U.S. security officials arrive in Israel to discuss Syria border deal

Israeli forces standing guard on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights, Nov. 27, 2016. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

Israeli forces standing guard on the Israeli-Syrian border in the Golan Heights, Nov. 27, 2016. (Basel Awidat/Flash90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – U.S. National Security Council officials arrived in Israel for talks with their Israeli counterparts.

Representatives of other security agencies are also participating Tuesday in the discussions, which are focused on the recent U.S.-Russia ceasefire agreement for Syria as well as on Iran.

The agreement, announced in a joint U.S.-Russian statement Saturday, calls for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from southern Syria, including Iranian troops and proxies. However, it does not set a timetable.

According to an Israeli official, militias would be allowed to maintain positions as close at three to four miles to some parts of the border while being pushed up to around 19 miles away in others, Reuters reported Monday.

However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that the agreement does not include a Russian commitment to ensure Iran-linked militias are pulled out of the country. Lavrov said Iran’s presence in Syria is “legitimate,” according to the Interfax news agency.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that Israel will not be bound by the deal.

“I have clarified to our friends in Washington and our friends in Moscow that we will operate in Syria, including southern Syria, in accordance with our understanding and in accordance with our security needs,” Netanyahu said, describing Israel’s security policy as “the right combination of firmness and responsibility.”

On Friday, a Western security official told the BBC that Iran was setting up a permanent base on a site used by the Syrian army near el-Kiswah, eight miles south of Damascus, and 30 miles from the Israeli border.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Eisenkot reportedly flew secretly to Brussels Thursday to meet with Gen. Curtiss Scaparrotti, head of the U.S. army’s European Command, and discuss Iranian moves in Syria.

Israel has lobbied against allowing Iran to maintain any presence in Syria. In September, Haaretz reported that Israel asked the United States and Russia to keep Iran and its proxies at least 30 miles away from the border, but the Russians agreed to only three miles.

Netanyahu has warned that Iran plans to create a permanent presence in the country, including with naval and air force bases, and that Israel will not allow it to happen.

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