Monitor claims Iran, Hezbollah preparing to pull out of southern Syria

Official with Iran-led forces denies report from Syrian Observatory that fighters are getting ready to withdraw from area; Netanyahu, Putin discuss situation on phone

Illustrative image of a tank flying the Hezbollah terror group's flag seen in the Qara area in Syria's Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)
Illustrative image of a tank flying the Hezbollah terror group's flag seen in the Qara area in Syria's Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

A Syrian war monitor said Thursday Iranian troops and fighters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group were getting ready to withdraw from southern Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday Iranian advisers and Hezbollah fighters will be withdrawing from the southern regions of Daraa and Quneitra near Israel’s Golan Heights.

A Syria-based official with the Iran-led “axis of resistance” denied the report, saying it was “untrue.” The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media, gave no further details.

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin had a call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday evening to discuss the situation in Syria.

The Kremlin said the conversation focused on “some aspects of the Syrian settlement,” which it didn’t specify, following up on the two leaders’ talks in Moscow earlier this month.

Russian news outlets had recently reported that Moscow wants to cut a deal that would see Russian military police deployed to areas near Israel. The agreement would envisage the pullout of all Iranian forces from the area and require Syrian rebels to surrender heavy weapons.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on April 26, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Wednesday Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said foreign militias — including Iran — should leave southwestern Syria as soon as possible, state media outlet TASS reported.

Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Thursday thanked Russia for “understanding” Israel’s security concerns, during a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Moscow.

“The State of Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security needs — especially on our northern border,” Liberman told Sergei Shoigu. “It is important to continue the dialogue between us and to keep an open line between the IDF and Russian army.”

Before leaving Israel for Russia, Liberman had tweeted, “The main focus of the security forces was and remains preventing Iran and its offshoots from establishing themselves in Syria.”

The return of the Syrian army to Israel’s northern border in return for the distancing of Iran and its Lebanon-based proxy Hezbollah from the area has been the subject of back channel discussions between Israel and Russia over recent weeks.

Liberman visited Russia with a defense establishment delegation, hoping to flesh out the understandings to give Syrian President Bashar Assad control over the Syria-Israel border region.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on April 29, 2018. (AFP Photo/Thomas Coex)

On Wednesday, Netanyahu told ministers that he had spoken with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, primarily to urge the US government to demand that an evolving agreement on troop deployment in Syria between the US, Russia, and Jordan make clear that Iranian forces must leave the whole of the country.

The agreement appears to be slated to demand that Iranian and Iran-backed forces stay 20 kilometers from the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

Long-simmering tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria stepped up considerably in recent months, beginning in February when an Iranian drone carrying explosives was flown from the T-4 air base in central Syria into Israeli airspace and was shot down by an IAF helicopter.

Earlier this month, the Israeli Air Force carried out its biggest operation in Syria in 40 years when it attacked more than 50 Iranian targets in response to an Iranian rocket barrage at the Golan Heights, amid warnings from Jerusalem that it would not tolerate Tehran’s attempts to entrench itself militarily on Israel’s northern border.

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