Defense minister vows to retain freedom of action in Syria

Liberman says Jerusalem prepared to prevent an Iranian forward base’ in Syrian territory ‘at any cost’

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at the annual Jerusalem Post Conference held in New York City, on April 29, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman speaks at the annual Jerusalem Post Conference held in New York City, on April 29, 2018. (Marc Israel Sellem/Flash90)

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Sunday that Israel will preserve its ability to act all over Syria against any threats, and will not be deterred if Russia supplies the Syrians with advanced air defense systems.

He added that Israel will stop at nothing to prevent Iran from using Syrian territory as a base to attack Israel.

“We will maintain freedom of operation in all of Syria,” Liberman said, when asked about Russia equipping Syria with advanced systems.

Russia, which, along with Iran, is providing military support for the Syrian regime in quelling a bloody insurgency, has recently said it will provide Syria with new air defense equipment, possibly including the S-300 missile system, considered a serious threat to Israeli jets operating in Syrian territory. possibly including the S-300 air defense missile system

Liberman, speaking at a Jerusalem Post conference in New York, stressed that Israel does not want to confront Russian forces, but also will not allow the S-300 air defense missile system to hinder operations in Syria.

“We don’t have any intention to attack the Russians, or even to interfere in the domestic issues in Syria,” he said. “But if someone thinks they can launch missiles to attack Israel or even our aircraft, there is no doubt we will respond, and respond very forcefully.”

A Russian-made S-300 air defense system on display for the annual Defense Week, marking the 37th anniversary of the 1980s Iran-Iraq war, at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran, September 24, 2017. (AP Photo/ Vahid Salemi)

Israel carried out strikes on targets in Syria after an explosives-laden drone was flown into Israeli airspace on February 10. The Israeli military said at the time that between one-third and one-half of Syria’s air defenses were destroyed by the strikes.

During a Syrian counterattack against the Israeli jets, one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in a field in northern Israel, after the pilot and navigator ejected from it.

Israel has repeatedly voiced concerns that, as well as trying to deliver advanced weaponry to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, Iran has been using the unrest in Syrian as a means to establish forward operating bases that could be used to launch rocket attacks and other military action against Israel.

Israel, Liberman said, “will prevent Iran from establishing a forward base in Syria at any cost.”

“There is no doubt that we have three problems: Iran, Iran, and Iran. First of all, Iran is a state that is trying to undermine stability in our whole region. Not just regarding Israel. You see what is happening in Yemen, their activity in Lebanon, in Iraq, in Syria,” he said, and noted that the annual US State Department report on Iran identified it as the top sponsor of terror in the world.

Terror groups such as Hezbollah and the Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Hamas “wouldn’t even exist a week without Iranian support,” he said.

Masked gunmen from the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, a military wing of the Hamas terror group, march with their weapons, during a large-scale drill across the Gaza strip, March 25, 2018. (AP Photo/ Khalil Hamra)

Turning to the Iran nuclear deal and the US threat to pull out of the 2015 agreement unless it is altered to place greater restrictions on Tehran, Liberman said Washington had not consulted with Jerusalem about the matter.

“It’s not our business. It is an American decision and they didn’t ask any advice from our side. We understand that they have their ideas and their approach. We can only speak to our position, which is very clear. We think that it is a very, very bad deal that was a huge mistake, and from our point of view, there is no reason to have this deal,” he said.

“If someone will cancel the deal, of course we will support this approach,” Liberman said.

The defense minister also deflected while discussing the recent assassination in Malaysia of Fadi al-Batash, a Hamas rocket and drone expert, which Hamas has blamed on the Mossad spy agency.

Asked to comment on the shooting, Liberman responded: “Malaysia — what is Malaysia?”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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