DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria’s foreign minister said Saturday Iranian military advisers are embedded with Syrian troops but Tehran has no combat forces or fixed bases in the country.
Walid al-Moallem’s comments came amid rising tension in the region as Israel has repeatedly warned against any permanent Iranian military presence in Syria. Al-Moallem said Israel is making false claims to try and pressure Iran, its archrival.
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.
Scores of Iranian soldiers have been killed in battles with insurgents in Syria, including a number of officers.
“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 co-ordination with the armed forces on where they should be,” al-Moallem said. “There are no fixed military bases for the Islamic Republic of Iran and what Israel is circulating are lies.”
“When the conspiracy against Syria began in 2011 our brothers in the Islamic Republic of Iran came to help Syria in fighting terrorism,” al-Moallem said adding that the Syrian people are “grateful” for this help from Iran.
“As long as there is war on terrorism, Syria as a sovereign state will co-operate with whoever it wants in fighting terrorism,” he said.
Al-Moallem denied reports that an agreement was reached between regional and other powers over the situation of southwestern Syria where the country’s Israeli-occupied Golan Heights are located.
On Friday, Russia’s ambassador to the U.N. 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 al-Moallem said no agreement has been reached for southern Syria, adding that Damascus is not currently involved in any negotiations over the area.
Al-Moallem said that only when U.S. troops withdraw from the Tanf area near the Jordanian border can an agreement be discussed. The U.S. has military advisers based in Tanf.
“The US troops should withdraw from Syria and Syrian sovereignty over the Tanf area is undoubted,” he said.
Earlier this week, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Syrian troops should be positioned on the border with the Golan Heights, which have been occupied by Israel since the 1967 Mideast war. The area between the southern province of Daraa and the Golan Heights has emerged as a flashpoint in a wider standoff between Israel and Iran, and the United States has warned it will take action to protect a cease-fire there.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported on Thursday that Iranian troops and members of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group are getting ready to withdraw from southern Syria.
A Syria-based official with the Iran-led axis of resistance denied the report.
Al-Moallem reiterated the government’s position that it aims to regain control of the whole country.