A Syrian war monitor group said Thursday that Hezbollah units deployed in Syria were pulling back dozens of kilometers from the Israeli border in response to a request from Russia, but that Iran was refusing to do the same with its forces in the area.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing what it described as “reliable sources,” said that the Lebanese terror group and its allied gunmen have begun withdrawing to positions 40 kilometers (25 miles) away for the border, and a similar distance from the Jordanian-Syrian border.
Russia, Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have been providing military assistance to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad as it battles against rebel groups in a civil war that is in its eighth year.
Israel has repeatedly said it wants Iran and the militias it is backing to withdraw from the border area, and recent media reports have said that Jerusalem had reached an agreement on the matter with Moscow.
The reported Hezbollah retreat came in response to a Russian demand that Iran and Hezbollah pull back, the Observatory said, and was the result of Moscow’s talks with “regional parties.”
However, the report said, Iran is refusing to pull back its own military forces from southern Syria unless there is a corresponding evacuation of US and international coalition forces from the al-Tanf base on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The US and its allies have been backing moderate rebel groups in the civil war as well as carrying out strikes against the Islamic State group.
Sources told the Observatory that the Russians have given the go-ahead for the Jordanians and Americans to hold talks with “factions” to reach an agreement on south Syria. The report did not specify which of the multiple groups vying for control of the area would be involved in the talks.
The reported development came as the Syrian army intensified its shelling of rebel strongholds in Daraa province, and neighboring Quneitra, in southern Syria.
Israel has warned it will not tolerate Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and has been working to drum up international opposition to Iran’s military activities in the country as well as carrying out airstrikes against Iranian military assets in Syrian territory, amid fears Iran is attempting to gain a foothold near the border to launch attacks against the Jewish state.
Hebrew media reports have said in the past that Israel has demanded Iran pull its forces back around 75 kilometers from the border
Russia, Jordan, and the US agreed to a deescalation in southern Syrian in July 2017. However, some fighting has continued and the recent government assault marked a significant increase in the violence.
Several unconfirmed reports in Israel have claimed Moscow was informed of airstrikes on Syrian and Iranian positions as tensions have risen in recent weeks.
On May 10, Israel unleashed a heavy bombardment against what it said were Iranian military installations in Syria after an Iranian rocket barrage targeting the Golan. It was the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date.
Russia and Iran have been the main backers of Assad but Moscow also has close relations with Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia several times over the past two years. At the beginning of June Netanyahu visited Germany, France, and Britain where he impressed upon leaders Israel’s concerns over Iranian regional aggression.
Earlier this month Assad denied Russia had coordinated or even known in advance about Israeli strikes inside his country and downplayed Moscow’s role in determining Iran’s presence there.
In an interview published in the British Daily Mail newspaper Assad said, “Russia never coordinated with anyone against Syria, either politically or militarily, and that’s a contradiction; how could they help the Syrian Army advancing and at the same time work with our enemies in order to destroy our army?”
Agencies contributed to this report.