Tensions flare between Syrian leader’s foreign backers

Tensions flare between Syrian leader’s foreign backers

BEIRUT — A Russian force deployment on the Syria-Lebanon border last week in a Hezbollah stronghold sparked protests by the Lebanese militant group, prompting the force to withdraw from its positions only a day later in a rare sign of tension between the allies.

The Russian move was not expected as Moscow’s military police have been deploying in areas controlled by Syrian government forces and close to insurgent positions. The outskirts of the Syrian town of Qusair where the Russian troops set up three observation positions on Monday have been held by Hezbollah and Syrian troops since 2013, when they drove rebels from the area.

The Russian deployment and subsequent withdrawal shows that as rebels are being defeated in different parts of Syria, frictions could rise between Assad’s main foreign backers — Russia and Iran — and the militias Tehran backs throughout Syria.

“They came and deployed without coordination,” said an official with the “Axis of Resistance” led by Iran, which includes Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and other groups fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.

“It’s better if they don’t come back. There is no work for them there. There is no Daesh or any other terrorist organization,” the official said, referring to the Islamic State group and other insurgents that the Syrian government and its allies call terrorist organizations. “What do they want to observe?”

Asked if there is tension between Hezbollah and Russian troops, the official refused to comment, speaking by telephone from Syria on condition of anonymity.

In 2013, Hezbollah openly joined the Syrian civil war along with Assad’s forces capturing the then rebel stronghold of Qusair in June that year after losing dozens of its battle-hardened fighters.

Although there have been no reports of frictions between Russian and Iranian or Iran-backed fighters in Syria, calls for Tehran to end its military presence in Syria have been on the rise in recent weeks.

At a meeting with Assad, who visited the Russian city of Sochi last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to withdraw their troops.

Putin’s envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, later commented that the Russian leader’s statement was aimed at the United States and Turkey, along with Iran and Hezbollah.

Bassem Mroue is an Associated Press writer.

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