israel has increasingly sought Russia's involvement in securing its frontier with Syria and in scaling back Iran's influence in the area. Moscow, Damascus's weightiest ally, has in turn sought coordination with Israel as a bridge with Washington in dealing with Syria's complex war.

 

Israel considers Iran's growing influence in Syria—it has advisers and allied militias fighting alongside Syrian troops—as an existential threat and had looked for guarantees from Moscow to push pro-Iran fighters away from its frontiers.

 

UN peacekeepers observing border from Israeli side (Photo: EPA)
UN peacekeepers observing border from Israeli side (Photo: EPA)

 

Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff said conditions have been created for the resumption of UN peacekeeping patrols along the area separating Syria and Israel. The UN peacekeeping forces first deployed along the frontier in 1974 following an agreement to separate Syrian and Israeli forces after Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 Six-Day War.

 

Rudskoy said Russian military police have accompanied the peacekeepers on patrols, adding that eight Russian-manned observation points opposite the UN points will be set up "to rule out possible provocations."

 

When the situation stabilizes, Rudskoy said, the Russian-manned posts would be handed over to Syrian government forces.

 

UN peacekeepers fleeing the border (Photo: Avihu Shapira)
UN peacekeepers fleeing the border (Photo: Avihu Shapira)

 

Israel acknowledged a return to normalcy along the frontier.

 

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the situation on the Syrian side of the boundary had returned to its pre-2011 state after Syrian government forces, supported by Russia's military, regained control of the region from armed opposition that controlled since 2014.

 

Lieberman said Israel will have "no cause to intervene or operate in Syrian territory" if Damascus respects the 1974 disengagement agreement between the two sides—and as long as Syria doesn't become a staging ground for Iranian forces to attack Israel or transfer arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

 

The area, peaceful for decades since the agreement, became a fighting ground at the height of the Syrian civil war, finally pushing the UN peacekeeping force out in 2014 after al-Qaeda militants kidnapped 45 UN peacekeepers. They were released two weeks later.

 

The kidnapped UN peacekeepers
The kidnapped UN peacekeepers

 

The area had become particularly volatile in recent weeks amid a Syrian government offensive to retake territories controlled by the opposition adjacent to the frontier. Israel has also upped its strikes against suspected Iranian targets inside Syria.

 

A day before the joint Russia-UN patrols, Russia announced it reached an agreement with Israel to keep pro-Iranian fighters 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the volatile frontier.

 

It was the first publicized results of Russian mediation. Russian officials announced that Moscow gave Israel guarantees that that zone would be clear of pro-Iranian fighters. Russia had warned it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from Syria.

 

During their summit in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump said they were exploring ways to protect Israel from the war in Syria. They didn't elaborate but later Putin said he agreed with Trump on securing Israel's border with Syria in line with the 1974 deal.

 

Trump and Putin meet in Helsinki (Photo: AFP)
Trump and Putin meet in Helsinki (Photo: AFP)
 

A week later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flew to Jerusalem where he met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in talks that focused on the Iranian presence in Syria. Netanyahu stressed the "extraordinarily important" link between the two countries. The two sides discussed a Russian proposal that would see any forces linked to Iran distanced some 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from the Golan Heights.

 

Netanyahu meets with Lavrov (Photo: Haim Zach/GPO)
Netanyahu meets with Lavrov (Photo: Haim Zach/GPO)

 

Reflecting the tension along the frontier, the IDF said Thursday that its aircraft fired on "several armed terror operatives in the southern Syrian Golan Heights" overnight and that troops were on high alert.

 

IDF spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said in a telephone briefing with reporters that he could not immediately comment on the UN deployment on the Syrian side of the border.

 

UN peacekeepers observing border from Israeli side (Photo: EPA)
UN peacekeepers observing border from Israeli side (Photo: EPA)

 

Conricus said the IDF targeted with a military aircraft and killed seven "armed terror operatives" who had attempted to cross into Israeli territory late Wednesday. He said a preliminary assessment was that the infiltrators were Islamic State militants.

 

Israeli troops were on "high alert and readiness" following the strike. The army's announcement came shortly after Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman toured a Patriot missile defense battery in northern Israel during a military preparedness drill.

 

Speaking to reporters Thursday, Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel, former head of the Counterterror Bureau at the Prime Minister's Office, said Israel should be on alert in the area because Syrian government troops "from now and a year from now, they will not be able to control those who are trying to attack the State of Israel from that border."

 

He said Israel will not accept any changes to the 1974 deal or the presence of any Syrian troops or allied militias inside the disengagement zone.

 

In Amman, Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said the Syrian government has not officially requested the opening of the Syria-Jordan border after government forces recaptured its side of a crossing from rebels last month.

 

Jordan has been in discussions with Russian authorities, Safadi said, and will respond to Syria's request "positively" in a way that supports Jordanian and Syrian interests.

 


First published: 08.03.18, 09:10
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