EXCLUSIVE: US oil sanctions on Russia tanked Iran withdrawal from SyriaSergey Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, on Wednesday told i24NEWS that a deal to push Iran’s heavy arms 100 kilometers from Israel’s border floundered over US denial of sanction exemptions for Moscow.
“Russia tried, and partially succeeded, to diminish Iranian military presence in the immediate vicinity of the Israeli border and in the immediate vicinity of the Golan Heights. We wanted to go even further, to agree with the Iranians that they withdraw heavy weaponry more than 100 km away,” Ryabkov told i24NEWS’ journalist Nurit Ben at the Asian Forum on Global Governance and Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi.
“It didn’t work, because we wanted this in exchange for some suspension of the U.S. secondary sanctions to be imposed on countries in November, that would, you know, limit their ability to purchase Iranian oil. It never happened,” Ryabkov added.
Israel repeatedly warns that it would prevent Iran’s attempt to consolidate itself militarily in Syria, admitting to having carried out more than 200 airstrikes in the war-torn country since 2017.
In September, Israel and Russia were embroiled in a tense diplomatic row after the the Syrian army shot down a Russian plane following Israeli air strikes. Russia later claimed that Israel was solely responsible for the incident because it failed to notify Moscow in time before launching the strikes.
Despite a warning by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s spokesperson that the incident would harm relations between Moscow and Jerusalem, Ryabkov assured that the current ties were “excellent”.
“I think more broadly we have an exceptionally good period in the relationship, for several reasons, starting from a very good chemistry between the leaders,” Ryabkov told i24NEWS.
-Russia’s role in Syria-
When asked about Russia’s role in Syria down the line, Ryabkov said Moscow intends to keep a presence in the eastern Mediterranean.
“I think we have our interests in the region, and I think it’s undeniable that we have an interest in keeping a presence in the eastern Mediterranean. I don’t believe we’re ready to say, look, we’ll abandon all this and go out. But we are interested to come very much down in numbers to limit our presence to the absolute minimum and absolute necessary. That’s the closest I can tell about our intents there,” the Russian deputy foreign minister said.
Ryabkov also commented on Israel’s “preoccupation” with Iran’s presence in Syria, saying the Israeli view “to some extent overshadows the actual reality on the ground. For example, the presence of terrorists, or some migration that happens through this region as well.”
A large number of the Israel airstrikes in Syria have targeted weapon convoys en route from Tehran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which Israel insists it has the right to defend itself from.
Those airstrikes have the potential to cause further incidents between Russia and Israel but Ryabkov denied the existence of a “red line” from Moscow.
“There is no such thing as a ‘red line,’ you know, wide and thick, that is put somewhere. But there are spots of redness here and there,” he said.
Ryabkov said Moscow is very aware of the “equipment” being transferred to Hezbollah, which is why Russian military police are patrolling in areas in southern Syria.
“We are doing what we can do in order to manage and control transfers of equipment to Shiite militias including Hezbollah, which is clearly a point that is so important for Israel and for everyone. And we will continuously do so. Besides, you know, the Russian military police is operating in some areas to the south of Syria because we have no confidence that others will play a meaningful role in controlling this area. So this is also part of building up Israeli security,” he assured.
The Russian deputy foreign minister added that the efforts by the United Nations to solve the Syrian crisis could have been more vigorous.
“With all due respect to the UN Security Council resolution, which is still a basis, those are words. If De Mistura and the UN effort would be more vigorous and proactive earlier, I’m sure there would not be such a thing as a Sochi congress. Now we have different avenues. They’re not mutually contradictory,” Ryabkov said.
Lastly, Ryabkov was asked if a deal to exchange the ex-US Marine Paul Whelan who is now held in Russia with Maria Butina, a Russian who was arrested in the US for conspiring to influence the 2016 Presidential election.
“I would strongly deny this proposition. We saw what the former senior officers in U.S. intelligence said on this publicly, this is not the case here. Soon people will know what he was caught with and how it unfolded,” Ryabkov said.
Wheelan’s brother said on Monday he feared the ex-Marine might be caught in a diplomatic tug-of-war between the two powers.
The Russian deputy foreign minister said Moscow did not plan on releasing Whelan but that he is not “complaining”.
“I think it is a matter of weeks, probably months, but it’s pretty soon. He has been visited by U.S. officials and officials from some other countries. So they saw that he is not complaining. Of course he’s not in a resort, but he’s not complaining. He’s been treated decently I would say, Paul Whelan. But he should not do what he did.”
Nurit Ben is an i24NEWS journalist and co-anchor of ‘The Rundown’. Text and editing by web journalists Jotam Confino & Ellie Stern.
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