Countering Netanyahu, top US senator again warns Israel about Syrian regime

Without Assad’s support, Hezbollah and Iran would not be at ‘Israel’s front door,’ says South Carolina lawmaker Lindsey Graham

Chair Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., makes opening remarks at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 27, 2018. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)
Chair Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., makes opening remarks at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 27, 2018. (AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

A senior US lawmaker on Thursday reinforced an earlier warning to Israel against making a deal with Russia on the future of Syria, cautioning that the Damascus regime has brought Iran and its Lebanese proxy group Hezbollah to Israel’s borders.

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham, a former Republican presidential candidate, tweeted his admonishment, along with a reference to comments from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the day, in which the Israeli leader said Jerusalem had “no problem” with the Assad regime.

“Without Iran/Hezbollah, Syria’s Assad would not be in power and would not have the ability to slaughter almost a half-million Syrians,” Graham wrote, linking to a story about Netanyahu’s comments. “Without Assad’s blessing, the flags of Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard would not be on Israel’s front door.”

Netanyahu had told reporters at a briefing before returning to Israel from Russia, “We had no problem with the Assad regime. For 40 years, not a single bullet was fired in the Golan Heights.”

The prime minister was in Moscow to discuss the situation in Syria with President Vladimir Putin, along with Israel’s concerns over Iran’s military foothold in that country, whose patron is Russia.

“To our friends in Israel — be very careful making agreements with Russia re Syria that affect US interests,” Graham had tweeted early Thursday. “I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria. U.S. must maintain presence in Syria to ensure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Russia/Iran influence.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on July 11, 2018. (AFP/Pool/Yuri Kadobnov)

A withdrawal of US troops from Syria would be a “major disaster for Kurdish allies, U.S. interests and regional stability,” he said.

Graham’s comment came amid speculation that US President Donald Trump and Putin are considering a deal about the future of Syria at their upcoming bilateral summit in Helsinki.

Former US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro concurred with the Republican senator’s earlier comments.

“Senator Graham is absolutely right here,” he tweeted. “But he ignores that Trump is trying to cook up a ‘deal’ that lets US troops leave Syria, relies on flimsy Russian promises to expel Iran, and pays for all this in European currency — Ukraine sanctions, Crimea annexation, weaker NATO/EU.”

Graham “should be addressing his complaint to the White House, more than to the Israelis,” added Shapiro, a visiting fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Trump has said in the past that he aims to withdraw American troops from the war-torn country.

Israel has officially been seeking to ensure that Iran is removed entirely from Syria, but has indicated it could compromise in a deal that would ensure that Iranian forces and their allies are kept dozens of kilometers away from the border.

“Our view that Iran needs to leave Syria is well-known; it is not new to you,” Netanyahu told the Russian president during their meeting on Wednesday, according a readout provided by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Netanyahu, meeting with Putin hours after a Syrian drone entered Israeli airspace and was shot down by the Israeli Air Force, vowed to “continue to take strong action against any trickle [of fire] and any infiltration into Israel’s airspace or territory.”

Russian-Israeli cooperation “is a central component in preventing a conflagration and deterioration of these and other situations,” Netanyahu said.

A senior official in the prime minister’s entourage to Moscow later told Israeli reporters that Russia has started to push the removal of Syrian forces from Israel’s border.

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