'There Is No Iranian Military Force in Syria,' Israeli Defense Minister Says

Lieberman says it's true that 'there are a few experts and advisers,' but that Iran's real policy is setting up proxies across the region

FILE PHOTO: Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman whispers into the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
FILE PHOTO: Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman whispers into the ear of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Tuesday that there are no Iranian military forces in Syria, in comments that seem to contradict claims made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"We must preserve our security interests," Lieberman told the local Ynet news website. "It is true that there are a number of Iranian experts and advisers, but there is no Iranian military force on Syrian land," he said.

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Netanyahu has said Iran is working to build military bases in Syria, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its leader there, Qassem Soleimani, have been photographed in the war-torn country neighboring Israel to the north.

When asked about this discrepancy, Lieberman said that "all the regional forces know we are the strongest power in the area. Israel is a regional power.

FILE PHOTO: Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri, left, looking at a map with senior officers from the Iranian military as they visit a front line in the northern province of Aleppo, Syria.
Uncredited/AP

"Iran has a strategy to creating proxies everywhere. Obviously, they are not physically in Lebanon, that's what's Hezbollah is for. In Yemen, they're not physically present, they created the Houthi rebels. They have the same plan in Syria: creating different kinds of militias."

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The comments seem to contradict the official line presented by Netanyahu, who even called the Iranians out on this issue in his speech to the UN this year, saying: "We will act to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria for its air, sea and ground forces. We will act to prevent Iran from producing deadly weapons in Syria... And we will act to prevent Iran from opening new terror fronts against Israel along our northern border."

The issue of Iranian forces in Syria has topped Israeli concerns regarding its neighbor.

The BBC reported a few weeks ago that Iran is building a permanent military base in Syria, citing "a Western intelligence source."

In September, Israel asked Russia and the U.S. to prevent an Iranian presence, or that of any Shi’ite militia operating under Iranian influence, in southern Syria near the Israeli border in any cease-fire agreement. Israel presented its demand during the talks that preceded the cease-fire agreement in July – but the Russians refused.

Only last week, Russia said it did not promise to ensure a withdrawal of pro-Iranian forces from Syria. The presence of Iran in Syria is legitimate, RIA news agency quoted Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as saying on Tuesday. 

The comments prompted Lieberman to say, “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."