The Syrian government has said it is now in full control of its border with Israel along the Golan Heights, after the last pocket of rebel fighters left.
The official Central Military Media outlet said President Bashar al-Assad’s forces took the last remaining areas on Monday, ending a seven-year period of Israeli uncertainty after the Syrian uprising first began in 2011.
However, on the same day, Russia’s Ambassador to Israel said Iranian forces on the Syrian side “is fully legitimate,” shattering hopes that the Kremlin may pressure Tehran to withdraw Iranian Special Forces from the area.
Speaking to Israel’s Channel 10, Anatoly Viktorov said the Russian’s couldn’t force the Iranians out, and wouldn’t want to, because they were “playing a very, very important role in our common and joint efforts to eliminate terrorists in Syria”.
He added that the Iranian presence in Syria “is fully legitimate according to the UN principles and the UN charter” but suggested Moscow would not oppose Israeli bombing raids against Iranian forces, saying Russia recognised Israel’s “legitimate security concerns”.
Israel and Russia set up a military communications channel when Russian forces entered the Syrian conflict, and Israel’s Prime Minister has been in constant communication with Russian President Vladimir Putin, their most recent meeting being held last week.
Israeli leaders have consistently said that they would not countenance Iranian forces on their doorstep, and several airstrikes have targeted Iranian positions in Syria, but Viktorov would not be drawn on reports that Russia had secretly agreed to keep the Iranians at a distance of 100 kilometres from the border.
Israel and Syria still remain officially ‘at war,’ but there have been very few cross-border confrontations since 1974, when the two states signed the Agreement on Disengagement after the Yom Kippur War.
In a rare example of hostility, however, two Israeli missiles downed a Syrian fighter jet last week, after it crossed into Israeli airspace. The jet came down on the Syrian side and the pilot is believed to have been killed.
Israel has not become involved in Syria’s civil war and has said it will not accept refugees, but last week was credited for helping 450 Syrian humanitarian workers and their families escape over the border, transporting them through Israel to Jordan.
The IDF has also set up a field hospital in the Golan Heights, treating wounded Syrians shelled during the long battle between government forces and Sunni rebels.