In a ploy to try to reduce pressure from Israel, Iranian-backed forces, including from the Hezbollah terror group, have withdrawn their forces from areas in southern Syria, only to later return posing as Syrian military units, the Wall Street Journal reported Friday.
Israel fears that as the Syrian civil war winds down, Iran, whose forces and Shiite proxies have backed President Bashar Assad, will entrench militarily in the neighboring country and turn its focus on Israel.
Israel has vowed not to tolerate any Iranian forces in Syria, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traveled to German, France and the UK this week to try to get support for this position.
In an apparent bid to avoid further Israeli strikes, Lebanese Hezbollah troops and other Iranian-backed militias withdrew from the Daraa and Quneitra provinces in Syria’s southwest near Israel, but later returned dressed in Syrian military uniforms and under the regime flag, the report said, citing multiple rebel commanders.
One commander told the paper that the convoys were returning equipped with rockets and missiles.
“It’s a camouflage,” Ahmad Azam, a commander with the rebel Salvation Army, a rebel group based in Quneitra told the Wall Street Journal. “They are leaving… in their Hezbollah uniform and they are returning in regime vehicles and dressed in regular [Syrian] army uniforms.”
Asked about the report, an Israeli official declined to specifically address the allegations of uniform switching, but told the Journal: “You can be sure that Israel is very much aware of basically everything happening in our backyard.”
The report said the disguise attempt was a sign of how dependent the Assad regime was on Iranian-backed forces, which include Lebanese, Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans. The rebels said the foreigners were given identity cards of Syrian soldiers killed in the seven year civil war.
Having taken control over the Damascus region in recent weeks, the regime is said to be planning an assault on rebel-held areas in the south.
During his visit to Europe, Netanyahu reportedly won a commitment to support ousting Iranian forces from Syria
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday told Netanyahu that she agrees with Israel’s demand that Iranian troops be removed from Syria, especially the area close to the Israeli border.
“Iran’s regional influence is worrying,” she said, adding that her government would use “diplomatic” means to counter it.
The Israeli Air Force has carried out numerous airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria. Last month, the bitter enemies openly clashed when Iran fired dozens of rockets at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, and Israel responded by striking Iranian targets in Syria.
Last week, it was reported that Israel and Russia had reached a deal to remove Iranian forces from southern Syria, while also giving Israel a green light to strike Iranian targets in Syria.
The reported agreement would see Iranian forces leave southwestern Syria, while allowing Israel to strike Iranian assets deep in the country. Israel agreed not to attack Syrian regime targets, a report in the Arabic Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper said.
Russia’s ambassador to the UN appeared to confirm the deal last week, saying “At this point, I cannot answer if it is being realized, but as far as I understand, the parties that were involved in reaching an agreement are satisfied with what they have achieved.”
However, Israeli officials have denied that a deal has been done making it clear that Jerusalem wants Iranian forces — including Hezbollah and other Shiite militias — entirely out of Syria, and not just the southwestern region closest to the Jewish state.