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While rejecting exclusion zone, Israel puts demands Russia cannot deliver

Jul 26,2018 - Last updated at Jul 26,2018

Israel has twice rejected Russian proposals for the deployment of forces in southern Syria following the capitulation of the insurgent forces in Daraa and Quneitra provinces.

On Monday, Russia offered to exclude Hizbollah and pro-Iranian forces from a 100 kilometre-wide zone stretching from the Golan ceasefire line. Israel had earlier proposed an 80-kilometre exclusion zone.

Syrian forces and Russian police would move into the area along the ceasefire line and guarantee compliance with the 1974 disengagement agreement separating the Syrian and Israeli armies while the 1,100-strong UN observer force would continue its mission to maintain quiet along the line.

Both these Russian proposals were an improvement, favouring Israel over the original plan, which barred Hizbollah and militiamen fielded by Iran from entering a 13-kilometre wide exclusion zone, and called for the deployment of Syrian troops and Russian policemen in the Quneitra area.

Israel's own plan, leaked to the media some months ago, was for a 40-kilometre deep buffer zone occupied and administered by insurgent factions, including Al Qaeda's Hay'at Tahrir Al Sham, formerly Jabhat Al Nusra. These groups have been armed and paid by Israel for several years. Sounds familiar doesn't it? Sounds like Israel's South Lebanon security zone with a South Syrian Army standing in for the South Lebanese Army which served Israel from 1978-2000, when Hizbollah, advised and aided by Iran, kicked Israel and its pals out of Lebanon.

The South Syrian Army plan was knocked on the head when the regular Syrian army, provided with Russian air cover, swept into the south and retook Daraa province and made deals with the insurgents in Quneitra to surrender or evacuate to the north, allowing Damascus to extend its control over the highly sensitive ceasefire line with Israel.

While rejecting the 100-kilometre exclusion zone, Israel puts forward demands Russia cannot deliver. During Monday's meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, "We will not allow the Iranians to establish [a permanent presence] even 100 kilometres from the border."  He said, "All those foreign forces must leave Syria."

Israel insists that all long-range weapons must be removed from Syria, the manufacture of guided weapons must cease and anti-missile and aircraft defence weaponry must be removed from the country. Crossings on the Lebanon-Syria and Iraq-Syria borders must be closed to weapon-smuggling from Iran. 

If the "100-kilometre deal" was discussed and agreed upon by US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during their Helsinki summit on July 16th, the former might not be best pleased with Netanyahu's scuppering it.

Netanyahu has clearly taken his cue from Trump himself who is on the warpath against Iran. Netanyahu is demanding a free hand to take any military action it wants in Syria. This policy contradicts Netanyahu's claim that Israel is "neutral" and not involved in the Syrian conflict. Israel has been intervening from early days in the war. Israel is a regional rogue state always ready to exploit trouble in the Arab world, whatever the consequences.

Russia cannot deliver Israel's demands for several reasons. While Moscow agrees that all foreign forces must leave Syria, excepting Russia’s forces on its naval and air bases in Latakia province, Iranian officers and allied militiamen cannot depart before the Syrian military recaptures Syria's territory from various insurgent groups and stabilises the country. Syrian army ground forces remain undermanned and overstretched and cannot hope to impose control over the entire country, where pockets of insurgents continue to roil the situation.

Russia cannot deny the Syrian military long-range weapons, the right to produce arms or possess defensive weapons, and since Iraq and Lebanon have long borders with Syria, Russian cannot effectively interdict the delivery of weapons to Hizbollah. Netanyahu knows this and has made impossible demands. While he has said he can accept that Syrian President Bashar Assad will remain in office, he and other regional and international leaders still hope to topple him, unleashing conflicts among Syria's many warlords and plunging the country into chaos that will, ineluctably, spill across its borders.

Netanyahu's intention is to make it all the more difficult for Damascus to pacify the south, bring about the return of displaced civilians to their homes and "normalise" the situation so people can reclaim their lives. Once the army establishes full control, opening the border with Jordan is certain to be given priority by Damascus and Moscow.

This will give Syrians living in the south the ability to travel outside their country, restart trade between the two countries and enable Syrian refugees living in Jordan to return home. Moscow and Washington are discussing plans for mass refugee return.

Assad is determined to achieve a certain degree of "normalisation" in the south before shifting the focus of the military to Idlib province in the north, the last refuge and bastion of thousands of takfiri and other fighters. Syria cannot afford to allow them to remain there and mount operations outside Idlib. Neither can the international community as foreign-connected Al Qaeda and Daesh groups are active in Idlib.

The evacuation of 7,000 Shia civilians besieged by takfiri Hay'at Tahrir Al Sham in the villages of Al Foua and Kefraya located in the centre of Idlib province has set the stage for the expected Syrian army offensive there. Damascus and Moscow argue such a campaign is legitimate, as Idlib is dominated by Al Qadea's Tahrir Al Sham, which is excluded from ceasefires as it, along with Daesh, has been branded a terrorist group by the UN and the international community.

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