South Syria truce goes into effect amid concerns over Iranian plans
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South Syria truce goes into effect amid concerns over Iranian plans

Netanyahu says Israel will welcome 'genuine ceasefire;' will monitor Tehran's movement in region given jitters over 'Shiite crescent'

Opposition fighters drive a tank in a rebel-held area of the southern Syrian city of Daraa, during renewed clashes with regime loyalists on May 10, 2016. (AFP Photo/Mohamad Abazeed)
Opposition fighters drive a tank in a rebel-held area of the southern Syrian city of Daraa, during renewed clashes with regime loyalists on May 10, 2016. (AFP Photo/Mohamad Abazeed)

An open-ended ceasefire in southern Syria brokered by the United States and Russia came into effect at noon on Sunday, an hour after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gingerly endorsed the deal.

The ceasefire, announced after a meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg last week, is the first initiative by the Trump administration in collaboration with Russia to bring some stability to war-torn Syria.

No ceasefire has lasted long in the six-year-old Syrian war.

“The main fronts in the three provinces between regime forces and opposition factions have seen a cessation of hostilities and shelling since this morning, with the exception of a few scattered shells fired on Daraa city before noon,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor.

US-backed rebels, Syrian government forces, and Islamic State militants are all fighting for control of southern Syria.

The latest truce is meant to help allay growing concerns by neighboring Israel and Jordan about Iranian military ambitions in the area, including fears that Tehran plans to set up a disruptive long-term presence there.

Speaking before the truce went into effect Sunday morning, Netanyahu tentatively welcomed the move and said both US and Russian officials told him they would take Israeli concerns into account when brokering the ceasefire.

“Israel will welcome a genuine ceasefire in Syria, but this ceasefire must not enable the establishment of a military presence by Iran and its proxies in Syria in general, and in southern Syria in particular,” he said at the start of his weekly cabinet meeting.

“For our part we will continue to monitor developments beyond our borders while strongly upholding our red lines: Prevent the strengthening of Hezbollah via Syria, with emphasis on the acquisition of precision weapons, block Hezbollah – or Iranian forces – from establishing a ground presence along our border, and prevent the establishment of an Iranian military presence in Syria as a whole.”

Apprehensions over Iranian designs in the region were stoked by recent movements of Shiite Muslim militias — loyal to Iran and fighting alongside Syrian government forces — toward Jordan’s border with Syria, and to another strategic area in the southeast, close to where the two countries meet Iraq.

The advances are part of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s push to regain territory from rebel groups, some backed by the West, in the southern Daraa province, and from Islamic State extremists in the southeast, near the triangle with Iraq.

But Syria’s neighbors suspect that Iran is pursuing a broader agenda, including carving out a land route through Syria that would create a territorial continuum from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon.

Smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on June 14, 2017. (AFP/Mohamad Abazeed)
Smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on June 14, 2017. (AFP/Mohamad Abazeed)

The ceasefire for southern Syria is meant to keep all forces pinned to their current positions, said Jordan’s government which participated in the talks.

This would prevent further advances by forces under Iran’s command, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.

There has been no official comment from Syria’s government on the announcement, and there was no mention of the ceasefire on state television’s noon news bulletin.

The Al-Watan newspaper, which is close to the regime, quoted the head of Syria’s parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee suggesting that the agreement was negotiated in consultation with Damascus.

“No details on the agreement were presented, but the Syrian state has background on it,” the newspaper quoted Boutros Marjana as saying.

The truce is to be monitored through satellite and drone images as well as observers on the ground, a senior Jordanian official said Saturday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss details with reporters. Syria ally Russia is to deploy military police in the area.

Information on truce compliance could be shared and discussed in different locations, including Jordan, the official said. Israel did not participate in the truce talks, but was presumably briefed by the US, the Jordanian official said.

Ceasefires have repeatedly collapsed in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, and it’s not clear if this one will last. The southern Syria truce is separate from so far unsuccessful efforts by Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up “de-escalation zones” in Syria, including in the south.

Israel is expected to watch for truce violations.

