Iran, Syria deny existence of Iranian military presence in country

Denials by senior officials from both countries come amid reported Israeli-Russian agreement to remove Iran-backed troops from border area

Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2017. (Ebrahim Noroozi/ AP/ File)
Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani in Tehran, Iran, January 17, 2017. (Ebrahim Noroozi/ AP/ File)

Senior officials from Iran and Syria claimed Saturday there is no Iranian military presence in the country, amid reports that Israel and Russia reached an agreement for the withdrawal of Iran-backed troops from the Israeli-Syrian border area.

Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said Iranian troops are only serving in Syria in an advisory capacity and that Iran has no military bases there.

“Contrary to the unlawful presence of the US and some regional countries in Syria, Iran’s presence is not imposed and is not the result of an illegal military aggression,” he told the Shargh newspaper, according to state-run Press TV.

“As we have declared earlier, Iranian advisers have no presence in southern Syria,” he added.

Iran’s army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking into binoculars, and other senior officers from the Iranian military, visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria, on October 20, 2017. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP, File)

Shamkhani’s remarks came a day after an Arabic-language daily reported Israel and Russia reached a deal to remove Iranian forces from southern Syria, while also giving Israel a green light to strike Iranian targets in Syria.

The reported agreement would see Iranian forces leave southwestern Syria, while allowing Israel to strike Iranian assets deep in the country. Israel agreed not to attack Syrian regime targets, the Asharq Al-Awsat report said.

Syria’s foreign minister also denied Saturday there is an Iranian military presence on the country.

“Since the beginning of the crisis, Iran has supported Syria in the war against terrorism backed and financed regionally and internationally…[there is] no Iranian military presence [in] the Syrian territories; rather there are advisers who work by the side of the Syrian Arab Army,” Syria’s official SANA news agency reported Walim Moallem saying.

Moallem’s comments echoed Syrian President Bashar Assad, who days earlier claimed there are no Iranian soldiers in Syria and that reported Iranian casualties in Israeli airstrikes were a “lie.”

Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Moallem waves after addressing the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, on September 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

Israel has repeatedly warned it will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria or the transfer of advanced weaponry to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran.

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.

Iran last month launched a few dozens rockets toward the Golan Heights, in retaliation for an Israeli airstrike in April on the T-4 base in which seven Iranians were killed. Israel in return said it struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria, as well as Syrian air defense systems that fired at Israeli aircraft during the raids.

Shortly after those airstrikes, the Israel Defense Forces revealed “Operation Chess,” acknowledging its ongoing intelligence and air campaign to prevent Tehran from carrying out reprisals for the April strike on T-4.

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