Netanyahu says Iranian forces need to be kept out of all of Syria

PM’s remark an apparent rebuff of Russia, which earlier suggested it was open to Israeli rejection of Iranian forces only in border area

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on May 28, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a Likud faction meeting at the Knesset on May 28, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel rejects an Iranian military presence in any part of Syria, after Russia said only Syrian regime troops should be in the south of the country, but appeared ready to allow Iran to maintain a foothold in other parts of the country.

The Russian statement on limiting Iran and proxies loyal to it is being interpreted as a likely nod to Israeli concerns over Iran’s activity on its northern border.

“Regarding Syria, our position is clear: We believe there is no place for any Iranian military presence in any part of Syria,” Netanyahu said Monday at his Likud party’s weekly faction meeting.

He said this view is held not only by Israel, but also other countries in the Middle East and around the world.

Hours earlier Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that only the Syrian army should be present on Syria’s border with Israel.

Israel has accused Iran of seeking to gain a foothold in the border area as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad have made gains in clearing out rebel groups there. It has also said Iranian forces fired a few dozen rockets from the area at the Golan Heights earlier this month.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on March 24, 2011. (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

Lavrov’s comments came after the Haaretz daily reported Monday that Russia is open to keeping Iranian forces and their allies from Israel’s northern border, fearing that repeated Israeli strikes may undermine Assad’s grip on the country.

Israel has repeatedly stated it will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria and has recently acknowledged carrying out airstrikes on Iranian targets in the country. Israel has also struck Syrian air defense systems that fired at Israeli fighter jets during the raids.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman will travel to Moscow on Wednesday to meet with his counterpart Sergei Shoigu, the Defense Ministry said shortly after Netanyahu’s remarks.

Netanyahu said Iran’s military presence in Syria would be a main focus of his trip next week to France and Germany, where he will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Netanyahu said Monday he may also meet then with British Prime Minister Theresa May, but did not indicate if he would travel to the United Kingdom.

In addition to countering Iranian military activities in Syria and throughout the Middle East, Netanyahu also said he would discuss Iran’s nuclear program with the European leaders.

“I will present our position in the most clear way,” said Netanyahu. “There were years when we stood alone against these two threats and I think the situation has changed for the better.”

The meetings will be Netanyahu’s first with Merkel and Macron since US President Donald Trump’s decision earlier this month to pull out of the 2015 deal, designed to limit Iran’s nuclear program, and reimpose sanctions.

While welcomed by Netanyahu, who said the accord did not sufficiently prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or address its support for regional terror groups, the US withdrawal was opposed by France and Germany, which both signed the deal and have expressed opposition to the reinstatement of US sanctions on firms operating in Iran.

The two countries, along with fellow signatories Britain, Russia and China, are now seeking to salvage the accord, with Iran demanding economic guarantees for its continued compliance.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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