Russia: Moscow never promised withdrawal of Iranian troops from Syria

Russia never promised the United States that Iran and Iranian-backed forces would withdraw from Syria, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Tuesday, adding that their presence in the war-torn country is legitimate.

Lavrov, who was quoted by RIA news agency, denied comments made by senior US officials that the recently announced ceasefire agreement in southern Syria included a Russian commitment to ensure that Iranian-backed militias would be withdrawn from the country.

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.

“If you look at who is the greatest danger, it’s just the wards of the United States, various foreign terrorists, militants who are attached to those groups of armed opposition that the US supports,” 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 in the Golan Heights.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly criticized the US-Russian ceasefire deal, saying that 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 ceasefire agreement.

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.”

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin say Islamic State can be defeated in Syria, November 11, 2017. (Reuters)

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 kilometers from the borders of the Jewish State. According to reports, the new ceasefire agreement would allow for Iranian troops to remain some 5 kilometers from Israel’s border.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot secretly flew to Brussels on Friday where he met with met with the head of the US Army’s European Command Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti. The two discussed Iranian moves in Syria.

Officials from the US National Security Council have also flown in for talks with Israeli security officials on the ceasefire agreement and Iran’s growing threat to the region.

 An official in the Prime Minister’s Office said on Tuesday that Israel would continue to take care of its security concern 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.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset, “Iran knows very well we will not accept its consolidation in Syria. Our friends in Washington and Moscow know that we will act to preserve our security interests. We deal firmly and responsibly with the threats around us.”

Tovah Lazaoff contributed to this report.

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