Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman responded to comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Wednesday that Iran’s presence in Syria was legitimate.
Liberman warned that Israel maintains freedom of action in Syria and will not allow Iranian entrenchment to infiltrate the war-torn country.
“We maintain absolute freedom of action, and the only considerations that guide us are the security considerations of Israel,” he said at the end of a two-day tour in northern Israel accompanied by IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, Deputy Chief of Staff Maj.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, OC Northern Command Maj.-Gen. Yoel Strick and the commanders of the Bashan and Galilee Division.
“With regards to Iran, we will simply not allow for Shi’ite consolidation and Iranian entrenchment in Syria, nor will we allow Syria to become a forward operating base against the State of Israel,” Liberman said. “Anyone who has yet to understand that is advised to do so.”
He was responding to comments made by Lavrov, who called Iran’s presence in Syria “legitimate,” after reports of a deal brokered with Washington suggested Moscow thought otherwise. Lavrov was quoted by RIA News Agency as saying Russia never promised the United States that Iran and Iranian-backed forces such as Hezbollah would withdraw from Syria.
A White House delegation of national security officials is currently in Israel to discuss the matter.
“We have an important strategic strong collaborative relationship with Israel, and US government delegations routinely visit Israel to coordinate on a wide range of issues,” a National Security Council spokesman told The Jerusalem Post. “During this visit, US officials will meet with Israeli counterparts to discuss regional security issues, including Syria.”
White House officials declined to offer a readout of their meetings or a list of participants in the US delegation.
But Iran’s presence in Syria along Israel’s border, and contiguous with the Lebanese-Israeli border, are expected to dominate the discussions.
Previewing the Trump administration’s comprehensive strategy on Iran last month, US officials warned that Tehran was attempting to build a “bridge” through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, where its most powerful proxy militia, Hezbollah, resides.
The Shi’ite extremist group is entrenched in southern Lebanon along Israel’s northern territory.
As an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Moscow finds itself part of an alliance between Damascus and Tehran.
Russia, which views Iran as a key player in resolving the crisis in Syria, has repeatedly emphasized the importance of the role that the Islamic Republic plays in the war-torn country.
Moscow intervened in the Syrian conflict in September 2015 for Assad, and officials from Israel and Russia have met regularly since then to discuss “deconflicting” their forces operating in proximity to avoid accidental clashes.
In recent months, Israel has held talks with Moscow, Washington and Amman in an attempt to ensure that the agreement would define the buffer zone some 40 km. from Israel’s borders.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has publicly criticized the US-Russian cease-fire deal in Syria, saying it does not include any provisions to stop Iranian expansion in the area.
“Iran is scheming to entrench itself militarily in Syria,” Netanyahu told a Jewish gathering in Los Angeles via satellite on Tuesday. “They want to create a permanent air, land and sea military presence, with the declared intent of using Syria as a base from which to destroy Israel. We are not going to agree to that. I have said very clearly that Israel will work to stop this.”
Tensions have spiked in recent months as Islamic State terrorists have lost their ground in Syria, creating vacuums for foreign control.
Israeli satellite images show that Tehran is building long-term military installations in the country. And a decision by Saudi Arabian leadership to interject itself into Lebanese politics by confronting Hezbollah has increased fears that war is imminent.
Last month, Liberman met with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, who reportedly told the Israelis that Moscow would agree to expand the buffer zone along the Israel-Syria border, and Iranian and Hezbollah forces will not be allowed to enter a 10- to 15-km. radius.
But according to reports, the new cease-fire agreement would allow for Iranian troops to remain some 5 km. from Israel’s border in some areas, far less than Israel demanded. This has led officials to scramble and get better terms for the deal.
Last week, Eisenkot secretly flew to Brussels to meet with the head of the US Army’s European Command, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, where the two discussed Iranian moves in Syria.
As the war in Syria seems to be winding down in Assad’s favor due to Moscow’s intervention, Israel fears Iran will help Hezbollah produce accurate precision- guided missiles and help Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias to strengthen their foothold in the Golan Heights.
On Tuesday, Liberman accused the Finance Ministry of stalling to fund the implementation of a 2014 government decision to increase protection for the home front, especially communities in the North, which he said was severely lacking compared with those in the South.
“We are dealing with a matter that is ‘net life,’” Liberman said, urging local authorities to demand that the government implement decisions taken in 2014 to allocate NIS 150 million annually for 10 years to close the protection gaps throughout the country.
The border area with Lebanon has been flagged by the IDF as vulnerable to enemy infiltrations and has seen nine infiltrations since 2009.
The IDF believes the next war with Hezbollah will see the terrorist group try and bring the fight to the home front by infiltrating Israeli communities to inflict significant civilian and military casualties and stoke terror.