Syria's foreign minister said on Saturday that Israel is lying about Iran's presence in the war-torn country, claiming only Iranian advisers are in Syria and are there in coordination with the regime – unlike American, Turkish and French forces.
Walid Moallem said that Syria is fighting terrorism with Iranian help and will demand that all foreign forces, including those of the U.S., exit the country before it is willing to discuss the removal of the Iranian advisers.
Scores of Iranian soldiers have been killed in battles with insurgents in Syria, including a number of officers. In May, Israel carried out a wave of airstrikes in response to what it said was an Iranian rocket attack on its positions in the occupied Golan Heights. It was the most serious confrontation between Israel and Iran to date.
"There are Iranian advisers in Syria some of whom were martyred while working with the Syrian Arab army and their presence is part of an agreement and in coordination with the armed forces on where they should be," Moallem said.
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"There are no fixed military bases for the Islamic Republic of Iran and what Israel is circulating are lies," he added, referring to repeated Israeli claims that Iran is working to establish a permanent military presence in Syria as "propaganda."
Iran has repeatedly said in the past that it only has advisers in Syria but thousands of Iran-backed groups from Lebanon, Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan have played instrumental role in helping government forces regain control of areas held by insurgents. Those areas include eastern neighborhoods of the northern city of Aleppo, the eastern province of Deir el-Zour and parts of Idlib and Hama provinces to the west.
On April 9, an airstrike struck the T4 air base in central Syria reportedly targeting a unit of Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guard Crops and killing several Iranians, including a colonel who was a commander of the guards Aerospace Force. Russia blamed Israel for the attack.
Israel and Russia have reached an understanding on pulling Iranian forces out of southern Syria, the London-based Asharq al-Awsat reported Friday. According to the paper, the understandings were reached after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin on the telephone, while Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had held talks with his Russian counterpart.
According to the report, which was attributed to both Russian and Israeli officials, the sides agreed it was necessary to remove Iranian forces from southern Syria and allow Israel to freely attack targets it deems a threat – on the condition that these are not sites tied to the regime of Bashar Assad, which Russia supports.
On Friday, Russia's ambassador to the UN Vasily Nebenzia said he heard from the news that an agreement was reached on "certain disengagement in the southwest of Syria and, I think, my understanding is that an agreement has been reached."
However, asked about Nebenzia's comments, Moallem said no agreement has been reached for southern Syria, adding that Damascus is not currently involved in any negotiations over the area.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.