Liberman: Agreements on ending Syrian civil war don’t apply to Israel

Defense minister visits northern border to see reinforcement work, refuses to comment on who will be next head of IDF

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, tours the border with Lebanon on August 31, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, tours the border with Lebanon on August 31, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Israel will continue to act in Syria as it deems necessary for its national defense, without consideration for the international agreements now being discussed that would formally end the brutal eight-year civil war in the country, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Thursday.

“From the viewpoint of Israel — with all due respect and appreciation for the agreements and the understandings — they do not apply to us,” he said during a tour of the northern border.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, who is backed by Iran and Russia, has largely taken back control over territories once held by opposition forces and the Islamic State terrorist organization, and is expected to soon launch a renewed offensive against the remaining rebel groups that are holed up in the area of Idlib in the country’s northwest.

Once Assad conquers that territory, the war, which began in 2011, will effectively come to an end. In preparation for this, a number of countries have begun negotiations for an agreement that would formally end the conflict, which is estimated to have killed approximately half a million people and displaced millions more.

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows Syrian president Bashar Assad, right, meeting with Iran’s Defense minister Amir Hatami, in Damascus, Syria, on August 26, 2018. (SANA via AP)

“We see different gatherings in a variety of places — in Ankara, in Tehran, in Geneva, in other places — talking about redesigning Syria after the battle in Idlib,” Liberman said.

“The only thing that concerns us is the security interests of the State of Israel. Any other understandings or agreements that are reached in different places are irrelevant to us, and we will strictly enforce all previous agreements and Israel’s security interests,” he said, referring to the 1974 ceasefire accord between Israel and Syria, which places severe restrictions on the two countries’ military activities along the border.

Liberman also commented on reports that he had made his decision as to which general would next command the Israel Defense Forces, saying that everyone would find out when a formal announcement was made “and not one second sooner.”

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkott speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on January 2, 2018. (FLASH90)

Current IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot is due to end his four-year tenure at the end of December. Liberman will choose his replacement from a pool of four candidates: IDF Deputy Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, former IDF deputy chief of staff Maj. Gen. Yair Golan, former Southern Command head Maj. Gen. Eyal Zamir and former IDF Operations chief Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon.

The defense minister made his remarks during a visit to Israeli communities along the border with Lebanon, whose defenses are currently being bulked up.

Israel is both reinforcing its border barrier with Lebanon, setting up a large concrete wall in some places, and improving the defensive capabilities for border-adjacent communities.

“We’re looking to work on every aspect: evacuation routes, early-warning systems and, of course, bomb shelters,” Liberman said.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, center, tours the border with Lebanon on August 31, 2018. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The defense minister added that once the initial improvements were made, he hoped to work to establish bomb shelters and protected areas next to every home and not suffice with public ones.

Liberman’s announcement was warmly received by representatives of local governments who attended the press conference.

“I am happy to tell all residents of the border zone and especially those along the residents of the fence area, that — according to what the minister said clearly and explicitly — for every house in (the town of) Shlomi and in every other place there will be a bomb shelter,” said Gavriel Na’aman, the mayor of Shlomi.

In January, Col. Golan Wach of the IDF Home Front Command told a Knesset committee that in the areas closest to the northern borders from Lebanon and Syria — between zero and 9 kilometers (5.59 miles) away — approximately 24 percent of Jewish and over 40% of Arab residents lack adequate bomb shelters.

Throughout the country, approximately 27% of citizens do not have access to proper protective facilities, either private or public, Wach said.

In general, the situation is worse in Arab cities and towns than in Jewish ones. Following a number of lawsuits, the IDF has started working to improve these conditions in Arab communities.

Northern Israel would likely be hardest hit if war were to break out with the Lebanon-based, Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group, which is believed to maintain an arsenal of 100,000-150,000 missiles, rockets and mortar shells.

According to Israeli estimates, more than 1,000 of those projectiles could be fired at Israel every day in a future conflict with Hezbollah.

The responsibility of ensuring that Israeli citizens have access to suitable bomb shelters falls on a number of government bodies, chief among them the Defense Ministry.

Earlier this year, Liberman reached an agreement with Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon for a budget increase of NIS 150 million ($43 million) for installing and upgrading bomb shelters in northern Israel.

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