Syrian President Bashar Assad on Thursday denied the presence in his country of any Iranian troops.
Much of Iran’s infrastructure in Syria has been set up on Syrian military bases, Israel says, and the IDF has frequently hit Syrian air defenses during strikes on Iranian targets.
Earlier this month, the Israeli Air Force carried out its biggest operation in Syria in 40 years when it attacked more than 50 Iranian targets in response to an Iranian rocket barrage at the Golan Heights, amid warnings from Jerusalem that it would not tolerate Tehran’s attempts to entrench itself militarily on Israel’s northern border.
But according to Assad, Iran’s presence in his country is limited to an advisory capacity.
In a wide-ranging interview with Russia’s RT television, Assad said that “not a single Iranian” but rather “tens of Syrian martyrs” had been killed in recent Israeli airstrikes on his country and that claims to the contrary were “a lie.”
“We do not have Iranian troops. We never had, and you cannot hide it,” he said, adding, “Like we invited the Russians, we could have invited the Iranians.”
But then he added: “We have Iranian officers who work with the Syrian army.”
Long-simmering tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria stepped up considerably in recent months, beginning in February when an Iranian drone carrying explosives was flown from the T-4 air base in central Syria into Israeli airspace and was shot down by an IAF helicopter.
He said Israel was “hysterical” and “panicking” in making threats against Syria.
On Wednesday night, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman set off for Moscow to meet with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, to discuss Iran’s growing military presence in Syria.
“The primary focus of the defense establishment is preventing the entrenchment of Iran and its proxies in Syria,” Liberman wrote in a tweet before his flight.
In an apparent reference to Iranian forces, on Wednesday Russian state media outlet TASS quoted Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying foreign militias should leave southwestern Syria as soon as possible.
Lavrov echoed comments he made earlier in the week, when he said that only Syrian troops should be stationed in the rebel-held Daraa province, a region adjacent to the Israeli border that has emerged as a flashpoint in a wider standoff between the Jewish state and Iran.
Plea for Russian air defenses
During the interview with RT, Assad also said that the only way to stop Israeli airstrikes on his country was to beef up its air defenses with Russia’s help.
Assad seemed to contradict himself by saying, “Our air defense is much stronger than before, thanks to the Russian support,” but also conceding that “[anti-government militias and Israel, according to his claim] destroyed a big part of our air defenses.”
“The recent attacks by the Israelis and by the Americans and British and French proved that we are in a better situation,” he said. “The only option is to improve our air defense, this is the only thing we can do, and we are doing that.”
Earlier this month, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin said that a decision had not yet been made on supplying Syria with advanced air defense systems, a development that Israel fears could hamper its efforts to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syrian territory and transfers of arms supplies to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
Assad also said that Russia had averted “direct conflict” with the US in Syria and a far greater attack than the one launched in April by the US, UK and France on alleged Syrian chemical sites, following a chemical weapons attack on civilians attributed to the Syrian government — a charge that Assad denied.
“We were close to have direct conflict between the Russian forces and the American forces, and fortunately, it has been avoided, not by the wisdom of the American leadership, but by the wisdom of the Russian leadership,” he said.
Threat to attack US-backed Kurds
Assad also warned US-backed Kurdish forces he would not hesitate to use force to retake the third of the country they control.
“The only problem left in Syria is the SDF,” Assad said, referring to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces which has spearheaded battles against Islamic State group jihadists.
“We’re going to deal with it by two options,” he said. “The first one: we started now opening doors for negotiations. Because the majority of them are Syrians, supposedly they like their country, they don’t like to be puppets to any foreigners.
“We have one option, to live with each other as Syrians. If not, we’re going to resort… to liberating those areas by force,” Assad added. “It’s our land, it’s our right and it’s our duty to liberate it, and the Americans should leave. Somehow they’re going to leave.”
Assad said that his generation had been forced to live under the threat of Israeli attack since they were children, but that it was “nonsense” to say that they were afraid.
Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.