The United States once again warned this week it would "take firm and appropriate measures" against the Syrian government forces should they continue pushing into the southwest of the country, which has long been held by Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and other groups fighting the Assad government.
The state department issued a statement Thursday saying that any Syrian government action risks igniting a broader conflict, but didn't specify what actions the US or its allies might take.
As Reuters reports, the Syrian Army has continued bombarding rebel positions in the southwestern Deraa region, including the towns of Kafr Shams and al-Harah, near the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The "ceasefire" is a reference to a tenuously-holding deal between the US, Russia, and Jordan struck last November which among other stipulations proposed efforts for "the reduction, and ultimate elimination of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area to ensure a more sustainable peace." This was widely interpreted at the time as calling for an "Iran-free" zone in southern Syria, as Israel has long threatened to go to war should Iranian troops be present near its border.
A week prior to the latest the state department warning The Wall Street Journal reported in a dubiously sourced story that Hezbollah and other Iran-linked fighters are disguising themselves as Syrian government troops to avoid being targeted by Israeli airstrikes.
“It’s a camouflage,” the leader of a group called the Salvation Army told the WSJ. “They are leaving in their Hezbollah uniform and they are returning in regime vehicles and dressed in regular [Syrian] army uniforms,” the commander said, claiming further that many of the Iran-backed fighters in Syria had obtained ID cards of dead Syrian fighters.
However, a report in Sputnik cites a local Israeli radio interview with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman as saying the Wall Street Journal story of disguised Iranian troops operating in southern Syria is false:
Speaking to the Israeli radio station 103FM, Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that although there are several dozen Iranian "so-called advisors" in southern Syria, there are no forces there disguised as Syrian army forces or operating within its ranks.
Last week, The Wall Street Journal citing senior Syrian rebels who claimed that Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters dressed in Syrian army uniforms were present in southern Syria.
Meanwhile in new statements this week Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of importing 80,000 Shia fighters into the Syrian conflict from places like Pakistan and Afghanistan in order to both "covert" Syrian Sunnis and prepare attacks against Israel, claiming that a broader "religious war" would emerge.
“That is a recipe for a re-inflammation of another civil war – I should say a theological war, a religious war – and the sparks of that could be millions more that go into Europe and so on … And that would cause endless upheaval and terrorism in many, many countries,” Netanyahu said before an international security forum in Jerusalem.
“Obviously we are not going to let them do it. We’ll fight them. By preventing that – and we have bombed the bases of this, these Shi’ite militias – by preventing that, we are also offering, helping the security of your countries, the security of the world,” he said.
On Friday Netanyahu discussed in a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin the situation in Syria and the question Syrian-Israeli border security, according Russia's TASS news. The two leaders “expressed readiness to bolster coordination on Syria, including the issues of countering international terrorism," according to a statement.
Currently, new reports of a "massive build-up" of Syrian Army troops and their allies continue to emerge after Assad recently reaffirmed his desire to liberate "every inch" of sovereign Syrian territory.
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Beirut-based Al Masdar reports the Syrian Army has continued its massive build-up of troops in southern Syria, despite warnings from the U.S. State Department.
According to a military source in Damascus, reinforcements from the National Defense Forces (NDF) and Syrian Arab Army made their way from the Homs Governorate to Dara’a this week. The reinforcements were deployed to the northern part of the Dara’a Governorate and will likely be moved to the Lijat region or provincial capital.
Recently, the U.S. State Department warned the Syrian government against launching their long-awaited southwest Syria offensive. According to the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA), Defense Minister Major General ‘Ali ‘Abdullah Ayoub traveled to southern Syria on Friday to not only inspect the troops, but also, celebrate ‘Eid Al-Fitr with the soldiers in Dara’a.
Maj. Gen Ayoub was briefed by field commanders on the combat operations of the army and armed forces in the area, stressing on the importance of combating the remnants of militants. The top Syrian general often makes trips like these before the Syrian Army launches new offensives.
However, despite the massive build-up of troops, the Syrian Army has postponed their offensive in order to continue reconciliation talks with the rebel forces.