As world powers seek an endgame to Syria’s six-year war, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants a seat at the table.
Israel says Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah are working to entrench themselves militarily in neighboring Syria, where they’re backing Syrian government troops, and it’s rattled that a recent truce deal brokered by Russia and the U.S. doesn’t block that. Israel’s fear that Tehran is establishing launchpads in Syria for future attacks against the Jewish state dominated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talks Wednesday with President Vladimir Putin in Russia.
The strengthening of Iran’s position in Syria represents a threat to Israel, the Middle East and the whole world, Netanyahu said after the three-hour meeting, and said he had made very clear to Putin that Israel considered this unacceptable.
Past such discussions with Putin had advanced Israel’s security interests, Netanyahu said in comments posted to YouTube, adding, “I think I can say the same thing about this one.”
Complicated alliances in the Syrian war make Netanyahu’s mission a tough one. Israel could escalate the pinpoint strikes against Iran and Hezbollah it has already carried out during the war if it isn’t satisfied that Putin and President Donald Trump are taking its security concerns into account. Moshe Ya’alon, who served as Israel’s defense minister during part of the war, said Israel may be forced to act militarily if Iran isn’t expelled.
Netanyahu set off for Russia with Mossad spy chief Yossi Cohen and internal security head Meir Ben-Shabbat after an Israeli delegation came back from Washington this month with no announcement of progress on Israel’s demands. Russia, whose military intervention turned the tide in favor of Syrian President Bashar Assad, may not support the demand for a complete Iranian withdrawal: Iran is one of the co-sponsors of Moscow’s peace efforts in Syria, and Russia is unlikely to antagonize it.
While Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian fighting, Netanyahu recently said the Israeli military struck Hezbollah in Syria dozens of times. Ya’alon hinted Israel also has targeted Iranian operatives, noting that when Iran tried to orchestrate terrorist attacks in the Israeli-held Golan Heights, “all those operatives are no longer alive.”
(c) 2017, Bloomberg · David Wainer