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Interview: Israel Will Seek To 'Destroy' Any Iranian Military Presence In Syria


FILE - Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman meets with local residents in Mitzpe Gadot, Northern Israel, overlooking the Golan Heights, Nov. 11, 2010.

Israel's defense chief has warned that his country will seek to "destroy any Iranian military presence" in Syria, where Tehran has intervened to prop up its ally President Bashar al-Assad in a war that has lasted more than seven years.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke in interviews with RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Current Time TV on September 4 in Tel Aviv.

Israel has alleged that Iran plans to establish a permanent, broad military foothold in Syria, including advanced missile factories as well as air and naval bases. Tehran rejects the claim.

Israel has carried out dozens of airstrikes in Syria targeting suspected arms and troop movements by Iran and its proxy forces, including the Lebanese Shi'ite militant group Hezbollah.

"We don't want to see Iran turning Syria into its outpost against Israel," Lieberman told Current Time, a Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA.

"We will try to destroy any Iranian military presence on Syrian territory, be it an air base, a naval base, a missile production factory, or the Shi'ite militias that they are bringing there from Pakistan, Iraq and all of the Middle East," he said.

Like Russia, Iran has backed Assad in the Syrian conflict and Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has played a crucial role on the ground.

The IRGC has recruited tens of thousands of Shi'ite fighters from the region to fight in Syria. More than 1,000 Iranians, including senior members of the elite IRGC, have been killed in Syria since 2012, according to Reuters.

WATCH: Israel's Defense Minister Discusses Iranian Military in Syria

Military cooperation agreement

Iranian officials say their military presence in Syria is at the invitation of the Damascus government and they have no immediate plans to withdraw.

Last week, Iran's defense minister traveled to Damascus and signed an agreement on military cooperation between the two countries.

Lieberman told Israel's Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on August 31 that Iran was reducing the scale of its military activities in Syria, attributing this to Israeli military intervention and an economic crisis gripping Tehran as U.S. sanctions are reinstated.

In the interview with Radio Farda, Lieberman said Tehran had adopted a "different approach" in Syria, although he did not reveal any specifics.

"They have adopted some other patterns of behavior in Syria because they understand that we are monitoring, we are watching, and we have all the political will and determination to prevent their desire to turn Syria into their forward base against Israel [from being fulfilled]," he said.

"They are careful and they understand that they have too many challenges," he added.

Israeli military strikes against Iranian targets in Syria have been mostly ignored by Russia, Damascus' backer, and Israel has attempted to persuade Moscow to pressure Tehran to withdraw its forces from Syria.

Lieberman said Israel was in constant dialogue with Moscow.

"It's [in the] Russian interest to keep stability in Syria," he said, adding that Iran's activities were jeopardizing Moscow's efforts.

'Series of steps'

The United States has also urged Moscow to help end Iran's military presence in the war-ravaged country.

Washington supports rebels fighting against Assad's government.

After meeting with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin's Security Council, White House national security adviser John Bolton said in Geneva on August 23 that the two had discussed a "series of steps" that would lead to the removal of Iran's military presence in Syria.

Before the meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the U.S. insistence on the withdrawal of Iranian forces is a "reflection of the dominating aspiration in Washington to dictate to everyone else their own beliefs about what is good and what is bad."

Calls by Israel and the United States for Iran to pull out its forces in Syria have come as the conflict has turned heavily in Assad's favor, with rebel forces being routed in many parts of the country.

Syrian pro-government forces are preparing to launch an assault on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold.

The war in Syria has killed hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted millions since it began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.

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