by Shlomo Cesana, Eli Leon, Erez Linn, Lilach Shoval, Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov says it is actually the actions of the U.S.-led coalition in support of Syrian rebels that are "illegitimate"
Hezbollah forces in Western Qalamoun, SyriaPhoto: Reuters
The understandings recently reached between Russia and the United States, laying out principles for postwar Syria, do not include a stipulation to withdraw pro-Iranian forces from Syria and, in fact, they recognize Iran's presence in Syria as legitimate, Moscow's Interfax news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov as saying Tuesday.
The agreement, announced in a joint U.S.-Russian statement on Saturday, confirmed the importance of "de-escalation areas" as an interim step toward reducing violence, enforcing cease-fire agreements, facilitating humanitarian aid and setting conditions for the "ultimate political solution" to a war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives since it began in 2011.
It also affirmed what it said was a U.S.-Russian-Jordanian understanding calling for "the reduction and ultimate elimination, of foreign forces and foreign fighters from the area to ensure a more sustainable peace."
A U.S. State Department official said Russia had agreed "to work with the Syrian regime to remove Iranian-backed forces a defined distance" from the Golan Heights border with Israel. Israel has repeatedly declared that it will not tolerate an Iranian presence near its border.
Israeli officials offered a lukewarm reception to the American-Russian deal, as according to defense officials, while the agreement intends to keep rival factions inside Syria away from each other, it would effectively keep Iranian-linked forces anywhere between 5 and 30 kilometers (3 and 18 miles) from the Syria-Israel border, depending on current rebel positions on the Syrian Golan Heights.
On Sunday, following the announcement of the understandings, Israel signaled that it would keep up military strikes meant to thwart the delivery of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as to prevent any encroachment by Iranian-allied forces.
According to Tuesday's report, Lavrov noted that while the Iranian presence in Syria, meant to prop up President Bashar Assad, was "legitimate and done at the invitation of the legal government," the presence of the U.S.-led coalition in the war-torn country was "illegitimate."
"The U.S.-led coalition carries out military operations that support armed rebel groups operating in Syria," he said, adding that made the United States "the bigger threat" to Syria's future stability.
The Russian foreign minister said Moscow and Washington had not discussed the withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces in Syria, including Iran's Revolutionary Guard.
"We did not talk about Iranian or pro-Iranian forces," he said, "If we did, some would say we should call the Syrian forces pro-Iranian forces. Should they also be made to lay down their arms?"
Lavrov said that Russian officials held "informal talks with Israel in consideration of the fact that the area [in southwestern Syria] is in direct proximity to the Golan Heights."
Despite a U.S. State Department statement saying Iranian presence in Syria would be temporary, Lavrov stressed that at no point of the negotiations with the U.S. did Russia promise to work toward the withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces from Syria.
"All we said was that we would ask non-Syrian units to pull out of the battles in some area," he said.
Officials at the Prime Minister's Office said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear to Moscow that "Israel will continue to put its own security interests first, under any circumstances."
Netanyahu stressed that Israel "will not accept or tolerate Iranian military buildup in Syria. We defend our borders, we defend our country and we will continue to do so. I have made it clear to our friends – first and foremost in Washington and also in Moscow – that Israel will act in Syria, including in southern Syria, as we see fit and in accordance with our security needs."
A senior defense official told Israel Hayom Tuesday that Israel was "not bound by the American-Russian understandings on Syria. As far as we are concerned we are free to make our own decisions in accordance with Israeli interests."
A delegation of senior American defense officials was scheduled to arrive in Israel Wednesday for meetings with National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and other top Israeli military and intelligence officials. The meetings are expected to focus on the superpowers' Syria understandings.
Shlomo Cesana, Eli Leon, Erez Linn, Lilach Shoval, Reuters and Israel Hayom Staff
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