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Iran's presence in Syria blocks peace deal, Netanyahu tells Putin

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday there could never be peace in Syria as long as there was an Iranian presence there.

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“We discussed at length the matter of Iran, its objectives and intentions in Syria, and I clarified that there cannot be a peace deal in Syria when Iran is there and declares its intention to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu said in footage supplied by his office after their meeting.

Iran, Israel’s arch-enemy, has been embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest backer and has provided militia fighters to help him in the country’s civil war.

“(Iran) is arming itself and its forces against Israel including from Syria territory and is, in fact, gaining a foothold to continue the fight against Israel,” he said in reply to a reporter’s question.

“There cannot be peace when they continue the war and therefore they have to be removed.”

Russia, also Assad’s ally, is seen as holding the balance of power in achieving a deal on Syria’s future. In Geneva last week, the first U.N.-led Syria peace talks in a year ended without a breakthrough. [nL5N1GG2NL]

Israeli leaders have pointed to Tehran’s steadily increasing influence in the region during the six-year-old Syrian conflict, whether via its own Revolutionary Guard forces or Shi’ite Muslim proxies, especially Hezbollah.

Last year, Avi Dichter, the chair of Israel’s foreign affairs and defence committee, said Iran had tried several times in the past to move forces into the Syrian Golan Heights, next to territory that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Dichter said those moves were repelled, but gave no details.

Netanyahu has said that Israel has carried out dozens of strikes to prevent weapons smuggling to the Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah via Syria. Two years ago, Israel and Russia agreed to coordinate military actions over Syria in order to avoid accidentally trading fire.

Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Andrew Roche