August 3, 2017 | Policy Brief

Russian Troops Deploy Near Syria-Israel Border

August 3, 2017 | Policy Brief

Russian Troops Deploy Near Syria-Israel Border

In late July, Russia deployed four military police battalions to monitor a pair of safe zones in Syria, including a southwestern zone negotiated with the United States. The 5,500-km2 zone, roughly the size of Delaware, shares lengthy borders with both the Golan Heights and Jordan. Russian personnel will have exclusive responsibility for monitoring the zone from positions at its perimeter. Israel has publicly opposed the U.S.-Russian agreement, raising concerns regarding Russia’s unwillingness to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from entering this zone.

In early July, the United States, Russia, and Jordan announced a ceasefire in southwestern Syria. Whereas Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russian military police would monitor the zone, a senior State Department official refused to acknowledge such an agreement. The State Department also disputed assertions by Pentagon officials that the U.S. military received no guidance on its role in enforcing or collecting intelligence on the ceasefire.

Overall, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hailed the ceasefire as the “first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.” Tillerson also said the U.S. hoped to replicate the ceasefire in other parts of Syria and that, with regard to Syria, U.S. and Russian objectives “are exactly the same.”

Even so, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned the ceasefire. Israel was not included in the negotiations, but Netanyahu spoke with Tillerson and Russian President Vladimir Putin to raise concerns about Iran and its proxies consolidating their positions near the Israeli border. In separate conversations with American officials, Israel objected to Russia policing the zone.

Netanyahu initially expressed optimism that Tillerson and Putin understood Israel’s requirements and would take them into account. The text, however, apparently did not address Israeli concerns. According to a senior Israeli official, the agreement – whose text remains secret – does not mention Iran, Hezbollah, or Shiite militias specifically. On a related note, Chief of the Russian General Staff Sergei Rudskoi did not mention the groups in his briefing on Russian monitoring of the zone.

In light of Moscow’s close alignment with Tehran and Damascus, it is difficult to see what interest Russia has in excluding Iran, Hezbollah, or other Shiite militias from this zone. The ceasefire also allows the Assad regime and its partners to seize the initiative elsewhere in Syria, at the expense of the U.S. and its partners. Specifically, the regime has used the ceasefire to facilitate its offensive directed toward the Islamic State-held provincial capital of Deir ez-Zour. For now, the United States lacks a clear strategy to prevent Iranian-aligned forces from exploiting the vacuum emerging from the Islamic State’s disintegration.

Alexandra Gutowski is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where she focuses on military affairs and manages FDD’s Military Edge website. Follow her on Twitter @angutowski.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.

1. “Briefing of Main Operational Directorate Chief Colonel General Sergei Rudskoy,” YouTube, July 24, 2017. ( )

2. “القوات الروسية المنتشرة شمال درعا تحرم ميليشيات النظام من الأتاوات (Russian troops deployed north of Daraa deprive the regime's militias of royalties),” All4Syria, July 26, 2017. (


Israel Russia Syria