US, Russia Agree On “Iran-Free Zone” In Syria
Multiple Israeli news outlets reported Saturday that the US, Russia, and Jordan have reached a ceasefire agreement over southern Syria which proposes to expel Iran-backed militias from the border with Israel in the Golan Heights. The reports came on the same day presidents Trump and Putin issued a joint statement on Syria after meeting on the sidelines of the APEC conference in Danang, Vietnam, which reaffirmed de-confliction efforts as both countries fight ISIS and underscored willingness to keep Syria’s territorial integrity intact while pursuing the Geneva process.
Though the joint statement references the “Memorandum of Principles concluded in Amman, Jordan”, it doesn’t make explicit reference to Iran or Hezbollah, but more broadly to efforts for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area to ensure a more sustainable peace.”
But according to The Times of Israel, the Amman agreement is geared toward preventing a continuing Iranian presence in Syria:
Under the agreement apparently inked Saturday, all non-Syrian fighters, including Iranian proxies fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, would be required to leave the border area and eventually Syria, Hebrew media reports said Sunday, citing an American official.
Currently, there’s been no confirmation of whether or not the deal actually singles out “Iranian proxies” or if Israel had any influence within the negotiations. The deal is based on a previous ceasefire agreement reached in July in Astana, Kazakhstan – a deal which Israel blasted at the time as being too tolerant of Iran’s presence in Syria.
As part of the Astana talks, Trump agreed to a southwest Syria ‘de-escalation zone’ with Russia, which would necessarily involve Iranian cooperation. The agreement implicitly acknowledged Iran’s troop presence in Syria as legitimate, and as reported at the time further “ignored Israel’s positions almost completely.” But analysts have been in general agreement that the US-Russia brokered deal has been relatively successful and a step in the right direction.
A subsequent Reuters report covering a contentious Netanyahu-Putin meeting in August bluntly acknowledged Israel’s willingness to see the Iranian and Shia allies of Assad expelled from the region, even if that should mean the ascendancy of ISIS. According to the Reuters report:
In parallel to lobbying Moscow, Israel has been trying to persuade Washington that Iran and its guerrilla partners, not Islamic State, pose the greater common threat in the region.
For this reason, Israel has blamed – seemingly without any pretense of an investigation – each and every border incident on Syria and its allies, to the point that even when anti-Assad groups fire mortars in the direction of Israeli territory, the Israeli military response targets Syrian government forces.
This phenomenon has been long recorded by United Nations investigative reports. For example, in October 2014 the UN Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which at that time still had a significant presence in the Golan area, reported to the UN Security Council:
On 23 June , Israel targeted nine Syrian army positions with tank fire and air strikes after mortar fire from the Syrian side the previous day killed an Israeli civilian. Israel’s assessment is that most of these incidents are due to errant fire resulting from fighting in Syria. Israel said that armed opposition groups were probably responsible but that its forces fired on Syrian military positions to stress that Syria was responsible for security on its side of the ceasefire line.
Since then Israel has repeatedly struck targets inside Syria deemed to be Hezbollah weapons storage locations – and over the past year such airstrikes have occurred almost weekly – with Israeli jets often firing from over Lebanese airspace.
And again over the weekend Israel Defense Forces (IDF) reportedly shot down a drone above the Golan Heights, which the IDF claimed was a “Syrian Spy drone” which originated with either Iran or Hezbollah. The incident prompted Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman to once again threaten Syria. “The Syrian regime is responsible for every attack and violation of our sovereignty, and we will not allow the Shiite axis to be established in Syria as a base for action,” Liberman said.
On Friday Israel continued to escalate its rhetoric after a dubious report published by the BBC claimed that Iran has established a military base at a site used by the Syrian army outside El-Kiswah, 14 km (8 miles) south of Damascus. For Israel this would constitute the crossing of a “red line” by Iran: Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu recently warned that Iran wanted to establish itself militarily in Syria. “Israel will not let that happen,” he said.
Though Israeli media appears to be reporting the latest ‘deescalation agreement’ in southern Syria which would force the exit of Iranian proxies as an Israeli diplomatic victory, it is unlikely that Israel’s heightening war rhetoric will cease.