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Netanyahu says no problem with Syria's Assad staying in power

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Wednesday, July 11, 2018.
Yuri Kadobnov/ Pool photo via AP

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signaled on Thursday that his government will accept President Bashar Al-Assad staying in power in neighboring Syria, as his government consolidates a string of military victories. 

Netanyahu's statement came after Israeli sources said Assad's ally Russia had agreed to help bat away Iranian forces from the Israel-Syria border in exchange for Israel adopting a policy of non-intervention in the Syrian civil war. 

“We haven't had a problem with the Assad regime, for 40 years not a single bullet was fired on the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu was quoted by Haaretz newspaper as telling reporters who accompanied him on a visit to Moscow to meet President Vladimir Putin. 

“I have set a clear policy that we do not intervene and we have not intervened," the premier added.

"This has not changed. What has troubled us is ISIS and Hezbollah and this has not changed. The heart of the matter is preserving our freedom of action against anyone who acts against us. Second, the removal of the Iranians from Syrian territory."

Syria splintered into civil war in 2011 when Assad's regime violently repressed demonstrations against his rule during the pro-democracy Arab spring. In recent years the government has slowly gained an upper hand against opposition rebels and global powers have backed away from demanding the dictator's ouster.

SANA via AP

The two countries fought their last direct war in 1973, which formally ended with the signing of separation agreements in their not-yet-finalized borders in the Golan Heights. 

Throughout the civil war, however, Israel is reported to have carried out numerous air strikes against Syrian government targets in the country, alongside those of Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. 

Israel's chief concern is that Iranian-backed forces fighting alongside Assad are attempting to stake out a permanent presence in the country, consolidating in southern Syria astride Israel’s northern border.

Netanyahu's visit to Moscow -- the latest of many -- sought to enlist Russia's help in curbing Iran's military expansion. Russia intervened in the civil war on behalf of Assad in 2015.

After Netanyahu and Putin's meeting on Wednesday evening, Israeli diplomatic sources were quoted as saying by the Ynet website that "Russia is acting to push Iranian forces from near the Syrian border."

In exchange, Haaretz reported citing the same sources, Israel is expected not to "intervene" in Assad's efforts to stabilize his rule. It is not clear what specific actions Putin wants Israel to refrain from taking.

Yuri Kadobnov/ Pool photo via AP

Netanyahu's comments appear to confirm that an arrangement has been struck with Russia over the issue, although the Kremlin did not directly address the content of the leaders' talks. 

Before their meeting, Netanyahu told the Russian president: "Clearly our focus is on Syria and Iran. Our opinion is that Iran needs to leave Syria -- that's not new to you."

Exactly as his plane touched down in Russia, the Israeli military announced that it had shot down a Syrian military drone that entered Israel's airspace. Israeli struck back hours later. 

"Co-operation between us is central to the prevention of these flare ups and deterioration of these situations and others," Netanyahu said, referring to the drone's interception.

Putin, who earlier lauded the state of Israel and Russia's relationship, told the Israeli premier "we are aware of your concerns, let us discuss them in detail" before the two began formal talks.

Wednesday’s Netanyahu-Putin summit is the latest in a series of regular meetings and phone calls between the two leaders since Russia's direct military intervention in the Syrian civil war in support of President Bashar Al-Assad in 2015.

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