After continuing escalation in Syria last week in which Syria accused both the US and Israel of conducting two separate airstrikes on pro-government forces, there are new reports of unprecedented indirect talks being held between Iran and Israel. And related unconfirmed reports suggest the Syrian government may have asked Iranian forces to withdraw their presence from key bases previously targeted in Israeli airstrikes.
Though neither side has yet to confirm the events first reported in Saudi media and subsequently picked up in some Israeli media outlets (and are likely not going to), it could constitute the closest the two longtime Middle East enemies have come to engaging in diplomatic dealings over the crisis in Syria.
Israeli military personnel look from the Golan Heights over southwest Syria, November 2017. Image source: Reuters via EA Worldview
The news also comes after the May 10 massive exchange of missiles between Israel and Syria in what was described as the “most direct confrontation between Israel and Iran in decades,” and after Putin told Assad there is a need to withdraw “all foreign forces” from Syria, though it was unclear at the time whether the Russian president meant foreign jihadists and Western forces like the United States, or (as most US outlets reported) Iran’s heavy troop presence in Syria.
The Saudi-owned news site Elaph first revealed that the indirect Iran-Israel talks took place this weekend at a hotel in Amman. Elaph has lately become known for gaining a surprising level of access to Israeli officials, giving it a reputation as a news source Israel uses to communicate its message across the Arab world.
Middle East Eye summarizes the Arabic language story as follows:
Iran reportedly pledged to stay out of fighting in southwest Syria between Syrian forces and rebel groups while Israel said it will not intervene in battles near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights or the Israel-Jordan border so long as Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias are not involved.
For the negotiations, Iran’s ambassador to Jordan, Mostafa Moslehzadeh, stayed in a hotel room with Iranian security personnel next door to a room of senior Israeli security officials, including the deputy head of Mossad, Elaph reported.
Jordanian officials served as mediator, shuttling messages between the two rooms, according to the report.
Apparently, the two sides did come to some agreement of terms. Middle East eye continues:
One participant told Elaph that the Iranians “arrived at a quick agreement” that its forces would not intervene in fighting near the Golan Heights and the Israel-Jordan border, surprising the Israeli representatives.
Currently, Damascus is preparing for a showdown in the south, mustering its forces to take back all of Deraa and Quneitra provinces where fighting began during the opening months the war starting in 2011. Syrian state media has reported that government planes have dropped leaflets over towns in the region, warning anti-Assad forces that they must disarm or face military attack.
Deraa and Quneitra are regions in the south and southwest where anti-Assad militants, most of them al-Qaeda linked, have received strong support from the US-Gulf coalition and Israel. As the Wall Street Journal has long acknowledged, Israel has given direct support to al-Qaeda forces as it sees the terror group as a “lesser evil” compared to Assad and Iran.
And perhaps less well-known is that both current and former Israeli military leaders have express their preference for ISIS on their border, as opposed to pro-Shia Iran forces.
Wall Street Journal: Israel’s main concern is “Iran, not ISIS”:
Meanwhile, President Assad has long vowed to regain “every inch” of Syria; however, this is unlikely to happen without the close military and diplomatic support of allies Iran and Russia.
On Monday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s position that it would not tolerate Iran’s present along the Golan border. “Our position on Syria is clear,” he told his parliamentary faction in televised remarks, “We believe that there is no place for any Iranian military presence, anywhere in Syria.”
This follows a US State Department statement last Friday which threatened that the US would take “firm and appropriate measures” against Syrian government forces, claiming repeat “ceasefire violations” and concerned over the reports of the new military operation in Deraa.
US State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert referenced the thus far tenuously-holding deal between the US, Russia, and Jordan struck last November which among other stipulations proposed efforts for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area to ensure a more sustainable peace.” This was widely interpreted at the time as calling for an “Iran-free zone” in southern Syria, as Israel has long threatened to go to war should Iranian troops be present near its border.
Notably, a Reuters report acknowledges the US warning issued late Friday comes as 1) Syrian government forces have cleaned out the last ISIS pockets in the country’s south; and 2) Damascus is now “in its strongest position since the early months of the war in 2011”. Reuters notes further that the government has “recaptured all remaining insurgent areas near Damascus in recent weeks, including the densely populated eastern Ghouta area, as well as big enclaves in central Syria.”
So essentially while warning against “Assad regime violations” and expansion, the State Department is reasserting the US position that Syria cannot “expand” within its own sovereign borders (borders obviously long recognized internationally and by the United Nations).
But if the new reports of indirect Israel-Iran talks are true, it could signal Israel’s willingness to back down from its dangerous months-long path of escalation in Syria.