JERUSALEM/AMMAN (Reuters) - Israel and Jordan said on Thursday that their forces had killed Islamic State insurgents who approached their borders after being squeezed out of southwestern Syria by the army of President Bashar al-Assad.
In a nod to his battlefield gains, Israel described victory by Assad, who is on a last push to restore his rule after more than seven years of civil war, as a fait accompli that could calm the Golan Heights.
The strategic plateau divides Israel and Syria, old foes, and saw decades of stable stand-off before the Syrian rebellion.
Meanwhile, in a major change to the pre-conflict 2011 status quo, Russian military police began deploying on the Syrian-held Golan and planned to set up eight observation posts in the area, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said.
After weeks of intensive Russian-backed bombing, Syrian forces have seized the lush farmland where the Yarmouk River flows that was once controlled by a group affiliated to Islamic State known as the Khaled Bin Walid Army.
The Israeli military said it carried out an air strike on the Golan on Wednesday night, killing seven insurgents it believed were from the Khaled Bin Walid Army and en route to attack an Israeli target.
Separately, the Jordan military said it had clashed with encroaching Khaled Bin Walid Army fighters for 24 hours between Tuesday and Wednesday, killing an unspecified number of them.
“We applied rules of engagement and members of the Daesh (Islamic State) gang were forced to retreat inside Syria,” an army source told Jordanian state news agency Petra.
CHANGE OF TONE
Assad’s sweep of southwest Syria drove hundreds of thousands of refugees toward Israel and Jordan, alarming both.
As tensions peaked last week, Israel shot down a Syrian warplane that it said had strayed into the Israeli-occupied Golan and warned Assad’s Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah reinforcements against trying to deploy on the Syrian-held side.
But Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman sounded more upbeat on Thursday as he described an Assad win as a given.
“From our perspective, the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule,” Lieberman told reporters during a tour of air defence units in northern Israel.
Asked whether Israel should be less wary of possible flare-ups on the Golan - much of which it seized from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognised abroad - Lieberman said: “I believe so. I think this is also in Assad’s interest.”
There was no immediate Syrian government response to the border clashes reported by Jordan and Syria on Thursday.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, confirmed fighting between Assad’s forces and Islamic State on the Syrian-held Golan, which also abuts Jordan.
In Moscow, the Russian Defence Ministry said its deployment of military police on the Syrian-held Golan was aimed at supporting a decades-old U.N. peacekeeper presence.
It said the new Russian posts would be handed over to the Syrian government once the situation had stabilised.
Lieberman said that, for there to be long-term quiet between Israel and Syria, Assad must abide by a 1974 U.N.-monitored armistice that set up demilitarized zones on the Golan.
Lieberman reiterated Israel’s demand that Iran not set up military bases against it in Syria, nor that Syria be used to smuggle arms to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighbouring Lebanon.
Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Editing by Kevin Liffey, David Stamp, Richard Balmforth
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