Ahead of an expected regime offensive in southern Syria, Syrian government troops should be the only ones present on the country’s southern border, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Monday. The statement carries great significance south of the border in Israel.
“Of course, all non-Syrian forces should be withdrawn on a reciprocal basis,” he was quoted as saying by the RIA news agency. “This should be a two-way process. The situation, when only representatives of the Syrian armed forces will be deployed on the Syrian side of the border with Israel, should become the outcome of such work.”
Lavrov made his comments at a joint news conference in Moscow with his Mozambique counterpart, Jose Condungua Pacheco. He also touched on the US military camp at al-Tanf on the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border, which has been criticized repeatedly by Moscow.
According to a Channel 2 report, Lavrov’s comments are part of an understanding reached between Israel and Russia to keep Iranian and Hezbollah forces away from Syria’s border with Israel on the Golan Heights.
According to the report, Israel and Russia have reached an agreement whereby Israel will not intervene to prevent the deployment of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s troops to the southern border and the Golan Heights, effectively reasserting Assad’s control there, and Moscow will make sure that these troops do not include Iranian or Hezbollah forces.
The report said Israel will also retain its freedom of action against Syrian entrenchment inside Syria.
In addition, according to the report, Russia will call publicly for all foreign forces to leave Syria – something Lavrov did on Monday.
Jerusalem has been urging Moscow for months to ensure that Iran, the Shia militias under its control and Hezbollah leave Syria.
Moscow, according to Israeli officials, recently has become more amenable to the request out of concern that an Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria – likely if Iran continues to entrench itself militarily in the country – would endanger Moscow’s gains there.
Meanwhile, several Arabic- language media outlets carried unconfirmed reports of indirect negotiations between Israel and Iran.
Another report claimed the Syrian regime has proposed a deal in which Hezbollah and Iranian militias would be pulled some 25 kilometers from the border with Israel’s Golan Heights “The Syrian regime has sent a proposal through mediators to regional countries that will ensure the withdrawal of Hezbollah and Iranian militias about 25 kilometers away from the disengagement line in the Golan,” an unnamed Western diplomat was quoted as saying by the London-based Al Sharq al Awsat newspaper.
The report also said US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield has been working on a deal that would see, among other things, the withdrawal of all Syrian and non-Syrian militias some 20 to 25 km. from the Jordanian border and the formation of a US-Russian mechanism to control the implementation of the agreement.
The Syrian regime allegedly proposed arrangements to allow local councils to govern in the villages of the Syrian Golan, including Beit Jinn, which was recaptured by troops loyal to the Assad regime several months ago.
It also included the possibility of considering reviving the disengagement agreement between Syria and Israel from 1974, allowing for UN troops to monitor the demilitarized zone between the two countries.
Phillip Smyth, a Soref Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post
pulling Iranian forces out from southern Syria “requires further definition.”
“There are numerous forces, including some that are locally based in southern Syria under the control of Tehran and Lebanese Hezbollah,” he said, adding that he has “a hard time believing that Iran will adhere to any arrangement involving their pullout from this zone. How long will it be before they are back in the area? It is a key strategic goal for Tehran to maintain a presence in southern Syria, and they have tried to do this since at least 2013.”
Another unconfirmed report on Monday in the Syrian opposition newspaper Zaman al-Wasl claimed the commander of the Syrian Air Force has decided Damascus will no longer allow Iranian- backed Shi’ite militias to use its bases to store ammunition and host fighters.
According to the report, the Assad regime has been in a “panic following recent Israeli attacks.”
But according to Aymenn al-Tamimi, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, it is “highly implausible” that the Assad regime will break its alliance with Tehran “Iran has expended considerable resources to ensure Assad’s survival,” he told the Post, adding that nevertheless, “Assad recognizes that some actions by Iran or Iranian- backed groups would not be in his interest, such as if they were to clear out border areas with the Golan and establish bases there.
Accordingly, there are certain measures he can take to prevent that outcome: for instance, through trying to bring about reconciliation agreements in the border areas that allow the local rebel factions to act as holding forces, an outcome we have seen in Beit Jinn.”
The unconfirmed reports by Al Sharq al Awsat and Zaman al-Wasl come as the Saudi-owned Elaph news site reported that Israel and Iran had been engaged in indirect negotiations in Amman, Jordan, over the weekend.
According to Elaph, “The talks with the Israelis were related to fighting in Syria and the nearing campaign in southern Syria, particularly in Dera’a and Kuneitra.”
Iran’s ambassador to Jordan pledged not to participate in the upcoming offensive by the Assad regime in southwestern Syria against rebel groups, while Israel agreed not to intervene in the battles in the tri-border area as long as Hezbollah and Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias are not involved.
The alleged negotiations were said to be mediated by a Jordanian who carried messages between the Iranian ambassador to Jordan, who was in one hotel room with Iranian security personnel, while senior Israeli security officials, including the deputy head of the Mossad, were in the next room.
On Monday, it was announced that Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will leave for a working visit to Russia on Wednesday along with the head of IDF Military Intelligence, Maj.- Gen. Tamir Hyman, at the invitation of his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu.
Liberman will also be joined by Zohar Palti, head of the Defense Ministry’s Political- Military Affairs Bureau, and other representatives of the defense establishment.
Channel 10, meanwhile, reported that National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will travel to Washington on Tuesday for his first meeting with new US National Security Adviser John Bolton. The talks are expected to focus on coordinating positions regarding both the US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal, as well as efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.