EXCLUSIVE: Israeli, Syrian officers met to discuss return of Assad army to Golan
JALAA MAREY (AFP)
Israeli and Syrian officers have recently held three meetings in the Golan Heights to discuss the return of the Syrian army to its posts near the border, Arab state security sources told i24NEWS on Tuesday.
The rare direct meetings between Syrian and Israeli officers were mediated by the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) and Russian officials, and came amid tensions between Syria and Israel over intense fighting between President Bashar Al-Assad's government forces and pockets of rebel-groups and jihadists in the country's southwest.
Brig. Gen (Res.) Hanan Gefen, former commander of the Israel Defense Force (IDF) elite 8200 intelligence unit, told i24NEWS that such direct military coordination is "a totally new phenomena", but also "not surpris[ing]" given Russia's significant involvement in the stabilization of Assad's rule.
"I’m not surprised because I am sure that the Russian military...is very much prominent in the area. They are the buffer between the rebel-taken area and the Syrian regime to avoid massacres and so on. The head of the Russian military police was here in Israel coordinating and he is working with the Syrians closely," Gefen said.
"The last thing that the Syrians would like to see is a confrontation with Israel," he added.
Israel, which technically remains in a state of war with Syria, has adhered to a policy of nonintervention with regards to the eight year long Syrian civil war. But it has been watching developments in the country closely, concerned about the entrenchment of pro-Iranian forces across the border.
Russia, Assad’s main ally, is closely coordinating with Israel on matters concerning the Jewish state’s security concerns in Syria.
On Monday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu held a surprise meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and IDF chief Gadi Eizenkot, during which he asked Russia to help prevent the transfer of Iranian weapons into Syria and help establish a 100 kilometer (62 mile) buffer zone to keep Iranian forces from the Israel-Syria border, a senior diplomatic source said.
According to the diplomatic source, the Israelis made a slew of specific demands of the Russian delegation that are coordinated with and have the backing of the United States.
Israel also affirmed that it would maintain its freedom of action over the skies of Syria.
Russia, for its part, has reportedly asked that Israel not interfere in the stabilization of Assad's rule in the region.
Despite its support for Assad, Moscow has adopted a policy of not attempting to interfere with or retaliate to frequent Israeli air strikes -- reported and confirmed -- against Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah targets in the country.
But clashes between Syria and Israel have become an omnipresent threat as Assad's forces wage a major offensive in the vicinity of Israel's northern border to take over the last remaining rebel strongholds in that part of the country.
On Tuesday, Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it shot down a Syrian fighter jet that breached Israeli airspace on Tuesday afternoon, a claim contradicted by Damascus which accused the IDF of firing at one of its warplanes as it carried out operations against jihadists over Syrian territory.
Hours later, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Syria’s penetration of Israeli airspace “a gross violation of the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement with Syria,” referring to a post-war ceasefire agreement establishing demarcating a demilitarized zone along the Syria-Israel border under UN supervision.
“I have reiterated and made clear that we will not accept any such violation. We will not accept any such penetration of, or spillover into, our territory, neither on the ground nor in the air. Our forces acted appropriately. We insist that the Syrians strictly abide by the Separation of Forces Agreement between us and them," he added.
Tuesday's incident came just 24-hours after Israel fired two "David's Sling" interceptors at ballistic missiles launched from Syria due to initial estimates that they would fall inside Israeli territory.
Earlier this month, Israel shot down two Syrian surveillance drones in two separate incidents within days of one another.
i24NEWS Arabic correspondent Firas Hamed contributed to this report.
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