In latest sign of PM’s mounting concern, Israeli TV says he has conveyed stark message to Syrian president via third party
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel will intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war if Assad gives formal permission to Iran to establish a military presence in Syria, Israeli TV reported on Sunday night.
Netanyahu conveyed the message to Assad via a third party, Hadashot news (formerly Channel 2) veteran Middle East analyst Ehud Yaari reported.
The warning specified that Israel will depart from the policy of non-intervention it has maintained throughout the six years of the civil war to date, Yaari said, if Assad “invites Iranian forces to establish themselves in Syria via an agreement of any kind.” Iran has provided significant logistical, technical, training and financial support for Assad’s regime and forces, as well as deploying military advisers and some combat troops in Syria. It also arms, trains and funds Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group that has sent thousands of gunmen to fight alongside Assad’s troops.
Thus far, Israel has provided medical and humanitarian aid to victims of the war across its border, has hit back when gunfire has crossed the border, and has used air strikes to target weapons stores and convoys intended for the Hezbollah terrorist organization. But, to date, “there was no direct targeting of the Syrian Army or of Assad,” Yaari noted.
The report noted tellingly that this non-intervention contrasted with previous Israeli policy. In 2006, for instance, Israeli jets broke the sound barrier flying over Assad’s presidential palace in Latakia, in what was seen as a warning to him against supporting Palestinian terrorist groups.
The reference to any formal Syrian “invitation” or “agreement” with Iran, the TV report elaborated, stems from the fact that Iran and Russia have been discussing future arrangements for Syria, under which all foreign forces would have to leave the country, except those which are present by agreement with, or invitation from, Assad. Russia’s forces are engaged in Syria on the basis of such an invitation, and Netanyahu’s aim in issuing the warning “is to deter Assad from issuing” a similar invitation to Iran.
The Iranians, the TV report noted, want to build “a naval base, possibly for submarines, an air base and arms factories for precision weapons.”
Earlier this month, the BBC, citing a Western security official, reported that Iran was setting up a permanent base on a site used by the Syrian army near el-Kiswah, 14 kilometers (8 miles) south of Damascus, and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Israeli border.
Satellite image of alleged Iranian base in Syria from October 2017 (Airbus, Digital Globe and McKenzie Intelligence Services/BBC)
The TV report came days after Netanyahu was quoted telling French President Emmanuel Macron in a phone call that Israel sees Iranian activity in Syria as “a target” for its forces, and may carry out strikes against Iranian objectives if its security needs require it.
According to a transcript of their November 19 phone call reported by Israel’s Channel 10 TV, Netanyahu told the French leader that “from now on, Israel sees Iran’s activities in Syria as a target. We will not hesitate to act, if our security needs require us to do so.”
Macron reportedly attempted to reassure the Israeli leader and dissuade him from “hasty” action.
But Netanyahu was adamant, reportedly saying, “The goal must be to minimize Iran’s influence, not only in Lebanon but also in Syria… Israel has tried up until now not to intervene in what is going on in Syria. But after the victory over Islamic State, the situation has changed because the pro-Iranian forces have taken control… From now on, Israel sees Iran’s activities in Syria as a target. We will not hesitate to act, if our security needs require us to do so.”
Netanyahu vowed in a speech last week that Iran would not be allowed to gain a regional foothold. “We have made it clear many times that we will not accept nuclear weapons in Iran’s hands, nor will we allow the establishment of Iranian forces near our border, in the Syrian region in general, or anywhere else,” he said.
Underlining the rising tensions, an Iranian military commander declared on Thursday that any future war in the region would result in the annihilation of Israel. Ali Jafari, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, told Iranian reporters that “any new war will lead to the eradication of the Zionist regime.”
On November 21, Netanyahu also spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone about a ceasefire deal in the Syrian civil war and the Iranian presence near Israel’s borders, the Prime Minister’s Office said. “The conversation lasted about half an hour and dealt with Syria, and Iran’s attempt to entrench itself in Syria,” Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. “Netanyahu insisted on Israeli security and reiterated his opposition to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria.”
The call was the latest in a series of high-level contacts between Israel and Russia, amid a dispute between the countries over allowing Iran and Shiite militias backed by Tehran to maintain a foothold in Syria near the Israeli border.
On October 17, Netanyahu met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Jerusalem, where the two men discussed the Islamic Republic’s attempt to establish itself militarily in Syria. “Iran needs to understand that Israel will not allow this,” Netanyahu told Shoigu, according to his office.
According to an unnamed Israeli official, under the Syrian ceasefire deal, militias associated with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as close as five to seven kilometers (3.1-4.3 miles) to the border in some areas, Reuters reported two weeks ago.
The Israeli Air Force has carried out numerous airstrikes in Syria on weapons convoys bound for the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group, though it rarely acknowledges individual raids.