Israel and Russia push for Iranian forces to leave southern Syria
Israel called on Monday for its arch-foe Iran to be denied any military presence in Syria, after Russia said Damascus's forces alone should control Syrian territory near the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
"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."
Earlier on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said only Syrian government troops should have a presence on the country's southern border, the RIA news agency reported.
Their comments come as a Syrian government offensive on the southern province of Daraa appears imminent after Syrian aircraft dropped leaflets last Friday on the area, urging rebels to lay down their weapons or face an offensive.
Along with Idlib province in the north, Daraa is one of the last areas of territory still held by rebels after a Syrian government push to recapture areas lost during the seven-year war.
Daraa's location on the border of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights makes any operation there highly sensitive. Israel suspects Syria's ally Iran of seeking to establish a military presence close to its territory and has repeatedly struck Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria when it felt threatened.
On 10 May, Israel launched a wave of air strikes on Syria in response to what Israeli officials said was Iranian rocket fire on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, and claimed to have destroyed most of Iran's military infrastructure in the process. The Iranians denied they had fired any rockets.
It was the first time since 1974 that there had been clashes over the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory, setting in motion a flurry of diplomatic activity to prevent further outbreak.
Over the weekend, Iran and Israel also reportedly engaged in indirect negotiations over fighting in Daraa, according to a report on Saudi-owned news site Elaph.
According to the report, Iran pledged to stay out of fighting in southwest Syria between Syrian forces and rebel groups, while Israel said it would not intervene in battles near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights or the Israel-Jordan border so long as Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias are not involved.
For the negotiations, Iran's ambassador to Jordan, Mostafa Moslehzadeh, stayed in a hotel room with Iranian security personnel next door to a room of senior Israeli security officials, including the deputy head of Mossad, Elaph reported.
Jordanian officials served as mediator, shuttling messages between the two rooms, according to the report.
One participant told Elaph that the Iranians "arrived at a quick agreement" that its forces would not intervene in fighting near the Golan Heights and the Israel-Jordan border, surprising the Israeli representatives.
On Friday, Syrian aircraft dropped leaflets on the southern province of Daraa, urging rebels who control most the area to lay down their weapons or face an offensive.
Israel takes issue with any broad operation in the area, suspecting Damascus's Iranian allies of seeking to establish a military footprint closer to its borders. Israel has warned Iran of the potential for conflict if it sends forces to southern Syria.
According to Elaph, Iran may have been willing to negotiate with Israel this weekend as a result of losses Tehran has sustained in recent Israeli attacks in Syria.