Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign affairs adviser Yuri Ushakov said Friday that Syria and the Iranian presence there will feature high on the agenda of the summit between Putin and US President Donald Trump in Helsinki on Monday.
Israel and Russia have long been rumored to be hammering out a deal on the status of Iran’s forces in Syria, as the civil war in the nation winds down and President Bashar Assad regains much of the territory he lost to rebel forces during seven years of fighting.
An unnamed senior Israeli official told Reuters Thursday that Moscow was seeking to push Iranians forces 80 kilometers (50 miles) away from the Israeli border. But he said Israel wanted Tehran and its proxies to completely pull out of the country.
After years of ruinous civil war, Iran and its proxy militias, including the Lebanese Hezbollah, have built up a formidable presence stretching from the Iraqi border through central Syria to Lebanon.
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in post-war Syria. Tensions were brewing along the border in recent months, with Israel launching attacks on Iranian targets in Syria in response to Iranian rocket fire and drone incursions into Israel.
This week Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman reiterated Israel’s opposition to any Iranian military presence in Syria.
“The very fact of Iranian presence in Syria is, in our view, unreasonable. We are not prepared to accept Iranian presence in any part of Syria and, as I’m sure you’ve heard more than once, we will act against Iranian entrenchment in Syria,” he said.
“Regarding a retreat to 40 kilometers or 80 kilometers, it doesn’t matter…the moment we see Iranian presence, we take action, and that is how it will continue,” Liberman added.
The US has made curtailing Iran’s influence in post-war Syria a strategic objective — one strongly backed by Israel. And US and Russian officials have signaled that a broad framework for such a deal is likely to be the main outcome of Monday’s summit.
A senior adviser to Iran’s leader said Friday Iran has no intention of leaving Syria regardless of US and Israeli pressure.
The statement from Ali Akbar Velayati came in the wake of his meeting in Moscow with Putin.
Russia has warned it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country.
A possible deal could see Syrian troops replacing Iranian forces and its proxy Hezbollah in the areas near the Israeli border.
Velayati reaffirmed Iran’s firm intention to maintain its presence in Syria, but skirted a question about a possible pullback from the border, saying only that Tehran won’t bow to US and Israeli coercion.
“We coordinate the Iranian presence in Syria with Russia and Syria,” Velayati said during a meeting at Moscow’s Valdai Club discussion platform. “We will be present there the way we consider necessary. Sometimes we will play our role in Syria open-handed, sometimes we will do it with our hands hidden.”
While Velayati maintained a combative tone, his careful response reflected the intense diplomatic maneuvering ahead of the Helsinki summit.
He expressed skepticism about the outcome of the meeting, repeating tough criticism of the US and saying he didn’t expect Trump to make any positive contribution to stabilizing the Middle East.
Velayati argued that Iran along with Russia helped stem fighting in Syria and prevented the country from falling to the Islamic State group and other militants, scoffing at the US demands to leave.
“We have come there without the Americans’ permission and we won’t heed their demands to leave,” he said.
Velayati also strongly warned Russia against listening to the US arguments about the Iranian presence in Syria.
“I told the Russian officials: Now the Americans are telling you that the Iranians must leave Syria and tomorrow they will ask you what you are doing in Syria,” he said. “They are trying to split our alliance.”
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Putin in Moscow, and told him Israel would not seek to unseat Assad, but urged Russia to work to remove Iranian troops from the country, an Israeli official said after the meeting.
“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” the Reuters news agency quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin, citing the official.