FRI 15 - 2 - 2019
Jul 6, 2018
The Daily Star
Israel threatens Syria and Russia over Golan deployment
OCCUPIED JERUSALEM/DERAA, Syria: An Israeli Cabinet minister warned Syria and its backer Russia Thursday that Israel could attack Damascus’ forces if they try to deploy in a demilitarized border zone while advancing against rebels in the region. Syrian President Bashar Assad launched an offensive last month to regain southern Deraa, and is expected to aim next for rebel-held Qunaitra, abutting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The fighting has displaced more than 320,000 people, according to the United Nations. Many of them have sought shelter at the Jordanian border or the Golan lines with Israel, generating pressure on both countries to provide relief.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow next Wednesday, called twice this week for the preservation of a U.N.-monitored 1974 Israeli-Syrian armistice barring or limiting military build-ups by either side around the Golan.
“We must verify and do everything to clarify, vis-a-vis the Russians, the Assad government, that we will not accept any armed presence by the Assad regime in the areas which are meant to be demilitarized,” Gilad Erdan, a minister in Netanyahu’s security cabinet, told the Israeli news site Ynet Thursday.
Asked whether Israel was prepared to take preventive action against the Syrian military, Erdan said: “Unequivocally, yes.” He cited, as precedents, Israeli airstrikes carried out in recent months against Syrian facilities deemed to have been used in attacks on Israel or by Assad’s Iranian reinforcements.
“Here, too, if there is a violation, and certainly in the southern Syrian region which is close to the citizens of the State of Israel, and a bringing of weaponry that should not be there, Israel will take action,” Erdan said.
A March report on the activities of the U.N. Disengagement and Observer Force on the Golan said that Syria’s military maintained positions which violated the 1974 accord, as did Israel’s deployment of 155 mm artillery, its Iron Dome anti-missile systems and other related equipment.
Israel Sunday sent more artillery and tanks to the Golan in what it said was a precaution in light of the Deraa fighting.
The Netanyahu government refuses to provide asylum for refugees from Syria, an enemy country. But Israel’s military and civilians have stepped up humanitarian relief work on the Golan.
With hundreds of new refugees from Deraa turning up on the Golan daily, foreign volunteers bagged clothing, toys and baby goods that had been donated by Israelis and loaded them onto a truck for transfer and distribution across the boundary fence.
Rebels in the south, meanwhile, were returning to talks with Russia after the most intensive bombing campaign yet in the regime’s 2-week-old offensive.
More than 30 towns have already agreed to fall back to regime control, and negotiations this week focused on the remaining rebel territory in Deraa’s western countryside and the southern half of the provincial capital.
But those talks fell apart Wednesday because of Russia’s tough demands, rebels said, ushering in a
ferocious blitz of airstrikes, barrel bombs, and missiles.An AFP correspondent on the edge of the rebel-held south of the city of Deraa, the divided provincial capital, said the bombing was the heaviest since the launch of the Russian-backed offensive June 19.
Twenty-four hours into the onslaught, rebels announced they were willing to return to negotiations.
“The talks will resume,” Hussein Abazeed, spokesman for joint rebel command in the south, told AFP.
He had earlier accused Russia of pursuing a “scorched earth policy” to force rebels to return to the negotiating table.
The joint command also issued a statement saying it would be willing to hold “a new round of negotiations” if a halt to hostilities was immediately put into place.
As rebels made their announcement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights activist group reported a halt to both Russian and Syrian government airstrikes over the south.
The daylong volley began Wednesday evening, after rebels announced the failure of talks with Russian negotiators over the south’s fate.
They said Russia had insisted opposition factions hand over their heavy weapons in one go, while rebels wanted to do so in several phases.
Moscow also reportedly refused requests from some rebels for safe passage to opposition-held territory in other parts of Syria, as was done in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo.
The resumption of strikes hit areas near the border with Jordan and further west, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
Six civilians, including a woman and four children, were killed in strikes on the town of Saida.
Hours later, regime forces fully retook the town and also seized control of a security checkpoint on the Jordanian border for the first time in more than three years, the monitoring group said.
Rebels subsequently handed over a large swathe of the border area, amounting to 275 square kilometers, to regime forces without a fight.
But the main prize, the Nasib border crossing, still remains in opposition hands.
Syrian state media said government forces were targeting rebel positions in the southernmost parts of the province, and reported one person killed in opposition fire on government-held districts of Deraa city.
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