Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday said he opposes the deal brokered by the United States and Russia that led to an open-ended ceasefire in southern Syria, saying it does not sufficiently address Iranian military ambitions in the area.
Placing himself at odds with US President Donald Trump on the issue, Netanyahu told journalists in Paris that the agreement perpetuates Iranian plans to set up a disruptive long-term presence on Israel’s northern border, something he has repeatedly vowed that the Jewish state won’t tolerate.
The ceasefire, announced after a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Hamburg earlier this month, was the first initiative by the Trump administration in collaboration with Russia to bring some stability to war-torn Syria.
“Israel is aware of Iran’s expansionist goals in Syria,” a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
Netanyahu said that he had brought up the issue with French President Emmanuel Macron during his meeting with the French leader earlier in the day.
The prime minister said that while the plan aims to keep Iran 20 kilometers (12 miles) away from the Israeli border, it did not address Iran’s plans to cement its presence in Syria, which, he said, included the establishment of a naval and air force bases.
The premier’s comments Sunday were his first remarks explicitly condemning the ceasefire, after having gingerly endorsed the deal as it came into effect earlier this month.
Also on Sunday, a senior Israeli official strongly condemned the deal, calling it “very bad” and saying it did not take into account Israeli security concerns, the Haaretz daily reported.
Apprehensions over Iranian designs in the region were stoked by recent movements of Shiite Muslim militias — loyal to Iran and fighting alongside Syrian government forces — toward Jordan’s border with Syria, and to another strategic area in the southeast, close to where the two countries meet Iraq.
The advances are part of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s push to regain territory from rebel groups, some backed by the West, in the southern Daraa province, and from Islamic State extremists in the southeast, near the triangle with Iraq.
But Syria’s neighbors suspect that Iran is pursuing a broader agenda, including carving out a land route through Syria that would create a territorial continuum from Iran and Iraq to Lebanon.
The ceasefire for southern Syria is meant to keep all forces pinned to their current positions, said Jordan’s government which participated in the talks.
This would prevent further advances by forces under Iran’s command, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia.
Ceasefires have repeatedly collapsed in Syria’s six-year-old civil war, and it’s not clear if this one will last. The southern Syria truce is separate from so far unsuccessful efforts by Russia, Turkey and Iran to set up “de-escalation zones” in Syria, including in the south.
Israel is expected to watch for truce violations.
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran to set up a permanent presence in Syria. Israel has carried out a number of airstrikes in Syria against suspected shipments of “game-changing” weapons bound for Hezbollah.
A Jordanian official said the international community, regional powers and Jordan would not tolerate the creation of a “land line all the way from Tehran to Beirut.”
Such a “Shiite crescent” would disrupt the regional balance and be considered a “super red line,” he said, referring to rival Sunni and Shiite Muslim political camps led by Saudi Arabia and Iran, respectively.
Conflicts between the camps have escalated in recent years, including in proxy wars in Syria and Yemen. Predominantly Sunni Jordan is a US ally and maintains discrete security ties with Israel.
Israel is also worried about the recent movements of Iranian-backed forces.
Israel controls the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau in southwestern Syria that it captured in the 1967 Six Day War. Israel has fought cross-border wars with Hezbollah from Lebanon.
The truce deal, the first such agreement between the Trump administration and Russia, could help the US retain more of a say over who fills the power vacuum left behind as Islamic State is routed from additional territory in Syria.
Washington has been resistant to letting Iranian forces and their proxies gain strength in Syria’s south. In recent weeks, US forces have shot down a Syrian aircraft that got too close to American forces as well as Iranian-made drones.