Israeli defence minister hints at new chapter with Syria

Israel's relationship with its Syrian neighbour has been complicated by concerns over Damascus’s relationship with Iran.
Wednesday 11/07/2018
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks to the press during a visit at the Israel-Syria border in the annexed-Golan Heights on July 10, 2018. (AFP)
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks to the press during a visit at the Israel-Syria border in the annexed-Golan Heights on July 10, 2018. (AFP)

TUNIS - Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on July 10 that he was not “ruling out” future relations with Syria, fuelling speculation that rapprochement between the two belligerents could be on the cards.

The remark stood in stark contrast to previous statements by Israel, whose relationship with its Syrian neighbour has been complicated by concerns over Damascus’s relationship with Iran and efforts to secure the 1974 buffer zone from potential military threats. Indeed minutes before Lieberman spoke of a potential new chapter with Syria, he vowed a "harsh response" if Syrian soldiers entered the 1974 buffer zone, where many Syrian refugees are flocking to escape regime shelling.

On July 8, Israeli media reported that somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 refugees were camped out on the Syrian side of the Golan. Israel, nervous about allowing such numbers across their frontier, not least due to the possibility of Iran-aligned wolves in their midst, has limited its support for the refugees to the provision of aid.

The majority of those seeking refuge within the Golan have fled rebel-held areas around Daraa, the cradle of the Syrian revolution. For now, as the Syrian army closes in on Daraa under Russian air cover, their shelter remains in a peculiar no mans’ land, maintaining the pressure on Israel and, by extension, Russia, which has long served as the main mediator of the Syrian conflict.

Russia’s role in establishing some kind of workable peace in Syria’s south that might allow the refugees to return is expected to feature prominently on Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s agenda at the upcoming Moscow summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin. So too is Israel’s call for Iran’s complete withdrawal from Syria, an aim both Tel Aviv and Washington, also scheduled to meet with the Russian president on July 16, are looking to Moscow to help speed.  

Russian negotiators have been largely successful in mitigating some of Syria’s bloodiest conflicts, despite their own forces often playing major roles within them, but it remains unclear whether they can pressure Iran to withdraw.

In October of last year, Moscow assured Tel Aviv, nervous about the current regime offensive into the south, that neither Hezbollah nor Iran-aligned forces would be allowed to encroach upon the Israeli border. But despite Russian assurances, their presence there is now widely reported.

While no precise troop numbers have been reported, both Tehran and Hezbollah’s commitment to Syria’s war, as well as their numerous allied militias, far eclipse that of Russia. Likewise, they have proven themselves central to Damascus’, and by extension Russia’s, ability to project power.

To that end, Russian diplomats have been at recent pains to stress Iran’s legitimacy within the Syrian conflict ahead of the summits with Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump.

While the Iranian press has tried to prepare a nervous public for a potential Russian “betrayal,” Moscow has continued to lend them firm support. Further to backing away from their previous insistence that all foreign actors withdraw from Syria, Russian Ambassador to the UN Vassily Nebenzia described Iran’s presence in Syria on June 28 as “legitimate and undeniable,” saying: “Nobody can deny the issue, whether they like it or not.”

On July 4, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov slammed both US and Israeli demands for Iran’s full withdrawal from Syria as “absolutely unrealistic,” a further indication that Iran is unlikely to leave Syria any time soon. 

In the meantime, Syrian refugee families remain stranded upon the Golan, incapable of either moving forward to Israel, or backwards to their regime shelled homes.