JERUSALEM, May 18 (Reuters) – Iran has begun withdrawing its forces from Syria, Israel’s outgoing defence minister said on Monday, without offering any evidence to support his assertion.
Naftali Bennett also urged his successor, Benny Gantz, to maintain pressure on Iran, adding that the trend might otherwise reverse.
Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy in the Middle East, has been a key supporter, along with Russia, of President Bashar al-Assad during Syria’s civil war, sending military advisers as well as material and regional Shi’ite militias that it backs.
Israel, which monitors neighbouring Syria intensively, has carried out hundreds of air strikes in Syria targeting suspected arms and troop movements by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas it sponsors.
“Iran is significantly reducing the scope of its forces in Syria and even evacuating a number of bases,” said Bennett in his valedictory address.
“Though Iran has begun the withdrawal process from Syria, we need to complete the work. It’s in reach.”
It was not immediately possible to get official Iranian or Syrian reaction to Bennett’s comments.
Israeli officials have suggested in the past that Israel’s military operations were showing signs of success.
Iran, which is struggling economically under the burden of U.S. sanctions and has also been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic, has repeatedly said its military presence in Syria is at the invitation of Assad’s government and that it will remain in Syria as long as its help is needed.
A senior aide to Iran‘s foreign minister, Ali-Ashgar Khaji, reiterated on Saturday that Tehran would continue working closely with the Assad government and Russia to combat terrorism and find a political solution to the Syrian crisis, Iran‘s ISNA news agency reported.
Bennett held the position of Israeli defence minister for about half a year.
His successor, Gantz, a former armed forces chief and leader of the centrist Blue and White Party, has formed a unity government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which took office on Sunday.
(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai Editing by Gareth Jones)