An Israeli cabinet minister warned Syria and its backer Russia on Thursday that Israel could attack Damascus' forces if they try to deploy in a demilitarized border zone while advancing against the opposition in the region.
Israel's main concern is to keep archrival Iran, an Assad ally, as far away from its border as possible — along with its proxy, the Lebanese militia Hezbollah. 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 on Thursday, as reported by Reuters. Asked if Israel was prepared to take preventive action against the Syrian military, Erdan said: "Unequivocally, yes." He cited, as precedents, Israeli air strikes carried out in recent months against Syrian facilities deemed to have been used in attacks on Israel or by Assad's Iranian reinforcements.Israeli leaders have sent a series of messages making clear that they expect Assad and his Iranian-backed allies to honor a decades-old agreement that sets out a demilitarized zone along the frontier and limits the number of forces each side can deploy within 25 kilometers (15 miles) of the zone.
"We have a Separation of Forces Agreement with Syria from 1974," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared this week, The Associated Press reported. "This is the guiding principle. We will adhere to it very strictly and so must others, everyone."
The agreement was signed a year after an Arab-Israeli war in which Syrian forces failed to retake a large part of the Golan Heights area annexed by Israel in 1967, in a move not recognized abroad.
The strategic highland has since been annexed by Israel, bringing some Israeli troops as well as settlements to within a few dozen kilometers of Damascus. Although Syria has long demanded the area back — and no countries recognize Israel's annexation — the border has mostly been quiet for decades.