A Russian force that deployed on Syria’s border with Lebanon has reportedly withdrawn and been replaced by Syrian troops.
The Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters throughout Syria, says the Russian force withdrew Tuesday from the border area on the outskirts of the town of Qusair, a stronghold of the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Russia and the Iran-backed Hezbollah are both fighting alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
Al-Mayadeen and the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Russian troops had deployed to the area on Monday. Neither provided details as to why they left.
The rare deployment of Russian forces near the border came amid repeated Israeli warnings about Iran’s growing military presence in Syria. Israel is widely believed to have been behind an airstrike on Qusair last month that killed and wounded Hezbollah fighters.
The Syrian government wants to recapture insurgent territory in the southwest through a settlement in which fighters accept state rule or leave, the foreign minister said on Saturday.
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Walid al-Moualem also said the United States must withdraw from the Tanf base in the southeast. Damascus has not engaged in talks about the south, and any agreement over that region must include the pullout of U.S. forces, he said.
The southwest, 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 Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, while Syrian army troops and allied forces control nearby territory.
Since last year, a "de-escalation" deal, which Russia, the United States and Jordan brokered, has contained fighting there. Washington has voiced concern about reports of an impending army offensive, warning of "firm and appropriate measures" in response to any violations of the ceasefire.
U.S. forces are based in a southern desert pocket further east at Tanf, a strategic highway border crossing with Iraq.
Moualem said the Syrian military had dropped leaflets calling on insurgents in the southwest to either surrender their weapons and settle with the state, or leave.
"We seek, initially, to solve this issue in the ways we have got used to working with, which are reconciliations. If it does not work, that's a different conversation," he told a news conference in Damascus.
Russia has said that only Syrian army troops should be at the southern border with Jordan and Israel, which has waged air strikes in Syria to curb what it fears is Iran's expanding influence.
Tehran supports Moscow's efforts to impose Syrian government control over the south, a senior Iranian security official was quoted as saying on Saturday.
Moualem added that that Damascus had communicated with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces but no negotiation process had started over the fate of their territory in the north and east.
He said Raqqa city, which the Kurdish-led SDF militias seized from Islamic State with U.S. support, "must be rebuilt and liberated" from any foreign presence.