Israel said on Thursday it saw potentially stabilizing benefits to President Bashar al-Assad winning the Syrian civil war, after the Israeli military said it killed seven Islamist insurgents in a rare air strike across the countries’ frontier.
The remarks by Israel’s defense minister signal an emerging Israeli accommodation with Assad, an old enemy who has not sought direct confrontation with Israel, as he regains control of Syria from rebels – including some Islamist groups.
As recently as last week, Israel sounded alarms over Assad’s advances against southwestern rebels: It shot down a Syrian warplane that it said had strayed into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and warned Assad’s Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah reinforcement against trying to deploy on the Syrian-held side.
But Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman struck a cautiously upbeat note 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 defense 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 recognized abroad – Lieberman said: “I believe so. I think this is also in Assad’s interest.”
Shortly after the remarks, Israel’s military said it had carried out an air strike on the Golan on Wednesday night, killing seven insurgents that it believed were from a Syrian wing of Islamic State and en route to attack an Israeli target.
With Assad’s troops closing in, “we see how the ISIS-affiliated terrorists are scattered and are losing terrain,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.
He said the men hit had assault rifles and bomb belts and moved in a battle formation: “We assume they were on a terrorist mission and that they were trying to infiltrate into Israel. It did not seem as if they were fleeing, seeking refuge.”
An earlier Israeli military statement said the air strike took place on the Syrian-held Golan. But Conricus amended that, saying that the location was within Israeli lines.
There was no immediate Syrian government response.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, on Thursday reported clashes going on between Assad’s forces and Islamic State militants on the Syrian Golan.
The Syrian civil war erupted in 2011 and Russian intervention in 2015 helped to turn the tide in Assad’s favor.
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, describing the move as aimed at supporting a decades-old U.N. peacekeeper presence.
The new Russian posts would be handed over to the Syrian government once the situation stabilized, the ministry said.
Conricus confirmed the Russian deployment but declined to comment further.
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 neighboring Lebanon.
“We are not looking for friction, but we will know how to respond to any provocation and any challenge,” he said.