Despite Israeli Concerns, Russia Says Iran's Presence in Syria Is Legitimate

Israeli defense figures are set to meet U.S. counterparts today; Jerusalem troubled by seeming unwillingness of superpowers to expel Iranian troops from southern Syria

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, attend a meeting in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. Putin, in Iran on Wednesday for trilateral talks with Tehran and Azerbaijan, offered his support to the Islamic Republic's nuclear deal under threat by President Donald Trump's refusal to re-certify the accord.  (Alexei Druzhinin, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Alexei Druzhinin/AP

Russia has not promised to ensure a withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces from Syria, RIA news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on Tuesday. 

The presence of Iran in Syria is legitimate, Lavrov was quoted as saying by another agency, Interfax.

Meanwhile, a delegation of the U.S. National Security Council has arrived in Israel for a meeting with Israeli counterparts on Tuesday that will focus on Iran and the situation in southern Syria. 

UN soldiers watch fighting in Syria on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, September 14, 2017.
Gil Eliahu

Representatives of other security branches will also participate in the discussions, which are slated to be held days after Russia, the U.S. and Jordan signed an agreement on a cease-fire in southern Syria.

>> Syria deal puts Iran too close to Israel’s borders | Analysis

While the agreement requires all foreign forces – including Iranian troops and those backed by Tehran – to leave Syria, the deal does not set deadlines for their departure. 

Furthermore, secret understandings among the parties provide for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and Iran's proxy forces to withdraw only a short distance from the Israeli border, at least in the near term.

Israeli defense figures are troubled by this and by the fact that the superpowers seem unwilling to take genuine measures to kick Iran out of Syria in general, and southern Syria in particular.

Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gabi Eisenkot reportedly flew to Brussels in secret on Thursday to meet with Gen. Curtiss Scaparrotti, head of the U.S. army’s European Command, and discuss Iranian moves in Syria. 

Over the past year, Israel has repeatedly warned about Iran entrenching itself in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman have warned several times that Israel could be forced into military action under such circumstances.

A source in the Prime Minister's Office said that "Israel made its position clear to its friends in Moscow, and Prime Minister Netanyahu also told Putin that Israel will continue to take care of its security interests."