Netanyahu to Putin: Assad is safe from us, but Iran must quit Syria

Israel is seeking Russia’s help to get Iran to remove its forces from Syria. (AP)
Updated 13 July 2018
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Netanyahu to Putin: Assad is safe from us, but Iran must quit Syria

  • Israel worries Assad could let his Iranian and Hezbollah reinforcements entrench near Israeli lines or that Syrian forces may defy a 1974 Golan demilitarization.
  • Since turning the tide of Syria’s civil war by intervening militarily in 2015 on Assad’s behalf, Russia has turned a blind eye to scores of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah deployments or arms transfers, while making clear it wanted Assad

MOSCOW: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told Russia that Israel would not seek to topple its ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, but Moscow should encourage Iranian forces to quit Syria, a senior Israeli official said.

Netanyahu conveyed the message in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the official said.

Israel has been on high alert as Assad’s forces advance on fighters in the vicinity of the Golan Heights, much of which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in a move not recognized internationally. Israel worries Assad could let his Iranian and Hezbollah reinforcements entrench near Israeli lines or that Syrian forces may defy a 1974 Golan demilitarization.

“They (Russia) have an active interest in seeing a stable Assad regime and we in getting the Iranians out. These can clash or it can align,” said the Israeli official.

“We won’t take action against the Assad regime,” the official quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin in Moscow.

David Keyes, a Netanyahu spokesman, denied that the prime minister made that statement to Putin.

Asked to summarize Israeli policy on Syria, Keyes said: “We don’t get involved in the civil war. We will act against anyone who acts against us.”

The Israeli official who requested anonymity said Russia was working to distance Iranian forces from the Golan and had proposed that they be kept 80 km away but that this fell short of Israel’s demand for their full exit along with that of Tehran-sponsored militias.

Russian officials had no immediate comment on the meeting.

Since turning the tide of Syria’s civil war by intervening militarily in 2015 on Assad’s behalf, Russia has turned a blind eye to scores of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah deployments or arms transfers, while making clear it wanted Assad kept immune.

Israeli Cabinet ministers threatened this week to fire on Syrian forces that enter the Golan buffer zone set up as part of a 1974 UN-monitored armistice. The UN last month renewed the mandate of its Golan observer force UNDOF and on Wednesday called on all parties to abide by the armistice.

“There should be no military forces in the area of separation other than those of UNDOF,” a UN spokesman said.

Israel has signaled openness to eventual ties with Assad, a tacit acknowledgement that he is re-consolidating power as he routs Syria’s fighters.

Under Assad family rule, Syria held direct negotiations with Israel in the US in 2000 and indirect talks mediated by Turkey in 2008. Netanyahu’s government has made clear it would not now cede the Golan and has been lobbying for US recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty there.

On June 24, Israel’s military said it launched a Patriot missile at an incoming drone from Syria, which turned away unscathed. A Syrian commander said the drone was engaged in local operations. 

On July 6, Israel struck a Syrian post that it said had shelled the Golan buffer zone.

Hours after conferring with Netanyahu about Iran's presence in Syria, Putin received Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said that Velayati handed Putin letters from Khamenei and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Peskov said in a conference call with reporters that the letters dealt with bilateral relations and the situation in the region, but refused to elaborate.

"Our opinion is known that Iran needs to leave Syria — that is not something new for you," Netanyahu said at the start of Wednesday's talks in the Kremlin.

The Iranian presence in Syria is expected to top the agenda of Monday's summit in Helsinki between Putin and US President Donald Trump. Both the US and Israel want Iran to pull out from Syria, but Russia has warned it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country.


Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

Nearly half of Syria's pre-war population of 23 million have been uprooted from their homes. AP
Updated 16 July 2018
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Assad forces target fighters near Golan Heights

  • Regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside
  • In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control

BEIRUT: Syrian regime forces unleashed hundreds of missiles on an opposition-held area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Sunday, activists said, the latest phase in an offensive to clear southern Syria of insurgents.
The regime’s push came after it had secured control of most of Daraa province in an offensive that began in June. On Sunday, the first batch of armed fighters and their families left the city of Daraa, the provincial capital, in buses that would take them to the opposition-held Idlib province in the north.
Similar deals in other parts of Syria resulted in the evacuation of thousands of opposition fighters and civilians — evacuations that the UN and rights groups have decried as forced displacement.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said Sunday the success in driving the opposition out of Daraa embodies the will of his army and allied forces to “liberate all of Syrian territories” of “terrorism.”
In recent months and backed by Russian air force, the Syrian regime has restored control of over 60 percent of previously opposition-held territory across the country.
Assad spoke during a meeting on Sunday with visiting Iranian Foreign Ministry official Hossein Jaberi Ansari. Assad’s office said the two agreed that the “elimination of terrorism in most of the Syrian territory has laid the most appropriate ground to reach results at the political level” that could put an end to Syria’s war.
Syria’s regime refers to all armed opposition groups as “terrorists” and accuses the West, Turkey, Israel and regional countries of supporting them.
The statement came a day before President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin are to meet in Finland. Syria is expected to feature highly on the agenda. Russia is a major Assad ally.
In Daraa, the evacuation deal will hand over areas held by the fighters for years back to regime control. Daraa, which lies on a highway linking Damascus with Jordan, was the cradle of the 2011 uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Since early Sunday, regime forces turned their missiles toward a stretch of land controlled by the armed opposition in northern Daraa and the countryside of adjacent Quneitra.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said regime forces fired more than 800 missiles at an area between northern Daraa and the Quneitra countryside, about 4 kilometers, or 2.5 miles, from the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The Observatory said government forces advanced on Massharah, a village in Quneitra, and rebels fought back in intense clashes that killed several pro-government fighters. The pro-Syrian regime Central Military Media said a number of insurgents were killed in the clashes.
The Observatory reported airstrikes in Massharah, the first in over a year to hit the Quneitra countryside. It also reported airstrikes in a nearby village in northern Daraa, where regime forces have been trying to retake a key hill there after failing to reach a deal with the fighters. Capturing the hill would enable them to advance on militants in the area linked to Daesh.
Daraa activist Abou Mahmoud Hourani said an estimated 400 members of the armed opposition and their families will be evacuated out of Daraa.
Pro-regime TV Al-Ikhbariya said 10 buses carrying 407 people left for northern Syria.
The station said the evacuation of nearly 1,000 people was likely to be completed by Sunday.