In this Saturday, May 9, 2015 file photo, a Hezbollah fighter stands on a hill next to the group's yellow flag in the fields of the Syrian town of Assal al-Ward in the mountainous region of Qalamoun, Syria. (AP Photo/Bassem Mroue, File)
In this Saturday, May 9, 2015 file photo, a Hezbollah fighter stands on a hill next to the group’s yellow flag in the fields of the Syrian town of Assal al-Ward in the mountainous region of Qalamoun, Syria. (AP Photo/Bassem Mroue, File)

Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran to set up a permanent presence in Syria. Israel has carried out a number of airstrikes in Syria against suspected shipments of “game-changing” weapons bound for Hezbollah.

“The question and concern is of course if it will be exploited by the Syrian regime, Hezbollah and Iran to create new facts on the ground,” said Chagai Tzuriel, the director general of Israel’s Intelligence Ministry.

Ahead of Friday’s truce announcement, Jordanian and Israeli officials expressed concerns about Iranian ambitions.

The Jordanian official said the international community, regional powers and Jordan would not tolerate the creation of a “land line all the way from Tehran to Beirut.”

Such a “Shiite crescent” would disrupt the regional balance and be considered a “super red line,” he said, referring to rival Sunni and Shiite Muslim political camps led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively.

Conflicts between the camps have escalated in recent years, including in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Predominantly Sunni Jordan is a US ally and maintains discrete security ties with Israel.

Jordan previously raised concerns about Iran in talks with Russia, the official said. The Assad government surely received the message, he said, adding that it’s unclear how much influence the Syrian president has over his allies.

A successful truce could pave the way for talks about Syria retaking control of border crossings with Jordan that it lost to rebels during the war, the Jordanian official said.

Israel is also worried about the recent movements of Iranian-backed forces.

Israel controls the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau in southwestern Syria that it captured in the 1967 Mideast war. Israel has fought cross-border wars with Hezbollah from Lebanon.

In comments earlier this week, Tzuriel raised three points of concern, including the Hezbollah presence near the Golan and efforts by Iran in Lebanon to build what he said is an “indigenous missile production and upgrade capability.”

Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a security and defense tour in the Golan Heights, near the Northern Israeli border with Syria. April 11, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu seen during a security and defense tour in the Golan Heights, near the Northern Israeli border with Syria. April 11, 2016. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

He also noted last month’s link-up of forces belonging to the Iranian axis, including Shiite militias, coming from both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border, near Jordan. This raises concern that control of parts of the border will allow Tehran “to realize its strategic aim of completing an overland continuum from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon,” he said.

“These are threats which should concern all parties who are interested in stabilizing Syria and the region, including the United States and Russia,” he said.

The truce deal, the first such agreement between the Trump administration and Russia, could help the US retain more of a say over who fills the power vacuum left behind as Islamic State is routed from additional territory in Syria.

President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit, Friday, July 7, 2017, in Hamburg. (AP/Evan Vucci)
President Donald Trump shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 Summit, Friday, July 7, 2017, in Hamburg. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Washington has been resistant to letting Iranian forces and their proxies gain strength in Syria’s south. In recent weeks, US forces have shot down a Syrian aircraft that got too close to American forces as well as Iranian-made drones.

The British ambassador to Jordan, Edward Oakden, said Russia has an important role to play.

“It’s obviously incumbent on the Russians to bring pressure to bear on both the (Syrian) regime and the Iranians, and on the regime’s Hezbollah allies, to respect the spirit and the letter of this ceasefire and to contribute actively to the establishment of a de-escalation zone, rather than, as it appears, seeking to undermine it,” he said in an interview Friday.

Analyst Ahmad Majidyar, who monitors news sites linked to Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), said it seems Iran will only deepen its presence.

The Iranians and their proxies “have increased their activities in southern Syria,” said Majidyar, director of the Iran Observed Project at the Middle East Institute, a Washington think tank.

Objectives include carving out the land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, challenging the military presence of the US and its allies and opening a new front against Israel once the fight against Islamic State is over, he said.

AFP contributed to this report

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