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Netanyahu slated to meet Putin amid friction over Iranian foothold in Syria

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin Wednesday, in the latest in a series of frequent summits between the two amid persistent tensions over the presence of Iran-backed fighters in Syria.

The meeting between the two comes days after Israel was blamed for an airstrike on a Syrian airbase near Homs thought to be used by Iranian militiamen and other Shiite fighters.

Jerusalem has also focused in recent days on keeping Syrian fighters out of a demilitarized zone on the Golan border as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and backed by Russian air power look to take over the last pockets of rebel resistance in southern Syria.

Netanyahu is slated to land in Moscow Wednesday afternoon and return to Israel early on Thursday. While in the Russian capital, he is expected to attend the World Cup semifinal match between England and Croatia.

Though Russia backs Assad and is allied with Iran, it has turned a mostly blind eye to frequent sorties attributed to Israel against Syrian and Iranian targets. Netanyahu has credited Russia’s willingness to tolerate Israeli air activity to his frequent consultations with Putin.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

The two most recently met in Moscow on June 15. Shortly after that meeting, an airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel targeted an Iranian military base.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu met with Putin’s special envoy Alexander Lavrentiev and Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Vershinin in Jerusalem to discuss “regional developments,” according to the prime minister’s office.

During the meeting, Netanyahu reiterated Israel’s position that it would “not tolerate a military presence by Iran or its proxies anywhere in Syria and that Syria must strictly abide by the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement,” his office said.

Israel has repeatedly vowed it will not tolerate any Iranian military presence in Syria and has carried out strikes against Tehran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Syrian government soldiers ride in an army truck near the Nassib border crossing with Jordan in the southern province of Daraa on July 6, 2018. (AFP Photo/Mohamad Abazeed)

Russia has reportedly agreed to keep Iranian troops a certain distance from the Golan border, but has called a complete Iranian withdrawal from the country “absolutely unrealistic.”

Some Israeli analysts interpreted Sunday’s attack on the T-4 airbase, deep inside Syria, as a signal to Putin that Israel was sticking to its guns regarding any Iranian presence in the country.

“The very fact of Iranian presence in Syria is, in our view, unreasonable. We are not prepared to accept Iranian presence in any part of Syria and, as I’m sure you’ve heard more than once, we will act against Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” defense minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday during a tour of the border region.

While Russia does not seem to have accepted Israel’s demand for Iran to be completely removed from Syria, it has agreed to force the Islamic Republic’s forces and proxies to leave the areas closest to the border with Israel. As stated by some reports, pro-Iranian forces would be required to stay 40 kilometers (25 miles) away from the border; others indicate that range would be set at 80 kilometers (50 miles).

Israeli soldiers at an army base in the Golan Heights look out across the border with Syria on July 7, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

“Regarding a retreat to 40 kilometers or 80 kilometers, it doesn’t matter. Therefore, the moment we see Iranian presence, we take action, and that is how it will continue,” Liberman said.

He also accused the Syrian regime of allowing Iran-backed terrorists to set up “infrastructure” near Israel’s border and threatened that “everybody will pay the price, including the regime.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman peers through binoculars on a hilltop overlooking the border with Syria as Brig. Gen. Amit Fisher gives him a briefing on developments in the area, on July 10, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

“We are seeing efforts by figures associated with the [Iran-led] axis, with permission from the regime, to establish terrorist infrastructure here in the Syrian Golan Heights,” Liberman said.

Liberman threatened that Syrian troops who break the 1974 agreement to establish a buffer zone between the countries would be targeted.

“In our view, the entry of Syrian forces into the buffer zone — any Syrian soldier who finds himself in the buffer zone is endangering their life,” he said.

The buffer zone has become a de facto refugee safe zone with tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing a Russian-backed offensive to take back the southern region in recent weeks.

The defense minister added that Israel was not dismissing out of hand the possibility for some kind of normalization with the Assad regime in the form of opening the Quneitra Crossing between the two countries.

“I believe that we are far from that, but I am not ruling anything out,” he said.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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