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November 14, 2017 3:38 pm

Russian Foreign Minister Says Iranian Military Presence in Syria Is ‘Legitimate,’ Despite US Demand for Withdrawal of Foreign Forces

avatar by Ben Cohen

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov with his Iranian counterpart Javad Zarif. Photo: File.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov seemingly dashed American hopes that Moscow will put pressure on Iran to withdraw its forces from Syria, in a statement on Tuesday.

According to the official Russian news agency, Interfax, Lavrov said that the Iranian presence in Syria was “legitimate” and gave no indication that Russia will lean on the Tehran regime to pull its troops and proxies out of its war-ravaged neighbor.

Under the terms of a memorandum signed in Jordan last week between the US and Russia, which extends an earlier ceasefire agreed in Syria in July, all foreign forces in Syria are meant to be removed. At a State Department briefing on the agreement last weekend, one official said that the memorandum “enshrines the commitment of the US, Russia, and Jordan to eliminate the presence of non-Syrian foreign forces.”

These included, the official continued, “Iranian forces and Iranian-backed militias like Lebanese Hezbollah…and other extremist groups from the southwest area” that have “used the Syrian conflict over the last five years to increase their presence in this part of Syria, which has undermined the ceasefire and poses a threat to Jordan and Israel.”

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The official said that on this point specifically, “the Russians have agreed to work with the Syrian regime to remove Iranian-backed forces a defined distance from opposition-held territory as well as the borders of the Golan in Jordan.”

Pressed by a reporter as to how exactly the Russians would convince the Iranians to withdraw from Syria entirely, the official described the memorandum as having “kind of extended that (earlier) progress to really turn the area into a de-escalation area,” before reiterating that US policy remains committed to a Syria “free of Iran, free of Hezbollah, free of all these militias that the Iranians have imported.”

As the Russian-Iranian strategic partnership has deepened over the last year, Lavrov has sought to play down the potential for a wider regional war arising from Tehran’s role in Syria. In August, the Russian foreign minister responded to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning that Iran posed a grave military threat to the Jewish state by saying, “We do not have any information that someone is preparing an attack on Israel.”

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