Hama, Syria [file photo].
(photo credit: BERNARD GAGNON- WIKIMEDIA)
As the Syrian regime is building up for a major offensive in southern Syria, Israel has been pressuring Iran to leave Syria so it will not continue to benefit from the regime’s gains. Last week it appeared Jerusalem and Moscow had come to something of an agreement that would see Iranian forces leave Syria. However, on Saturday, a diplomatic source in Jerusalem refuted that claim and said Israel denied reports of an understanding.
The current controversy comes after a week of tension in southern Syria. This is an area that has been controlled by Syrian rebels since shortly after the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Over the years, Israel has watched as different groups in southern Syria came to control different parts of the area near the Golan border. Jihadists associated with the Nusra Front, which was al-Qaeda in Syria, briefly were influential near the border, and an Islamic State affiliate also took over a small area. The Syrian regime has increasingly put pressure on the rebels in the south and took over an area called Beit Jann near the Hermon earlier this year. Israel has sought to prevent Iran as well as its allies such as Hezbollah from encroaching on the border.
Israel has enjoyed amicable relations with Moscow regarding Syria since 2015, when Russia began to intervene more heavily in the Syrian conflict. This has involved meetings at the highest level and frequent productive conversations between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Since US President Donald Trump took office in 2017, Jerusalem has also expected Washington to shift its policy on Iranian involvement in Syria from one of tolerating Iran’s role there to confronting it.
The current situation in southern Syria is a result of the cease-fire signed in July 2017 between Russia, the US and Jordan. The cease-fire means the Syrian rebels have continued to control an area along the Golan and Jordan’s border. But US support for them has been winding down. Jordan, which is currently suffering limited protests, does not want instability caused by a Syrian offensive in the south which might see the rebels defeated and refugees pour across the border.
To prevent an offensive, the US State Department warned on May 25 that the cease-fire must be enforced. But it appears only a matter of time before Damascus moves its forces south. Russia has hinted that “foreign forces” should withdraw from Syria, and Israel has interpreted that to include Iran. “Of course, all non-Syrian forces should be withdrawn on a reciprocal basis,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in late May. Netanyahu spoke with Putin and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week about Syria and Iran. Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman also spoke to his counterpart.
The problem with discussions about Iran’s involvement in Syria and promises that it should withdraw or reduce its presence, is that the Syrian regime denies Iran is even present in Syria in any significant way. While Israel has asserted that Iran has bases in Syria – including one that was used to fly a drone into Israel in February – and that it has trained 80,000 militia in Syria, Assad asserted to Russia Today that “we never had” Iranian troops. He claims Israel is “lying.” The public discussion between Jerusalem and Moscow on one hand and Moscow and Damascus on the other is therefore wrapped in semantics. Russia says “foreign forces” will leave. Syria says there are no “Iranian troops.”
Damascus is clearly laying the groundwork for keeping the Iranians in Syria, but in a different form. It puts out rumors that the Iranian-backed militias called the National Defense Forces will be disbanded. It pretends that there are only Iranian “advisers” in Syria. Iran’s regime claims it was invited to support the Syrian regime and its forces therefore are not “foreign.”
Israel must demand a full accounting of the Iranian forces in Syria and that any agreements made on the south be based on verification. Pompeo has been outspoken in condemnation of Iran’s role in Syria. Israel must demand for its security that no Iranian forces, no advisers, no drones, no missiles, no militias, no vehicles, no training bases, no barracks, no assets beyond declared diplomatic personnel, be present in Syria and that the Syrian regime be transparent about their presence. The subterfuge where the regime says one thing and does another, as it has with chemical weapons for instance, must end now.
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