Russian Foreign Minister Says Iran Can Legitimately Stay in Syria

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemingly dashed American hopes that Moscow will put pressure on Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria, in a statement on Tuesday, The Algemeiner reports. Lavrov said that the Iranian presence in Syria was “legitimate” and gave no indication that Russia will lean on the Tehran regime to pull its troops and proxies out of its war-ravaged neighbor.

It was not clear if Lavrov’s comments related to reports that the deal would place restrictions on how close to the Israeli-Syrian border Iran-backed groups would be allowed to remain. Under the terms of a memorandum signed in Jordan last week between the U.S. and Russia, which extends an earlier ceasefire agreed in Syria in July, all foreign forces in Syria are meant to be removed. At a State Department briefing on the agreement last weekend, one official said that the memorandum “enshrines the commitment of the U.S., Russia, and Jordan to eliminate the presence of non-Syrian foreign forces.”

These included, the official continued, “Iranian forces and Iranian-backed militias like Lebanese Hezbollah…and other extremist groups from the southwest area” that have “used the Syrian conflict over the last five years to increase their presence in this part of Syria, which has undermined the ceasefire and poses a threat to Jordan and Israel.”

The official said that on this point specifically, “the Russians have agreed to work with the Syrian regime to remove Iranian-backed forces a defined distance from opposition-held territory as well as the borders of the Golan in Jordan.”

Pressed by a reporter as to how exactly the Russians would convince the Iranians to withdraw from Syria entirely, the official described the memorandum as having “kind of extended that (earlier) progress to really turn the area into a de-escalation area,” before reiterating that U.S. policy remains committed to a Syria “free of Iran, free of Hezbollah, free of all these militias that the Iranians have imported.”

As the Russian-Iranian strategic partnership has deepened over the last year, Lavrov has sought to play down the potential for a wider regional war arising from Tehran’s role in Syria. In August, the Russian foreign minister responded to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning that Iran posed a grave military threat to the Jewish state by saying, “We do not have any information that someone is preparing an attack on Israel.”

The statement came as officials from the U.S. National Security Council flew into Israel for talks with security heads, primarily over the U.S.-Russia agreement regarding Syria and Iran’s growing threat to the region.

On Monday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel will not be bound by the deal, which would somewhat distance Iranian proxies from the border with Israel. The agreement, announced in a joint U.S.-Russian statement Saturday, affirms a call for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from southern Syria.

According to reports, the deal applies to Iranian proxies fighting on behalf of Assad’s regime, which would be required to leave the border area and eventually Syria. But according to an unnamed Israeli official, under the deal, militias associated with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as close as five to seven kilometers to the border in some areas, Reuters reported Monday.

In addition to the Syria agreement, the U.S. officials are likely to discuss Iran’s alleged construction of a military base less than 50 kilometers from Israel’s Golan border. On Friday, the BBC, citing a Western security official, reported that Iran was setting up a permanent base on a site used by the Syrian army near el-Kiswah, 14 kilometers south of Damascus, and 50 kilometers from the Israeli border.