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Israeli Official Denies Reports of Deal With Russia on Pulling Iran Out of Syria
By Noa Landau and Jack Khoury

A senior Israeli official denied Saturday reports that Israel and Russia have reached a deal to see Iranian forces pulled out of southern Syria.

"In talks this week between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as well, Netanyahu stressed that Iran needs to leave all of Syria," the official said. "Israel will continue to maintain its operational freedom to act against Iranian entrenchment in all of Syria," they said.

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 denied reports that an agreement was reached between regional and other powers over the situation of southwestern Syria where the Golan Heights are located.

The London-based Asharq al-Awsat reported Friday that Israel and Russia reached an understanding on pulling Iranian forces out of southern Syria. According to the paper, the understandings were reached after Netanyahu spoke with 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."

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Thursday Iranian advisers and Hezbollah fighters will be withdrawing from the southern regions of Daraa and Quneitra near the Golan Heights.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the start of the week that only Syrian government troops should have a presence on the country's southern border. This was perceived as a hint that Russia was inclined to accept Israel's demand - distancing the Iranian forces and allied Shi'ite militias from the Israel-Syria border.

A senior official from the Syrian opposition told Haaretz that "Israel is looking out for its defense interests and attacks Iranian targets on Syrian soil -- but diplomatically, a waning of Iranian influence only helps bring us closer to a political solution to resolve the conflict."

According to the same official, it is no coincidence that Russia has tacitly permitted Israel to attack in Syria: "The Russians and the Americans can find an agreed on solution without requiring massive Iranian presence on Syrian soil because Iran is leading a clear sectarian line devoid of any clear policy."

Russian news outlets had recently reported that Moscow wants to cut a deal that would see Russian military police deployed to areas near Israel. The agreement would envisage the pullout of all Iranian forces from the area and require Syrian rebels to surrender heavy weapons.

"The state of Israel appreciates Russia's understanding of our security concerns, particularly regarding the situation at our northern border," Lieberman wrote on Twitter after the meeting with Shoigu. "We'll continue our dialogue with Russia on every matter at hand."

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