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Tillerson: Iran Should Withdraw 'Destabilizing' Forces From Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a press conference in Amman on February 14.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has reiterated a U.S. call for Iran to withdraw from Syria, saying its military presence there is destabilizing the region.

"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,” Tillerson said on February 14 at a news conference in Amman.

Speaking alongside Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, he added that “Iran needs to withdraw its military, its militia from Syria, and allow a hope for the peace process to take hold in Geneva."

The comments follow a series of Israeli air strikes in Syria on February 10, which the military said targeted both Syrian and Iranian targets.

During the offensive, an Israeli warplane was shot down, crashing in northern Israel.

The Israeli strikes came after the military said it had intercepted an Iranian drone crossing the Syria-Israel border.

Syria denied that any of its drones had entered Israel’s airspace. Tehran rejected Israel’s version of the events as “ridiculous” and "lies," saying Syria had the right to defend itself in response to the strikes.

Reacting to Tillerson’s latest comments, a top aide to Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said Iran’s military presence in Syria was legitimate and based on the invitation of Damascus.

"Those should leave Syria who are there without the permission of the Syrian legal government," Ali Akbar Velayati, senior foreign policy adviser to Khamenei, was quoted as saying by the semiofficial ISNA news agency.

Iran, along with Russia, has given President Bashar al-Assad's government crucial support throughout Syria's nearly seven-year civil war, in which hundreds of thousands of people have been killed since it began with a crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.

The United States is backing Syrian rebel groups.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on February 11 that the Israeli air strikes in Syria dealt "severe blows" to Iranian and Syrian forces.

Netanyahu also told his cabinet that Israel "clarified unequivocally" that it will "continue to strike any attempt to strike us."

Israeli warplanes have bombed Syrian targets in the past.

Israel, Iran’s archenemy, has pledged to prevent Syria’s territory being used for Iran to set up bases or transfer high-quality weaponry to Lebanon's Hizballah group, which is fighting alongside Assad’s forces.

Tehran has reportedly sent hundreds of military advisers and fighters from its Quds Force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ (IRGC) overseas arm.

With reporting by Reuters