BEIRUT (AP) — The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia said Wednesday his group may reduce the number of its fighters in Syria because of an easing of the conflict, particularly after a recent Russian-Turkey agreement that prevented an offensive on the last rebel stronghold.
Hassan Nasrallah welcomed the agreement signed on Monday in Sochi, Russia, calling it a "step on the road to making a political solution possible."
It "will take Syria in the next weeks and months to a new phase," Nasrallah said in a televised speech to supporters. He said the deal's success will depend whether it's properly implemented.
The deal calls for a demilitarized area around the Idlib enclave separating Syrian government forces and opposition fighters. It also calls for removing radical groups as well as heavy weapons from the area and for coordinated Russian and Turkish patrols to monitor the agreement.
Nasrallah said despite the calm prevailing on different front lines in Syria, his group will keep its fighters there.
"The calm on the front lines may naturally affect the number of forces present" as responsibilities and threat levels change, Nasrallah said. However, he added, "We are staying even after the settlement in Idlib."
Nasrallah said Hezbollah's presence is linked to "the needs and approval" of the Syrian government.
"Like I said before no one can force us to leave Syria," he said.
Hezbollah has had thousands of fighters fighting alongside the Syrian government forces since the early days of the civil war that erupted in 2011.
Commenting on the Israeli strikes in Latakia late Monday, Nasrallah denied the target was a shipment of weapons heading to Hezbollah.
Israel's army said Tuesday that strikes a day earlier targeted a Syrian facility that was about to transfer weapons to Hezbollah on behalf of Iran, another ally of the Syrian government.
Israel has been increasing its strikes inside Syria, protesting Iran and Hezbollah's growing influence there.
Nasrallah said Israel uses Iran and Hezbollah as an "excuse" but really aims to degrade Syria's military capabilities.
"This is a lie. Sometimes they do hit places that are connected to weapons — that they know of — but many of the attacks are not related to that at all," he said. "Israel is working on preventing Syria from possessing missile capabilities."
The strikes on Monday ended with Syrian air defense forces hitting a Russian aircraft in the air. Some 15 Russian servicemen were killed in the crash, causing a tiff between Russia and Israel, which had been coordinating Syria policy.