Russia Says Only Syrian Army Should Be on Country's Southern Border With Israel

Israel believes Russia may agree to withdrawing Iranian forces and allied Shi’ite militias from Israel-Syria border

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia, May 17, 2018
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that only Syrian government troops should have a presence on the country's southern border which is close to Jordan and Israel, the RIA news agency reported.

Lavrov was cited as making the comments at a joint news conference in Moscow with Jose Condungua Pacheco, his counterpart from Mozambique.

Meanwhile, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman will leave on Wednesday for a short visit to Russia. He is scheduled to meet with his counterpart, Russia's Defense Minister Sergei Shvigo, the ministry said in a statement on Monday. Lieberman is expected to discuss with his hosts the recent events in the Middle East, primarily the tension between Israel and Iran over the Iranian military presence in Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke at the Knesset Monday, saying that "there is no room for any Iranian military presence in any part of Syria."

Lieberman said that "these things, of course, reflect not only our position, I can safely say that they reflect the positions of others in the Middle East and beyond the Middle East."

On Sunday, Haaretz reported that Israeli political and military officials believe Russia is willing to discuss a significant distancing of Iranian forces and allied Shi’ite militias from the Israel-Syria border, according to Israeli officials.

The change in Russia’s position has become clearer since Israel’s May 10 military clash with Iran in Syria and amid Moscow’s concerns that further Israeli moves would threaten the stability of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime.

Russia recently renewed efforts to try to get the United States involved in agreements that would stabilize Syria. The Russians might be willing to remove the Iranians from the Israeli border, though not necessarily remove the forces linked to them from the whole country.

Last November, Russia and the United States, in coordination with Jordan, forged an agreement to decrease the possibility of friction in southern Syria, after the Assad regime defeated rebel groups in the center of the country. Israel sought to keep the Iranians and Shi’ite militias at least 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, east of the Damascus-Daraa road (or, according to another version, east of the Damascus-Suwayda road, about 70 kilometers from the border).

FILE – Iran's Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, in Aleppo, Syria, in photo provided October 20, 2017
/AP

According to Israeli intelligence, in Syria there are now around 2,000 Iranian officers and advisers, members of the Revolutionary Guards, around 9,000 Shi’ite militiamen from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, and around 7,000 Hezbollah fighters. Israel believes that the Americans are now in a good position to reach a more effective arrangement in Syria in coordination with the Russians under the slogan “Without Iran and without ISIS.”

The United States warned Syria on Friday it would take "firm and appropriate measures" in response to ceasefire violations, saying it was concerned about reports of an impending military operation in a de-escalation zone in the country's southwest.

Washington also cautioned Assad against broadening the conflict.

"As a guarantor of this de-escalation area with Russia and Jordan, the United States will take firm and appropriate measures in response to Assad regime violations," State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement late on Friday.

A war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported on Wednesday that Syrian government forces fresh from their victory this week against an Islamic State pocket in south Damascus were moving into the southern province of Deraa.

Syrian state-run media have reported that government aircraft have dropped leaflets on rebel-held areas in Deraa urging fighters to disarm.

The U.S. warning comes weeks after a similar attack on a de-escalation zone in northeastern Syria held by U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. U.S. ground and air forces repelled the more than four-hour attack, killing perhaps as many as 300 pro-Assad militia members, many of them Russian mercenaries.

Backed by Russian warplanes, ground forces from Iran and allied militia, including Lebanon's Hezbollah, have helped Assad drive rebels from Syria's biggest cities, putting him in an unassailable military position.