Russia: UN peacekeepers back on Golan Heights-Syria frontier
BEIRUT (AP) — 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.
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.
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.
Israel acknowledged a return to normalcy along the frontier.
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 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 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.
Late Thursday, Syrian media reported that its defenses foiled a “hostile attack” west of the capital Damascus. It didn’t specify the target or the attacker but it has previously blamed Israel.
A day before the joint Russia-U.N. 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.
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.
Reflecting the tension along the frontier, 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.
Israel’s military spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, said in a telephone briefing with reporters that he could not immediately comment on the U.N. deployment on the Syrian side of the border.
Conricus said the Israeli military 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 Israel’s 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.
Danilova contributed from Moscow. Associated Press writers Ilan Ben Zion and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Philip Issa in Beirut, and Alice Su in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.