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Russian Military Says Helping Restore UN Patrols On Syrian-Israeli Border

Peacekeeping troops from the unarmed United Nations Truce Supervision Organization look over the border line between Israel and Syria at refugee tents erected on its Syrian side and seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights last month.

The Russian military says that its forces in Syria have made plans to help UN peacekeepers fully restore patrols along the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

"The Russian flag is the guarantor of peace and security on that land," Lieutenant General Sergei Kuralenko told reporters on a trip to the area organized by the Russian Defense Ministry on August 14.

He said that Russian and Israeli officials had maintained regular communications following talks at the Kremlin last month between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and suggested that his troops were carrying out an agreement to help ensure Israeli's security worked out between the two leaders with support from the White House.

"Operations by Russian military police help ensure the security of Israel," Kuralenko said.

The presence of Russian military police alongside United Nations peacekeepers on the Syrian-Israeli border reflects Moscow's growing clout in the region as well as its deepening role in mediating decades-old disputes between longtime foes there.

As Russia has helped its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, regain control over territory once held by rebels in the last year, it has stationed military police in all the recaptured areas including the border with Israel, where Assad's forces last month ousted most remaining rebel fighters.

Kuralenko said that Russian military police had set up four checkpoints on the edge of the demilitarized zone between Syria and the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria during a 1960s war, and plan to add another four.

"The Russian military police work in close interaction with the UN," he said, adding that the military had set up a hotline with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force and held regular meetings to coordinate their actions.

He said that a top priority for the Russian military police was to help clear mines left by militants. He said Russian forces had inspected the demilitarized zone and adjacent areas to help the UN force map safe routes.

"We are offering all possible assistance to the UN mission to allow it to resume its operations in the demilitarized zone in full," Kuralenko said, adding that the Russian military police will leave once the UN mission fully takes charge.

Syrian Defense Minister General Ali Ayoub, meanwhile, met with Major General Francis Vib-Sanziri, the commander of the UN force, to discuss the situation in the Golan Heights, state news agency SANA said on August 14.

SANA said the officials discussed coordination between the Syrian government and the UN command on the deployment of peacekeepers along the cease-fire line.

The two sides also discussed an agreement for reopening the Quneitra gate, which would allow Syrians living in the Israeli-occupied part of the Golan Heights to cross into Syria, it said.

The UN peacekeepers first deployed in the area in 1974 under a deal to separate Syrian and Israeli forces after Israel seized the Golan Heights during its 1967 war with Syria. But the peacekeepers were driven away by Al-Qaeda-linked militants who took control of the area in 2014.

Kuralenko said most UN facilities in the area were heavily damaged during fighting between Al-Qaeda and Syrian government forces during Syria's seven-year civil war, which has left more than 400,000 dead and millions more homeless.

"The main problem is a large number of explosive objects left," Kuralenko said. "We see our mission not only in clearing mines, but also in training local personnel. We are helping train Syrian military engineers so that they can do the job themselves."

In seeking to carry out a mandate to help ensure Israel's security -- which Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump have said came out of their summit last month in Helsinki -- Moscow is mediating not only between Israel and Syria but between the Jewish state and its archenemy, Iran, which maintains a significant military presence in Syria.

By deploying its forces along the Syrian-Israeli frontier, Moscow has sought to assuage Israeli concerns about the Iranian presence in Syria.

Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran or its ally, the Lebanese Hizballah militia, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria. But Moscow, while maintaining friendly ties with both Israel and Iran, has warned Israel that it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from Syria.

In a bid to accommodate Israel's demands, Moscow announced two weeks ago that it struck a deal with Tehran to keep Iran-allied fighters 85 kilometers from the Golan Heights.

With reporting by AP and Interfax
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