Touring northern border, Liberman vows no Iran presence in Syria

Defense minister says he will not allow neighboring country to ‘become a forward operating base against the State of Israel’

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman looking through binoculars during a visit to the Israel's northern border, November 14, 2017. Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)
Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman looking through binoculars during a visit to the Israel's northern border, November 14, 2017. Ariel Hermoni/Ministry of Defense)

In remarks apparently addressed to Russia, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Wednesday said Israel will not tolerate Iran’s presence in Syria as part of a US-Russian ceasefire deal that will reportedly allow Iranian-linked militias to remain in the country.

“We simply will not allow Shiite and Iranian entrenchment in Syria. And we will not allow all of Syria to become a forward operating base against the State of Israel. Whoever doesn’t understand that — should understand that,” Liberman said.

The defense minister spoke during a visit to the northern border, a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters that the ceasefire terms did not include a Russian commitment to ensure Iran-linked militias would be pulled out of Syria.

Lavrov said Iran maintained a “legitimate” presence in Syria, according to the Interfax news agency.

It was not clear if Lavrov’s comments Tuesday related to media reports that the deal would place restrictions on how close to the Israeli-Syrian border Iran-backed groups would be allowed to remain.

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The Russian envoy’s remarks came as officials from the US National Security Council flew into Israel for talks with security heads, primarily over the US-Russia agreement regarding Syria and Iran’s growing threat to the region.

The US officials were likely to discuss Iran’s alleged construction of a military base less than 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Israel’s Golan border.

On Friday, the BBC, citing a Western security official, reported that Iran was setting up a permanent base on a site used by the Syrian army near el-Kiswah, 14 kilometers (8 miles) south of Damascus, and 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the Israeli border.

The ceasefire agreement, announced in a joint US-Russian statement Saturday, affirms a call for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from southern Syria.

According to reports, the deal applies to Iranian proxies fighting on behalf of Assad’s regime, which would be required to leave the border area and eventually Syria.

But according to an unnamed Israeli official, under the deal, militias associated with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as close as five to seven kilometers (3.1-4.3 miles) to the border in some areas, Reuters reported Monday.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel will not be bound by the deal.

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