Iranian Forces Pulling Back From Israel Border, Says Russia

Russia's envoy to Syria says the Iranians withdrew 85 kilometers from the Golan Heights ■ Assad says his regime is headed for 'crushing victory'

FILE – Iran's Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri in Aleppo province, Syria, October 2017
/AP

Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons to a distance of 85 kilometers (53 miles) from the Golan Heights frontier between Israel and Syria, TASS news agency quoted Russia's envoy to Syria as saying  Wednesday. 

Backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, Syrian President Bashar Assad has retaken territory in southwestern Syria from rebels, bringing the pro-Assad forces near the Israeli border. 

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"The Iranians withdrew and the Shi'ite formations are not there," the agency quoted Alexander Lavrentiev, President Vladimir Putin's special envoy to Syria, as saying.

Lavrentiev said Iranian service personnel, whom he described as advisers, could be among Syrian army forces that remain closer to the Israeli border. 

"But there are no units of heavy equipment and weapons that could pose a threat to Israel at a distance of 85 kilometers from the line of demarcation," Lavrentiev said. 

Also Wednesday, Assad said his army was about to regain control over the divided country. "We are about to announce a crushing victory," he wrote in a letter on the 73rd anniversary of the establishment of Syria's army.

"We have reached stability and security in most regions, from Homs to 
Palmyra ... and other areas where terror was established with logistical and financial support over seven and a half years ago," he added.

On Monday, the Syrian government retook the frontier with the Golan after Islamic State-linked militants gave up their last pocket of territory in the area, state media and an opposition-linked war-monitoring group reported.

An Israeli official deemed the pullback insufficient. "What we have laid down as a red line is military intervention and entrenchment by Iran in Syria, and not necessarily on our border," Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio, citing the longer-range threat posed by Iranian missiles or drones positioned in Syria. 

Israel rejected the offer, which was made during a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. In an apparent riposte, Russia's ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, said Monday that Moscow could not compel Iran to leave Syria. "There'll be no compromises nor concessions on this matter," he said.

Last week an Israeli official who requested anonymity said Russia had offered to keep Iranian forces at least 100 kilometers from the Golan Heights frontier. 

Viktorov also signaled that Russia would continue to turn a blind eye to Israeli airstrikes against suspected Iranian and Hezbollah arms transfers or emplacements in Syria. 

Hanegbi said his government wanted to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from extending into Syria their Lebanese front against Israel. 

"We are not ready to see a new Hezbollah front on our northern border between Israel and Syria," he said. "This is something that is dangerous. This is something that, if we don't prevent it today, when still at its outset, will a exact a heavy price of us down the line."

The Syrian army announced Wednesday that it had eliminated the last remaining Islamic State outpost in the south of the country after it took the village of Alkasir in the Yarmouk Basin.

Syria's state news agency Sana reported that Syrian army units were chasing fleeing Islamic State soldiers trying to escape into open areas around the village, while the army had recaptured the entire Daraa region.

Syrian army engineering units are searching for hidden weapons caches and explosives that Islamic State fighters have left behind, and suspect that buildings in the village have been booby-trapped.

Negotiations with fighters of the Al-Nusra Front in a number of villages in the outskirts of Quneitra in the Golan are continuing, and once they surrender the Assad regime will have retaken all of southern Syria.

The Syrian opposition expects that after the government’s campaign in Quneitra and Daraa is completed, the regime will focus on Idlib province, to which tens of thousands of fighters from radical Islamic groups and their families were evacuated in recent months.

Assad has reiterated that the next campaign will be against Idlib so as to take control of the last remaining center of opposition in Syria.

Websites identified with the opposition said the campaign for Idlib was expected to begin in September, but the final decision would be made by the Russians, who will provide air support. 

A senior opposition figure told Haaretz that the difficulty in conducting the Idlib campaign would come from outside players such as Turkey, which has threatened to intervene if the Assad regime and the Russians attack in the province. The opposition thus expects the sides to reach a diplomatic agreement under Russian and Turkish auspices.

A regime document attributed to a senior Syrian intelligence officer — and leaked to Syrian opposition forces — said the government had gathered large amounts of information on opposition groups and their funders over the past year, both from inside and outside the country. This intelligence has helped the regime greatly in its war against these groups.

The regime’s success is also partly due to the opposition's abandonment by countries that had pledged economic and logistical aid including the United States, as well as European countries and the Gulf states.

A senior opposition official from the nonreligious organizations told Haaretz that while the completion of the military campaign would certainly provide a great boost to the Assad regime, opposition efforts would not end. The Russians also realize that it is impossible to return to the situation before the deaths of more than 1 million people in the civil war.

“We understand that Russia and the United States don’t want to return to the Iraqi and Libyan scenario of destroying government institutions, after which everything crumbles," the opposition official said.

"The Syrian government and its institutions will remain but will need a long process of reform that will lead to a major change in the nature of the government," he added.

"This requires international intervention, including that of the United States, as well as first and foremost the removal of Bashar Assad as a symbol of the government. Otherwise, it's impossible to talk about a respite in Syria – even years from now.”