Iran-backed militias have not withdrawn from Syrian south

Rebel fighters in the south have arrested a number of Hezbollah fighters, the Syrian opposition claims

A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on June 30, 2018 shows Syrian government soldiers gesturing as they walk in the town of Western Ghariyah, about 15 kilometres east of the southern embattled city of Daraa.

Damascus: Despite a recent report by UK-based Syrian Human Rights Observatory, saying that Hezbollah and Iranian troops had withdrawn from the Syrian south, accounts are emerging to the contrary.

Reports of Hezbollah participation in the offensive has been backed by the Syrian Opposition.

Nasr Al Hariri of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces said that members of the armed opposition recently managed to arrest Hezbollah fighters in the vicinity of Dara’a.

“Hezbollah troops are still around. You can recognise them by their Lebanese accent. So are the Iranians, but they are all wearing the uniform of regime troops and carrying Syrian flags,” Abdul Rahman Muhana, a 22-year old native of Dara’a, told Gulf News.

The Observatory, citing ‘reliable’ sources, reported in May that Iranian and Lebanese militants had been replaced by members of the the 4th division of the Syrian army.

““This is nonsense. We live there and can see for ourselves. They are lying, but the world wants to believe the lie! We know a foreigner when we see one! Just pass by their units in Kanaker in the vicinity of Dara’a and you will hear the non-Syrian accent there.”

Gulf News spoke to multiple people from Dara’a who all confirmed Muhana’s story.

“Hezbollah left the battlefield but Iranians have refused,” said the brother of a rebel fighter in Dara’a, who gave his name as Abu Anas.

“They are still in charge of missile command in the south, but you wouldn’t recognise them unless you live there. They all speak Arabic and are now dressed as Syrian army fatigue.”

He says they are there supervising the battles, but not actually fighting.

“They are never on the front lines. Volunteers and militiamen are sent to die first. The senior military people are usually in the back, giving orders.”

Thaer Al Hariri, another Dara’a native, said that the Iranians and Hezbollah had created a militia of 10,000 Shiite fighters, charged with guerrilla warfare on the streets of major villages and towns in the western countryside.

“Informally they are being called Ansar Al Mahdi. They are the ones doing the fighting, not the Lebanese or the Iranians. The new militia is based in the Christian town of Izraa (north of Dara’a). They were trained by the (Iranian) Quds Forces, whose forces are staying at Al Baath City in Al Quneitra.”

Izraa is approximately 30 km from the borderline with the Israeli-Occupied Golan Heights, which violates an agreement reached last summer between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that all non-Syrian troops need to clear the border area at a distance of no less than 35 km.

Putin had reportedly pledged to push Hezbollah and Iranian troops up to 80 km from the borderline, even past Damascus, all the way to the Qalamoun Mountains, which are already under the control of Hezbollah.

“This is an old ploy. The Syrians did it when they entered Jordan back in 1970, wearing uniform of the Palestinian Liberation Army and carrying emblem of the PLO on their tanks. I was serving in the army at the time and all of us knew that. They did not want the world to condemn their military presence in Jordan and now, the Iranians are using the same tactic,” Hariri said.

Despite much speculation of a broader conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria’s south, so far, Israel has not taken any concrete military action to confront Iranian-backed troops, allegedly operating there.

Meanwhile, Syrian officials have defended Hezbollah presence in the south, with Foreign Minister Walid Al Mouallem saying that the Iranians and other “allies” will not leave until the Americans evacuate all territory east of the Euphrates River, and the Turks leave the border strip in the north they occupied in 2016.

The Israeli Army has carried out at least 19 strikes on Syria since outbreak of the present conflict in 2011.

At least 6 of them have targeted Iranian and Hezbollah convoys, military bases and personnel.

In January 2015, six Hezbollah officials were killed in a strike on Al Quneitra, including Jihad Mughnieh, the son of senior commander Emad Mughnieh.

Other strikes followed in August and December 2015, September 2016, and more recently in February 2018.

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