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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Israel to Russia: Assad's safe from us, but Iran must quit Syria

Israel has been on high alert as Assad forces advance on rebels in the Golan Heights

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on July 11, 2018. EPA
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on July 11, 2018. EPA

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russia on Wednesday that Israel would not seek to topple its ally, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, but Moscow should encourage Iranian forces to leave Syria, a senior Israeli official said.

Mr Netanyahu conveyed the message in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the official said, just hours after Israel shot down what it described as a Syrian drone that had penetrated its airspace, underscoring the frontier's volatility.

Israel has been on high alert as Mr Al Assad's forces advanced on rebels in the vicinity of the Golan Heights, much of which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and annexed in a move not recognised internationally. Israel worries Mr Al Assad could let his Iranian and Hezbollah reinforcements entrench near Israeli lines or that Syrian forces may defy a 1974 Golan demilitarisation agreement.

"They [Russia] have an active interest in seeing a stable Assad regime and we in getting the Iranians out. These can clash or align," said the Israeli official, who requested anonymity.

"We won't take action against the Assad regime," the official quoted Mr Netanyahu as telling Mr Putin in Moscow.

David Keyes, a Netanyahu spokesman, denied that the prime minister made that statement to Mr Putin.

Asked to summarise Israeli policy on Syria, Mr Keyes said: "We don't get involved in the civil war. We will act against anyone who acts against us."

The anonymous Israeli official said Russia was working to distance Iranian forces from the Golan and had proposed that they be kept 80 kilometres away but that this fell short of Israel's demand for their full exit along with that of Iranian-sponsored militias.

Since turning the tide of Syria's civil war by intervening militarily in 2015 on Mr Al Assad's behalf, Russia has turned a blind eye to scores of Israeli air strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah deployments or arms transfers, while making clear it wanted Mr Al Assad kept immune.

Israel said a Syrian drone, apparently unarmed and designed for surveillance, entered its airspace and was shot down by a Patriot missile near the Sea of Galilee on Wednesday. The interception set off air raid sirens on the Golan and nearby Jordanian border.

"We are still looking into why it crossed, whether it was on a military mission and crossed on purpose, or it strayed," said Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman. He said a stray drone was "not common".

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Israel shoots down drone that entered from Syria

Israel says it fired salvo on Syria after drone incursion

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Israeli cabinet ministers threatened this week there would be fire on Syrian forces that enter the Golan buffer zone set up as part of a 1974 United Nations-monitored armistice. The UN last month renewed the mandate of its Golan observer force UNDOF and on Wednesday called on all parties to abide by the armistice.

"There should be no military forces in the area of separation other than those of UNDOF,” a UN spokesman said.

Israel has signalled openness to eventual ties with Mr Al Assad, a tacit acknowledgement that he is re-consolidating power as he routs Syria's rebels.

Under Al Assad family rule, Syria held direct negotiations with Israel in the United States in 2000 and indirect talks mediated by Turkey in 2008. Mr Netanyahu's government has made clear it would not now cede the Golan and has been lobbying for US recognition of Israel's claim of sovereignty there.

On June 24, Israel’s military said it launched a Patriot missile at a drone from Syria, which turned away unscathed. A Syrian commander said the drone was engaged in local operations. On July 6, Israel struck a Syrian post that it said had shelled the Golan buffer zone.

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