There is currently no physical Iranian military presence in Syria, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Tuesday, contradicting statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s true that there are some Iranian advisers and experts, but there are no military Iranian forces on Syrian soil,” Lieberman told Ynet in an interview, adding that Tehran’s strategy is to create proxies everywhere.
The defense minister’s comments go against the repeated warnings by Netanyahu who has said that “Where ISIS leaves, Iran enters,” and that the Islamic Republic has been building missile factories and other permanent military bases in Syria.
In August, Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi, telling him that the growing role of the Islamic Republic poses a threat not only to Israel and the Middle East but the entire world and that Israel will defend itself “in any way against this threat and any other threat.”
Netanyahu, who was joined at that meeting by Mossad head Yossi Cohen and Meir Ben-Shabbat, the recently appointed leader of Israel’s National Security Council, had stated that Iran is “well on its way” to controlling not only Syria, but other countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
When asked about his apparent contradiction to the prime minister’s stance, Liberman explained that Iran’s physical presence in the country – other than advisers and experts such as the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds force, Qassem Soleimani – was in the form of their proxy groups.
“After all, they don’t have a physical presence in Lebanon. For this, they have Hezbollah.
They’re not physically present in Yemen, they have the Houthi rebels. They have the same plans in Syria – to create all kinds of militias of Shi’ite mercenaries that they will bring from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan,” he explained.
The defense minister himself has repeatedly warned of Iranian entrenchment in the war-torn country, saying earlier this month “[Israel] 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 also has warned repeatedly that while Israel has no interest to enter Syria’s seven-year civil war, there are redlines that Jerusalem has set, including the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah and an Iranian presence on its borders.
“We have no intention to enter into any conflict, but I advise our neighbors not to test us,” he said during a briefing with military reporters in July.
On Tuesday, he said, “All the regional forces know we are the strongest power in the area. Israel is a regional power.”
Last week, Liberman asked for an increase of NIS 4.8 billion to the IDF’s budget, citing “significant” changes have dramatically affected Israel’s security situation, including the massive Russian presence in Syria, precision weapons in the hands of groups like Hezbollah and the dramatic acceleration of Iran’s military industry.
“The coalition agreement has a clause that specifically states that if there is a significant change [in the region], we can ask for additional funds,” he explained to Ynet.
Earlier this month, Liberman accused the Finance Ministry of stalling funding for the implementation of a 2014 government decision to increase protection for the home front, especially for communities in the North, which he said was severely lacking compared to southern Israel.
The border area with Lebanon, which has been flagged by the IDF as vulnerable to enemy infiltrations, has seen nine intrusions since 2009. The IDF believes the next war with Hezbollah will see the terrorist group try to bring the fight to the home front by infiltrating Israeli communities to inflict significant civilian and military casualties.
On Tuesday, Liberman again lamented the stalling of the funding, and claimed that the Finance Ministry “doesn’t want to give the money” but that “the finance minister has an obligation to fortify the North.”