July 23, 2018 / 7:16 AM / in a month

Assad advance spurs 'urgent' Russia-Israel talks on Syria buffer

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel rebuffed on Monday a new Russian offer to keep Iranian forces in Syria away from the Golan Heights ceasefire line, an Israeli official said, complicating Moscow’s bid to stabilise the country amid a waning civil war.

An explosion is seen at Quneitra at the Syrian side of the Israeli Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

The latest disagreement arose in a meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russia’s top diplomat and top general, dispatched to Jerusalem as Syrian government forces routed rebels near the Golan.

Israel’s vigilance was underscored by the launch of its latest, U.S.-backed missile shield against rockets that it said were fired from within Syria but which fell short of the Golan lines.

In Monday’s meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Netanyahu said a Russian offer to keep Iranian forces 100 km (62 miles) from the border was not enough, according to an Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“The Russians are speaking about (the 100-km buffer zone) and are committed to it, but we said there are also long-range weapons beyond this zone, and all those forces must leave Syria,” the official said.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a joint statment with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban (not seen) at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, July 19, 2018. Debbie Hill/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

Israel had previously turned down a proposal by Russia, the big-power backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, that Iranian forces be kept 80 km from the frontier, according to Israeli officials.

The Russian embassy in Israel tweeted that Lavrov and armed forces chief General Valery Gerasimov discussed with Netanyahu Assad’s advance in southwest Syria and “issues related to Israel border security”.

MISSILES

Netanyahu held talks with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on July 11 amid Israeli concern that Assad, an old adversary, might defy a 1974 demilitarisation deal on the Golan or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there.

Russia has said it wants to see the separation of forces on the frontier preserved. Lavrov’s deputy, Grigory Karasin, told Russian media the foreign minister’s trip was “urgent and important”.

Before the meeting, Netanyahu said he would tell the envoys that “Israel insists on the separation of forces agreement between us and Syria being honoured, as they were honoured for decades until the civil war in Syria broke out”.

FILE PHOTO: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacts ahead of a joint news conference of U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, Finland July 16, 2018. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor/File Photo

He also reaffirmed “Israel will continue to act against any attempt by Iran and its proxies to entrench militarily in Syria”.

Earlier, Israel launched two David’s Sling interceptor missiles at rockets which it said crashed inside Syrian territory and were part of the internal fighting there.

It was Israel’s first operational use of the mid-range David’s Sling, which is jointly manufactured by U.S. firm Raytheon Co. The incident triggered sirens in northern Israel and on the Golan, sending many residents to shelters.

Throughout the day, Reuters witnesses on the Golan Heights heard explosions and saw plumes of smoke rising from Syrian territory. They saw warplanes and helicopters in the sky from their position west of the Syrian town of Nawa.

An Israeli source briefed on the David’s Sling activation said the interceptor missiles were launched following an initial assessment that the two incoming Syrian SS-21 rockets would hit the Israeli side of the Golan. When Israeli sensors realised they would land on the Syrian side, David’s Sling was given an abort order for the interceptors to self-destruct in mid-air.

The source requested anonymity as the Israeli military had yet to carry out a formal investigation. Asked if the United States was apprised of the incident, the source said: “I’m sure that will happen in the future, as there are joint interests.”

Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Mark Heinrich, William Maclean

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