US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday called for Iranian-backed militias to withdraw from Syria after meeting with opposition negotiators from the war-torn nation during a visit to Jordan.
Washington’s lead diplomat said the US was “quite concerned” by a recent confrontation that saw an Iranian drone infiltrate Israeli airspace before being shot down by Israel, and drew heavy reprisal strikes from the Jewish state.
During the Israeli raid, an F-16 was hit by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile over northern Israel and crashed. In response, the air force carried out a second bombing run, destroying a significant amount of Syria’s air defense systems, the IDF said. A military official said he believed half of Syria’s air defenses had been knocked out.
Israel has demanded Iran-backed fighters leave Syria, warning the world of the Islamic Republic’s growing military entrenchment in the country.
“This again illustrates why Iran’s presence in Syria is only destabilizing to the region,” Tillerson said at a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart.
“We think Iran needs to withdraw its military, its militia from Syria, and allow the hope for peace process to take hold.”
US foe Iran and regional militias it backs, including Lebanon’s terror group Hezbollah, have played a key role in propping up leader Bashar al-Assad, heightening fears over Tehran’s spreading influence.
Tillerson — who is on a tour of the Middle East — held closed-door talks with Syrian opposition negotiators in Amman in the wake of a January peace summit hosted by regime backer Russia.
The opposition and Kurdish groups had boycotted the congress, held just days after a ninth round of United Nations-led talks in Vienna failed to yield progress towards ending Syria’s devastating conflict.
The West views Russia’s Syria peace efforts with suspicion, concerned that Moscow is seeking to sideline the UN process.
Tillerson said there were “important milestones” achieved at the conference in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, most importantly a “unified commitment” to the UN efforts.
Despite Moscow insisting Syrian society would be fully represented at Sochi, almost all of the 1,400 delegates were pro-regime.
They agreed to set up a commission to re-write the country’s post-war constitution.
About 150 Syrian civil society groups accused the UN of rewarding Russia by dispatching its special envoy Staffan de Mistura to the congress.
Syria’s war has killed more than 340,000 people and displaced millions since it began in March 2011 with the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Tillerson is due to meet Lebanon’s political leadership in Beirut Thursday, with the US concerned about the influence of Iran-backed Hezbollah which it designates a terrorist organization.
Hezbollah — sworn to Israel’s destruction, and the only faction to have retained its weapons after Lebanon’s civil war — is a member of the Lebanese government of premier Saad Hariri.
The US has recently targeted an alleged key financier for the group with sanctions amid a probe into accusations of “narcoterrorism.”
But ahead of his visit Tillerson appeared to soften Washington’s tone by acknowledging “the reality that they also are part of the political process in Lebanon.”
Tillerson on Tuesday rejected an assessment by an Israeli deputy minister that Washington has little leverage in Syria and is “not in the game.”
Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren (Kulanu) told Bloomberg on Sunday following the recent flare-up along the country’s northern border that America “has almost no leverage on the ground” in Syria.
“The American part of the equation is to back us up,” he said. “America did not ante up in Syria. It’s not in the game,”
Tillerson pushed back against this notion.
“The United States and the coalition forces that are working with us to defeat (Islamic State) today control 30 percent of the Syrian territory, and control a large amount of population, and control a large amount of Syria’s oil fields,” he told reporters. “So I think…this observation that the US has little leverage or role to play is simply false.”