Israel is not seeking to topple Assad, top defense official says

Seeking to calm tensions with Damascus, Amos Gilad says Syrian regime is ‘acting responsibly’ as regards Israel; Lebanese media reports IAF overflights

Adiv Sterman is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is in total control of his country’s weapons systems and is acting sensibly with regard to Israel, appreciating the overwhelming might he faces, senior Defense Ministry official Maj.-Gen. (Res) Amos Gilad said Friday.

In an interview with Israel Radio evidently designed to calm escalating tensions between Jerusalem and Damascus, Gilad stressed that Israel is not striving to topple Assad’s regime, and that reported recent IAF attacks on Iranian weapons shipments in Syria en route to Hezbollah are motivated by a desire and an obligation to defend Israel.

Even as he spoke on Friday early afternoon, Lebanese media were reporting further Israeli overflights over Lebanon.

“Israel is not taking actions against Assad, such a description is untrue,” Gilad said. “Israel has not acted or done anything against Assad and his regime.” The Defense Ministry official added that Assad “is behaving responsibly as regards Israel.”

Gilad made the statements amid reports on major Russian arms transfers to Syria, and anonymous warnings by Israeli officials that Israel will “bring down” Assad if he retaliates for any future Israeli airstrikes.

Regarding Iran, Gilad said that the Islamic Republic is a destructive factor in the Middle East that is determined to acquire nuclear weapons and support organizations engaged in terrorism around the world.

Meanwhile, Lebanese media outlets reported on Friday that Israeli jets were spotted flying low over the south of the country. IAF planes were reportedly seen flying over the towns of Bint Jbeil, Marjayoun and Nabatieh. Similar reports were widespread in the days and hours before Israeli reportedly carried out this month’s air attacks in the Damascus area to blow up Fateh-110 ground-to-ground missile consignments en route to Hezbollah via Syria from Iran. Those attacks were said to be carried out from Lebanese territory, avoiding Syria’s advanced air defenses.

On Thursday, undeterred by pleas and warnings from Israel — including one-on-one talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin — Russia made clear that it will go ahead with its planned delivery of a highly sophisticated air-defense system to Assad.

Netanyahu reportedly warned Putin, in an emergency meeting on Tuesday, that Moscow’s sale of the S-300 missile defense system to Assad could push the Middle East into war.

But Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared on Thursday that while Moscow was “not signing any new deals,” it would honor existing contracts with Syria, including for the air-defense systems. “We’ve already carried out some of the deal,” Lavrov said, “and we will carry the rest of it out in full.”

A failure to honor signed contracts, Lavrov added in a television interview, would “harm the credibility” of Russia in other arms-sales contracts.

Also Thursday, CIA Director John Brennan arrived in Israel and held consultations on the situation in Syria, amid fears that Israel could get drawn into the fighting there.

Upon landing in the country, Brennan, whose visit was not announced ahead of time, went directly to the army headquarters in Tel Aviv for a meeting with Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, Channel 10 reported. During the meeting, the two shared intelligence assessments, and Ya’alon reiterated Israel’s refusal to let advanced weapons make their way from Syria to Hezbollah, vowing to continue carrying out strikes against arms shipments.

On Wednesday, Israel reportedly warned Assad that further attacks were being considered, and that it would bring down his regime if he retaliated.

Also on Wednesday, Israel Radio reported that Tehran had approached Damascus about letting Hezbollah open a new front against Israel from Syrian territory.

The Lebanese daily al-Akhbar suggested last week that Iran had “reached a final decision” to respond to reported Israeli airstrikes on a weapons transfer in Syria by “turning the Golan into a new Fatah-land. The front has become open to Syrians and Palestinians and anyone who wants to fight Israel.”

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