Syrian President Bashar Assad on Wednesday said Iran’s presence in Syria and its relations with Damascus are not negotiable and repeated the claim that Iran has no fixed bases in Syria.
In an interview with Iran’s Al Alam TV broadcast Wednesday night, he said reaching a settlement in the southwestern region, where Iranian-backed forces are near the border with Israel, is still possible.
Israel has repeatedly warned against any permanent Iranian military presence in Syria.
Assad said contacts are “ongoing” between the Russians, the US, and the Israelis, but said the relationship between Syria and Iran “will not be part of any settlement” and is “not in the international bazaar.”
There has been speculation that Iran might pull its forces back from near the Israeli Golan Heights in some kind of settlement.
Assad said that after regime forces captured Ghouta from rebels in April, “it was suggested that we should move south.”
“We were faced with two options… reconciliation or liberation by force. At this point, the Russians suggested the possibility of giving reconciliation an opportunity,” he said.
“Up till now, there are no concrete results for a simple reason which is Israeli and American interference; for they put pressure on the terrorists in that area in order to prevent reaching any compromise or peaceful resolution,” he added.
Iran and Russia are both providing military assistance to embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad in his efforts to end a civil war now in its eighth year.
However, Israel fears Iran is attempting to use the opportunity to gain a foothold in Syria to launch attacks against the Jewish state. Israel has recently carried out a number of airstrikes against Iranian military assets in Syria.
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 also destroyed a significant amount of Syrian anti-aircraft weapons in February after an Iranian drone carrying explosives briefly entered Israeli airspace before it was shot down. Israel immediately launched a counterattack on the T-4 air base in central Syria from which the drone had been piloted. One Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses in the exchange.
Diplomatically, in recent weeks, Israel has stepped up its negotiations with Russia, and to a lesser extent the United States, in order to secure an Iranian withdrawal from Syria.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also traveled to Germany, France and the UK last week to lobby support for this position.
According to reports, Moscow is prepared to force Iran to pull its forces from the area closest to the border. Israel has rebuffed the offer, calling for Iran to pull out of Syria entirely.
On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iranian-backed forces stationed on the Golan border, including from the Hezbollah terror group, had begun posing as Syrian military units, in a ploy to try to stave off pressure from Israel.
Multiple Syrian rebel commanders told the American newspaper that Lebanese Hezbollah troops and other Iranian-backed militias withdrew from the Daraa and Quneitra provinces in Syria’s southwest near Israel, but later returned dressed in Syrian military uniforms and under the regime flag.
One commander told the paper that the convoys were returning equipped with rockets and missiles.
“It’s a camouflage,” Ahmad Azam, a commander with the rebel Salvation Army, a rebel group based in Quneitra told the Wall Street Journal. “They are leaving… in their Hezbollah uniform and they are returning in regime vehicles and dressed in regular [Syrian] army uniforms.”
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.