As we’ve long pointed out, anytime that Israel carries out acts of aggression against Syria, it can just blame Iran or Hezbollah and escape international criticism or condemnation. International media and Western governments have already demonstrated a penchant for towing the Israeli line whenever Iran can be conceivably blamed as a culprit – evidence or no evidence – this as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it official Israeli policy to oppose Iranian presence in Syria.
But on Tuesday Israel’s own Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman flatly contradicted the prime minister’s jingoistic alarmism by saying that there are no Iranian military forces in Syria, but instead merely stuck to acknowledging “experts and advisers”. In comments to Israel’s Ynet news, Lieberman admitted, “We must preserve our security interests. It is true that there are a number of Iranian experts and advisers, but there is no Iranian military force on Syrian land.”
The comments came on the same day that the IDF Spokesperson made provocative and controversial statements, announcing that in the next Israel-Hezbollah War, “Nasrallah is a target” for assassination and that Israel is currently conducting psychological and media warfare against Hezbollah.
But Defense Minister Lieberman’s statement flies in the face of claims made by Netanyahu in his speech before the UN General Assembly this year when he said, “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.”
According to a BBC report dubiously sourced to “a Western intelligence source” from earlier this month, Syria stands accused of hosting a sizable Iranian military base south of Damascus, a story which Israel utilized to ratchet up rhetoric in preparing its case before the international community for further attacks on supposed Iranian targets inside Syria. Israel has long justified its attacks inside Syria by claiming to be acting against Hezbollah and Iranian targets.
But Lieberman’s surprising comments represent a significant potential backing away from what appeared to be Israel’s long running official stance on the issue. According to Tel Aviv based Haaretz newspaper, Lieberman responded as follows when presented with the contradiction:
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.”
“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.”
It could be that this new emphasis on acknowledging Iranian “proxies” while stopping short of claiming direct Iranian military presence – a clear lessening of Israel’s intensifying rhetoric of late – is connected to a potential Syria-Israeli back channel deal to demilitarize the Golan region. We reported yesterday that unconfirmed Israeli sources are claiming that Putin is personally mediating demands issued between Assad and Netanyahu after both leaders traveled to meet with Putin within the past months.
The Jerusalem Post published a story early this week based on a well placed Israeli source privy to diplomatic maneuvering between Moscow, Tel Aviv, and Damascus. The report said, “the source, who remains unnamed, said that during Syrian President Bashar Assad’s surprise visit to Russia last week, Assad gave Russian Premier Vladimir Putin a message for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: Damascus will agree to a demilitarized zone of up to 40 kilometers from the border in the Golan Heights as part of a comprehensive agreement between the two countries, but only if Israel does not work to remove Assad’s regime from power.”
Meanwhile, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have increasingly gone public with their covert relationship based on intelligence sharing against what both sides perceive to be a strong and expansionist Iran.
Earlier this month Israel Defense Force (IDF) chief-of-staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eizenkot gave an unprecedented interview to a prominent Saudi newspaper in which he said that, “Israel is ready to share intelligence with Riyadh on their shared arch-foe Iran.” Eizenkot explained further, according to Tel Aviv based i24NEWS, that “Israel and Riyadh – which he noted have never fought one another – are in complete agreement about Iran’s intentions to dominate the Middle East.”
And like Israel, Saudi Arabia has long scapegoated Iran and the region’s Shia for all of it’s problems, especially as it wages its brutal war on Yemen.
But on Tuesday Iranian President Hassan Rouhani hit back. In comments picked up by Reuters, he said that Saudi Arabia presents Iran as an enemy because it wants to cover up its defeats in the region. Rouhani said in the midst of a live interview on state television, “Saudi Arabia was unsuccessful in Qatar, was unsuccessful in Iraq, in Syria and recently in Lebanon. In all of these areas, they were unsuccessful,” and added further, “So they want to cover up their defeats.”
These words of course could just as well be aimed at Israel too. And with today’s surprise admission by Israel’s defense minister – that there is “no Iranian military force on Syrian land” – it could be that Israel’s bluff has finally been called.