Israeli tanks on the border with Syria, this month BAZ RATNER/Reuters

Syria Signals Willingness to Pull Hezbollah Back From Border With Israel, Report Says

Assad reportedly wants to keep Iranian forces 25 kilometers away from the Golan Heights border and demands that Iran move its forces from Syrian airfields to prevent Israeli attack

Syria is ready to guarantee the retreat of Hezbollah and Iranian militia forces to 25 kilometers away from the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported this week.

The report added that Syria is interested in discussing the potential revival of the 1974 disengagement agreement it signed with Israel. According to Al-Sharq, which quoted diplomatic sources, Syria conveyed these messages to “neighboring countries” through mediators.

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UN forces overlooking the Israeli-Syrian border, this month BAZ RATNER/Reuters

A Western diplomatic source confirmed to Haaretz that it was Russia that relayed these messages from Assad to Israel and that this was not the first exchange of such messages in the last few weeks. The same source told Haaretz last week that Putin was pressing Assad to lower Iran’s military profile in Syria in order to avert a major military clash with Israel.

The 1974 Agreement on Disengagement between Israel and Syria mandates that a UN-supervised buffer zone be established between the two countries, and that on either side of the demilitarized zone there should be a 10-kilometer wide strip where minimal forces are located. In addition, it outlines that surface-to-air missiles may not be placed within 25 kilometers of the separation lines. 

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This latest exchange of messages, if the reports are accurate, are part of the Syrian regime's plan to seize control over southern Syria, especially the Dara`a province and the city of Dara`a that is largely controlled by rebel militias, including offshoots of the Free Syrian Army. Reports from rebel forces say the Syrian army has already begun deploying in preparation for a military confrontation and ordered the Iranian militias to withdraw from around the city of Dara`a in order to protect them from an assault. According to the same reports, convoys of pro-Iranian forces were observed redeploying several kilometers to the north and east of the city, and some were also spotted heading north toward Damascus.

However, it is not clear whether this is part of a broader move towards withdrawing the pro-Iranian forces from Syria’s southern border or a temporary arrangement until the Syrian army takes control of the southern province. In anticipation of the battle in southern Syria, Jordan, Russia and the U.S. have held intensive discussions recently, with Jordan seeking American and Russian guarantees. Jordan seeks reassurance that Iranian forces will not move close to its border, that Syrian refugees will not come to Jordan in the wake of the Syrian military action and that the Syrian army will wage the military campaign itself and govern the territory it liberates from the rebels. Given these guarantees, Jordan would be willing to open the Nasib border crossing with Syria and resume the flow of goods between the two countries.

Assad and Putin, this month SPUTNIK/Reuters

As per the agreement signed in November between the U.S., Russia and Jordan (with Israeli representatives present at the discussions), Dara'a and the surrounding area are included in the de-escalation zones. Last week, the U.S., which accuses Russia of not upholding the agreement, proposed a formula whereby all the Syrian and foreign militias would move back to a distance of 20-25 kilometers from the Jordanian border, in contrast to the original agreement that mentioned only the non-Syrian militias. According to the U.S. proposal, Russian police forces would patrol an area 18 kilometers from the Jordanian border, the regime would resume operating in Dara'a province and the rebel militias would turn over their heavy weaponry. In addition, a joint Russian-American oversight mechanism would be established to ensure adherence to the agreement.

But the proposed agreement formulated by David Satterfield, the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, has run into opposition from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, who favor taking a harder line with an added severe warning that the U.S. will take serious measures if the Syrian army violates the de-escalation zone agreement and launches a military campaign in southern Syria. Russia, to which Jordan addressed its request for guarantees, has yet to respond to the new proposal, but the Western diplomat says Russia understands the Jordanians’ concerns and is likely to accept Satterfield’s formula not only in southern Syria but also as a possible temporary solution to the military deployment on the Israeli border in the Golan Heights. According to the report in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the U.S. Embassy in Jordan sent a message to the rebel leadership in southern Syria warning the militias not to launch any military actions against the Syrian forces that could be used as a pretext by Assad’s forces to take over the militias there and do in Dara'a what they did in Ghoutta. “If you act in a way that violates the security zones agreement, we will not be able to defend you, and if the regime initiates an action that violates the agreement, we will do all that is in our power to stop the violation so as to ensure that the agreement remains intact,” the message said.

It’s hard to say how much the American warnings will affect the conduct of the rebel militias in the south, but they are meant for Russia and mostly for Iran, which has been pushing the Syrian regime to implement the brutal strategy it pursued in Eastern Ghoutta in Syria’s south, too. The American warnings show that Washington is adhering to the security zones agreement and sees it as an “insurance policy” against a broader Iranian deployment in the area.

A Jordanian analyst close to decision-makers in Jordan told Haaretz that there is near-daily communication between Jordan and Israel to coordinate positions vis-à-vis Russia and the U.S., and that both take a similar view of the Iranian threat in Syria. “There is an interdependent relationship apparently between what Israel desires and the agreements that Jordan will obtain concerning the Iranian withdrawal from the Syrian border with Jordan. If Jordan’s request for the Syrian and pro-Iranian militias to move 20-25 kilometers from its border is fulfilled, the same will pertain to the border with Israel, and vice-versa.” Iran, which publicly denies that Iranian forces are deployed in southern Syria (but does not deny that pro-Iranian militias operate in the area), has not publicly commented on the reports and proposals for a redeployment of forces in southern Syria. Yet if the reports are true that Syria demanded that Iran remove its forces from Syrian airfields to prevent them being bombarded by Israel, there will probably soon be Iranian moves in the field that will help clarify to what extent, if any, Iran is responding to the Russian pressure and Israeli threat.

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