The Syrian army has given dozens of Soviet-era tanks to the Islamist Hezbollah organization to help battle its enemies, Kuwaiti newspaper Alrai reported Saturday.
According to the report, the move comes as Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Russia have launched a “joint operations room” to coordinate their campaign to defeat the extremist Islamic State group, which has captured swathes of Syrian territory during the country’s four-year civil war, as well as the opposition groups, some linked to al-Qaeda, seeking to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The newspaper quotes official sources as saying that each party will be responsible for particular areas of Syria, with Russia operating in Latakia, Hama and some parts of the Aleppo province, while Iran will be defending the capital Damascus and down to Quneitra on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. The report also states that some 100 Iranian special forces trained in urban warfare have arrived in Damascus
Hezbollah will reportedly be taking up positions around Homs, where the ancient city of Palmyra — now largely decimated by Islamic State — is located. The Syrian army has received substantial support from thousands of fighters dispatched from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Lebanon — and most notably fellow Iranian client Hezbollah.
Meanwhile, the Israel Defense Forces has been preparing for a possible ground operation on the Syrian side of the Golan in the event of sustained rocket strikes or coordinated terror attacks against Israel either by Sunni jihadists or Hezbollah.
The number of Islamists flooding into the area close to the border with Israel has the IDF on high alert, Channel 2 reported last month, adding that the military had held a large-scale drill simulating a possible advance into Syria and the evacuation of Israeli civilians from border communities.
The reported deployment of tanks comes less than a week after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Russian President Vladimir Putin had voiced no opposition to a warning during their meeting in Moscow on Monday that Israel would act “to thwart the deadly weapons transfers from the Syrian army to Hezbollah.”
Netanyahu said that he told Putin in “no uncertain terms” that Israel would not tolerate Iranian efforts to arm Israel’s enemies in the region, and that Jerusalem has taken and will continue to take action against any such attempts. “There were no objections to our rights and to what I said. On the contrary: there was readiness to make sure that whatever Russia’s intentions for Syria, Russia will not be a partner in extreme actions by Iran against us.”
Ahead of their meeting, as they made statements to the press, Netanyahu told Putin that Iran and Syria have been arming Hezbollah with advanced weapons, thousands of which are directed at Israeli cities. “At the same time, Iran, under the auspices of the Syrian army, is attempting to build a second terrorist front against us from the Golan Heights.”
The prime minister told his Russian host that Israel’s policy is to prevent these weapons transfers “and to prevent the creation of a terrorist front and attacks on us from the Golan Heights.” Netanyahu came to the Kremlin to “clarify our policies, and to make sure that there is no misunderstanding between our forces,” he said.
Putin replied by saying that the Syrian army was too bogged down in its own civil war to deal with fighting against Israel.
“All of Russia’s actions in the region will always be very responsible,” Putin said. “We are aware of the shelling against Israel and we condemn all such shelling. I know that these shellings are carried out by internal elements. In regard to Syria, we know that the Syrian army is in a situation such that it is incapable of opening a new front.”
Raphael Ahren contributed to this report