Apparently accepting Israeli conditions, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that only the Assad regime should field military forces in southern Syria, near the Jordanian border and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
At a press conference in Moscow on Monday, Lavrov pointed to a political process for rebel departure from Daraa Province — where the Syrian uprising began in 2011 — and neighboring Quneitra Province:
Of course, the withdrawal of all non-Syrian forces must be carried out on a mutual basis, this should be a two-way street.
The result of the ongoing work should be a situation in which troops of the Syrian armed forces will be stationed alongside the Syrian border with Israel
The Israeli daily Haaretz, citing security and diplomatic sources in Jerusalem, said Russia decided to work on a deal to remove Iranian and Iranian-led troops from the area after Israeli strikes on regime and Iranian targets across Syria on May 10.
The Israeli site said the foreign forces would be pulled back 30 km (19 miles) from the border.
Russia and Israel established de facto cooperation in September 2015, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Israel accepted Russia’s military intervention, launched days later, to prop up the Assad regime and erode opposition territory. Moscow assured that Iranian and Iranian-supported forces, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, would not enter the area near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The arrangement has come under pressure in recent weeks, following the seizure by pro-Assad forces of all territory around Damascus. The regime pointed to the opposition zone in southern Syria, along the Jordanian border and close to the Golan Heights, as its next target. Helicopters dropped leaflets demanding that rebels surrender, and Hezbollah and pro-Assad outlets declared movement of a large regime force towards the south.
Israel backed up its warning with periodic airstrikes on regime and Iranian targets, as Netanyahu and other ministers repeated that the presence of Iran and Hezbollah would not be tolerated.
Netanyahu repeated on Monday in broadcast remarks, “Our position on Syria is clear. We believe that there is no place for any Iranian military presence, anywhere in Syria.”
Russia’s position is further complicated by an agreement with the US last July for a “de-escalation zone” across Quneitra and Dara’a Provinces.
While the Russians have broken other de-escalation zones to enable pro-Assad offensives in East Ghouta and in northwest Syria, the US State Department warned last week that it would “take firm and appropriate measures in response to Assad regime violations”.