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Top Iranian general denies reports of military pullout from southern Syria

In this picture released by official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands as army air force and air defense staff salute at the start of their meeting in Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. A
Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP

A senior Iranian general on Sunday denied speculation that his military and Tehran-backed militias were withdrawing from Syria amid a slew of reports suggesting that Iranian forces were preparing to vacate from positions near the Israeli border. 

“Iran and Syria enjoy deep relations that would not be influenced by the propaganda measures of anyone,” Brigadier General Massoud Jazayeri, an advisor to Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces told Tasnim news agency. 

Jazayeri said the biggest fear of the “Zionist regime of Israel” is the presence of Muslims fighters in its proximity, which he claimed the US and Israel are making “desperate efforts” to change. “But they (the US and Israel) should know that this condition is not going to change,” he added.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing a “number of reliable sources” said on Thursday that Iranian advisers and Hezbollah fighters are preparing to vacate from two provinces in the Syrian areas of Daraa and Quneitra near to the Israeli part of the Golan Heights.

In the absence of Iranian forces, the war monitor stated that the Syrian regime forces will "continue to bring military reinforcements" to the vacated areas in preparation for an operation.

Contrary to such reports, Jazayeri told Tasnim that “the Iranian advisers are present in Syria at the request of the Syrian government and people” and said Tehran was “waiting to see a day that Syria and other regional countries will witness an era without the annoying and trouble-making foreigners.”

In recent weeks, speculation has mounted regarding Iran’s pullout from Syria as Israel and Russia’s rhetoric on the matter has increasingly converged.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov appeared to urge Iranian forces to quickly leave Syria’s southwestern corner. “I think this should happen as soon as possible,” he was quoted as saying by Russian news agencies, following comments that outlined a plan to clear the Israel-Syria border area of non-government militants, chief among them Iran.

“No one can force Iran to do anything,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Bahran Qasemi said according to a separate interview by Tasnim a week earlier. He added that Iranian forces would remain in Syria for as long as the regime needed them and for as long as there was a terrorist threat there.

Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani denied all claims of Iranian military bases in Syria and told the Shargh newspaper that Tehran only supported the regime in an “advisory capacity.” Whilst echoing such comments, Syria’s foreign minister denied all presence of Iranian forces in the region altogether according to the Times of Israel.

JALAA MAREY (AFP/File)

The withdrawal of Iranian forces has long been a demand of Israel, which is alarmed by the military presence of its chief nemesis so close to its northeastern border. Russia's intervention in recent days has been interpreted as a win for Israel's diplomatic efforts.

Israel maintains a formal policy of non-intervention in the Syrian civil war but continuously asserts that it will not allow Iran to entrench itself in the country, where it has for years provided military backing to al-Assad alongside Russia.

Whilst it does not admit to all the recent strikes in Syria, Israel acknowledges launching a number of raids in the war-torn country to stop what it says are advanced arms deliveries to Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah.

Violence came to a head earlier this month when Israel blamed its arch-foe for firing some 32 rockets into Israeli territory. Israel responded with an aerial bombardment that Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said wiped out "most" of Iran's military infrastructure in the country.

However, much of the Iranian infrastructure is constructed upon Syrian bases and Israel has also frequently struck Syrian air defense during attacks on Tehran’s posts. Russia expressed concern over repeated Israeli strikes in the region that may jeopardize al-Assad’s grip on power, cited as rationale for its removal of Iranian troops from the region, Haaretz reported last week.

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