PM leading ‘multifaceted’ effort against Iranian presence in Syria – minister

Reversing the entrenchment of Tehran-backed forces along northern border will take ‘a few years,’ says Yuval Steinitz, but Israel is determined

Tamar Pileggi is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset on May 29, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) speaks with Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset on May 29, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Monday said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is leading a “multifaceted” effort to combat Iran’s increasing military presence in Syria.

“The Middle East is raging around us, and what concerns us the most are Iranian efforts to establish military bases in Syria,” Steinitz told Army Radio after being asked about reports that the high-level security cabinet has been holding a series of “extremely significant” meetings on the threats from the northern border.

“The prime minister is leading a multifaceted campaign to stop this entrenchment,” Steinitz said, declining to comment specifically on the content of the meetings.

In a separate interview Monday morning, Steinitz noted that while “it’s no secret” that Israel is concerned by Iranian military presence in Syria, he said Netanyahu’s government is “carrying out diplomatic, intelligence and security operations” to prevent the war-torn country from “becoming an Iranian military base.”

“It’s a process that will take a few years, but we are determined to prevent it,” he told the Ynet news site.

On Sunday, Channel 10 reported on the cabinet meetings, but said the IDF military censor had blocked the majority of its report from publication.

A tour guided by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah terror group shows one of the group’s fighters standing next to an artillery gun in a mountainous area around the Syrian town of Flita near the border with Lebanon, August 2, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA)

The report said the meetings were convened to discuss the activities of the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group in Syria and Lebanon, the regime’s renewed control of most of the country and the future of a post-war Syria.

In a tweet, diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid said that although he was unable to give more details of the meetings, he referred to remarks made by Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in October.

“Syria and Lebanon have become one military entity. Israel must prepare for a new challenge… on the northern front,” Liberman said at that time. “Any developments will be due to Hezbollah, Assad’s regime and all those collaborating with Assad’s regime, along with the Lebanese army. Unfortunately, this is the reality,” Ravid quoted the minister as saying.

Channel 10 also reported that Netanyahu has recently held phone conversations with many world leaders to warn them of the volatile situation created by Iran setting up army bases in these two countries through Hezbollah and other Shiite militias.

An Israeli flag flutters above the wreckage of a tank on a hill in the Golan Heights overlooking the border with Syria on October 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

In late December, Assad’s troops, accompanied by Iranian-backed fighters, re-captured the Syrian Golan from rebels, allowing President Bashar Assad to reassert control over a small portion of the area adjacent to the Israeli border. Though much of the area along the border, around the city of Quneitra, remains under rebel control.

Other Israeli officials have publicly warned against the accumulation of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces at its border.

Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said the most serious threat to Israel was posed by the Hezbollah terrorist group in Lebanon, followed by other jihadist groups supported by Tehran positioned on the Syrian border.

Describing Iran as a “multidimensional threat,” the army chief said the most worrying aspect is the Islamic Republic’s desire to obtain nuclear capabilities, followed by its efforts to achieve hegemony in the region.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on January 2, 2018. (Adi Cohen Zedek)

He noted the nearly $1.5 billion that the country invests in its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and — increasingly — Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to Eisenkot, each year Iran sends between $700 million and $1 billion to Hezbollah each year, $100 million each to Shiite militias in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, rebels in Yemen and to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorist groups.

The army chief did not provide the source for these figures.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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