Iran threatens to entrench military presence in Syria
Both the US and Russia said on Monday that they understand Israel’s concerns about a future Iranian presence in Syria, as Israeli officials spoke about the possibility that Israel might need to take military action to prevent Tehran from setting up permanent bases, ports and arms factories in Syria and Lebanon.
The threats came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters in Paris that Israel was opposed to a cease-fire for southwestern Syria brokered by the US and Russia earlier this month, because it would allow a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, a distance of 20 kilometers from Israel’s border.
The Trump administration shares Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s concerns over Iran’s presence in southern Syria, and is working with Israel to prevent it, a White House official told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
“Both governments – the United States and Israel – are rightly concerned about Iran’s malign influence in the region,” the official said. “A core goal of US policy in Syria is to ensure that no vacuum is created which Iran can fill.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Monday that Russia and the United States would do all they could to address Israeli concerns about the creation of de-escalation zones in Syria, the RIA news agency reported.
The Tass news agency quoted Lavrov as saying Moscow and Washington carried out preparatory work on a cease-fire in southern Syria with all parties concerned, including Israel.
“I can guarantee that the American side, and we, did the best we can to make sure that Israel’s security interests are fully taken into consideration,” he was quoted as saying.
Trump officials claim the cease-fire is a successful diplomatic achievement that has prevented Syrian bloodshed and demonstrated the value of cooperating with Moscow.
Trump himself said that he is negotiating a second cease-fire that would govern another section of the war-torn country.
But critics question whether Russia and Iran are using the pause in fighting to consolidate their gains and regroup for a new offensive.
Another administration official told the Post last week that Israel was “not a party to [the negotiations], but were consulted,” after a national security adviser to the president claimed on CNN that Israel was directly involved in the cease-fire negotiations.
A State Department official acknowledged that Israel was indeed consulted “at each step of this important process.” In a phone call with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Sunday, Netanyahu reportedly expressed his concerns with the cease-fire and its consequences.
“We have stayed in close touch with Israel throughout this effort,” the official told the Post on Monday. “The secretary made clear that we are committed to pursuing an agreement that de-escalates violence and saves lives, while also addressing the very real security concerns of Syria’s neighbors, including Israel. Those efforts and our intensive consultations with Israel will continue.”
But Iranian inroads into Syria are not Israel’s only concerns, with Israeli diplomatic sources maintaining that Iran is working to establish air, land and sea bases in Lebanon as well – a development Jerusalem has made clear it will not tolerate.
One member of the security cabinet said on Monday that Israel will need to do something about the Iranian presence in Lebanon.
According to the minister, Israel is carefully tracking Iran’s presence there, and that it seemed the Iranians were only in the “initial stages” of establishing bases in the country.
The minister said Iran was taking advantage of the instability in Syria to create a corridor along Israel’s northern border to strengthen its presence in Lebanon as well.
Deputy Minister for Diplomacy Michael Oren told the Post it was critically important for Netanyahu to reiterate Israel’s position that it “will not countenance the building of Iranian bases or ports” anywhere in Syria or Lebanon, and that Israel will not accept a cease-fire that does not take its interests into account.
Oren said Netanyahu’s message to everyone was: “You can have a cease-fire, but we will continue to act according to our red lines. We are going to stop Iran from building bases, ports and factories.”
Yaakov Amidror, a former head of the National Security Council who remains in contact with Netanyahu, echoed these remarks, saying Israel may need to take military action to prevent Iran or Hezbollah from setting up permanent bases in Syria.
If Israel’s interests are not taken into account by those determining what the future arrangements will be in Syria – the Americans, Russians or others – “that might lead the IDF to intervene and destroy every attempt to build [permanent Iranian] infrastructure in Syria,” he said.
Amidror, a fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, made his comments during a conference call with journalists organized by The Israel Project.
“We will not let the Iranians and Hezbollah be the forces that will win the very brutal war in Syria,” and then move their focus onto Israel, he said.
Until now, Israel has been very careful to stay out of the war in Syria, saying it will only intervene – and indeed only has intervened – to protect the red lines Netanyahu established: that game-changing weaponry is not transferred to Hezbollah via Syria; that Hezbollah and Iranian troops are not on the border with Israel; and that the Iranians do not establish permanent bases in Syria.
Amidror said that the ceasefire plan was completed without taking into sufficient consideration Israel’s need to defend itself.
“At the end of the day it is our responsibility, not the responsibility of the Americans or the Russians, to guarantee ourselves, and we will take all the measures that are needed for that,” he said.
Explaining how the Americans and Russians – with which Israel has good ties and a dialogue – agreed to a deal that could allow for a permanent Iranian presence in Syria, Amidror said the Russian strategic goal in the cease-fire was to ensure that Assad’s regime remains, and the American strategic goal was to destroy Islamic State.
Israel, he said, needs to “take care of its strategic goal,” which he defined as “keeping Iran and Syria from building launching pads in Syria.”
Amidror said that while Israel obviously wants to see the killing in Syria end, “the price can’t be having Iran and Hezbollah on our borders.”
He said that Israel has both diplomatic and military options to keep this from happening, and that “both options should be used.”
Amidror attributed Iran’s current success in the region to the Iranian nuclear deal signed two years ago. Iran, he said, is implementing a strategy that for the first time in modern history places them on the cusp of establishing a land corridor from Tehran, through Baghdad to Damascus and the Mediterranean.
“The ability of the Iranians to do what they are doing now in Syria and Iraq, and be involved in both Syria and Iraq, and their relations with Hezbollah, it is all built on the legitimacy they gained from this [nuclear] agreement,” he said.
Amidror said that it is very much in the Iranian interests to abide by the agreement, since in the meantime they are changing the contours of the entire Middle East. After the period of the agreement ends, they can then dash to the nuclear finish line, with their strategic situation in the region considerably improved, as well as their ability to withstand any new wave of sanctions.
“The agreement is the source of all the problems,” he said. “It is even more dangerous than we imagined when signed.”