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As Syria Peace Talks Loom, Israel Warns It Will Act To Keep Iran Away From Border

Syria's main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) leader Naser al-Hariri and UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura attend a round of negotiation, during the Intra Syria talks, in Geneva, May 16, 2017

Saudi Arabia is set to host what it has called an “expanded” conference for the Syrian opposition this month, aiming to unify its position ahead of United Nations-backed peace talks, the state news agency SPA reported on Monday, November 13.

Apparently, Riyadh has already gained Moscow’s support for holding the three-day conference on 22-24 November, in Riyadh.

Earlier on November 8, the Russian foreign ministry had announced that Moscow supports Saudi Riyadh’s efforts to form a unified delegation from the Syrian opposition to participate in the Geneva talks, the Russian news agency, TASS reported.

Saudi Arabia backs a grouping of anti-Assad figures called the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) led by Riyad Hijab, a former Syrian prime minister under Assad, Reuters reported on Monday.

The HNC has represented the Syrian opposition at previous Geneva talks. A number of other political opposition groups and figures backed by other countries including Russia and Egypt also exist.

The kingdom, a leading backer of Syrian rebels, supports an international agreement on the future of Syria but insists that President Bashar al-Assad should have no role in any transition to bring the war there to an end.

However, several rounds of U.N. talks in Geneva between the Damascus government and the opposition have made little progress, so far.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested on Monday that Israel would take military action in Syria whenever it sees fit as it seeks to ensure Iran-backed forces stay away from its territory.

Israel has long accused the Islamic Republic, its main enemy, of taking advantage of Syria's civil war to send its Islamic Revolution Guard Corps forces and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah into southern Syria, close to the border with the Jewish state.

While it has sought to avoid being dragged into the fighting in Syria, Israel has carried out dozens of air strikes aimed at what it has called “preventing arms deliveries [from Iran] to Lebanese Hezbollah, which fights alongside Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces”.

Israel was reportedly demanding a buffer zone in southern Syria near Israeli territory of some fifty kilometers (thirty miles), but an agreement reached last week between the United States, Russia and Jordan fell short of that demand, Israeli media said.

"I have made it clear to our friends, first of all in Washington and also to our friends in Moscow, that Israel will act in Syria -- including in southern Syria -- according to our understanding and according to our security needs," Netanyahu told senior members of his Likud party, according to a party statement. "This is what is happening, and this is what will continue to happen", Netanyahu cautioned.

The November 8 agreement between Jordan, the United States and Russia seeks to build on a ceasefire already in place in southwestern Syria.

On Saturday the Israeli military said it shot down a Syrian drone carrying out a reconnaissance mission over the Golan Heights, AFP reported.

"We will not allow the consolidation of a Shiite axis in Syria" as a base for operations against Israel, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement after the incident.

Later Monday, Netanyahu echoed his defense minister’s position, while insisting that some of Israel's “moderate’ Arab neighbors shared its concerns.

"We stand side by side with countries of the moderate camp in the Arab world, confronting radical Islam, no matter where it comes from, be it Iran, the Islamic State group or elsewhere," he asserted, without naming the countries.

"I think that this growing closeness and consultation is first and foremost good for security and ultimately for peace," he added.

"Iran knows very well, and everyone else should be aware, that we shall not agree to nor accept its military deployment in Syria," Netanyahu noted.

Based on reporting by Reuters and DPA