Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Tuesday said there are Iranian military advisers, but not soldiers, on the ground in neighboring Syria.
Liberman’s comments came after repeated warnings by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks that the Iranians were establishing a military foothold in the country.
“It’s correct that there are some Iranian advisers and experts [in Syria],” Liberman told the Ynet news site. “But there is no Iranian military force on Syrian soil.”
Liberman, who heads the Yisrael Beytenu party, said it was Iranian strategy to develop regional proxies such as the Lebanon-based Hezbollah terror organization and the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen.
“They have the same plans in Syria, to create all sorts of Shiite militias made up of mercenaries they’ll bring from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We will not allow Iran a base in Syria,” Liberman stressed.
“All the actors in the region know that we are the strongest power in our area. Israel is a regional power,” the defense minister added.
Two days ago, Israel TV reported that Netanyahu had warned Syrian President Bashar Assad that Israel would intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war if Assad gave Iran formal permission to establish a military presence in Syria.
The warning specified that Israel would depart from the policy of non-intervention it has maintained throughout the six years of the civil war to date, the channel’s veteran Middle East analyst Ehud Yaari said, if Assad “invites Iranian forces to establish themselves in Syria via an agreement of any kind.”
Iran has provided significant logistical, technical, training and financial support for Assad’s regime and forces, as well as deploying military advisers and some combat troops in Syria. It also arms, trains and funds Hezbollah, which has sent thousands of gunmen to fight alongside Assad’s troops.
The reference to any formal Syrian “invitation” or “agreement” with Iran, the TV report elaborated, stems from the fact that Iran and Russia have been discussing future arrangements for Syria, under which all foreign forces would have to leave the country, except those which are present by agreement with, or invitation from, Assad. Russia’s forces are engaged in Syria on the basis of such an invitation, and Netanyahu’s aim in issuing the warning “is to deter Assad from issuing” a similar invitation to Iran.
The Iranians, the TV report noted, want to build “a naval base, possibly for submarines, an air base and arms factories for precision weapons.”
Last week, Netanyahu told French President Emmanuel Macron that Israel saw Iranian activity in Syria as “a target” for its forces, and may carry out strikes against Iranian objectives if security needs require it.
Earlier this month, the BBC, citing a Western security official, reported that Iran was setting up a permanent base on a site used by the Syrian army near el-Kiswah, 14 kilometers (8 miles) south of Damascus, and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Israeli border.