'Everyone needs to understand that we have red lines'

Minister warns Israel could kill Assad if he lets Iran attack from Syria

Amid efforts by Tehran to strike Israel, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz says that would be the ‘end’ for Syrian president, but clarifies that this is only his ‘personal view’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 16, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz attend the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on August 16, 2015. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

An Israeli minister on Monday threatened that the Jewish state could kill Syrian President Bashar Assad if his regime doesn’t prevent Iranian forces from launching attacks against Israel from his territory.

The warning came amid reports that Tehran is planning a revenge missile strike against Israel.

Officials in the Islamic Republic have vowed to respond to several alleged Israeli attacks in Syria that targeted Iranian facilities and killed at least seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. Israeli defense officials warned on Sunday that Iran was planning to retaliate by having its proxies fire missiles at military targets in northern Israel in the near future.

“If Assad continues to let the Iranians operate from Syrian soil, he should know that he signed his own death warrant and that it will be his end. We will topple his regime,” Yuval Steinitz, the minister of national infrastructure, energy and water resources, told the Ynet website.

“Assad cannot sit calmly in his palace and rehabilitate his regime while letting Syria be turned into a base for attacks against the State of Israel. It’s very simple,” said Steinitz who is a member of Israel’s security cabinet.

Steinitz later released a statement clarifying that he was only “expressing his personal view.”

Tehran vowed revenge after the T-4 army base in Syria was struck in an air raid on April 9, killing at least seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The strike was widely attributed to Israel, though Jerusalem refused to comment on it. T-4 was the base from which Israel said Iran launched an attack drone into Israel in February. Late last month, a second strike, allegedly conducted by Israel, against an Iranian-controlled base in northern Syria was said to have killed more than two dozen Iranian soldiers.

On Sunday, all of Israel’s nightly news broadcasts reported that the Israeli military and intelligence services had identified preliminary efforts by Iran in Syria to carry out its reprisal, using its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Hezbollah terrorist group and local Shiite militias to launch a barrage of precision-guided missiles, likely at Israeli military targets in the north.

Syrian President Bashar Assad addresses the newly-elected parliament in Damascus, Syria, on June 7, 2016. (SANA, the Syrian official news agency, via AP)

No special instructions were given to residents of northern Israel. Indeed, the heads of local councils in the north have reportedly been told to tell citizens not to take any specific precautions and to go about their daily lives as usual.

Asked whether it was wise to make threats to assassinate the Syrian president ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting this week with Russian President Vladimir Putin, a staunch backer of Assad, Steinitz said it was “excellent” that Netanyahu was going and “very important” to have dialogue with Putin.

“Everyone needs to understand that we have red lines,” added Steinitz, a lawmaker from Netanyahu’s Likud party. “If anybody is interested in preserving Assad’s survival, they should tell him to prevent missile and drone attacks on Israel.”

Seeking Russian pressure on Iran, Netanyahu is set to present the information on Tehran’s preparations to strike Israel to Putin during their meeting Wednesday in Moscow, Hebrew-language reports said Sunday.

“Assad can let the Iranians bring in missiles, air defense systems and drones to Syria, or he can prevent that,” Steinitz asserted. “If he enables it he should know there is a price.”

He added that Israel wasn’t interested in a war with Tehran or any other country or group.

“But we can’t let it turn Syria into a Revolutionary Guard military base,” Steinitz said. “What happened in Lebanon is bad enough with Hezbollah. If we don’t stop Iran’s entrenchment in Syria, we will get something much bigger than Hezbollah.”

On Sunday, Netanyahu said that while Israel is not interested in a military escalation with Iran, if there has to be a fight, he would prefer it be now, rather than later.

A satellite image showing the results of an alleged Israeli airstrike on a reported Iranian base outside the northern Syrian city of Hama the day before, on April 30, 2018. (ImageSat International ISI)

“We are determined to block the Iranian entrenchment, even at the cost of confrontation,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “We don’t want an escalation, but we are prepared for every scenario. We don’t want confrontation, but if there needs to be one, it is better now than later.”

The prime minister also suggested Iran could directly launch a strike on Israeli territory.

“In recent months, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards transferred to Syria advanced weaponry in order to attack us both on the battlefield and the home front, including weaponized UAVs, ground-to-ground missiles and Iranian anti-aircraft batteries that would threaten air force jets,” he said.

Sunday night’s warning about Iran’s plans to attack, as disseminated on the TV news broadcasts, appeared to constitute an attempt by Israel to show the Iranians that it was aware of their plans and was prepared to respond if they went through with the reprisal.

Last month, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Israel was prepared to strike the Iranian homeland. “If they attack Tel Aviv, we will strike Tehran,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says proves Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

Further stoking tensions, this week US President Donald Trump is expected to determine the fate of the Iran nuclear accord, which he has repeatedly threatened to leave. On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that if America abandoned the Iran deal, it could lead to war.

Iran has access to a variety of surface-to-surface missiles, from short-range Fajr-5 rockets to medium-range Fateh 110 missiles, which have a range of approximately 300 kilometers (190 miles), to long-range Shehab ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets over 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away.

To counter those threats, Israel has a multi-tiered missile defense system consisting of the Iron Dome for short-range rockets and mortar shells, the David’s Sling for medium-range missiles, and the Arrow for long-range ballistic missiles.

Israel sees Iran, which has vowed to destroy the Jewish state, as its main enemy in the region. Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that Israel will not allow Iran to entrench itself in Syria, marking it as a “red line” that it will fight militarily if necessary.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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