U.S., Russia Commit to Expel Iran-backed Forces from Golan Heights Border

Russia has committed to removing Iranian-backed forces from the border of the Golan Heights as part of a ceasefire agreement in southern Syria signed with the United States and Jordan, a senior State Department official said on Sunday, Jerusalem Post reports.

The U.S. official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity, said that the U.S.-Russia- Jordan Memorandum of Principles (MoP) “enshrines the commitment of the U.S., Russia and Jordan to eliminate the presence of non-Syrian foreign forces” – including Iranian forces, Iranian-backed militias like the Lebanese Hezbollah, foreign jihadis working with Jabhat al-Nusra and other extremist groups – from Syria’s southwest.

“These elements – these extremists groups and these foreign-backed militias – have used the Syrian conflict over the last five years to increase their presence in this part of Syria, which has undermined the cease-fire and poses a threat to Jordan and Israel,” he said.

Moscow has agreed to work with the Syria to remove all Iranian-backed forces from opposition-held territory as well as the borders of the Golan in Jordan, said the U.S. official.

“The bottom-line principle is that all foreign terrorists and militia fighters must leave these areas and ultimately leave Syria altogether,” the official told reporters via teleconference.

The State Department official admitted to having many differences with Russia, which had intervened in the Syrian conflict on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

“We have made clear we will not work with the Assad regime. We will not, obviously, work with the Iranians, who share fundamentally divergent interests from ours,” he said.

Jordan’s State Minister for Media Affairs Muhammad Momani was quoted by the country’s Al-Ghad newspaper as saying that the MoP stipulates that non-Syrian forces should not be present in and around the de-escalation zones in the specified areas. These zones in the agreement, Momani said, “back the ceasefire along the confrontation lines in southwestern Syria, which went into effect on July 9.”

Repeating Israel’s warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said: “We will not allow the Shi’ite axis to establish Syria as its forefront base.”

Netanyahu has publicly criticized the U.S.-Russian ceasefire deal in Syria, saying that it does not include any provisions to stop Iranian expansion in the area. In recent months, Israel has held talks with Moscow and Washington – and according to media reports with Amman as well – in an attempt to ensure that the agreement would define the buffer zone as far from the borders of the Jewish state as possible.

Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role that the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country. Israel now fears that Iran will help Hezbollah produce accurate precision-guided missiles, allowing them and other Shi’ite militias to strengthen their foothold on the Golan Heights.

Last month, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu reportedly told Israel that Moscow agreed to expand the buffer zone in which Iranian and Hezbollah forces would not be allowed to enter along the Israeli-Syrian border. Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the growing Iranian presence on its borders and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are redlines for the Jewish state.

On Friday, news broke out that Iran has established a military base at a Syrian Army site south of Damascus. According to the report, which is based on a Western intelligence source, the Iranian base is around 50 km. north of the Israel-controlled part of the Golan Heights and has several buildings that likely house soldiers and military vehicles.