Israel Signals Free Hand in Syria as U.S., Russia Expand Truce

YERUSHALAYIM (Reuters) -
A general view shows a border fence between the Israeli side of the Golan Heights and Syria. (Reuters/Ammar Awad)

Israel signaled on Sunday that it would keep up military strikes across its frontier with Syria to prevent any encroachment by Iranian-allied forces, even as the United States and Russia try to build up a ceasefire in the area.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday affirmed joint efforts to stabilize Syria as its civil war wanes, including with the expansion of a July 7 truce in the southwestern triangle bordering Israel and Jordan.

A U.S. State Department official said Russia had agreed “to work with the Syrian regime to remove Iranian-backed forces a defined distance” from the Golan Heights frontier with Israel.

Moscow did not immediately provide details on the deal.

Israel has been lobbying both big powers to deny Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Shiite militias any permanent bases in Syria, and to keep them away from the Golan, as they gain ground while helping Damascus beat back Sunni-led rebels.

In remarks opening the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu did not speak about the new U.S.-Russian arrangement for Syria.

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi sounded circumspect about the deal, telling reporters that it “does not meet Israel’s unequivocal demand that there will not be developments that bring the forces of Hezbollah or Iran to the Israel-Syria border in the north.”

“There’s reflection here of the understanding that Israel has set red lines, and will stand firm on this,” Hanegbi said.

That was an allusion to Israeli military strikes in Syria, carried out against suspected Hezbollah or Iranian arms depots or in retaliation for attacks from the Syrian-held Golan.

In the latest incident, the IDF said it shot down a spy drone on Shabbos as it overflew the Golan. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman blamed the drone on the Syrian government.

Repeating Israel’s warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, Lieberman said: “We will not allow the Shiite axis to establish Syria as its forefront base.”

Russia, which has a long-term military garrison in Syria, has said it wants foreign forces to quit the country eventually.

The U.S. State Department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity on Saturday, said that goal could be served by Russia’s pledge to remove Iranian-linked terrorists from the truce zone in southwestern Syria.

“If this works, this … would be an auspicious signal that our policy objective — the objective that I think so many of us share, of getting these guys out of Syria ultimately — that there’s a path in that direction,” the official said.