DEBKAfile Exclusive Report July 18, 2017, 11:03 AM
Russian army units are preparing to move into the Syrian town of Quneitra in the coming days and take up positions opposite the Syrian-Israeli Golan border, DEBKAfile reports exclusively from military sources. Their function is to police the second zone of southwestern Syria designated for ceasefire by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin when they met in Hamburg on July 7.
Quneitra is just 5km from Israel’s border and the line of IDF positions defending it.
Israel has notified Washington and Moscow that it is flatly opposed to the presence of a Russian unit on its border. However, the US and Russian officers coordinating the ceasefire’s implementation agreed to recommend going forward with the Russian deployment. The White House and the Kremlin gave the officers’ recommendation the green light, virtually imposing it on Israel against its will.
Their argument is that the first ceasefire zone that was established last week in the Daraa front on the Jordanian border will quickly break down if it is not shored up by a second zone at Quneitra.
But the two zones differ in major respects, our military and intelligence sources emphasize.
The understandings drawn up for Daraa between the US, Russia and Jordan, included a clause explicitly providing for the withdrawal of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces, including Hizballah, to a point 40km west or north of the demilitarized town.
This clause never stood up for one moment. As DEBKAfile first disclosed on July 16, even after Russian and Chechen troops moved into Daraa on Sunday, Syrian and Iranian forces did move out, but an elite Hizballah unit remained. The US, Russia and Jordan decided collectively to let this breach of the ceasefire deal go without response and tried to keep it dark.
While acting to procure Jordan’s acceptance for the new format, the two powers refrained from turning to Jerusalem. They knew they would be greeted with a flat rejection, because of an earlier lapse: The clause providing for a 40km withdrawal of Iranian and pro-Iranian troops from Daraa was left out of the deal for Quneitra – heedless of urgent Israeli demands for its inclusion.
The absence of any Trump-Putin commitment on this score leaves Israel fully exposed to the presence of Iranian and Hizballah forces within mortar range of its Golan border in an area supervised by their ally, the Russian military.
It was this danger that galvanized Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu into broadcasting Israel’s total opposition to the Trump-Putin ceasefire for southwestern Syria during his visit to Paris on Monday, July 17, after his talks with President Emmanuel Macron.
In an apparent bid to calm Israel’s concerns, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made an usual statement for a Russian diplomat: “I can guarantee that we have done everything and the US side has done everything to ensure that Israel’s security interests within this framework are fully taken into account,” he said later on Monday.
Careful perusal of this comment revealed to our sources that it was made in the context of a previous ceasefire accord for the Russians had made Turkey and Iran “co-sponsors.” Instead of reassurance, his comment was taken in Israel as a bid to ascertain that the arrival of Russian troops in Quneitra over Israel’s strenuous objections would go smoothly.