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Russia Says UN Peacekeepers Have Returned To Israeli-Syrian Border


Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian military's General Staff

UN peacekeepers have returned for the first time in years to the frontier between Syria and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and are conducting joint patrols there with Russian military police, the Russian Defense Ministry has announced.

The milestone development on August 2 reflects Moscow's increased role in mediating decades-old disputes between Israel, Syria, Iran, and other countries in the region.

As Russian-backed Syrian forces have regained control over Syria's border areas with Israel and Jordan in recent months, Israel has sought Russia's involvement in securing those borders and in scaling back Iran's influence in Syria.

Israel has portrayed Iran's growing clout and military presence in Syria -- where Tehran stations military advisers and sponsors Shi'ite militias fighting on the side of the Syrian government -- as a major threat to the Jewish state.

While Moscow has rejected as "unrealistic" Israel's demands that all Iranian-allied forces exit Syria, it has offered to create a buffer zone with no Iranian forces in the border region while reinstituting the role of United Nations peacekeepers to ensure peace between Syria and Israel.

Colonel General Sergei Rudskoi of the Russian General Staff said on August 2 that UN peacekeeping patrols have resumed after being driven from the region amid the fighting and chaos of Syria's seven-year civil war. The UN patrols were first deployed along the frontier in 1974 after several wars between Syria and Israel.

"Today, UN peacekeepers accompanied by Russian military police conducted their first patrols in six years in the separation zone," Rudskoi told a briefing for journalists in Moscow.

Russia's military police, besides accompanying the peacekeepers on their patrols, will set up eight Russian-manned observation points opposite the UN points "to rule out possible provocations," Rudskoi said.

When the situation stabilizes, he said, the Russian-manned posts will be handed over to Syrian government forces.

Israel acknowledged a return to normalcy along the frontier.

Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the situation on the Syrian side of the boundary has returned to its pre-2011 state in the days since Syrian government forces, supported by Russia's military, ousted the last Syrian rebel groups from the area.

Lieberman said Israel will have "no cause to intervene or operate in Syrian territory" if Damascus respects the 1974 disengagement agreement between the two nations -- and as long as Syria doesn't become a staging ground for Iranian forces to attack Israel or to transfer arms to Hizballah in Lebanon.

The border area was peaceful for decades after the 1974 agreement was reached but became a fighting ground at the height of the Syrian civil war. The UN peacekeeping force was finally pushed out in 2014 after Al-Qaeda militants kidnapped 45 UN peacekeepers. They were released two weeks later.

A day before the joint Russia-UN patrols, Russia announced it had reached an agreement with Israel to keep pro-Iranian fighters 85 kilometers from its border, in the first publicized results of recent extensive Russian mediation efforts.

Russian officials announced that Moscow gave Israel guarantees that the zone would be clear of pro-Iranian fighters. Russia's ambassador to Israel had warned it would be "unrealistic" to expect Iran to fully withdraw from Syria.

During their summit in Helsinki, Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Donald Trump said they were exploring ways to protect Israel from the war in Syria.

They didn't elaborate, but later Putin said he agreed with Trump on securing Israel's border with Syria in line with the 1974 UN agreement.

Earlier on August 2, Israel's military spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus, said Israeli military aircraft killed seven "armed terror operatives" who had attempted to cross from Syria into Israeli territory late on August 1. He said a preliminary assessment was that the infiltrators were Islamic State militants.

With reporting by AP and Reuters
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