Israel denies inking deal with Russia on Iranian withdrawal from Syria — report

Reported agreement which had Assad’s troops replace Iranian-backed militias in country’s south now being denied by Israel, which wants Tehran forces out of Syria entirely

A picture taken on July 26, 2017 during a tour guided by the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah shows its members manning an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pick-up truck in a mountainous area around the Lebanese town of Arsal along the border with Syria. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)
A picture taken on July 26, 2017 during a tour guided by the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah shows its members manning an anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pick-up truck in a mountainous area around the Lebanese town of Arsal along the border with Syria. (AFP Photo/Anwar Amro)

Israeli officials have denied claims by Russia’s ambassador to the UN that it has reached an agreement with Moscow on the withdrawal of Iranian forces from southwest Syria, Chanel 10 reported Saturday.

Earlier, Vasily Nebenzya told reporters that, “At this point, I cannot answer if it is being realized, but as far as I understand, the parties that were involved in reaching an agreement are satisfied with what they have achieved.”

But a senior Israeli official told Channel 10 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin during a Thursday phone conversation that Jerusalem wants Iranian forces — including Hezbollah and other Shiite militias — entirely out of Syria, and not just the southwestern region closest to the Jewish state.

While the official acknowledged that talks have progressed and that the Kremlin appears more understanding of the Israeli position, Netanyahu still made clear that his government will not shy away from using military force to keep Iran completely out of Syria.

Israel has repeatedly vowed to prevent Iran establishing a permanent presence in Syria and Lebanon and has carried out dozens of air strikes against Iran-backed forces and attempts to smuggle advanced weapons to Hezbollah.

Separately Saturday, the London based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat reported that the US is wary of a possible agreement between Israel and Russia that would see the withdrawal of Iranian-backed troops from Syria’s border with Israel and the return of the Syrian army to the south of the country.

PM Netanyahu and Russian President Putin at the Kremlin, May 9, 2018. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)

“The US administration wants to continue exerting pressures on the regime,” Asharq Al-Awsat quoted Western diplomats as saying.

The day prior, the newspaper reported Israel and Russia had reached an agreement green-lighting Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, as well as the withdrawal of Tehran-backed troops from Syria’s border with Israel.

The reported deal 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 report said.

It came after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu in Moscow on Thursday for talks focused on Syria.

Liberman thanked Russia for “understanding” Israel’s security concerns. However, neither Jerusalem nor Moscow publicly acknowledged any agreement between the sides regarding Iran’s military presence in Syria.

“It is important to continue the dialogue between us and to keep an open line between the IDF and Russian army,” Liberman told Shoigu.

In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, November 1, 2017. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Before leaving Israel for Russia, Liberman said Israel was committed to “preventing Iran and its offshoots from establishing themselves in Syria.”

For their part, senior officials from Iran and Syria claimed Saturday that there is no Iranian military presence in the country.

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.

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.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman meets with Russian Minister of Defense Sergei Shoigu, in Moscow, Russia on May 31, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

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.”

The Kremlin said President Vladimir Putin spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Thursday evening to discuss the situation in Syria. Moscow said the conversation focused on “some aspects of the Syrian settlement,” which it didn’t specify, following up on the two leaders’ talks in Moscow earlier this month.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu told ministers that he had spoken with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo primarily to urge the US government to demand that an evolving agreement on troop deployment in Syria between the US, Russia, and Jordan make clear that Iranian forces must leave the whole of the country.

The agreement appears to be slated to demand that Iranian and Iran-backed forces stay 20 kilometers from the Israeli and Jordanian borders.

Amidst a flurry of activity relating to Iran, Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israel’s National Security Adviser, flew to Washington on Wednesday to coordinate positions with the Trump administration.

Next week, Netanyahu will leave for France and Germany to discuss Iran’s role in Syria and the nuclear deal which the Europeans are trying to salvage after the US withdrawal earlier this month. He is due to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and UK Prime Minister Theresa May.

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