Israel on Tuesday held out the prospect of eventual contacts with Syria under Bashar al-Assad presidency, citing the advances made by his government forces in the seven-year of civil war that Israeli officials had initially expected to topple him.
Assad’s Russian-backed forces have advanced in southwest Syria and are on course to reach Quneitra, a rebel-held district abutting the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights frontier with Israel.
These advances have raised Israel's concern over Assad's attempt to deploy Syrian troops there, in defiance of the 1974 UN demilitarization accord on the Golan, which bans or imposes restrictions on military deployment on both sides of the Golan Heights.
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman toured Golan Heights on Wednesday and ramped up threats to use armed force should Damascus’s forces encroach.
“Any Syrian soldier who will be in the buffer zone risks his life,” Lieberman told reporters.
However, according to Reuters, Lieberman appeared to signal acknowledgment that Assad would regain control of the Syrian side of the Golan.
Asked by a reporter if he anticipated a time when the Quneitra crossing would be reopened under the UN-monitored armistice between Israel and Syria, and whether the two old enemies could establish “some kind of relationship”, Lieberman said: “I reckon we are a long way from that, but we are not ruling out anything.”
His remarks could foreshadow a more open approach to Assad ahead of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Syria talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday.
He also warned against "the Iranian presence in Syria", vowing that the Israeli military would retaliate "with force" against any terrorist infrastructure that it identifies in the region.
Under the reign of Assad family, Syria had held direct negotiations with Israel in the United States in 2000 and indirect talks brokered by Turkey in 2008. Talks then were based on the possibility that Israel would hand over all or part of the Golan Heights in 1967; however, the two sides did not sign any agreements.
After the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Israeli officials, including former Defense Minister Ehud Barak, predicted the topple of Assad within weeks. Yet, Assad’s forces made advances in 2015 when Russia intervened militarily to support him.
Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah also sent reinforcements to Syria.