Regime statement follows unclear Putin comments about departure of “all foreign forces”
The Assad regime has asserted that there will be no withdrawal of Iranian and Iranian-led forces from Syria.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated the American position over withdrawal on Monday, as part of 12 US demands on Iran after Washington’s departure from the 2015 nuclear agreement with Tehran earlier this month.
Far more importantly, Russian President Vladimir Putin issued an ambiguous statement last week, after a sudden visit from Bashar al-Assad, that “all foreign forces” should leave. The Kremlin has put out contradictory follow-up “clarifications” over whether Putin was referring to US personnel allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, or — amid Russian co-operation with Israel — he was putting some pressure on Tehran.
“Whether Iranian forces or Hezbollah withdraw or stay in Syria is not up for discussion because it’s the (business) of the Syrian government,” Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal al-Mikdad said in an interview with Russian State outlet Sputnik.
The minister then added a declaration pointing to further tension, possibly with the regime’s essential ally in Moscow: “After ending the direct terrorist danger to Damascus, the door is open to heading north or south.”
Russian airpower was vital in the regime’s recent reoccupation of the East Ghouta area to the north and east of Damascus, and this week pro-Assad forces completed the takeover of suburbs to the south from the Islamic State and from the Free Syrian Army.
But a campaign in opposition-held parts of northwest Syria would set the regime against Turkey, which has allied with rebels since Ankara’s military intervention in August 2016. On Tuesday, Russia confirmed that Turkish and Russian forces have both set up observation posts around Idlib, northern Hama, and western Aleppo Provinces.
Claims are circulating, particularly from pro-Assad blogs, that the regime is moving forces towards opposition territory in southern Syria, along the Jordanian border. The pro-regime newspaper al-Watan is reporting that leaflets have been dropped over opposition areas near Daraa city — where the Syrian uprising began in 2011 — urging people to “reconcile”.
However, any pro-Assad offensive, especially if it includes Hezbollah and Iranian-led militia, could provoke an Israeli response.
Assad Meets Russian Envoy
Bashar al-Assad met Putin’s envoy Alexander Lavrentiev on Wednesday, but regime media made no reference to the Iranian issue.
Instead State news agency SANA feature Lavrentiev’s congratulations to Assad over the recent conquest of areas near Damascus, establishing control around the capital for the first time since 2012.
Assad praised Moscow as “a partner in these victories which will not stop until the elimination of the last terrorist and liberating the remaining terrorist hotbeds”.
SANA also made an implicit reference to the regime’s appeal for Russian assistance as it faces hundreds of billions of dollars of damage and lost GDP, with “an emphasis” on “ramping up Russia’s participation in the reconstruction”.
Regime Claims US Strikes on Its Positions in East; Washington Denies
The Assad regime and Hezbollah claim that the US-led coalition carried out aristrikes on two regime army positions in eastern Syria at dawn on Thursday.
US military officials have denied any knowledge of the attacks.
State news agency SANA, citing a “military source”, asserted that the operations were near the Iraqi border, “Some of our military sites between Albu Kamal and Hamimia were exposed at dawn today to aggression launched by US coalition jets.”
Hezbollah’s media unit said the strikes were near the energy installation T2.
Tensions have risen this year in the east as pro-Assad forces and the US-supported, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have established frontlines near each other, following advances by each side against the Islamic State. The SDF occupies oil and gas fields that the Assad regime sees as vital for its control of the crippled Syrian economy.
In February, US warplanes killed hundreds of members of a pro-Assad force — with about 200 Russian “private military contractors” reportedly among the fatalities — after attacks on the SDF east of the Euphrates River, near a gas complex.
But Captain Bill Urban, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, said Thursday, “We have no operational reporting of a U.S.-led coalition strike against pro-Syrian regime targets or forces.”
A Pentagon spokesman echoed: “We have no information to substantiate those reports.”