BEIRUT (Reuters) - Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah will remain in Syria as long as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wants it there, the group’s leader said on Friday, defying renewed U.S. and Israeli pressure to force Tehran and its allies to quit the country.
“I will tell you that if the whole world comes together to force us to leave Syria, they will not be able to evict us,” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said in a televised address, adding that only the Syrian leadership could ask them to leave.
Israel has repeatedly struck Hezbollah and Iranian targets in Syria, saying they must leave the country, with which it shares a border. Washington has also demanded that Iran and forces it back quit.
Alongside Russia, Iran-backed forces in Syria have helped Assad drive rebels from the country’s biggest cities and reclaim swathes of the eastern deserts from Islamic State.
Russia has recently called for all non-Syrian forces to leave southern Syria, a statement seen as partly aimed at Iran, as well as at U.S. forces in a base near the Iraqi border.
Senior Syrian officials have said they want to recapture the rebel-held areas in the southwest near the border with Israel. Israeli strikes in Syria are partly aimed at keeping Hezbollah and other Iran-backed forces from its border.
This week, a Russian troop deployment near the border with Lebanon caused friction with Iran-backed forces there including Hezbollah, a rare case of Assads’ allies acting out of sync with each other, though it was soon resolved.
In his speech Nasrallah mocked the idea that U.S., Israeli or Gulf pressure was forcing a wedge between Russia and Iran on Syria.
Reporting By Laila Bassam and Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean