Iran has significantly reduced its military activities and presence in Syria, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said in an interview published Friday, adding that the Islamic Republic was under immense pressure due to the Jewish state’s efforts across the border, as well as the economic sanctions the US reinstated on the regime.
“Iran has decreased its scale of activity in Syria,” Liberman told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper. Iran had seemingly halted plans to build missile production factories in the war-torn country, Liberman added.
The defense minister said Iran had nevertheless not abandoned the idea of building a sea port or an airport in Syria, and was continuing to discuss the creation of outposts in the country with the Bashar Assad regime.
Liberman credited Iran’s reduced activity in Syria to Israel’s “daily, hard work.” Israel has hit hundreds of targets inside Syria to prevent advanced weapons being transferred to groups like Hezbollah, and engaged in extensive diplomacy to pressure the US and Russia to keep Iran out the country.
He also credited Washington’s May decision to abandon the 2015 nuclear deal that exchanged sanctions relief for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program. “There is serious economic pressure on [Iran],” he said. “The budget for Iranian forces in the Middle East was $2 billion, but today less money is going to Syria and Hezbollah.”
The defense minister predicted that Iran would further lessen its activities in Syria after the second stage of sanctions begin on November 4. The Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iranian funding, will likely “not be able to exist in its current format,” Liberman concluded.
On Sunday, Iran and Syria agreed to expand defense and military cooperation, seemingly pushing back against US and Russian attempts to force Iranian troops out of the country, Iranian and Syrian state-run media reported.
According to the Iran’s Tasnim news agency, a defense agreement was signed after Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami met with Assad and Defense Minister General Ali Abdullah Ayoub.
Tehran has provided steady political, financial, and military backing to Assad as he fought back a seven-year uprising. Israel has expressed concerns that forces loyal to Tehran are establishing a permanent presence in Syria that can be used to attack Israel, and has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Iranian army installations in the war-torn country in recent months.
As the civil war apparently draws to a close, officials in the US and reportedly Russia have looked to keep Iran’s military from entrenching itself in Syria, especially in the Golan Heights, at Israel’s urging.
Last week, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said in Jerusalem that Russian President Vladimir Putin told the United States that his country would like Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria but claimed they cannot force them out.
Most analysts believe even with US and Russian support, forcing Iran out of Syria will be nearly impossible.
The two countries have had strong ties for years. Iran has dispatched military forces to Syria but insists they are advisers, not fighters. Iran-backed militias, including the Hezbollah terror group, have also backed Assad’s troops in fighting on Syrian soil.
With help from Iranian militias and Russian warplanes, Assad has recaptured around two-thirds of the country.