As tensions with Syria, Iran climb, Netanyahu calls in top defense officials

Prime minister instructs cabinet members from his Likud party to keep quiet about the ‘sensitive’ security situation

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is briefed on the escalation on the northern border along with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, left and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, right, on February 10, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center, is briefed on the escalation on the northern border along with IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot, left and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, right, on February 10, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday huddled with key defense officials about the security situation on the country’s northern borders as Iran threatened retaliation for a deadly airstrike in Syria attributed to Israel.

Netanyahu consulted with IDF Chief of Staff Eisenkot, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of IDF military intelligence Maj. Gen. Tamir Hyman, Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Netanyahu also ordered Likud ministers to refrain from publicly commenting about the security situation because of the “sensitivity of the circumstances.”

The consultations came ahead of a high-level security cabinet meeting that is scheduled for later Wednesday.

Photos released by Iranian media reportedly show the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage Monday. (Iranian media)

Russia, Syria, Iran and the United States have all said Israel carried out the predawn Monday missile barrage on the T-4 Air Base near Palmyra in central Syria. Israeli officials refused to comment on the strike, which reportedly killed at least 14 people, including at least seven Iranian military personnel.

On Tuesday, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened Israel over the air raid.

“The crimes will not remain unanswered,” Ali Akbar Velayati said during a visit to Syria, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Israel has regularly expressed its concern about the Iranian presence in Syria, fearing the long-term establishment of hostile forces in the neighboring country.

Appearing to allude to the strike, Liberman on Tuesday said Israel “will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Whatever the cost.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem, on April 11, 2018. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitc/Flash90)

In line with Israel’s policy of ambiguity on attacks outside the country’s borders, the defense minister prefaced his remarks with a wry “I don’t know what happened.”

“Accepting Iranian entrenchment in Syria would be to accept Iranians putting a chokehold on us. We cannot allow that,” Liberman said.

Israeli officials did not appear to be taking the threat of a retaliatory attack — either by Iran, or its proxy, the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah — lightly and IDF forces are remaining on high alert in the north.

The Israel Air Force conducted a previous airstrike against the T-4, also known as Tiyas, base on February 10, after an Iranian operator working out of it flew an Iranian-made drone into Israeli territory, according to the army. That incursion sparked a series of aerial clashes that resulted in the Iranian aircraft being shot down, an Israeli F-16I getting hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire and crashing in a field, and a significant percentage of Syria’s air defenses being destroyed in retaliation.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, April 11, 2018. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch/POOL)

Iran has deployed thousands of fighters to Syria, presented as “volunteers” from Afghanistan and Pakistan and trained locally by Iranian “military advisers.” It denies having a military presence in the war-torn country where the volunteers are fighting on behalf of ally Syrian President Bashar Assad as he campaigns to suppress an insurgency now in its eight year.

Iran does not recognize the existence of Israel and routinely calls for and predicts its demise. Israel views Tehran under the regime of the ayatollahs as an existential threat that seeks nuclear arms and funds and arms terrorist groups, notably Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border.

IDF vehicles driving along the road parallel to the border fence separating the Israeli and Syrian regions of the Golan Heights, July 19, 2017. (AFP/MENAHEM KAHANA)

Israel is believed to have carried out numerous raids inside Syria since 2013, targeting the regime and the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran. Israel has vowed to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining advanced weapons and missiles, fearing they would be used against the Jewish state.

In January 2015, two IDF soldiers were killed and seven other injured in an attack claimed by Hezbollah, which said it was revenge for an alleged Israeli airstrike that killed a senior commander in the Lebanese group, along with an Iranian general and 10 others earlier that month.

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