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Russia Offers To Keep Pro-Iran Forces 100 Kilometers From Israeli Border

Russia has offered to keep pro-Iranian forces in Syria about 100 kilometers from the border with Israel as part of an agreement with the United States and Israel to help guarantee Israel's security, media are reporting.

A Russian delegation headed by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov made the suggestion while meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 23, Israeli television and western media reported, citing Israeli officials.

As he has in the past, Netanyahu demanded during the meeting that all Iranian fighters and their allies be removed from Syrian soil in the long term, media said. He also insisted that Iran should remove all long-range missiles and its air-defense system from the country, media said.

But Israeli media did not characterize Netanyahu's response as a rejection of the Russian plan to keep Iranian military advisers and pro-Iranian fighters, including Lebanon's Hizballah militia, at a substantial distance from Israel as Syrian troops reassert control in the border region.

However, Reuters cited an Israeli official as saying that, while Russia was "committed" to its offer, Netanyahu rejected it and told Lavrov: "We will not allow the Iranians to establish themselves even 100 kilometers from the border" because Iran has long-range missiles that can reach Israel from Syria.

Reuters said Israel previously rejected a Russian proposal to keep Iranian forces about 80 kilometers from the frontier.

Russian officials did not immediately comment on Netanyahu's meeting with Lavrov and the chief of the general staff of the Russian armed forces, General Valery Gerasimov.

Before the meeting, Netanyahu thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump for their agreement at their summit in Helsinki last week to work together to safeguard the security of Israel.

"I appreciated the words that were spoken by President Putin together with President Trump regarding the security of Israel during the recent summit," Netanyahu said.

But with regard to Iran, an avowed enemy of the Jewish state, Netanyahu said: "Israel will continue to act against any attempt by Iran and its proxies to entrench militarily in Syria."

Netanyahu said the Russia delegation came to Israel on short notice at Putin's request to discuss the situation in Syria, where the Syrian Army has been rapidly reasserting control over rebel-held areas of the southwest near Israel's border under surrender agreements brokered by Russia.

As a condition of accepting the return of the Syrian Army to the border region, Netanyahu said Israel was demanding strict adherence to a 1974 disengagement deal that created a buffer zone patrolled by UN forces between Syria and Israel.

Syria and Israel fought two wars over their shared border, in 1967 and 1973, leading to Israel's seizure of the Golan Heights in what was Syria's Quneitra province. The Israeli occupation has never been recognized internationally.

While Israel and the United States have been pressuring Russia to limit Iranian influence in Syria, Moscow contends that it has little influence on the tight relationship between Syria and Iran, and it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country.

Russia and Iran have backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government throughout the war, which started with a crackdown on protests in 2011 and is estimated to have killed more than 400,000 people and displaced 11 million others.

Russia stepped up its military support in 2015, starting a campaign of air strikes and boosting its presence on the ground in a move that helped turn the tide of the conflict in Assad's favor.

Iranian leaders have dismissed U.S. and Israeli calls to leave country, saying that will happen only when Assad asks Iran to go.

Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036.


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