Russia, backing Israel: Only Assad troops should be on Syria’s southern border
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Russia, backing Israel: Only Assad troops should be on Syria’s southern border

Foreign Minister Lavrov indicates Moscow open to Israeli demands that Iranian forces be kept far from Israel’s frontiers; urges withdrawal of all ‘non-Syrian forces’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stands on the balcony before a meeting of President Vladimir Putin with French President Emmanuel Macron (both not pictured) at the Konstantin Palace in Strelna, outside Saint Petersburg, on May 24, 2018. (GRIGORY DUKOR/AFP)
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stands on the balcony before a meeting of President Vladimir Putin with French President Emmanuel Macron (both not pictured) at the Konstantin Palace in Strelna, outside Saint Petersburg, on May 24, 2018. (GRIGORY DUKOR/AFP)

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Monday that only the Syrian regime should field military forces in the country’s southern border areas.

Lavrov’s comments, made at a press conference in Moscow, apparently referred to areas including the Syrian  Golan Heights region abutting the Israeli Golan Heights and the border with Jordan, and indicated that Russia was open to Israeli demands that Iranian forces should be kept far from Israel’s borders.

The area is currently held by various rebel groups and Israel has accused Iran of trying to establish a presence in the area. Israel also accused Iran of firing a salvo of rockets at Israel from the area earlier in the month.

“Of course, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces must be carried out on a mutual basis, this should be a two-way street,” Lavrov said at a news conference in Moscow.

“The result of this work which should continue and is continuing should be a situation when representatives of the Syrian Arab Republic’s army stand at Syria’s border with Israel,” Lavrov said.

Earlier Monday, the Haaretz daily reported that Russia is considering trying to keep Iranian forces and their allies from Israel’s northern border, fearing that repeated Israeli strikes may undermine Syrian President Bashar Assad’s grip on the country.

Citing Israeli security and diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, the Haaretz report said Russia decided to work on a deal to remove the Iranian troops following a heavy Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria on May 10. The bombing raids came after Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s al-Quds Force launched 32 rockets at Israel’s forward defensive line on the Golan Heights border.

Israel has acknowledged carrying out several aerial raids on Iranian targets in Syria, and is suspected of carrying out several more, the most recent last week, when a military air base in western Syria was hit in an airstrike.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

Much of the Iranian infrastructure is set up on Syrian bases and Israel has also frequently hit Syrian air defenses during strikes on Iranian targets.

The preemptive effort by the Israel Defense Forces against Iran and its allies in Syria is known collectively as “Operation Chess.”

However, just last week, Iran appeared to reject remarks from Russia’s leader that the Islamic Republic should pull its forces out of Syria after a political settlement is reached in the war-torn country.

“No one can force Iran to do anything,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahram Qasemi said, according to the Tasnim news website.

An illustrative map showing the general locations of Israeli strikes in Syria in response to a presumed Iranian attack on the Golan Heights on May 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

Russia has reportedly also recently tried to involve the United States in an agreement to bring stability to Syria, which has been ravaged by civil war for the past seven years.

Jerusalem wants Iranian troops and Shiite militia groups aligned with Iran to be at least 60 kilometers (40 miles) from the Golan Heights, Israel’s northern border with Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken several times with Russian President Vladimir Putin and stressed that Israel will not allow Iran and Shiite militias backed by Tehran to maintain a foothold in Syria near the Israeli border.

Last November Russia reportedly made a deal with the Iranians that they would not come within five kilometers (three miles) of Israel’s border, but in practice Tehran has ignored this, and members of the Revolutionary Guard have occasionally been seen right on the border.

Israel suspects there are some 2,000 Iranian troops currently in Syria, Haaretz reported, along with almost 9,000 Shiite militia from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq and another 7,000 members of the Hezbollah terror group.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Kremlin in Moscow on May 9, 2018. (SERGEI ILNITSKY/AFP)

On Sunday, Netanyahu told his cabinet that Israel was taking action against arms manufacturing in Lebanon and threatened continued fighting with Iran Sunday.

“We are working to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. At the same time we are working against the establishment of an Iranian military presence against us; to this end we are also operating against the transfer of deadly weapons from Syria to Lebanon or their manufacture in Lebanon,” Netanyahu said.

“All of these weapons are for use against the State of Israel and it is our right – based on the right of self-defense – to prevent their manufacture or transfer,” he said. Netanyahu did not specify what action was being taken against the arms in Lebanon.

On Thursday night a military air base in western Syria was hit in an airstrike, sparking large explosions, which were heard throughout the area, state media reported.

The Daba’a air base, also known as al-Qusair air base, and the surrounding area are known to be a stronghold for Hezbollah and Iran-backed militias. It was also reportedly struck by Israel in skirmishes against Syrian and Iranian forces on May 10.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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