Russia exerts growing clout in Middle East as it begins patrols in Golan Heights

Russian military police have begun patrolling the demilitarised zone between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, highlighting Moscow’s increasing clout as a Middle Eastern power broker following its intervention in the civil war there.

“The Russian military police are pioneers in renewing patrols of the Golan Heights,” Lt Gen Sergei Kuralenko told journalists at a damaged United Nations observer post.

“There is almost no danger besides from mines. The whole demilitarised zone is under control now.”

Following the start of the Syrian conflict, militants drove out the UN peacekeepers that had served in the area since 1974.

The pockmarked guardhouses and discarded ammo and rocket-propelled grenade launcher boxes testified to the fierce fighting between Bashar Assad’s regime and the Nusra Front before government forces pushed the al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group from the post and the wider area last month.

The militants turned many of the UN posts into suicide bomber schools, Mr Kuralenko said during a tour organised by the Russian defence ministry.

The mission of Moscow’s forces is to help the UN disengagement observer force restart its monitoring of the zone, he said. They have mapped safe routes and accompanied UN observers down the MCM road through the DMZ this month, he added.

Russian military police have four bases in the area and will establish more on Bravo Line, the side of the zone held by Syria.

Vladimir Putin began backing his ally Assad with bombing runs in 2015, but the Russian role has expanded to include military advisers, police, private military contractors and, according to some reports, ground forces.

As it helped turned the conflict in Assad’s favour, Russia has positioned itself as a major voice in determining the post-war order, holding negotiations with rebels and serving as an intermediary with other governments in the region.

Meanwhile, Syria’s defence minister met with the head of the UN disengagement observer force to discuss coordinating peacekeepers’ deployment and opening the Quneitra gate for Syrians to cross from the Israeli-occupied area into Syria, state news agency SANA reported.

Benjamin Netanyahu has travelled to Russia to meet with Mr Putin and discuss Israel’s concerns over Assad’s other major backer Iran, which has a long history of cooperation with Russia.

Moscow said this month it brokered a deal to keep Iranian forces at least 50 miles back from Israel’s border with Syria in the Golan Heights. At the same time, it has said Iran cannot be completely removed from Syria.

Mr Kuralenko said Russia had held negotiations with Israel, and Jerusalem was aware of Russia’s newly established presence in the zone. The two sides are in regular communication.

“Russian military activities support the security of Israel and they know this,” he said.

Muhamed Ahmad, a brigadier general in the Syrian military police, said Russia had played a lead role in driving out the militants, who he claimed had been backed by Western governments. He said the Damascus government’s only contact with the “enemy” Israel was through Russia and the UN.

Israel captured most of the Golan from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967, after which the UN-administered demilitarised zone was created in the easternmost portion of the heights.

Amid the turmoil of the Syrian civil war, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also occupied part of the DMZ. More than 1,000 Russian sappers are working to de-mine this and other areas in the south of Syria, Mr Kuralenko said.

“The main problem is that there are lots of explosives, especially in the southern part where Isil was,” he said.

The general suggested Russian intelligence agents were also helping in the struggle against radical opposition fighters.

“Some of the militants disappeared into the population, that’s the work of our secret services,” he said.

Human Debeyat, governor of the surrounding Quneitra region, said Russian negotiators had played a key role in convincing more moderate rebel factions in the area to give up their weapons.

He claimed that 70,000 residents had returned to the region thanks to Russian safety guarantees.

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