Liberman, Mattis discuss ‘regional strategy’ amid Golan Heights unrest

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met Tuesday with his American counterpart James Mattis to discuss “regional strategy” and the ongoing cooperation between the Israeli and US militaries Tuesday, amid spiraling tensions between Israel and Syria.

The past three days have seen three incidents of errant shells fired from Syria that landed in Israel. The IDF has responded with force, targeting installations of the Syrian army, which Israel holds responsible for all incidents originating from Syrian soil.

Mattis and Liberman discussed “regional strategy and the ongoing cooperation between the Israeli and US defense agencies,” Liberman’s office said in a statement.

The defense chiefs met in on the sidelines of the annual Munich Security Conference, set his year to focus on the Syrian conflict, in their fourth confab since Mattis took office just four months ago.

In April, Mattis visited Israel for meetings with Defense Ministry and IDF officials as part of a six-country Middle East tour that included Egypt and Saudi Arabia.

Israel and the US have long had close strategic ties, with Washington providing Israel more than $3 billion per year in defense aid and US President Donald Trump pledging unstinting support for the country.

Israeli soldiers patrol near the border with Syria after projectiles fired from the war-torn country hit the Israeli Golan Heights on June 24, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / JALAA MAREY)

Liberman said on Monday that Israel has “no intention of launching a military operation” against Syria or rebel groups operating within it even as tensions have spiraled. “If you read the newspapers it seems that we have many prophets predicting a hot summer,” the defense minister said. “Let me be clear once again: We have no intention of initiating a military operation, neither in the north nor in the south.”

But Liberman said that despite the military establishment’s hope for calm on Israel’s borders, it will not tolerate any provocations, even accidental fire that spills over from a neighboring conflict.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman at a meeting of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on June 26, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“We won’t hold back if necessary and when needed we will respond with all our might,” he said. “Anyone that wants to turn Syria into an Iranian base against Israel should think again.”

Before meeting Liberman, Mattis told journalists that the US would not be drawn into Syria’s civil war, despite an increasingly complicated battle space that has seen US warplanes down pro-regime aircraft. The US-led coalition was determined to keep a strict focus on fighting the Islamic State group, he said.

We won’t fire “unless they are the enemy, unless they are ISIS,” Mattis said during an impromptu press conference, using an acronym for the jihadist Islamic State organization. “We just refuse to get drawn into a fight there in the Syria civil war. We try to end that one through diplomatic engagement.”

His comments came shortly before White House spokesman Sean Spicer issued a statement saying President Bashar Assad’s regime may be preparing for a chemical attack against civilians and warning that the Syrian military would pay a “heavy price” if it took such action.

Smoke rises from buildings following a reported air strike on a rebel-held area in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, on June 14, 2017. (AFP/Mohamad Abazeed)

Coalition forces on the ground have accused pro-regime fighters of targeting them in recent weeks, as they shot down two Iran-made attack drones and a Syrian fighter jet.

“If somebody comes after us, bombs us or takes a heading on us or fires on us, then under legitimate self-defense we’ll do whatever we have to do to stop it,” Mattis said.

The coalition has been active in Syria since late 2014, bombing IS targets and training local fighters to conduct ground assaults against the group.

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