U.S. officials have agreed to allow Iranian-backed militias to take up positions in Syria closer than five miles from the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, a report in the Arabic daily Asharq Al Awsat said Thursday.
The report appeared to back up claims in Russian media that Moscow has ignored pleas from Israel to prevent Iran from exploiting Syria’s ongoing civil war to expand its military influence into Syrian territory.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, in his meeting last week with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian resort of Sochi, raised his concern that Iran is trying to establish a permanent military foothold in Syria. Netanyahu said that Israel was watching developments and would act against any threat.
Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy, has been Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest backer and has provided militia fighters to help him.
Russia, also Assad’s ally, is seen as holding the balance of power in achieving a deal on Syria’s future.
Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, its forces fighting what it deems Islamist terrorists. Russia is acting in partnership with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Israel’s arch-foes.
In the past few months, Russia has been the main broker of de-escalation zones set up in Syria. Israel worries that those zones will allow Iranian troops and Hezbollah forces to deploy in greater strength.
Moscow argues its big-power clout deters Iran or Hezbollah from opening a new front with Israel.
Citing unnamed Western diplomatic sources, the report said that a U.S. team that was holding talks with their Russian counterparts in Amman, Jordan, to discuss the nationality of observer forces overseeing a truce, backed down on some of their initial demands.
The report said the U.S. agreed that Iranian-backed militias could be positioned as close as five to ten miles from the Jordanian border and the Golan Heights, less than half the 20 miles originally sought from the Israeli border.
According to the report, the U.S. negotiators also agreed to let Russian observers police the truce zones, angering other U.S. officials and allies of America. In particular, Israeli officials are concerned that the Russian presence could limit its operations against targets in Syria, the report said.
In recent years there have been several airstrikes inside Syria, attributed to Israel, that targeted alleged shipments of advanced weapons and rockets for Hezbollah. Israel has vowed to prevent the Shiite organization, which holds positions along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, from obtaining game-changing weaponry.
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has said that the basic conception of the agreement with Iran was mistaken. According to Netanyahu, Israel is in no way bound to any agreement, and that it would “continue to protect itself from these threats in a variety of ways.”
Last month, Mossad head Yossi Cohen, in a briefing to government ministers voiced his concern with the rise of Iranian forces in the region. “We have identified not just an Iranian and Hezbollah presence in our region,” Cohen said. “We see Shiite forces from the entire world massing in our region. Our first priority is to stop this.”
Cohen portrayed the Iranian threat as the most significant one for Israel. There are two factors involved in the growth of Iranian and Shiite influence in the Middle East: one is the ceasefire in Syria, and the second is the impending defeat of the Islamic State, and the major losses IS has sustained in recent months.
In the Syria situation, Cohen said that an Israeli demand that Iranian and Lebanese Shiite forces be removed from the country as part of the ceasefire imposed by the U.S. and Russia was rejected. Israel is trying to convince the superpowers of the need for removing those forces from Syria, but “the Americans have not yet adopted our objectives,” Cohen said.
Cohen said that Iran was expanding its influence in areas that IS has evacuated. Iran has been a chief force in fighting IS, and now the Iranians are reaping the benefits of their work. “Iran is working to fill the void in areas that IS is vacating,” Cohen was quoted as saying. “They are thus spreading their influence in diverse places, including Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. The biggest threat in the region is the Shiite crescent, which is being hoisted throughout the area.”