Rus­sia: We never promised Ira­nian troops out of Syria

Ne­tanyahu: We have to work to­gether to stop Iran, but if we have to, we’ll go it alone

Jerusalem Post - - FRONT PAGE - • By ANNA AHRONHEIM and TOVAH LAZAROFF

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.

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. •

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