Russia’s Military Police Directorate head Vladimir Ivanovsky arrived in Israel late Friday to meet with officials here to discuss developments in Syria ahead of an expected offensive.
Ivanovsky, who is responsible for Russian forces deployed in Syria’s southern de-escalation zones, is set to meet with several senior IDF officers to discuss the withdrawal of all Iranian troops and Shi’ite militias from areas near Israel’s border, according to public broadcaster Kan.
On Friday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone and, according to Netanyahu’s office, the two discussed regional developments and the situation in Syria.
A statement released by the Kremlin read that the two leaders agreed to strengthen coordination on Syria as well as to joint efforts to ensure security in the area of the Israeli-Syrian border.
According to Israeli intelligence estimates, there are thousands of Iranian advisers and Revolutionary Guard Corps officers in Syria; 9,000 Shi’ite militia fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq; and another 7,000 Hezbollah fighters.
Jerusalem has repeatedly said it would not allow Iran to set up a permanent presence in Syria, and Russia has deployed military police to monitor several de-escalation zones there, including one watch post near Israel’s Golan Heights, which was established last year in a cease-fire brokered by Russia and the US.
Since then there has been relative calm. But on June 12 the Assad regime warned all rebel forces in the provinces of Deraa and Quneitra to accept the reconciliation offer or it would launch an offensive.
In an interview with Iranian channel Al-Alam News, Syrian President Bashar Assad said that while contacts are still ongoing between the Russians, the Americans and the Israelis, “there was an opportunity to reach reconciliation – but the American and Israeli interference prevented that possibility.”
Russia intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015; as an ally of Assad, Moscow finds itself part of an alliance between Damascus and Tehran, the patron of Hezbollah. Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role that the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
Officials from Israel and Russia meet regularly to discuss the de-confliction mechanism implemented over Syria in to order to avoid accidental clashes, but meetings between the two have intensified in recent weeks.
In late May, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and IDF Intelligence Directorate head Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heyman flew to Moscow at the invitation of Liberman’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, where they lobbied Moscow to confront the Iranian presence in Syria.
According to a report in Haaretz, a delegation of senior Russian defense and intelligence officials visited Israel the following week.
Last week, Heyman warned at a closed-door conference that Tehran is trying to increase its efforts and capabilities to launch rockets and establish terror cells that can penetrate Israel and harm communities in the Golan.
Displaying a map showing where Iranian forces are based in Syria, Heyman told the audience “you probably think, well this is because they are trying to help the Assad regime to fight terror... but there is no threat to President Assad so why do they stay? If they came only in order to assist the regime, so then thank you and goodbye.”
The Syrian army and its allies bombarded rebels in the southwestern Deraa region on Friday, killing at least six people, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said the army had shelled the towns of Kafr Shams and al-Harah, near the Golan Heights.
It was the highest death toll from bombing since the de-escalation zone in southwest Syria was agreed upon last year.
On Thursday, US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said: “Any Syrian government military actions against the southwest de-escalation zone risk broadening the conflict.”
She warned that the “United States will take firm and appropriate measures in response to Syrian government violations in this area.”
It is important that Russia, the US and Jordan do everything they can to ensure a cease-fire in the southwest de-escalation zone, Nauert said.
“Russia is duly responsible, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, to use its diplomatic and military influence over the Syrian government to stop attacks and compel the government to cease further military offensives. We request that Russia fulfill its commitments in accordance with UNSCR [UN Security Council Resolution] 2254 and the southwest cease-fire arrangement,” she said.
Tovah Lazaroff and Reuters contributed to this report.
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HEAD OF RUSSIA'S MILITARY POLICE IN ISRAEL TO DISCUSS SYRIA