A top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Friday said Tehran would withdraw its troops from Syria only at the request of dictator Bashar Assad or the Iraqi government.
“Iran and Russia’s presence in Syria will continue to protect the country against terrorist groups and America’s aggression … We will immediately leave if Iraqi and Syrian governments want it, not because of Israel and America’s pressure,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, according to the Reuters news agency.
Velayati was in Moscow after talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in the week, which came hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with the Russian leader to lobby for the removal of Iranian troops from the war-torn country that borders Israel.
“Our presence in Syria has no relation to Israel,” said Velayati on Friday, according to the Russian TASS news agency. “We, of course, are coordinating our positions with Russia and Syria. This coordination does not have to correspond to Israel’s demands.”
The top Iranian aide also threatened military efforts to oust American troops from Syria.
“We will counter the Americans powerfully,” he said. “We will help Syria counter the US aggression. If the US does not want to leave our region, we will force it to do that.”
Both the United States and Israel are concerned about Iran’s growing military presence in Syria, where it has provided crucial aid to Assad’s forces.
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar 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.
Tehran is now believed to command up to 80,000 fighters in Syria — members of Shiite militias and paramilitary forces loyal to Iran.
Russia has warned it was unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country, but there have been signs of an emerging compromise between Moscow and Jerusalem on the issue.
On Thursday, senior Israeli officials said Russia is working to prevent Iran from entrenching its military along Israel’s northern border with Syria.
The issue is expected to be at the heart of talks next week between US President Donald Trump and Putin in Finland.
On Wednesday, during their Moscow meeting, Netanyahu told Putin that 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.
Moscow has teamed up with Tehran to shore up Assad’s government, but their interests do not always converge. Russia also has maintained warm ties with Israel and demonstrated a readiness to take its security interests into account.