Syrian President Bashar Assad denied Russia coordinated or even knew in advance about reported Israeli strikes inside his country and downplayed Moscow’s role in determining Iran’s presence there, in an interview published Sunday.
“Russia never coordinated with anyone against Syria, either politically or militarily, and that’s contradiction; how could they help the Syrian Army advancing and at the same time work with our enemies in order to destroy our army,” Assad told the British Daily Mail newspaper.
When pressed on whether Russia knew in advance of airstrikes carried out by Israel, Assad responded “that’s not true, that’s not true, definitely. We know the details.”
Israeli officials have praised their ongoing coordination with Russia amid efforts to push Iranian forces and allied Shiite militias away from the border on the Golan Heights. Israel fears Iran is attempting to gain a foothold near the border to launch attacks against the Jewish state,
Several unconfirmed reports in Israel have claimed Moscow was informed of airstrikes on Syrian and Iranian positions as tensions have risen in recent weeks.
“The State of Israel appreciates Russia’s understanding of our security needs — especially on our northern border,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman told Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu during a visit to Moscow on May 31 to discuss Syria and Iran. “It is important to continue the dialogue between us and to keep an open line between the IDF and Russian army.”
On May 10, Israel unleashed a heavy bombardment against what it said were Iranian military installations in Syria after an Iranian rocket barrage targeting the Golan. It was the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date.
Israel has been mostly using Lebanon’s airspace to strike targets inside Syria in an apparent move to avoid any conflict with Russia’s warplanes that fly over Syria. Russia has a major air base near Syria’s coast from where warplanes have been taking off to strike at insurgents throughout Syria.
“There is an increasing evidence that shows that Russia has turned a blind eye to Israel’s airstrike in Syria against Iran’s military presence,” said Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics. “This is a direct message that Russia does not want Iran to have a hegemonic position in Syria.”
Russia and Iran have been the main backers of Assad but Moscow also has close relations with Israel whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Russia several times over the past two years. On one trip last month, he stood close to Putin while attending a massive parade for Russian troops marking victory in World War II.
Russia has been reportedly mediating for Iranian troops and Hezbollah fighters to withdraw from areas close to the Israeli border where Syrian troops are expected to launch an offensive against rebels.
However Assad claimed Russia, which is his biggest backer, was not involved in making decisions about Syria, though he hinted that Moscow and Damascus may not see eye to eye on the issue.
“They never, during our relation, try to dictate, even if there are differences; because there is a war and because there’s high dynamism now in the region, it’s natural to have differences between the different parties, whether within our government or other governments; Russia-Syria, Syria-Iran, Iran-Russia, and within these governments, that’s very natural, but at the end the only decision about what’s going on in Syria and what’s going to happen, it’s a Syrian decision,” he said.
Calls for Tehran to end its military presence in Syria have been on the rise in recent weeks, hinting at tensions between Moscow and Damascus.
At a meeting with Assad, who visited the Russian city of Sochi last month, Russian President Vladimir Putin noted that a political settlement in Syria should encourage foreign countries to withdraw their troops.
Putin’s envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentyev, later commented that the Russian leader’s statement was aimed at the United States and Turkey, along with Iran and Hezbollah. It marked a rare instance in which Moscow suggested Iran should not maintain a permanent military presence in the country.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a list of demands last month for a new nuclear deal with Iran, including the pullout of its forces from Syria. Israel has also warned it will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria.
Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mikdad however has said on Russia’s Sputnik news agency that “this topic is not even on the agenda of discussion, since it concerns the sovereignty of Syria.”
During the interview published Sunday Assad seemed to admit the presence of Iranian troops in his country, days after denying there were any there.
“The Russians were invited by the Syrian government, their existence in Syria is a legitimate existence, the same for the Iranians,” he said. He also said Syria was fighting the Islamic State with the help of Russia and Iran.
In an interview on May 31, Assad dismissed reports that Iranians had been killed in recent Israeli airstrikes, saying there were no Iranian fighters in the country.
“We do not have Iranian troops. We never had, and you cannot hide it,” he told the Russia Today news outlet, “Like we invited the Russians, we could have invited the Iranians.”
But he also added in the RT interview that “We have Iranian officers who work with the Syrian army.”
Tensions in the Syria-Iran-Russia axis came to the fore last week when a Russian force deployment on the Syria-Lebanon border in a Hezbollah stronghold sparked protests by the Lebanese militant group, prompting the force to withdraw from its positions only a day later in a rare sign of tension between the allies.
The Russian move was not expected as Moscow’s military police have been deploying in areas controlled by Syrian government forces and close to insurgent positions. The outskirts of the Syrian town of Qusair where the Russian troops set up three observation positions on Monday have been held by Hezbollah and Syrian troops since 2013, when they drove rebels from the area.
The Russian deployment and subsequent withdrawal shows that as rebels are being defeated in different parts of Syria, frictions could rise between Assad’s main foreign backers — Russia and Iran — and the militias Tehran backs throughout Syria.
“They came and deployed without coordination,” said an official with the so-called “Axis of Resistance” led by Iran, which includes Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and other groups fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces.
“It’s better if they don’t come back. There is no work for them there. There is no Daesh or any other terrorist organization,” the official said, referring to the Islamic State group and other insurgents that the Syrian government and its allies call terrorist organizations. “What do they want to observe?” he asked.
Asked if there is tension between Hezbollah and Russian troops, the official refused to comment, speaking to the Associated Press by telephone from Syria on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to brief reporters. He said that after the Russian troops left, Syrian forces belonging to the army’s 11th Division replaced them.
In 2013, Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy group, openly joined the Syrian civil war along with Assad’s forces capturing the then rebel stronghold of Qusair in June that year after losing dozens of its battle-hardened fighters.
The Russian deployment outside Qusair came after Israeli warplanes struck the nearby Dabaa air base on May 24, according to Syrian activists who said Hezbollah arms depots were hit. There was no word on casualties.
A top Iranian security official said that Tehran will maintain an advisory role in Syria and continue to support “resistance groups.” The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani meanwhile told Al-Jazeera TV that as long as Syria faces a “terrorist” threat and Damascus requests its presence, “we will stay in Syria.”
And for his part, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a speech Friday that “if the whole world tried to impose on us a withdrawal from Syria they will not be able to make us leave,” adding that his group would only leave at the request of the Syrian government.