JERUSALEM: Gains by President Bashar Assad's forces in the Syrian civil war present advantages for Israel even though the two countries remain technically at war, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Thursday.
“In Syria, as far as we are concerned, the situation is returning to the previous one before the civil war, meaning there is a clear address, there is responsibility and there is a central government,” Lieberman told journalists while visiting Israeli air defenses.
Before the civil war erupted in 2011, the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel was largely quiet for years.
During the conflict, there has been occasional spillover fire to which Israel has responded.
Assad told his troops on Wednesday they were close to victory after inflicting a succession of defeats on fighters.
A series of blistering offensives backed by Moscow and Tehran has forced the fighters out of many of their strongholds, putting Assad’s regime back in control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
Israel has sought to avoid direct involvement in the Syrian conflict but acknowledges carrying out dozens of airstrikes there to stop what it says are deliveries of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah.
It has also pledged to prevent Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria and a series of recent strikes that have killed Iranians in Syria have been attributed to Israel.
“We do not interfere or intervene in Syria’s internal affairs,” Lieberman said.
“But this is provided that all three points that are important to us are fulfilled.”
He named them as a strict observance of a 1974 armistice with Syria, not allowing Iran to use Syria as a front against Israel and not allowing Syria to be used as a transit point for advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah.
Israel seized 1,200 sq km of the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognized by the international community.
On Thursday, Moscow said Russia would deploy its military police on the Golan Heights frontier between Syria and Israel, after weeks of mounting volatility in the area.
Underlining the tensions, Israel killed seven militants in an airstrike on the Syrian-held part of the Golan Heights, Israeli radio said.
Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian Defense Ministry official, said that Russian military police had on Thursday begun patrolling in the Golan Heights and planned to set up eight observation posts in the area.
He said the Russian presence there was in support of UN peacekeepers on the Golan Heights who, he said, had suspended their activities in the area in 2012 because their safety was endangered.
“Today, UN peacekeepers accompanied by Russian military police conducted their first patrols in six years in the separation zone,” Rudskoi told a briefing for journalists in Moscow.
“With the aim of preventing possible provocations against UN posts along the ‘Bravo’ line, the deployment is planned of eight observation posts of Russia’s armed forces’ military police,” Rudskoi said.
He said the Russian presence there was temporary, and that the observation posts would be handed over to Syrian regime forces once the situation stabilized.
The deployment of the Russian military police highlights the degree to which the Kremlin has become an influential actor in Middle East conflicts since its military intervention in Syria which turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.
Israel has been lobbying the Kremlin to use its influence with Assad, and with Tehran, to try to get the Iranian military presence in Syria scaled back.
Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons in Syria to a distance of 85 km from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, TASS quoted a Russian envoy as saying on Wednesday, but Israel deemed the pullback inadequate.