Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said that only Syrian forces should be present in areas alongside the country’s border with Israel and Jordan, as rebels in southern Syria prepare for a possible offensive by government troops.
In recent days, Syrian government aircraft have dropped leaflets on rebel-held areas in Deraa, warning of an imminent push and urging the fighters to lay down their arms.
The southern province, which is mostly controlled by opposition groups, is close to the volatile Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, which has emerged as a flashpoint in a wider standoff between Israel and Iran.
The United States has recently warned it will take action to protect a ceasefire in the area, while Israel said it would not tolerate a permanent military presence in Syria by Iran – a major ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, along with Russia.
Israel has long been worried that any Syrian government advance would bring Iran-backed militias with it to the area near the occupied Golan Heights.
Speaking to reporters on Monday, Lavrov said the withdrawal of non-Syrian forces from the “de-escalation area” should be done on a “mutual basis” as part of 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,” he said, without specifying which countries back these rebel groups.
The area has been held under a ceasefire, but has recently been tense following a series of recent Israeli strikes on Syrian and Iranian forces.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Beirut, Lebanon, said Lavrov’s comments come amid ongoing international negotiations aimed at avoiding a military escalation in this part of Syria that could involve regional powers.
“Jordan and Israel … do not want to see Iranian troops or Iranian-allied troops on their borders, so if there’s any arrangement or any deal, it will definitely not involve Iranian troops taking a part in any battle,” Khodr said.
“What … they’re trying to do is reach some sort of an arrangement whereby the rebels decide to lay down their arms and surrender and those who want to leave to the rebel-controlled province of Idlib in the northwest will be able to do so – but state authority will return to this area,” Khodr added, noting that Jordan was keen to avoid an escalation on the border as it would create a refugee crisis.
While Syrian government forces dropped leaflets on Deraa’s rebel-held areas, the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV, which has reporters embedded with Syrian troops, said the army is sending reinforcements to southern Syria in an apparent preparation for an offensive.
The reports of an imminent operation in the de-escalation zone have worried the US, which warned on Friday that it would take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to ceasefire violations.
Jordan said on Monday it was discussing developments in southern Syria with Washington and Moscow and that all three parties agreed on the need to preserve the “de-escalation” zone they brokered last year and which has reduced violence.
A senior official who requested anonymity told Reuters news agency the three countries that signed last year’s deal “saw eye-to-eye” on the need to preserve the zone as a key step to “accelerate efforts to reach a political solution” in Syria.
‘No place for Iranian presence’
Later on Monday, Israel called for Iran to be denied any military presence in Syria.
“Our position on Syria is clear,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his parliamentary faction in broadcast remarks. “We believe that there is no place for any Iranian military presence, anywhere in Syria.”
Netanyahu said he would press German and French leaders to support his position during a European tour next week, with talks expected to focus on the US decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal – long-sought by Israel – and the Iranian presence in Syria.
“These things, of course, reflect not only our position. I can safely say that they also reflect the views of others in the Middle East and beyond the Middle East. This will be the main focus of my discussions,” Netanyahu said.
Earlier this month, Israel launched a large-scale attack against what it said were Iranian targets in Syria, raising fears of a major confrontation.
This was one of the largest Israeli military operations in recent years and the biggest against Iranian targets.
Those strikes followed a barrage of rockets that Israel said was fired toward its forces in the occupied Golan Heights by Iran from Syria.
Even before that, Israel had been blamed for a series of strikes inside Syria that killed Iranians, though it has not acknowledged them.