Russia and Israel have reportedly reached an unprecedented deal which would allow Bashar al-Assad’s forces to take remaining rebel territory in southern Syria – so long as Iranian fighters do not participate.
Moscow appears to have capitulated to Israeli demands to hold back Tehran-backed militias 15 miles from the occupied Golan Heights, according to Israeli and Saudi reports.
In return, Israel will not stand in the way of any Syrian regime offensive on the city of Deraa and territory along the Israeli and Jordanian border.
Russia said on Monday only Syrian army troops should be on the country’s southern frontiers, which appeared to be directed at Iran.
The deal is said to have been finalised in a phone call days earlier between Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defence minister, and Sergei Shoigu, his Russian counterpart.
It averts a possible direct confrontation between Iran and Israel in Syria, where tensions have heightened between the foes in recent months.
At the same time it reveals growing daylight between Moscow and Tehran, which back the same side in the conflict.
According to Israeli sources, Russia has grown increasingly frustrated with Iran’s presence in Syria and is worried that fighting between Israel and Iran threatens its hard-fought victories.
Iran is estimated to have thousands of advisers and fighters in Syria as well as a number of bases, which have become regular targets for Israel attacks.
Israel, which is also said to have received assurances from Moscow that it will not to try to stop any future strikes on Iranian targets, is concerned about Iran and allied Hizbollah’s growing arsenal on its doorstep.
Both Russia and Iran have played pivotal roles in helping reverse Assad’s fortunes, and Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, has reassured Tehran that a pullout is not up for discussion.
Deraa is the obvious next target for Assad, who has repeatedly promised to retake every inch of the country. The only other major opposition stronghold, in Idlib in the northwest, is fraught with complications because of the presence of Turkish troops in the area.
Fighting in southwestern Syria has been contained since last year by a "de-escalation" agreement brokered by Russia, the US and Jordan.
However, the recent victory for the government in Eastern Ghouta on the outskirts of Damascus has relieved pressure on the depleted army and freed up troops.
A pro-government military source confirmed on Tuesday that preparations had been completed for an offensive on Deraa.
"The Syrian army will wage all the battles and has now become strong and capable," the commander said.
This week the army dropped leaflets over the city, urging fighters to disarm. “The men of Syrian army are coming. Take your decision before it is too late," they read.
Deraa, known as the cradle of the revolution because of its uprising against Assad in early 2011, is under the control of a patchwork of rebels including the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front.
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Like most deals agreed for Syria, where competing international backers have vested interests, no Syrian group was party to the discussion.
Elia Samaan, an adviser in the government’s reconciliation ministry, told The Telegraph there was no set deadline for the offensive. "But of course the Syrian government always prefers an agreement over a military operation,” he said.
“Currently all efforts are being put forth to reach an agreement in the southern area in order to avert a military operation.”
The agreement will be a massive blow for the rebels in southern Syria, who have received considerable money and arms from the US, as well as Israel.
The US expressed alarm over the weekend that Syrian regime forces were massing for an assault there, but that was before reports surfaced about the deal.
The US under the Donald Trump administration has backed off its support for the rebels and has given little indication it is prepared to intervene on their behalf.
Officials from Washington are due to have talks with Jordan and Russia about the fate of the south. Jordan fears an offensive there could send thousands of refugees to its border.
Additional reporting by Joseph Haboush in Beirut