Golan Heights (AFP) – Near an abandoned United Nations observation point whose wall had been riddled with bullets, Syrian and Russian policemen gazed across the Golan Heights near the Israeli border.
The faded UN logo on the hut’s rusty roof was barely visible in Tal Krum, just inside the buffer zone that separates war-torn Syria to the east, from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the west.
His back to the hilly Israeli side, the Russian army’s Lieutenant-General Sergei Kuralenko on Tuesday told reporters on an organised press tour how “stability” had returned to the buffer zone.
Apart from “a few problems with the Islamic State” jihadist group in its southern tip, the demilitarised zone was “entirely under control of Syrian military police”, Kuralenko said.
“Everything is ready” for the return of UN troops, he said, after the peacekeepers were forced to withdraw in 2014.
With help from its Russian ally, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime has expelled rebels and jihadists from large parts of the country’s south since June.
After retaking most of the two southern provinces adjacent to the buffer zone, regime forces last month raised their flag inside, above the key border crossing of Quneitra.
The Russian military police have set up four observation points along the demarcation line on the Syrian side of the buffer zone, Kuralenko said, and plan to set up four more in the near future.
They are “willing to hand them over to the UN if it says it is ready to ensure the monitoring of the Golan alone”, he said.
– ‘Ensure security’ –
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan from Syria in the 1967 “Six-Day War” and later annexed it in a move never recognised internationally.
In 1974, a UN peacekeeping mission was created to monitor the ceasefire line separating Israelis from Syrians.
But in 2014, the United Nations Disengagement Observation Force was forced to withdraw after Syrian rebels and jihadists overran it, briefly kidnapping more than 40 Fijian UNDOF troops.
UNDOF resumed its activities on the Syrian side in February, and earlier this month carried out its first patrol since 2014 to the Quneitra crossing.
“There should be no military forces in the area of separation other than those of UNDOF,” according to a UN Security Council resolution in June.
With that in mind, Russia is demining the areas around the observation posts abandoned in 2014 to help establish secure patrolling routes for the UN troops, Kuralenko said.
“Our mission here is to ensure security so that the UN flag can fly above their posts and that (UNDOF) work without restriction in the zone,” he said.
A UN spokesman was not immediately available for comment.
But on Tuesday, Syrian Defence Minister Ali Abdullah Ayub received a UN delegation including UNDOF chief Francis Vib-Sanziri in Damascus, Syrian state news agency SANA said.
They spoke of redeploying UN forces on the Syrian side, it said.
– Iranians? –
During the media tour Brigadier-General Muhammad Ahmad, from Syria’s military police, accused the peacekeepers of fleeing when they were needed in 2014 but said they were welcome to return.
“The UN is welcome — if it wants to cooperate with Russia and with us,” he said.
In Hamidiyeh, less than a kilometre (mile) from the demarcation line with Israel, buildings lay in ruins and the white dome of its mosque appeared battered by bombardment.
In front of a destroyed bridge, two Syrian policemen observed a Russian military convoy drive past twice, flying its country’s flag and with its gyrating lights on.
Syrian military police patrol the area, “from time to time” helped by Moscow’s forces, Russian army spokesman Igor Konachenkov told journalists on the press tour.
Though Russia has maintained friendly ties with Israel, it has backed Assad’s regime alongside two sworn enemies of the Jewish state: Iran and Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
Israel has repeatedly pledged to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence along its border. A series of air strikes that killed Iranians inside Syria have been attributed to Israel.
Asked about any Iranian presence in the Golan, Konachenkov’s face became tense.
“The Russian army has nothing to say about the presence or not of any Iranians,” he repeated several times.
Syrian military police members also systematically refused to answer the question.
In late July, Russia offered to keep Iranian forces 100 kilometres (60 miles) from the demarcation line, according to an Israeli official.