Russia’s ambassador to Israel said in an interview Monday his country cannot force Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria, despite Israeli calls for Iran to withdraw from the country.
Speaking with Channel 10 news, Anatoly Viktorov said the Iranians are “playing a very, very important role in our common and joint efforts to eliminate terrorists in Syria.
“The Iranian presence in Syria… is fully legitimate according to the UN principles and the UN charter,” he added.
Viktorov said Russia can talk to its “Iranian friends” about a full withdrawal from Syria, as Israel demands, but “we cannot force them.”
He also did not confirm Israeli officials’ statement to the effect that Moscow offered to keep Iran at a distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the border, though he implied that Russia will not oppose continued Israeli airstrikes on Iranian bases in the country, Channel 10 says.
Like Iran, Russia is providing military backing to Present Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war.
Israel repeatedly has warned it will not tolerate the military presence of Iran and its proxies in Syria and has carried out airstrikes against Iranian targets.
The Syrian army and its Russian and Iran-backed allies since June have been on an offensive in southern Syria, raising concerns Iranian backed-forces could take up positions in formerly rebel-held areas bordering the Golan Heights. Israel has called for the 1974 disengagement agreement between it and Syria to be upheld and warned Syrian forces against entering the demilitarized buffer zone along the border.
Viktorov said in Monday’s interview Russia wants to see the implementation of “all of the provisions” from the Separation of Forces agreement following the Yom Kippur War.
“We agreed that on the other side of the border, there will only be regular units of the Syrian army,” Viktorov told Channel 10. “The priority is to secure the State of Israel… These are not empty words for Russian foreign policy.”
Asked how Russia and Israel planned to ensure that the agreement was upheld, he said, “No non-Syrian troops should be in the southern deescalation area. Specific details are still under discussion… it would not be fruitful to reveal.”
In the interview, Viktorov was also asked whether Russia is “okay” with Israel’s reported airstrikes in Syrian territory against Iranian-affiliated targets.
“We are not okay with any forced action. We cannot agree with all actions that are taken by the Israeli government. How can we be satisfied,” he said.
But, asked whether Russia will seek to prevent Israel from carrying out such strikes in the future, Viktorov smirked.
“We cannot dictate [to] Israel how to proceed. It is not up to Russia to give Israel freedom to do anything or to prohibit Israel from doing anything,” he said.
Separately, Hadashot TV news reported Monday that Israel by way of the Kremlin warned Assad not to harm or massacre civilians in southern Syria as his forces complete their takeover of the area from rebel groups.
The report said Israel has been carrying out operations to this effect, but did not give any specifics.
In recent years Israel has been engaged in a massive multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation to keep thousands of Syrians along the border from starving or falling ill due to the lack of food and basic medical care.
The Jewish state has treated thousands of people in field hospitals on the border and in public hospitals, mostly in northern Israel, since 2013. Since 2016, as part of Operation Good Neighbor, over 600 Syrian children, accompanied by their mothers, have come to Israel for treatment. Hundreds of tons of food, medical equipment and clothing have also been sent across the border to Syria.
Earlier this month, the Israeli military evacuated hundreds of Syrian “White Helmets” rescue workers and their families through Israel to Jordan at the request of Western countries.
The Israel Defense Forces said it engaged in the “out of the ordinary” gesture due to the “immediate risk” to the lives of the civilians, as Russian-backed regime forces closed in on the area. It stressed that it was not intervening in the ongoing fighting in Syria.