Russia cannot compel Iranian forces to quit Syria, Russia’s ambassador to Israel said on Monday, rebuffing Jerusalem’s long-standing demand that Moscow ensure Iran’s total withdrawal from the country.
Ambassador Anatoly Viktorov said Moscow could equally do nothing to prevent Israeli military strikes against Iranian forces in Syria, which along with Russia and Tehran-backed Lebanese militias are supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad in combating rebel fighters in his country.
With Assad now in almost complete control of southwestern areas abutting the Israeli Golan Heights, Viktorov told Israel’s Channel 10 in an interview on Monday that only Syrian army troops should be deployed there.
Last week, an Israeli official said Russia had offered to keep Iranian forces at least 100 km (60 miles) from the Golan Heights cease-fire line. The offer came up during a meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but Israel rejected it as insufficient, the official said.
While Israel rejects any Iranian military presence so close to its border, Viktorov defended the Iranian presence in Syria.
“They are playing a very, very important role in our common and joint effort to eliminate terrorists in Syria,” Viktorov said. “That is why, for this period of time, we see as non-realistic any demands to expel any foreign troops from the entirety of the Syrian Arab Republic.”
“We can talk with our Iranian partners very frankly and openly, trying to persuade them to do or not to do something,” he said. But asked whether Russia can force Iran out, he answered, “We cannot.”
While formally neutral in the seven-year civil war next door, Israel has carried out scores of air strikes against suspected Iranian targets in Syria and arms transfers by Iranian or Hezbollah operatives, apparently unimpeded by the Russian defense systems deployed there.
A military channel Israel and Russia set up in 2015 has also helped the countries avoid inadvertently clashing over Syria.
Viktorov expressed disapproval of the attacks on Syria but added: “We cannot dictate to Israel how to proceed. … It is not up to Russia to give Israel freedom to do anything, or to prohibit Israel from doing anything.”
Earlier this week, the Russian military downed a drone targeting the Hmeimim Air Base in Syria, Russian news agencies reported on Monday.
The drone was launched on July 29 from territory controlled by Syrian rebels and was shot down at a safe distance from the base, RIA cited a Russian military official as saying.