US envoy: Russia should maintain ‘permissive approach’ to Israeli raids in Syria

James Jeffrey says Israel has ‘existential interest’ in preventing Iranian military entrenchment, expresses concern over S-300 deployment

James Jeffrey speaks during a hearing on Iran before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at Capitol Hill in Washington on October 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
James Jeffrey speaks during a hearing on Iran before the House Foreign Affairs Committee at Capitol Hill in Washington on October 11, 2017. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The United States envoy for Syria said Wednesday that he hoped to see Syrian ally Russia maintain a “permissive approach” to Israeli airstrikes on Iranian assets in the war-torn country.

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in neighboring Syria against Iran-linked targets and accused Tehran — which like Moscow supports the Syrian regime in the seven-year civil conflict — of seeking to entrench itself militarily in the country.

“In the past Russia has been permissive in consultation with the Israelis about Israeli strikes against Iranian targets inside Syria,” US envoy James Jeffrey said.

“We certainly hope that that permissive approach will continue,” he told journalists in a conference call.

His comments came amid lingering tensions between Israel and Russia over the downing of a Russian military plane by Syrian air defenses during an Israeli strike on Iranian targets in Syria in September.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (second from L) meets with US envoy on Syria James Jeffrey in Jerusalem on November 5, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Russia blamed Israel for the downing of the plane — a charge rejected by Jerusalem — and sent advanced S-300 anti-aircraft systems to Syria in the wake of the incident, in which 15 Russian servicemen were killed. Israel has also rebuffed a Russian claim its jets hid behind the Russian reconnaissance aircraft.

But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month told Russia his country must continue to hit hostile targets in Syria to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence across the border.

“We understand the existential interest and we support Israel,” Jeffrey said.

While there has been a noticeable drop in reported Israeli raids following the September 17 incident, a senior Israeli official last month said the Jewish state has continued attacking targets in Syria.

Jeffrey also expressed concerns about Russia’s delivery last month to Syria of the sophisticated S-300 air defense systems .

“We are concerned very much about the S-300 system being deployed to Syria. The issue is at the detail level. Who will control it? what role will it play?” Jeffrey said.

Jeffrey said Israel has an “existential interest in blocking Iran from deploying long-range power projection systems such as surface-to-surface missiles” and drones aimed at and used against Israel.

Screen capture from video showing the delivery of Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. (YouTube)

Israel has repeatedly warned that it will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria and has repeatedly struck Iranian bases in airstrikes, seeking to prevent the transfer of advanced weapons to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Israel has also extensively lobbied Washington and Moscow, a key ally of Syria and Iran, to ensure Iranian forces and Iranian-backed militias are kept as far away from the Israeli border as possible.

The US envoy said Washington will also focus on pressuring Iran financially and contesting its activities in Syria, Iraq and Yemen where the Persian nation enjoys broad influence, adding that Tehran should eventually withdraw all Iran-commanded forces from Syria.

He said the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers that US President Donald Trump pulled America out of in May had a bad effect on Iran’s behavior that “accelerated its activities.”

Iran enjoys influence in several countries in the region where it backs well-armed militias and terror groups that are deployed in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. Speaking about Iran’s future in Syria, Jeffrey said: “Iranians are part of the problem not part of the solution.”

Jeffrey said the Trump administration is now focusing on putting financial pressure on Iran and “secondly contesting more actively Iran’s activities particularly in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.”

Washington this week imposed a new list of sanctions against Iran’s vital oil exports, banking and transport industries.

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