On February 14, Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called on the US to withdraw its troops from Syria saying that its presence there is illegal. Khamenei’s top advisor also stressed that the Iranian deployment in Syria is approved by the Damascus government.
“Iran is in Syria legitimately and based on the invitation of the Syrian government. Those [the US] who have to leave Syria are the ones who have not been permitted by the Syrian government,” Velayati said during a conference at the Islamic Azad University in Tehran, according to the Iranian Mehr News Agency.
The Velayati statement was likely a response to remarcs by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said earlier that the Iranian presence in Syria is “destabilizing” the Middle East and called on Iran to withdraw from Syria.
“We are quite concerned about the recent incident involving Israel and Iranian assets inside of Syria. And I think this again illustrates why Iran’s presence in Syria is only destabilizing to the region … Iran needs to withdraw its military, its militia from Syria, and allow a hope for the peace process to take hold in Geneva,” Tillerson said during a joint press conference with his Jordanian counterpart, Ayman Safadi, according to the US Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.
Syrian pro-government experts say that the US is currently trying to pressure Iran in Syria by sabotaging any real political process and by keeping several strategic oil and gas fields in eastern Syria under the control of its proxies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Tillerson himself admitted during the Iraq donors conference in Kuwait on February 13 that the US control over a large part of Syria’s oil fields and areas allows it to influence the situation there.
From its side, Iran and its allies may be planning to strip the US from its leverage in eastern Syria via diplomatic and economic measures or even by recapturing the oil and gas field from the SDF, according to several reports of Syrian opposition and pro-government sources.
The US-led coalition already claimed that it had foiled an attack of the Iranian-backed forces and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) on the SDF-held CONICO gas facility in the eastern Deir Ezzor countryside on February 7. However, new reports suggested that Iran and the SAA are currently massing bigger forces near key oil and gas facilities in the eastern and southern Deir Ezzor countryside.
It’s unclear if the SAA and its allies, including Iran, will launch another attack towards the SDF-held oil and gas fields in Deir Ezzor governorate. Syrian pro-government activists believe that the SAA and its allies will have to impose a no-fly zone over the fields, if they want their second attempt to be successful. However, this is hardly possible.