Netanyahu praises West for Syria strike, urges similar policy against Iran

PM tells British counterpart that the same mindset regarding Assad’s chemical weapons should be applied to prevent ‘terrorist states’ from acquiring nuclear abilities

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 15, 2018. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 15, 2018. (AFP/Gali Tibbon)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday praised his counterparts in the United Kingdom and France for joining US President Donald Trump in airstrikes on Syrian military facilities said to be linked to the country’s chemical weapons program.

Netanyahu said he had spoken on the phone with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Saturday evening and called for a similar policy to be adopted against Iran’s nuclear program.

“I told her that the important international message of the attack is zero tolerance for the use of non-conventional weapons,” Netanyahu told ministers at the beginning of the weekly cabinet meeting. “I added that this policy needs to also be expressed in preventing terrorist states and groups from having nuclear abilities.”

“I reiterated that the main element that is subverting the Middle East more than any other is Iran, and that President Assad must understand that when he allows Iran and its proxies to establish a military presence in Syria, he is endangering both Syria and the stability of the entire region,” he added.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with British Prime Minister Theresa May in London on November 2, 2017. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Echoing a previous comment he made on Saturday, Netanyahu said that “Israel fully supports President Trump’s decision to act against the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Israel welcomes the participation of British Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron in this action.”

Trump announced the joint action against Assad’s regime from the White House late Friday. He said the strikes were a direct response to the April 7 attack on Douma, outside Damascus, that rescuers and monitors say killed more than 40 people.

“The evil and the despicable attack left mothers and fathers, infants and children thrashing in pain and gasping for air. These are not the actions of a man. They are crimes of a monster instead,” Trump said.

US Defense Secretary James Mattis called the strikes a “one-time shot” with no additional military action planned for now.

Israel was informed ahead of the strikes, sources said.

A satellite image shows three buildings in the Barzeh research facility near Damascus, Syria, allegedly used to develop chemical weapons, standing in 2013 (L) and destroyed after a strike by the US, Britain and France on April 14, 2018. (ImageSat International)

On Saturday, Netanyahu said Israel “fully supports” the pre-dawn airstrikes.

In a statement issued by the Prime Minister’s Office, he said, “A year ago, I made clear that Israel fully supports the decision by [US] President [Donald] Trump to stand against the use and spread of chemical weapons,” referring to American strikes against the Syrian regime in April 2017 after a sarin gas attack on a rebel-held town.

“Trump’s resolve and Israel’s support remain unchanged,” Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu said that it should be “clear to President Assad that “his reckless efforts to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction, his wanton disregard for international law and his provision of a forward base for Iran and its proxies endanger Syria.”

But Israeli security chiefs made clear on Saturday night that Israel fears the Trump Administration will now consider that its work in Syria is done, and leave Israel alone to face the dangers posed by Iran’s growing military presence in Syria.

Israel’s defense chiefs are also reportedly worried that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, seeing Syria under US-led attack, may provide Assad with more advanced air defense systems — which could reduce Israel’s air supremacy in the skies of Syria and Lebanon. A Russian general indicated such an arms supply was possible in comments on Saturday.

The Western strikes were the biggest foreign military action so far against Syria’s regime.

The targets included a scientific research facility near Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of the city of Homs, and a third location near Homs that contained both a command post and a chemical weapons equipment storage facility, the US military said.

The facilities hit had however reportedly been evacuated in recent days.

US President Donald Trump addresses the nation on the situation in Syria April 13, 2018 at the White House in Washington, DC. Trump said strikes on Syria were under way. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Syrian state media reported only three people injured, while Russia’s defense ministry said there were “no victims” among Syrian civilians and military personnel.

The strikes were targeted to inflict maximum damage on sites linked to chemical weapons development. A top Pentagon official, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, said the action would set back Syria’s chemical weapons program “for years.”

On Saturday, Trump hailed the US-led missile assault as perfectly executed.

“A perfectly executed strike last night. Thank you to France and the United Kingdom for their wisdom and the power of their fine Military,” Trump tweeted early Saturday.

“Could not have had a better result. Mission Accomplished!”

Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White later told reporters: “We successfully hit every target.”

Assad, who has denied ever using chemical weapons against his opponents, responded to the strikes with a defiant vow. “This aggression will only make Syria and its people more determined to keep fighting and crushing terrorism in every inch of the country,” he said.

Assad’s key ally Iran also slammed the attack, with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei describing Western leaders as “criminals.”

Iranian entrenchment

Though remarks by Israeli officials primarily praised the US-led strikes, they also expressed concern over Iran’s continued attempts to entrench itself in Syria and to develop nuclear weapons.

Israel revealed on Friday that an Iranian drone shot down in Israeli airspace in February was carrying explosives. The drone was launched from an airbase in Syria. That base was attacked last Monday, allegedly by Israel, in a strike that reportedly targeted Iran’s entire attack drone weapons system — prompting soaring tensions between Israel and Iran.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

The Iranian drone shot down in February was carrying enough explosives to cause damage, military sources said. Its precise intended target in Israel was not known, they said.

The February incident marked an unprecedented direct Iranian attack on Israel. Israel’s acknowledgment of the nature of the drone’s mission “brings the confrontation” between Israel and Iran “into the open” for the first time, Israel’s Channel 10 news noted Friday.

The alleged Israeli attack last week on the base from which the drone was dispatched is understood to have targeted Iran’s entire drone weapons system at the Syrian base, which was protected by surface-to-air missiles and other defenses, the TV report said. “This was a harsh blow” to the Iranians, it added. “It is clear they will react.”

Immediately after shooting down the Iranian drone on February 10, Israel carried out airstrikes against a number of Iranian targets in Syria, including on the T-4 base in central Syria where the Iranian operator of the drone was located.

During the aerial raids, an Israeli F-16 was downed by a Syrian anti-aircraft battery, crashing in northern Israel, prompting further retaliatory raids against Syria’s anti-aircraft systems. Both the Israeli pilots ejected from the aircraft before the collision.

Netanyahu used a speech on Holocaust Remembrance Day last week to warn Iran: “Don’t test the resolve of the State of Israel.”

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