Israel attempted to turn the U.S. and Russia around on their plans for a ceasefire in southern Syria at two top-level, clandestine meetings held last month over the continued presence of Iranian forces and Lebanese militia Hezbollah in the war-torn country.
Haaretz reported that the U.S. and Russia held a series of secret meetings with Israel in early July, meeting in the Jordanian capital Amman and in one unnamed European capital city to discuss the plans for the establishment of safe zones in Syria. The partial ceasefire was announced by President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg just days later.
Israeli officials and Western diplomats said under condition of anonymity that Israel's representatives at the secret summits included senior officials from the Israeli Foreign Ministry, Defense Ministry, Mossad and the Israel Defense Forces. Michael Ratney and Brett McGurk, Trump’s special envoys on Syria, led the U.S. negotiators and Alexander Lavrentiev, Putin’s Syria envoy led the Russian team.
The main sticking point between the tripartite group was the continued presence of Iran, which backs Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and its proxy forces in Syria. Israel considers the growing power of Shiite Iran to be its principal threat in the region while the U.S. and Russia see defeating and degrading the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) in Syria and elsewhere their principal goal, with the ceasefire in Syria a means to that end.
Israeli officials argued to their counterparts that the continued presence of Iran in the country could shift its sectarian balance between Shiites and Sunnis. As such they said the ceasefire should include the removal of all Iranian and Iran-backed forces including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hezbollah from Syria. Otherwise, the Israelis said, Syria, like Lebanon and Gaza, could become a launching pad for attacks against against them.
A senior Israeli official said the draft of the United States and Russia’s plans were met with shock. The agreement made no mention of Iran’s presence in Syria, or mentioned Hezbollah or the Islamic Republic once, to Israel's surprise.
On 16 July Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu came out publicly against the ceasefire, reiterating that it provided Iran a foothold in Syria.
Iran has supported the regime of President Bashar al-Assad alongside Russia in Syria. It has provided ground troops, tactical advisers and Shiite militiamen from countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq to bolster Damascus' forces.
Both Iran and the U.S. are working to degrade ISIS in Syria, but the U.S. role is limited to special forces on the ground and a coalition of air forces bombing the jihadi group from above. Washington and Tehran rarely recognize the role of the other in combating the threat of ISIS and are avoiding any escalation between the two militaries.
This has not extended to the Assad regime. President Donald Trump in April authorized the first American strike against the Syrian government.
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