U.N. peacekeepers returned Thursday for the first time in years to the frontier between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, 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.
For the first time, Russian forces joined the peacekeepers — a sign of Russia’s deepening involvement as a mediator between Israel and Syria.
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.
Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff said conditions have been created for the resumption of U.N. peacekeeping patrols along the area separating Syria and Israel. The U.N. peacekeeping forces first deployed along the frontier in 1974 following an agreement to separate Syrian and Israeli forces after Israel occupied the Golan Heights in the 1967 war.
Israel for its part acknowledged a return to normalcy along the frontier, which had become particularly volatile in recent months amid a Syrian government offensive to retake territories along the border.
Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff told reporters at a press conference in Moscow that Russian military police accompanied the U.N. peacekeepers in the mission. The peacekeeping mission was halted in 2014 amid the violence in Syrian’s civil war over security concerns.
Syria has seen spells of fighting between rebels, government forces, and Islamic State militants along the Golan Heights since the civil war erupted in 2011.
On Thursday, Israeli 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.
Rudskoy said Russian military police have accompanied the peacekeepers on patrols, adding that eight Russian-manned observation points opposite the U.N. 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.
Lieberman said Israel will have “no cause to intervene or operate in Syrian territory” if Damascus respects a 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.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman with his American counterpart Gen.James Mattis , 2017
Russia announced Wednesday it had reached an agreement to keep Iranian forces 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Syrian-Israeli frontier.
Still, in related violence, Israel’s military 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.
The area, peaceful for decades since the agreement, became a fighting ground at the height of the Syrian civil war, finally pushing the U.N. peacekeeping force out in 2014 after al-Qaida militants kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers. They were released two weeks later.
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.
In Moscow, Rudskoy said Russia’s military police would establish eight of its own monitoring posts at the edge of the U.N. disengagement zone at the frontier.
“As the situation stabilizes, these posts will be handed over to Syrian government forces,” Rudskoy told reporters.
Israel’s military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said in a telephone briefing with reporters that he could not immediately comment on the deployment on the Syrian side of the border.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus
Conricus said the Israeli military targeted and killed seven “armed terror operatives” who had crossed into Israeli territory in the southern Golan Heights.
Israel tracked the armed infiltrators who approached the border on Wednesday night and a military aircraft struck as they attempted to cross a security fence on the Israeli side of the frontier.
A subsequent search of the area yielded several assault rifles and explosives, Conricus added. 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.
In Amman, Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that the Syrian government has not officially requested to open the Syria-Jordan border, after government forces recaptured its side of a crossing from rebels last month.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi
Jordan has been in discussion with Russian authorities, Safadi said, and will respond to Syria’s request “positively,” in a way that supports Jordanian and Syrian interests.
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.
A week later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov flew to Jerusalem where he met with Israeli 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.
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.