US-Russia cease-fire could reportedly leave Iran-backed forces within 3 miles of Israel’s border

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Iranian-backed forces in Syria could reportedly remain as close as 3 miles from Israel’s border under a recent cease-fire agreement reached by the United States, Russia and Jordan.

An Israeli official said militias allied with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as close at 3 to 4 miles to some parts of the border while being pushed up to around 19 miles away in others, Reuters reported Monday. The positions of the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime will affect the arrangements, the anonymous official said.

The agreement, announced in a U.S.-Russian statement Saturday, affirms a call for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from southern Syria. According to media reports, it applies even to Iranian proxies fighting on behalf of Assad.

But the deal does not include a timetable for the withdrawal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told top ministers Monday that Israel would continue operating in southern Syria when necessary. He said he had informed the United States and Russia of Israel’s stance.

“I have clarified to our friends in Washington and our friends in Moscow that we will operate in Syria, including southern Syria, in accordance with our understanding and in accordance with our security needs,” Netanyahu said.

He described Israel’s security policy as “the right combination of firmness and responsibility.”

Israel has carried out numerous airstrikes in Syria on weapons convoys bound for Hezbollah, a militant group backed by Iran. It has coordinated its activities across its northern border with Russia to avoid conflict, but has said it does not request permission to act.

Senior Israeli ministers had said earlier that the cease-fire does not do enough to protect the border and suggested Israel would continue to act to protect its interests.

“Even though we view favorably the agreement on the need to eliminate the foreign forces — namely, the Iranian forces, Hezbollah and the Shiite militias from the area — the test will be on the ground, not in words but in deeds,” Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told JTA in a statement Monday. “Israel has already made it clear that it shall not accept Iran and its affiliates and proxies basing themselves in Syria, which will be a permanent threat and a constant source of tension, friction and instability.”

After new photos were published of a permanent Iranian base being built some 30 miles from the Israeli Golan Heights, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Saturday that Israel “will not allow the Shiite axis to be established in Syria as a base for action.”

On Sunday, Minister for Regional Cooperation Tzachi Hanegbi said the agreement “does not answer Israel’s unequivocal demands that there will be no developments that bring Iranian or Hezbollah forces closer to Israel’s border with Syria in the north.”

Israel has lobbied against allowing Iran to maintain any presence in Syria. In September, Haaretz reported that Israel asked the United States and Russia to keep Iran and its proxies at least 30 miles away from the border, but the Russians agreed to only 3 miles.

Netanyahu has warned that Iran plans to create a permanent presence in the country, including with naval and air force bases, and that Israel will not allow it to happen.

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