Hezbollah fighters stand near military tanks in Western Qalamoun, Syria.
(photo credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)
Iran’s presence in Syria is legitimate, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday, adding that Russia never promised the United States that Iran and Iranian-backed forces would withdraw from Syria.
“The goal – both inside this zone and outside it – is to ensure departure of non-Syrian military units,” Lavrov told reporters. “No one mentioned Iran or pro-Iranian forces.
If we talk about pro-Iranian forces, somebody might be tempted to call the entire Syrian Army pro-Iranian, and then what – it should surrender? In my opinion, it is a wishful thinking.”
Lavrov’s statement ran counter to the US description of the cease-fire agreement in southern Syria signed Saturday with the United States and Jordan.
US State Department officials told reporters on Sunday that Russia had committed to removing the Iranian-backed forces as part of the agreement.
In the wake of the disagreement between the US and Russia, a US delegation from the National Security Council arrived in Israel on Tuesday for talks on Syria.
A US official downplayed the significance of the visit, explaining: “We have an important strategic relationship with Israel, and US government delegations routinely visit Israel to coordinate on a wide range of issues.
“During this visit, US officials will meet with [their] Israeli counterparts to discuss regional security issues, including Syria,” the official said.
Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin say Islamic State can be defeated in Syria, November 11, 2017. (Reuters)
Speaking via Skype to the Jewish Federation’s General Assembly in Los Angeles, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “Iran is scheming to entrench itself in Syria. They want to create a permanent air, land and sea military presence. We are not going to agree to that. I have said very clearly that Israel will work to stop this, and we must all work together to stop Iran’s aggression and its pursuit of nuclear weapons. If we stand together we will achieve it. But, if we have to, we will stand alone. Iran will not get nuclear weapons, it will not turn Syria into a military base against Israel.”
An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said Israel would continue to take care of its security concerns in every instance and in every situation.
The official explained that Israel has made this position clear to its friends in Moscow and to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Netanyahu has publicly criticized the US-Russian cease-fire deal, saying it does not include any provisions to stop Iranian expansion in the area and that the IDF will continue carrying out strikes in Syria despite the agreement.
According to a map seen by Channel 2, the new cease-fire agreement would see two buffer zones where Iranian troops could be stationed as close as five kilometers from Israel’s borders in some areas.
Channel 2 published a photograph of the map and said Iran and Hezbollah could be a distance of 7 km. to 8 km. from the border with the approval of Russia and the United States. Rebel forces would also be allowed to remain near the border with Israel on the Golan Heights. Iran would also be near the Jordanian border, Channel 2 said. Russians would enforce the agreement and a command center would be set up in Amman.
The Iranian presence in Syria is “legitimate,” Lavrov was quoted as saying, adding that it was the United States who posed the biggest threat in Syria.
“We’ve just stated the fact that there is Russian and Iranian legitimate presence on the invitation of the legitimate government [on the Syrian territory] and we have also stated the fact of the illegitimate presence of the coalition created by the United States, which is carrying out military actions, including unilateral ones,” Lavrov said.
“To seek withdrawal from the line of contact of non-Syrian groups, which are currently present in this very complicated Syrian region – yes, this was agreed upon. But this is a twoway street and if one looks at who is the most dangerous – they are those who are under the care of the United States.
They are various foreign terrorists and fighters who join armed opposition groups supported by the US,” Lavrov said.
As an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Moscow finds itself part of an alliance between Damascus and Tehran, the patron of Hezbollah. Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role that the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
As the war in Syria seems to be winding down in Assad’s favor due to Moscow’s intervention, Israel fears that Iran will help Hezbollah produce accurate precision-guided missiles and help Hezbollah and other Shiite militias to strengthen their foothold on the Golan Heights.
Describing Israel’s security policy as the “right combination of firmness and responsibility,” Netanyahu said Monday that he has “informed our friends in Washington and our friends in Moscow that we will operate in Syria, including southern Syria, in accordance with our understanding and in accordance with our security needs.”
In recent months Israel has held talks with Moscow, Washington and Amman in an attempt to ensure that the agreement will define the buffer zone some 40 km. from the borders of the Jewish State.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen.Gadi Eisenkot secretly flew to Brussels on Friday where he met with the head of the US Army’s European Command Gen.Curtis Scaparrotti. The two discussed Iranian moves in Syria.Reuters contributed to this report.