Iranian Forces Pulling Back From Israel Border, Says Russia
Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons to a distance of 85 km (53 miles) from the Golan Heights frontier between Israel and Syria, TASS news agency quoted Russia’s envoy to Syria as saying on Wednesday.
Backed by Russia, Iran, and the Hezbollah’s Shi’ite militia, Syrian President Bashar Assad has retaken territory in southern-western Syria from rebels, bringing the pro-Assad forces in proximity to the Israeli border.
“The Iranians withdrew and the Shi’ite formations are not there,” the agency quoted Alexander Lavrentiev, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Syria, as saying.
Lavrentiev said Iranian service personnel whom he described as advisors could be among Syrian army forces who remain closer to the Israeli border.
“But there are no units of heavy equipment and weapons that could pose a threat to Israel at a distance of 85 km from the line of demarcation,” Lavrentiev said.
In the meantime, Assad said on Wednesday that his army is about to regain control over the divided country: “We are about to announce a crushing victory,” he wrote in a letter on the occasion of the 73rd anniversary of the establishment of Syria’s army.
“We have reached stability and security in most regions, from Homs to Palmyra… and other areas where terror was established with logistical and financial support over seven and a half years ago,” he added.
On Monday, the Syrian government regained control of the frontier with the Golan Heights for the first time in seven years after Islamic State-linked militants gave up their last pocket of territory in the area, reported by state media and an opposition-linked war monitoring group.
Israeli officials see Iranian forces and Hezbollah as a direct threat to their country’s security.
An Israeli official deemed the pullback insufficient. “What we have laid down as a red line is military intervention and entrenchment by Iran in Syria, and not necessarily on our border,” Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Israel Radio, citing the longer-range threat posed by Iranian missiles or drones positioned in Syria.
Israel rejected the offer, which was made during a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. In an apparent riposte, Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Anatoly Viktorov, said on Monday that Moscow could not compel Iran to leave Syria. “There’ll be no compromises nor concessions on this matter.”
Last week an Israeli official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Russia had offered to keep Iranian forces at least 100 km from the Golan Heights ceasefire line.
But Viktorov also signalled that Russia would continue to turn a blind eye to Israeli air strikes against suspected Iranian and Hezbollah arms transfers or emplacements in Syria.
Hanegbi said Israel wanted to prevent Iran and Hezbollah from effectively extending their Lebanese front against it.
“We are not ready to see a new Hezbollah front on our northern border between Israel and Syria. This is something that is dangerous. This is something that, if we don’t prevent it today, when still at its outset, will a exact a heavy price of us down the line,” he said.