Syrian President Bashar Assad claimed that Israel operates as al-Qaeda’s air force in the war-torn country, undermining his rule by supporting the rebels, including the extremists among them.
“It’s very clear. Because whenever we make advances in some place, they attack in order to undermine the army,” he said in an interview in Foreign Affairs, previewed Sunday. “That’s why some in Syria joke, how can you say that al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force? They have the Israeli air force.” The full interview was published Monday.
The embattled Syrian president said his regime has won the support of the Syrian people in the civil war, which is entering its fifth year in March and has claimed over 190,000 lives.
“The main question is what have we won in this war? What we won in this war is that the Syrian people have rejected the terrorists [ the government’s term for the rebels], the Syrian people support their government more, the Syrian people support their army more,” said Assad
“We made some advances in the past two years. But if you want to ask me ‘is it going well,’ I say that every war is bad, because you always lose, you always have destruction in a war,” he went on.
As the jihadist group the Islamic State claimed large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq in a blitz that stunned the world last summer, Assad said it was “impossible” for the Syrian army to be on “every kilometer of Syrian territory.”
The Syrian president’s remarks came a week after an alleged Israeli strike on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights killed 12 Hezbollah and Iranian operatives, including a general.
Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned Sunday that the governments of Syria and Lebanon would pay a price if Israel was attacked in response to the strike.
“We bolstered our forces in order to stay ahead of any carrying out of the threats they are issuing there,” Ya’alon said in an interview with Army Radio. “There is Iron Dome, and we have advanced other forces, so that if someone decides to carry out a threat, he will also pay a price for it. This is not just organizations. The ones who bear responsibility in the north are governments, regimes, and the organizations themselves.”
The Israeli army increased its presence in northern Israel on Saturday, fearing a response by Hezbollah or Iran to the strike, which occurred a week ago, and left two Hezbollah commanders and an Iranian general dead, among others.
Ya’alon said that Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, were working together to open a front against Israel in the Golan Heights. “They started with rockets and a few mines, and we understood that they wanted to upgrade this to much more meaningful quality attacks, including infiltrating communities in the Golan Heights, anti-tank attacks, sniper fire, etc.”
In the interview, Ya’alon said that the unnamed Israeli official who apologized last week for killing an Iranian general in the strike acted without authorization.
Iran and Hezbollah have issued a series of threats since the strike, warning of a “crushing response,” and “destructive thunderbolts.” The dead included an Iranian general and senior Hezbollah commanders, Muhammad Issa and Jihad Mughniyeh, son of slain terror mastermind Imad Mughniyeh.
But Lebanese media also reported that Hezbollah has assured the government in Beirut that it will not strike back at Israel from Lebanese territory.
A report on Channel 2 Friday said the strike targeted the leaders of a substantial new Hezbollah terror hierarchy that was set to attempt kidnappings, rocket attacks and other assaults on military and civilian targets in northern Israel.
The new terror unit involved Mughniyeh, who was coordinating with the commander of the Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Qasem Soleimani, the Channel 2 report said. There was no suggestion in the report that Soleimani, a key figure in supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad and Hezbollah, was in the area at the time.
The unit was set up “with Iranian sponsorship,” the report said. Israel’s targeting of some of its members underlined that “a red line was crossed that Israel would not tolerate.”
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.