Israel, Damascus deny deal reached on southern Syria

Netanyahu: We maintain right to strike at Iran.

AN ISRAELI soldier stands next to the Golan border with Syria. Iran’s encroachments into Syria has led to increased tensions. (photo credit: REUTERS)
AN ISRAELI soldier stands next to the Golan border with Syria. Iran’s encroachments into Syria has led to increased tensions.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Jerusalem and Damascus rejected reports that a deal had been reached under which foreign forces, including Iran and Hezbollah, would withdraw from southern Syria near Israel’s border.
“Israel denies reports that an understanding has been reached,” a diplomatic source said on Saturday.
The source added that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had spoken last week with both Russian President Vladimir Putin and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo about Syria and Iran.
Netanyahu “emphasized that Iran must withdraw from all of Syria and that Israel would continue to maintain its freedom to act against Iranian military entrenchment anywhere in Syria,” the source said.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moualem said that an agreement on southern Syria must include a US withdrawal of its forces from the Tanf base in the south.
He added that Damascus had not engaged in talks over the country’s southern region.
“Do not believe any statements that talk about agreements in the south unless you see the United States withdraw its forces from Tanf base.
It must withdraw its forces from Tanf base. This is Syrian land and there is no doubt of Syria’s sovereignty over it,” Moualem said.
Russia has already called for all foreign forces to leave Syria.
On Friday, the London-based Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awasat reported that Israel and Russia had agreed to keep Iran out of southern Syria.
Just one day earlier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had seen a Russia-backed plan to return government forces to the country’s border areas with Israel and Jordan. It further reported that Iran and its proxy forces, such as Hezbollah, were preparing to withdraw from southern Syria.
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who visited Moscow briefly on Thursday to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, said that he felt that Israel’s security concerns were understood.
At the UN on Friday, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya indicated that an agreement had been reached with regard to southern Syria.
“I heard news that were in the press and elsewhere about an agreement reached on certain disengagement in the southwest of Syria and I think my understanding is that the agreement was reached. Whether it has been implemented as of now I cannot answer, but I understand that the parties that were involved in reaching the agreement are satisfied with what they reached,” he said, according to the Russian media site TASS.
“If it has not been done by now, it will be done in the near future,” he added.
The Syrian government wants to recapture insurgent territory in the southwest through a settlement in which fighters accept state rule or leave.
Southwest Syria, near the borders with Jordan and Israel, remains one of the big chunks of Syria still outside the control of the state, which has recovered swathes of the country with the help of Russian jets and Iran-backed militias.
Rebel factions hold stretches of Quneitra and Deraa provinces in the southwest, bordering the Golan Heights, while Syrian army troops and allied forces control nearby territory.
Moualem said Damascus had communicated with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) but no negotiation process had started over the fate of their territory in the north and east.
He added that Raqqa city, which the Kurdish-led SDF militias seized from Islamic State with US support, “must be rebuilt and liberated” from any foreign presence.
Syrian government forces, in their strongest position since the early months of the seven-year conflict, have driven rebels out of all territory near Damascus this year.
For weeks there have been reports that the government’s next target would be the zone in the south, one of only two large areas left in the hands of fighters seeking to topple President Bashar Assad.
Washington says any offensive in the area would violate a cease-fire it has jointly sponsored with Moscow for that part of Syria, and has warned it would take “firm measures” in response.
The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, told the Shargh daily that his country had no military advisers in southern Syria.
“We have said before that Iranian military advisers are not present in southern Syria and have not participated in recent operations,” Shamkhani said.
“We strongly support Russian efforts to drive terrorists out of the Syria-Jordan border and to bring the area under Syrian army control,” he added