Minister: Iran-allied Russia is ‘not against us, which is amazing’

Minister: Iran-allied Russia is ‘not against us, which is amazing’

Yoav Galant, a member of the security cabinet, says Moscow won’t abide an Iranian presence in Syria for long

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

Housing Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Housing Minister Yoav Gallant speaks at the 15th annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on February 12, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Housing Minister Yoav Galant, a member of the high-level security cabinet, on Monday cautiously predicted Moscow will ultimately seek to uproot the growing Iranian military presence in Syria.

The former IDF general also claimed that Russia, which is allied with Hezbollah and Iran in the Syrian civil war, is not “against us, which is amazing.”

Meanwhile, from the opposition, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid urged Israel to lobby the United States to take on a more active role in Syria, while calling the Russian military relationship with Iran-backed forces in the country “very worrying and dangerous.”

The Israeli politicians were addressing recent tensions on the northern border after Israel shot down an Iranian drone over its territory on Saturday. The Israel Air Force also bombarded Syrian and Iranian targets in a series of reprisal strikes over the weekend, and an Israeli F-16 crashed during the exchange, apparently as a result of Syrian anti-aircraft fire, in a major escalation of hostilities.

Israel has firmly said it will combat efforts by Iran to “entrench” itself militarily on Syrian soil, and has been in talks with both Washington and Russia, which has a military presence in the neighboring war-wracked country.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an event marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, January 29, 2018. (Vasily MAXIMOV/AFP)

“Overall, I can say the following: No one wants the Iranians in this place: Not the moderate Sunni countries: Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. Not the Europeans, who are worried about millions of Syrians who have left Syria and are on their way to Europe as a result of Alawite control. And certainly not us or the Americans,” Galant told a conference in Jerusalem.

“As for the Russians, they served for a certain time as ‘boots on the ground,’ a player in the field who is doing the dirty work. At a later stage, we will reach a situation in which they will be competing over the same resources and the Russians, too, won’t want the Iranians in the area,” the former IDF major general said.

Following the Israeli strikes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow, in a statement, called for “restraint” of all parties in Syria and said it considered risking the lives of Russian soldiers “absolutely unacceptable” following large-scale Israeli airstrikes inside Syria.

The Kulanu minister, however, asserted that Iran-allied Russia was not pitted against Israel.

“They aren’t against us, which is amazing,” Galant said of Moscow, attributing the Russian position to ties between Netanyahu and Putin and the coordination relationship between the two militaries.

“Culturally, they are a lot closer to us than to the Iranians and the Muslims,” added the minister.

Netanyahu has held a series of meetings in recent months with Putin on Iran’s influence in Syria and Lebanon. The prime minister has been seeking to persuade Russia to limit Iran’s presence near Israeli territory and to stop it from entrenching itself militarily in Syria.

“Iran is trying to take control of the Middle East, plain and simple,” said Galant on Monday, arguing Tehran had long ago identified the potential of establishing a land corridor through Iraq and Lebanon.

“As a result, there is heavy Iranian pressure to control Syria under Russian patronage. The Iranians are building an army in Syria; they are interested in building a front, Hezbollah 2.0, on the Golan Heights, and to use Syrian territory” to transfer weaponry to Lebanon, said Galant.

“We will not allow it. At the same time, we must remember that.. there is more than one player here,” added Galant, noting the Russians, “who are coming with their own interest, but are very influential and very important in the region.”

According to Galant, Russia is primarily concerned with protecting naval bases Tartus and Latakia and avoiding Turkish oversight of their activities.

Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — which is backed by Tehran and sworn to Israel’s destruction — all support Syrian President Bashar Assad in the civil war.

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset, January 29, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Speaking at a weekly Yesh Atid faction meeting on Monday, Lapid expressed hope Washington would deepen its involvement in removing Iran-backed forces from Syria.

“Israel must make this its top priority: To make the Americans partners in the effort to remove the Iranians from Syria,” said Lapid. “We must do a good job in explaining to our great friend that what they don’t deal with now, will come back later in a worse form.”

“The fact that the Russians are supporting Iranian efforts is very worrying and dangerous,” said Lapid. “The friendship with Russia is important, but friendship can’t end with press conferences and festive photos. It must be a partnership in which we recognize their interests in the region, but they must also recognize and take into account our interests.”

“Russia must know that as long as the Iranians are here, there will be no stability in Syria and Assad’s regime will be in danger,” he added.

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