Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime is not Israel’s concern, but it will not tolerate the presence of Iranian forces, backed by Assad, to operate in Syria.
“We had no problem with the Assad regime,” Netanyahu told reporters at a briefing before returning to Israel from Russia. “For 40 years, not a single bullet was fired in the Golan Heights.”
The prime minister’s statement came hours after Israel carried out airstrikes in southern Syria, targeting three regime positions in the Quneitra region near the border after a Syrian drone was shot down by the military after it entered Israeli airspace.
Syria disintegrated into a brutal civil war in 2011 that has left hundreds of thousands dead and millions displaced. The UN has accused Assad’s regime and the rebels of committing war crimes during the conflict.
Netanyahu also insisted that Iranian forces will not be tolerated, “not near our border — and nowhere in Syria,” the prime minister said.
“I have set a clear policy that we do not interfere and have not interfered. This does not change. What concerns us is Islamic State and Hezbollah, and this remains the same. The heart of the matter is preserving our freedom to act against those who act against us. The second thing is to expel the Iranians from Syrian territory,” insisted Netanyahu.
While Russia does not seem to have accepted Israel’s demand for Iran to be completely removed from Syria, it has agreed to force the Islamic Republic’s forces and proxies to leave the areas closest to the border with Israel.
According to the Kan network, Netanyahu said that Russia has moved the pro-Iranian forces tens of kilometers away from the Syrian border with Israel.
Israel has for years warned of Iran’s ongoing attempts to entrench itself in Syria, and has been waging a quiet campaign to prevent Tehran from establishing a new front on its border.
Netanyahu made the comments the day after he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the situation in Syria. He also addressed claims that he was in Moscow for a private visit for the World Cup semifinal rather than on official business as he originally claimed, saying: “Putin invited me to the games and we also arranged to meet.”
The Israeli leader also responded to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s warning to Israel against making a deal with Russia on Syria.
“I agree with his statement that we must ensure that Islamic State does not return, but the greatest threat is not Islamic State, the greater threat is that Iran remains and is entrenched,” the prime minister said.
Graham tweeted Thursday that he was concerned about any possible deal struck between Israel and Russia.
“To our friends in Israel — be very careful making agreements with Russia re Syria that affect US interests,” said the former Republican presidential candidate.
“I don’t trust Russia to police Iran or anyone else in Syria. US must maintain presence in Syria to ensure ISIS doesn’t come back and to counter Russia/Iran influence,” he added.
Netanyahu also said that Israel wants to ensure that Syrian locals who received aid from Israel during the civil war will not be harmed once the region is back under the control of the Assad regime.
“We gave them humanitarian assistance, they are locals, and they should not be punished for being hungry,” he said.
Israel has been providing aid to southwestern Syria since 2013, including treating chronically ill children who have no access to hospitals, building clinics in Syria, and supplying hundreds of tons of food, medicine and clothing to war-ravaged villages across the border.