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Return to south Syria: Conflict in Daraa and occupied Golan Heights

Ayse Nur Dok

The area between Daraa and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights has turned to a flashpoint as the Syrian regime has vowed to fight against “terrorists” in an aim to retake rebel-held parts of the region despite the US warnings against a new offensive in southern Daraa province.

The latest dynamics in the region have raised Israeli concerns over the presence of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah along the frontier, while Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Syrian troops should be positioned on the border with the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 war. “The agreement on forming a de-escalation area in southwestern Syria envisaged the eventual withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces from this part of Syria,” said Lavrov.

He added that the Russian and US militaries have maintained regular contacts on the issue. “Of course, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces must be carried out on a mutual basis, this should be a two-way street,” Lavrov told a news conference. “The result of this work which should continue and is continuing should be a situation when representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic’s army stand at Syria’s border with Israel,” he said.

A Russian troop deployment in Syria near the Lebanese border this week caused friction with Iran-backed forces, including Hezbollah, which objected to the uncoordinated move, two non-Syrian officials in the regional alliance backing Damascus said. Later, it was resolved when Syrian army soldiers took over three positions where the Russians had deployed near the town of Qusair in the Homs region, one of the officials, a military commander, told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

‘De-escalation’ deal: The southwest is of concern to the United States, which last year in July brokered a de-escalation deal with Jordan and Russia, the regime’s biggest ally, which has largely contained the war near the frontier with Israel.

Meanwhile, Jordan said it was discussing southern Syria with Washington and Moscow, and all three agreed on the need to preserve the ceasefire, which has reduced violence since they brokered it last year. The United States warned it would take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to any violations of the ceasefire in that area. In a statement released on May 25, the US State Department said it was concerned about reports that Assad’s forces were preparing for an operation in southwestern Syria. It warned the regime against “any actions that risk broadening the conflict.”

Israel-Russia talks: Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman on May 31, visited Moscow for talks focusing on Syria as Lieberman’s Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, said the two need to discuss the situation in southwestern Syria, along its border with Israel.

Israel’s Defence Ministry, in a statement, quoted Lieberman as telling Shoigu, “Israel greatly appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security needs, especially regarding the situation on our northern border.” The statement said the two met for more than 90 minutes and discussed “security issues of concern to both countries, the situation in Syria and the Israeli campaign to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later held a phone conversation and discussed “the latest regional developments and Iran’s foothold in Syria,” a brief statement from the Israeli leader’s office said. Israel’s Channel 1 television said the conversation touched on a possible arrangement for there to be no Iranian presence in southern Syria closer than 70-80 km (40-50 miles) from the Syria-Israel border.

Secret deal between Russia and Israel: Russia and Israel have reached a secret deal for the border area in southern Syria, Israeli TV reported. Israel will not intervene to prevent deployment of Assad’s forces to the southern borders and the Golan Heights and Moscow will make sure that Iranian and Hezbollah forces do not be part of these troops under the agreement, according to a Channel 2 report. The report said Israel will also retain its freedom of action against Syrian entrenchment inside Syria.

Under the apparent agreement coming together, Israel will accept the return of Syrian regime soldiers to the border on the Golan Heights, in exchange for Russia guaranteeing there are no Iranian or Hezbollah forces in the area, Hadashot TV news reported. “Even if it takes time, and even if we have to accept Assad coming back, at the end of these talks the Iranian threat in Syria will be lifted,” an Israeli diplomatic source told Hadashot.

Also, a senior Israeli official said the country will not oppose Assad’s remaining in power, provided that Iran’s presence in Syria is eliminated, according to the Channel 10 news report. “The Syrian regime has sent a proposal through mediators to regional countries that will ensure the withdrawal of Hezbollah and Iranian militias about 25 km 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.

Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia said he heard from the news that an agreement was reached on “certain disengagement in the southwest of Syria and, I think, my understanding is that an agreement has been reached.” But Foreign Minister of the Syrian regime, Walid al Moallem, denied reports that an agreement was reached between regional and other powers over the situation of southwestern Syria, where the country’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights is located. Moallem said that only when US troops withdraw from the Tanf area near the Jordanian border can an agreement be discussed.

Daraa offensive: The regime has amassed troops in Daraa and Quneitra for weeks and dropped leaflets over Daraa city, the cradle of the 2011 revolt, demanding rebels give up. Leaflets dropped on northern Daraa, which is divided between rebel and regime-controlled areas, warned: “The men of the Syrian army are coming.” The Lebanon-based Al Mayadeen TV, which has reporters embedded with Syrian troops, said the army is sending reinforcements to southern Syria in an apparent preparation for an offensive.

The Syrian army has completed preparations for an imminent offensive against rebel-held areas in southwestern Syria, a non-Syrian commander in a military alliance that backs Damascus said, raising the prospect of a major new escalation.

Israel considers Iran’s presence in Syria a threat: Israel in early May bombed Iranian military positions in Syria in what it said was retaliation for an Iranian rocket attack on the occupied Golan Heights. Israel called it its most serious operation in Syria since the 1973 war. “We believe that there is absolutely no room for any Iranian military presence in any part of Syria,” Netanyahu told senior officials from his Likud party, according to a statement from his office.

But in the TV interview, Assad maintained there are no Iranian troops in Syria, only Iranian officers advising the Syrian army. He denied reports that Iranians have been killed in Israeli strikes.

Apparently referring to the May 10 attack by Israel, Assad said, “We had tens of Syrian martyrs and wounded soldiers, not a single Iranian casualty.”

Chagai Tzuriel, director general of Israel’s intelligence ministry, told journalists he believed recent events were convincing countries such as Russia that allowing Iran to entrench itself militarily in Syria was not worth it, AFP reported. Tzuriel said that if the opportunity is not seized on and Iran is not pushed back “we are on a collision course with Iran.”

Moallem said Iranian military advisers are embedded with Syrian troops but Tehran has no combat forces or fixed bases in the country, adding that Israel is making false claims to try to pressure Iran.

Assad’s last move against the US-backed YPG: Assad said in an interview with Russia Today, which aired on May 31, that the US troops, who operate air bases and outposts in the YPG-administered region, will have to leave the country. The state would recover the swathe of northern and eastern Syria controlled by the SDF, whose leading force is the YPG, either through negotiations or force, he said. The YPG took control of nearly a quarter of Syria after it defeated Daesh from north and northeast Syria, with the help of the US. Responding to earlier comments by Assad, Kino Gabriel, a spokesman for the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said a military solution “is not a solution that can lead to any result.” Forces loyal to Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran, and the Syrian Kurds have clashed sporadically over the eastern oil province of Deir Ezzor.

They led rival fronts against Daesh militants last year, and they maintain a protracted front against each other along the Euphrates River. After recovering swathes of territory, Assad now controls most of Syria. But tracts remain outside his control at the borders with Iraq, Jordan and Turkey. That includes large parts of the north and east where US special forces deployed during the fight against Daesh, supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). SDF’s leading group, the YPG, is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, a group that is designated as a terrorist organisation by Washington and Ankara.  The group has been fighting against the Turkish state for more than 30 years.

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