A Syrian First: Russia Compels Hizballah to Yield Ground

“No one in the world can force us to withdraw from Syria,” Hizballah’s secretary general Hassan Nasrallah bragged in one of his regular belligerent speeches last Friday, June 8. “No one but the Syrian government can ask us to leave,” he said, and went on to allege that Israel, after failing to oust Bashar Assad, is now bent on a failed effort to get Iranian and Hizballah troops out of the country.

Nasrallah omitted to mention Moscow in this context, which is interesting because, in the last few days, Russian forces have indeed managed to compel the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah forces in Syria to yield ground – not once but twice. They were forced to abandon the regions of Aleppo and of Quneitra opposite Israel’s Golan border, DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources disclose.

In the Aleppo region, Hizballah provided the only ground force available to the Syrian government’s army for attacking the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) rebels in the north, in keeping with President Assad’s threat of May 31, to attack “unless they withdraw from the country.”

His threat prompted a warning from the Pentagon. It was delivered in an interview with Russia’s RT TV. Assad said he is willing to “negotiate with Kurdish-led SDF which are allied with and embedded with US forces and currently hold about one quarter of Syrian territory.” He then said he would reclaim this territory by force if necessary.

Both Washington and Moscow hastened to take separate steps for heading Assad off, after judging he was serious and already massing his army for the assault.

So last, week, Washington ordered the USS Harry S. Truman Navy aircraft carrier to take up position at the head of a strike group opposite Syria’s Mediterranean coast.

As for Moscow, the last thing the Russians want to see at this point is a US-Hizballah armed clash. Russia commanders on the spot accordingly gave Hizballah commanders an ultimatum to withdraw forthwith from their positions around Aleppo. Hizballah obeyed instantly and sent its troops southward towards Damascus. Assad was left without sufficient ground forces to attack the US outpost.

Quneitra was next. There, Hizballah had just deployed the Iraqi-Shiite Brigade of Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas, a militia under Iranian Revolutionary Guards command, to supplement its own Golan Brigade units. Israel applied urgently to the Russian defense ministry in Moscow with a warning that if these pro-Iranian units were not immediately evacuated from the Quneitra region, the IDF would attack them. Russian commanders thereupon ordered Hizballah to pull the Iraqi Shiites off the Syrian Golan and relocate them around Damascus. Most were gone by the time this issue was ready for publication.

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