Israel fears Syria buffer will put Iran close to frontier
JERUSALEM (AP) — The official map included in a preliminary agreement that seeks to establish buffer zones in southwest Syria indicates that Iran-backed forces could deploy within several miles (kilometers) of the Israeli frontier — setting the stage for potential conflict between the bitter enemies.
The map shows the buffer area nearly abutting the town of Quneitra next to the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. The Associated Press obtained a copy of the map, part of a “memorandum of understanding” between the U.S., Russia and Jordan reached last week, on Wednesday.
Israel has long complained about the involvement of archenemy Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah in Syria. Iran and its Shiite allies have sent forces to back President Bashar Assad, who appears to be on his way to victory after a devastating six-year civil war.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly warned that they oppose a permanent military presence by Iran or its allies in postwar Syria. Officials have pushed for assurances from the international community that any Iranian-backed forces remain far from Israel’s border.
The map was shown to the AP by an Israeli official. In Washington, a U.S. official confirmed its authenticity, but said the deal was only preliminary and still subject to changes. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
Israeli officials have said little about last week’s preliminary agreement, noting only that Israel was not a party to the deal and will defend its interests.
During a visit to Israel’s northern border on Wednesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman stressed that the army is prepared for all scenarios.
“We maintain the right to act freely and the only consideration guiding us is the security of the state of Israel,” he said. “We will simply not allow a Shiite or Iranian presence in Syria. We will not allow Syria to become a front line against the state of Israel. Anyone who has yet to understand this, should.”
On Tuesday, Russia’s foreign minister said Moscow has discussed a pullback of foreign fighters from a de-escalation zone in Syria but made no deal on the withdrawal of Iran-backed forces.
Sergey Lavrov said a deal involving Russia, the U.S. and Jordan envisages an eventual pullback of “non-Syrian units” from the area in Syria’s southwest. He added that “there was no talk about Iran or, moreover, pro-Iranian forces.”
Lavrov noted that Russia and Iran both have a legitimate presence in Syria at the invitation of Assad, unlike a U.S.-led coalition also operating in the country.
Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.