Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid reports that Moscow has accepted Israel’s demand for a Hezbollah-and Iranian-free buffer zone along the Syrian border, though not one as deep as Jerusalem had wanted.
Also on Wednesday, Iran’s military chief, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, met in Damascus with his Syrian counterpart, Lt.-Gen. Ali Ayoub, and warned Israel against violating Syrian airspace.
“It is not acceptable for the Zionist regime to violate Syria anytime it wants,” Bagheri was quoted as saying by Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency.
Meanwhile, according to the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, based on an Israeli source, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is visiting Israel, said that Moscow agreed to a 10- to 15-kilometer zone that would be off limits to Iranian and Hezbollah forces along the border on the Golan Heights. The report said that Israel had requested a 40-kilometer buffer zone.
Netanyahu has said in recent weeks that Israel never stipulated to the Russians how deep a buffer zone should be, but made clear to them – including in a meeting he had with Putin during their last meeting in Sochi on August 23 – that Israel would not tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence anywhere in Syria.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sharpened that message on Wednesday, when he reacted to Iranian threats that Iran would no longer allow Israel to act militarily in Syria.
“The Iranians are trying to take control of Syria, want to establish themselves there and be the dominant force – we will not let that happen,” Liberman said. “We are aware of this, and have all the tools necessary to deal with this challenge.”
And in Syria, the SANA news agency quoted Bagheri as saying, “We are here in Damascus to coordinate and cooperate in facing our common enemies of Zionists and terrorists.” He added that the two sides “discussed means of enhancing relations in the future and outlined the bilateral cooperation.”
According to SANA, Ayoub said that the relations between the Iranian and Syrian militaries have been strengthened since Iran entered the civil war, and will be further enhanced following Bagheri’s visit.
The Kremlin issued a statement on Wednesday saying that Israel initiated the Netanyahu-Putin phone call, and that the two leaders discussed Russian-Israeli cooperation in the context of the agreements they reached in Sochi on August 23.
The details of those agreements were never made public, and the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday did not reply to queries about the nature of those agreements The Kremlin also said that Netanyahu and Putin spoke about “the Syrian settlement, the Iranian nuclear program, as well as the results of a recent referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”
Liberman, meanwhile, denied that there was any disagreement with Russia over a buffer zone, saying these reports were baseless, and he did not know where they were coming from.
According to the report in Asharq al-Awsat, Shoigu told Israeli officials that the 40-km.
demand was unrealistic and that Iranian and Hezbollah troops have not approached the border since Russian troops entered Syria, saying that therefore the request was “exaggerated” and “superfluous.”
Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the growing Iranian presence on its borders and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are redlines for the Jewish state.
Hours before Shoigu landed in Israel on Monday, IAF jets destroyed a Syrian antiaircraft missile battery stationed some 50 kilometers east of Damascus that had fired on Israeli planes in Lebanese airspace earlier that morning.
Israel and Russia implemented a deconfliction mechanism over Syria in 2015 to prevent accidental clashes between the two militaries. And while Russia was updated about the incident in real time, according to the Israeli sources quoted by Asharq al-Awsat, the incident overshadowed the meeting and caused some tension between the officials.
According to the report, Shoigu considered it a “dangerous hostile operation that almost caused a severe crisis.”
Liberman will leave on Wednesday night for a four-day visit to the United States to meet with his American counterpart, James Mattis. During their previous meeting the two defense chiefs discussed issues such as the ongoing civil war in Syria and the threats posed by Iran, and it is believed that Liberman will ask Mattis for the US to act against Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria.