In US meetings, Israeli minister tries to keep Iran out of south Syria
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In US meetings, Israeli minister tries to keep Iran out of south Syria

Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz warns Americans that the Islamic Republic is setting up shop on the Golan, Galilee borders

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz at a press conference held at the Ministry of Transport, April 5, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Transportation and Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz at a press conference held at the Ministry of Transport, April 5, 2017. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In a number of recent meetings with US officials in Washington, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz sought to reach “understandings” with the United States about southern Syria, specifically the presence of the Iranian military in the region, his office said Thursday.

This was Katz’s second journey to the United States in less than a month, both trips lasting approximately five days each, in light of the ongoing talks between the US and Russia about a ceasefire in Syria, according to a spokesperson.

During his most recent trip, the minister met with American officials in New York and Washington, including representatives from the White House, senior intelligence officers and lawmakers from both the Republican and Democrat parties.

“The intelligence minister warned against Iran and Hezbollah establishing themselves in Syria in general, and southern Syria in particular, and against the creation of a contiguous territory from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon,” Katz’s office said.

A picture taken from the Golan Heights on September 10, 2016, shows smoke rising from the Syrian village of Jubata al-Khashab. Israeli aircraft struck Syrian army positions after fire from its war-torn neighbor hit the Golan. (AFP/Jalaa Marey)
A photo taken from the Golan Heights shows smoke rising from the Syrian village of Jubata al-Khashab. Israeli aircraft struck Syrian army positions after fire from its war-torn neighbor hit the Golan, September 10, 2016. (AFP/Jalaa Marey)

Throughout the Syrian civil war, Israel has been concerned that Iran, an ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad, would be able both to create that “land bridge” to Lebanon in order to smuggle weapons to Hezbollah and also to form a base of operations near the Golan Heights from which it and its proxies could attack Israel.

The intelligence minister called for new sanctions on the Islamic Republic over its support of the Hezbollah terrorist group.

Fighters of the Shiite Hezbollah terror group attend the funeral of a comrade who died in combat in Syria in the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Hatta on March 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Mahmoud Zayyat)
Fighters of the Shiite Hezbollah terror group attend the funeral of a comrade who died in combat in Syria in the southern Lebanese town of Kfar Hatta on March 18, 2017. (AFP/Mahmoud Zayyat)

“He also pointed out the inherent threat of Hezbollah being capable of independently manufacturing advanced weaponry in Lebanon with Iran’s help,” his office said, a reference to reports that Iran built weapons factories for the terrorist group in Lebanon.

In recent weeks, the fighting in southern Syria has intensified in an at times three-way war between the Assad regime, more moderate rebel groups and the Islamic State affiliate in the region, the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army.

Katz “called for the US and Israel to reach understandings about dealing with the Iranian threat in Syria and in the region,” his office said.

According to an Intelligence Ministry official, this topic was discussed with many US officials and at great length.

His office would not discuss the specifics of what those understandings would entail. However, both Israel and — no less importantly — Jordan want to see the more moderate rebel groups in control of the region as part of a future agreement.

According to US-based analyst Nicholas Heras, Jerusalem and Amman have been quietly supporting the rebels in the meantime, by providing them with intelligence and some supplies, though neither country freely admits it.

A general view shows Israel's Iron Dome defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, deployed in the Golan Heights near the Israel-Syria border, March 17, 2017 (AFP / JALAA MAREY)
Israel’s Iron Dome defense system deployed in the Golan Heights near the Israel-Syria border, March 17, 2017. (AFP/Jalaa Marey)

Katz also appeared to have hinted that Israel would require additional aid in order to secure its borders, according to his office.

“He explained to the Americans that the presence of the Iranian military in Syria and Lebanon requires Israel to spend considerable resources in order to reinforce its preparedness in the Golan Heights and Galilee,” his office said.

He also called for the US to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which was annexed in 1981, a move that has never been recognized internationally.

Katz, who also serves as transportation minister, spoke with US officials about his vision of a “regional economic plan,” which would include better trade relations with surrounding countries, as well as the formation of an off-shore port in Gaza, aimed at improving the financial and humanitarian situation of the Strip’s residents.

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