Israel Won’t Allow Iran to Establish Presence in Syria, Defense Minister Says

'We retain absolute freedom of action,' Avigdor Lieberman says at northern border one day after Russian defense minister called Iran's presence 'legitimate'

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu near the Israel-Syria border, July 2017.
Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry

At the conclusion of a visit to Israel’s northern border, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday, “We will not allow a Shi’ite and Iranian [presence] to be established in Syria and will not permit all of Syria to be turned into a front-line position against the State of Israel.

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“Anyone who doesn’t understand this will find it worth his while to understand,” the defense minister added. “We retain absolute freedom of action. The only considerations guiding us are considerations regarding the security of the State of Israel.”

Lieberman’s comments came a day after Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov called the Iranian presence in Syria “legitimate.” Russia had not committed itself to the withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces from Syria, the Russian foreign minister said. 

In response to Lavrov’s comments, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office issued a statement Tuesday saying that “Israel would continue to look after its security interests in any case and any situation.” The prime minister, his office added, had made this clear to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Netanyahu made similar comments in addressing the Knesset on Monday. In Israel there is concern about the Iranian presence in Syria. Disappointment has been expressed about a trilateral cease-fire agreement signed over the weekend by Russia, the United States and Jordan. The official text of the agreement states that all foreign forces in southern Syria, which include the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militias operating at the direction of Tehran, will be required to leave the country. The agreement does not include a timetable for compliance, however, and at this stage, secret understandings among the parties to the agreement only require that the Iranians and the militias stay a relatively short distance away from Israel’s Golan Heights border.

On Tuesday, it was reported that representatives of the U.S. National Security Council had arrived in Israel for talks with Israel’s National Security Council. Representatives of the other military branches are also to participate. They are to discuss Iran and the situation in southern Syria, among other topics. 

Over the weekend, the Israel Defense Forces downed a drone that was apparently Syrian and had infiltrated the demilitarized zone on the Golan border. In response, Lieberman said Israel would act to foil the steps that Iran, with the help of the Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, was taking  to establish a military presence in Syria.