Lapid: No regional stability as long as Iranian forces in Syria

Speaking to Times of Israel Persian, opposition party leader largely backs government’s Iran policies, but claims he would be better at getting US on board with Israel’s goals

MK Yair Lapid leads a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset, January 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
MK Yair Lapid leads a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset, January 8, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

There will be no stability in Syria as long as Iran tries to entrench itself militarily in the war-torn country, according to MK Yair Lapid, the head of the Yesh Atid party.

In a recent interview with The Times of Israel Persian, the opposition lawmaker largely backed the government’s position on Iran, declaring that Israel will continue to act to prevent the Islamic Republic from establishing military installations in Syria and calling for changes to the Iran nuclear deal.

Lapid did, however, say that Jerusalem should more actively lobby the US administration to counter Iran’s growing influence in the region, arguing that he would do a better job at this than the current prime minister.

“Israel cannot tolerate military Iranian presence, only a few kilometers from our border. And of course we cannot tolerate the idea of an airbase or a naval base in Syria,” Lapid said.

If the Iranians have it their way, they would already have a pier at Tartus harbor, on the Mediterranean, he said. “And then what? You’d have Iranian submarines along with Israeli submarines, in the same water. It’s an explosive recipe for disaster.”

He added: “All the players involved must know that we feel free to do whatever is in our power to prevent permanent Iranian presence in Syria. And that is not a threat, it is a fact of life. So those of the players — mostly the Russians but also the Assad regime — who are interested in stability in Syria must know that as long as there are Iranian forces on the ground in Syria they will be no stability.”

This Oct. 20, 2017 file photo, by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, shows Iran’s Army Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, with binoculars, as he visits senior Iranian military officers, in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

There will be no “real opportunity for the rehabilitation of Syria” as long as Iranian military forces are in the country, Lapid said. “This is because the Iranians, through Hezbollah, have performed numerous acts of terror against Israel. It’s their obvious policy, and no one could expect us to sit aside when they’re trying to create new tools for expansion of their terror.”

Israel is said to have attacked weapons factories and arms convoys in Syria and Lebanon several times over the last few months. On Tuesday morning, the Syrian military said that Israel conducted a series of three airstrikes on a base in al-Qutayfah, northeast of Damascus. Syrian opposition media reported that the base was used to store weapons, specifically long-range missiles.

The Israeli military would not comment on the alleged strike.

“We have a longstanding policy to prevent the transfer of game-changing weapons to Hezbollah from Syrian territory,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said later on Tuesday, responding to a reporter’s question about the alleged strike. “This policy has not changed. We back it up as necessary with action.”

A satellite image showing the results of an alleged Israeli airstrike on a reported Iranian base being set up outside Damascus, from December 4, 2017. (ImageSat International ISI)

Earlier this week, it was reported that the high-level security cabinet has been holding a series of “extremely significant” meetings on the threats from the northern border.

“The Middle East is raging around us, and what concerns us the most are Iranian efforts to establish military bases in Syria,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said. “The prime minister is leading a multifaceted campaign to stop this entrenchment,” Steinitz said, declining to comment specifically on the content of the meetings.

Netanyahu’s government is “carrying out diplomatic, intelligence and security operations” to prevent Syria from “becoming an Iranian military base,” Steinitz said. “It’s a process that will take a few years, but we are determined to prevent it.”

Lapid, speaking to The Times of Israel Persian in his Knesset office, said Israel should consider Tehran responsible for the actions of Hezbollah, a Lebanese militia financed by and subservient to the Islamic Republic.

“Not only should Iran be held accountable for what Hezbollah is doing, but if Iran is in the neighborhood they should know that this accountability might be immediate,” he said.

A Hezbollah armored vehicle sits at the site where clashes erupted between Hezbollah and al-Qaeda-linked fighters in Wadi al-Kheil or al-Kheil Valley in the Lebanon-Syria border, July 29, 2017. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Israel needs to improve its efforts to recruit Washington for its struggle against Iran’s bid for regional hegemony, he insisted.

“The fact that [US Secretary of Defense James] Mattis said the US has no anti-Iranian policy in Syria is something we have to discuss with the administration,” said Lapid, a self-declared prime ministerial candidate.

“The friendship we have with this administration is a precious asset. But assets are not there for the sake of being assets, it’s something that you need to use if necessary. I think there could be a better use for this asset in terms of discussing what is going in Syria.”

If he were prime minister, Lapid would embark on a “very deep dialogue” with the White House, the State Department and the Department of Defense to make sure Washington and Jerusalem are on the same page vis-a-vis Iran’s presence in Syria.

“Right now, due to various reasons, the Israeli government is so careful not to go into any sort of misunderstanding with the current administration, [therefore] the dialogue obviously has insufficient results. This needs to be changed. And I believe that, if God and the Israeli voter will let me, I will be able to do a better job in this.”

From left, Head of Mission of the People’s Republic of China to the European Union Hailong Wu, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, German Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, Russian Deputy Political Director Alexey Karpov, British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond and US Secretary of State John Kerry arrive in Lausanne, Switzerland, Thursday, April 2, 2015, after the United States, Iran and five other world powers announced an understanding outlining limits on Iran’s nuclear program. (AP Photo/Brendan Smialowski, Pool)

Lapid said that it was impossible at this point to cancel the landmark 2015 nuclear deal six world powers struck with Iran, but called for it to be improved.

“Nobody is talking about nixing the nuclear deal anymore, not even Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is the biggest advocate, maybe with the exclusion of me, of canceling the deal,” Lapid said. “I think everybody understands right now it’s beyond the point of no return.”

Russia, China and the European signatories will never agree to cancel the deal, he postulated.

“Therefore the fixing part should be emphasized,” he said, adding that Israel and the US should attempt to “include in the deal” Iran’s ballistic missile programs and its sponsorship of terrorism. Even though Tehran says it will agree to no changes, Lapid insisted it was possible to renegotiate the terms of the agreement.

“The Iranians are holding up to the deal, basically, but there have been quite a few mishaps,” he said. “And you can use this to say, ‘If you cannot fulfill the deal as it is, then we have a few new demands. It’s a very Middle Eastern way of dealing with things.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

The Times of Israel Persian
 is currently the only Israel-based professional non-governmental and independent news outlet publishing, in Persian, daily news, analyses, and blogs on Israel, Israel-Iran related news and the Middle East.

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