Iranian soldiers return to southern Syria in disguise
Senior Syrian rebels claim Iran and Hezbollah's troops, who had reportedly withdrawn from southern Syria, are wearing Syrian army uniforms to avoid Israeli strikes against them; Hezbollah's leader vows 'if the whole world comes together to force us to leave Syria, they will not be able to evict us.'
Hezbollah and Iranian militia fighters have reportedly returned to southern Syria dressed in Syrian army uniforms and under Syrian flags, the Wall Street Journal reported on Friday, quoting senior Syrian rebel officials.
Iranian and Hezbollah forces have apparently withdrawn from the Daraa and Quneitra areas.
But Syria's rebel group commander Ahmad Azam, whose base is in Quneitra, told the Journal they had returned in disguise in an effort to avoid Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
Azam said the returning convoys were armed with rockets and missiles.
"They are leaving…in their Hezbollah uniform and they are returning in regime vehicles and dressed in regular (Syrian) army uniforms," Azam told the Journal.
The fighters were speaking the Lebanese dialect of Arabic and Farsi, rebel commanders reported.
In addition to wearing Syrian army uniforms and flying the Syrian flag, Azam said the militiamen were given Syrian IDs, which another commander said belonged to Syrian soldiers who died in battle in recent years.
Diaa al-Hariri, an anti-government activist from Daraa said Hezbollah and Iran have been working tirelessly for years to entrench in south Syria, including establishing new militias of Syrian fighters whose loyalty is to Iran.
"I don’t think Iran is willing to leave without a war after all its efforts," he told the Journal.
On Friday, Hezbollah's Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah vowed that "if the whole world comes together to force us to leave Syria, they will not be able to evict us."
Speaking via a televised link at an "Quds Day" event in Lebanon, Nasrallah stressed Hezbollah's forces would remain in Syria "until Syria's leadership will tell us otherwise."
"Israel wants to change the campaign against Syria. Now it's interested in getting Iran and Hezbollah out of Syria," he went on to say.
"Zionists, admit you failed in the campaign and in the attempt to hurt the axis of resistance in Syria," Nasrallah stated.
He claimed Hezbollah went to Syria "for two reasons: The first - the belief that what's happening in Syria is a big plot against the axis of resistance, which is aimed at having Syria fall into the hands of its enemies. The second - the Syrian leadership asked us to come."
"Hezbollah has no private plans concerning Syria. It's not interested in interfering in the internal affairs of Syria, and it doesn't want a cut of the Syrian economy," he insisted.
He concluded his speech by threatening Israel, saying, "I tell the occupying and invading Zionists - board your planes and ships and go back to where you came from," the Hezbollah leader said, adding that "if they insist on occupying Palestine, a great war will erupt and liberate all the occupied Palestinian territories."
"The day of the great battle" in the Middle East is coming, he said, as is the day "when we will all go and pray in Jerusalem."
This week, a Russian troop deployment near the border with Lebanon caused friction with Iran-backed forces there including Hezbollah, a rare case of Assads' allies acting out of sync with each other, though it was soon resolved.
One of the elements said matters have been resolved by Tuesday. Syria's army soldiers took over three posts to which Russian soldiers had been sent near al-Qusayr in the Homs District.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said last month that Iranian forces and Hezbollah are papering to withdraw from southern Syria, and that Iranian advisors, as well as Hezbollah troops, will leave Quneitra and Daraa Districts, which are adjacent to Syria's border with Israel.
However, a Syrian official close to the Iranian forces denied the Observatory's report calling it "false." The official, who chose to remain anonymous, did not give any more details on the matter.
Syrian President Bashar Assad has rebuffed claims of an Iranian military presence in his country, while accusing Israel of launching attacks on his territory and of propagating “lies” about its massive aerial offensive launched earlier in May.
“Israel is attacking us, but we are only becoming stronger and improving our defenses even more,” he said in an interview with Russia Today. “That is the only way to stop the Israeli attacks, and we are doing that.”
Assad said Iran's presence in Syria was limited to officers who were assisting the Syrian army. Apparently referring to the May 10 attack by Israel, the Syrian president said "we had tens of Syrian martyrs and wounded soldiers, not a single Iranian" casualty.
However, Iran-backed militias, including Lebanon's Hezbollah terror group, have played a big role in support of Assad during the conflict. Iran's Revolutionary Guards have also deployed in the country.
Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Tehran's influence in Syria, earlier this month said it destroyed dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli territory for the first time.
“Iran helps us, but there are no Iranian forces among us. There never have been. That can’t be hidden. We wouldn’t be ashamed to say if they were. Just as we invited the Russians, we could have invited the Iranians,” he continued.
The Syrian leader also referred to what he described as the Israeli “lie” on the Iranian issue.
“In the attack a few weeks ago, they said they had attacked Iranian bases … How can they say this? It’s a lie.”