Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu set out for President Vladimir Putin Israel’s red lines against Iran establishing a permanent, expanded military presence in Syria. This theme dominated their three-hour conversation in Sochi on Wednesday, Aug. 23. Netanyahu stiffened his warning with a veiled threat that should Iran or Hizballah cross those lines, there would be a regional war.
It was the first time that the prime minister had publicly threatened to go to war against Iran and Hizballah. After talking to Putin, he said to reporters that what is new today is Iran’s attempt to “Lebanonize Syria.” in the same way as it seized control of Lebanon through its surrogate, Hizballah. “We are looking at Tehran’s future takeover of Syria through its Shiite militias.
if that happens, “we will not remain passive,” he said – nor if Syria becomes a link in Iran’s overland corridor via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. And we certainly can’t accept Iranians and Hizballah close to the Golan.
“We told President Putin plainly that we won’t put up with Iran using Syria as a military base for attacking Israel.
Putin, in the part of the meeting to which reporters had access, did not address Netanyahu’s remarks about Iran’s role in Syria, nor his warning of unilateral military action. The Russian president just repeated the standard Moscow line that foreign forces would not stay in Syria at the end of the war, but offered no timetable or guarantees.
The Russian leader would clearly prefer not to see an Israel war against Iran and Hizballah breaking out in Syria, DEBKAfile’s sources say, especially since Russian special forces, naval and air force contingents are deployed there – albeit not in large numbers.
At the same time, he may well find Netanyahu’s strong words useful for boosting Russia’s clout in Syria. If Tehran believes an Israeli war against its forces and Hizballah is potential, it will be in Iran’s interest to strengthen its military ties with Russia so as to gain its military and political backing.
For Putin, this would be a welcome change from the atmosphere of acrimony prevailing for some weeks between Iranian and Russian officers in Syria. Russian colonels have been posted at the most sensitive sectors in Syria, such as Aleppo, Hama, Homs and eastern Damascus. They are taking over both the military and civilian administration there and, in effect, shouldering the Iranian officers aside.
In Iraq, the Iranians seized control of the country from within, by setting up armed militias and getting them integrated in the national army, as Trojan horses. Tehran knows how to manage this ruse on the quiet, without drawing unwanted attention from the powers on the spot.
In Syria, the problem Israel facing is quite different. If Netanyahu shared sensitive intelligence wit Putin that he had not known before, he can’t help noticing that Israel’s red lines for Iran’s expansion were crossed months ago, some of them with Russian assistance.
Four instances stand out:
1. Iran and Hizballah have already set up a chain of military bases in Syria – notably in the Qalamoun Mountains on the Syrian-Lebanese border, from which missiles can be launched against Israel.
2. Iran has already won its coveted land bridge through Iraq to Syria. Bashar Assad’s army has taken over whole sections of the Syrian-Iraqi border, and opened the door for pro-Iranian Shiite militias, Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite groups to move into strategic positions on both sides of the border.
3. Netanyahu warned of the danger of planting an extremist Shiite entity in the heart of the Sunni Muslim region. But this is already underway. On orders from Moscow, the Syrian army’s 5th Corps is in the process of absorbing the pro-Iranian Shiite militias which fought for Assad.
The prime minister did not inform Putin of any timetable for Israeli action. But the Russian leader will take it for granted that the Israeli army will not move into Syria without a nod from the Trump administration in Washington.
For now, Putin and Trump are synchronizing their operations is Syria with better results than Netanyahu’s understanding with the US administration.