In Is­rael, calls for more force in Syria

The Washington Post - - THE WORLD - BY RUTH EGLASH ruth.eglash@wash­

JERUSALEM — Is­rael re­ceived stiff warn­ings Tues­day from Rus­sia and Iran af­ter al­legedly car­ry­ing out an airstrike a day ear­lier on a mil­i­tary base in Syria, killing Ira­nian per­son­nel sta­tioned there.

But even as Is­rael was be­ing crit­i­cized for the raid, some se­cu­rity of­fi­cials have been call­ing for a more ag­gres­sive ap­proach in Syria aimed at pre­vent­ing Iran and its proxy mili­tia Hezbol­lah from ex­pand­ing their in­flu­ence there and their abil­ity to men­ace Is­rael.

In Mos­cow, Is­rael’s am­bas­sador, Gary Koren, was sum­moned to a meet­ing to dis­cuss the episode with Rus­sian Deputy For­eign Min­is­ter Mikhail Bog­danov, the state In­ter­fax news agency said. Alexan­der Sherin, chair­man of the State Duma De­fense Com­mit­tee, called Is­rael’s ac­tion “evil and un­friendly.”

Rus­sia’s De­fense Min­istry ear­lier ac­cused Is­rael of the at­tack and de­tailed how the oper­a­tion was car­ried out, and Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, said Rus­sian mil­i­tary ad­vis­ers could have been present at the base, Reuters re­ported.

Is­raeli an­a­lysts and com­men­ta­tors said the harsh tone of the Rus­sian re­sponse ap­peared to be de­signed to sig­nal to Is­rael that its pre­vi­ous free­dom in car­ry­ing out mil­i­tary ac­tion in Syria might no longer be ac­cept­able. Rus­sia has been play­ing a de­ci­sive role in Syria’s war, lend­ing cru­cial sup­port to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad.

Is­rael has nei­ther con­firmed nor de­nied it was be­hind the predawn raid Mon­day, widely at­trib­uted to Is­raeli F-15 fighter jets, on the T-4 air base, out­side of Palmyra.

Iran’s Tas­nim News Agency re­ported Tues­day that seven Ira­ni­ans were killed in the strike. Their bod­ies were brought to Tehran for burial, it said.

Ali Ak­bar Ve­lay­ati, a top ad­viser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ay­a­tol­lah Ali Khamenei, called Is­rael’s ac­tions a “crime” and said it “will not re­main with­out a re­sponse,” Le­banese news chan­nel Al Mayadeen re­ported.

Over re­cent years, Is­rael has car­ried out scores of airstrikes against Hezbol­lah weapons con­voys and the group’s in­fra­struc­ture in Syria and Le­banon, ac­cord­ing to re­gional me­dia re­ports and lo­cal an­a­lysts.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials have taken of­fi­cial re­spon­si­bil­ity for very few of those strikes. But Is­rael has made clear that it will take ac­tion to pre­vent Hezbol­lah, a Le­banese Shi­ite mili­tia backed by Iran, from us­ing Syria as a spring­board for at­tacks against Is­rael and to block Iran from trans­fer­ring weapons to Hezbol­lah in Le­banon.

More re­cently, Is­rael’s lead­ers, in­clud­ing Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu, have also spo­ken about pre­vent­ing their enemy Iran from es­tab­lish­ing a per­ma­nent pres­ence in Syria and from cre­at­ing a cor­ri­dor of Ira­nian in­flu­ence span­ning from Tehran to the Mediter­ranean Sea.

Un­til now, how­ever, Is­rael has largely avoided be­ing drawn into the seven-year-long Syr­ian civil war on its north­east­ern bor­der.

The Is­raeli news­pa­per Haaretz re­ported Tues­day that se­cu­rity of­fi­cials are in­creas­ingly push­ing for a more de­ter­mined ef­fort to stop Iran from ex­pand­ing in Syria. Mil­i­tary chief Gadi Eisenkot told re­porters re­cently that “the fi­nal and de­sired sit­u­a­tion is the re­moval of all Ira­nian-Shi­ite forces from Syria,” the pa­per re­ported. “We won’t let them get near the bor­ders.”

Yaakov Amidror, a re­tired ma­jor gen­eral and a for­mer na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser to Ne­tanyahu, said that if Iran con­tin­ued to ex­tend its in­flu­ence, this would lead to a di­rect con­fronta­tion.

“Is­rael’s pol­icy is clear; it will not al­low the Ira­ni­ans to build mil­i­tary fa­cil­i­ties in Syria,” Amidror said in an in­ter­view.

Two months ago, Is­rael ac­knowl­edged car­ry­ing out an at­tack on Ira­nian tar­gets in the T-4 air base. That strike came af­ter Is­rael downed an Ira­nian drone that strayed into its ter­ri­tory. In that same in­ci­dent, an Is­raeli F-16 fighter jet crashed un­der Syr­ian an­ti­air­craft fire.

“There are two col­lid­ing trends, the first be­ing that Iran is grow­ing bolder as high­lighted by the send­ing of a drone to Is­rael in Fe­bru­ary,” said Michael Horowitz, a se­nior an­a­lyst at Le Beck In­ter­na­tional, a Mid­dle East-based geopo­lit­i­cal and se­cu­rity con­sul­tancy. “The sec­ond trend is Is­rael’s feel­ing that nei­ther Wash­ing­ton nor Mos­cow are will­ing to do any­thing about it, which in turn forces Is­rael to take ad­di­tional risks.”

Horowitz said that the Ira­nian pres­ence at the T-4 base in­cluded mem­bers of the Ira­nian Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps and the Quds Force, who sent the drone and “hence di­rectly and ac­tively threat­ened Is­rael.”

“By strik­ing the base once again, Is­rael sends the mes­sage that Rus­sia sim­ply can­not ig­nore this trend, both be­cause of the risks it im­plies, and be­cause Rus­sian and Ira­nian sol­diers are phys­i­cally work­ing a few feet away from each other,” he said.

The in­crease in re­gional ten­sions comes as Pres­i­dent Trump has an­nounced his in­ten­tion to pull back U.S. troops from Syria, a move some in Is­rael fear would leave it in a pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion.

“The State of Is­rael does not have a world power to­day that it can rely on to con­front the Ira­nian ex­pan­sion,” an­a­lyst Alex Fish­man wrote Tues­day in the Is­raeli news­pa­per Ye­dioth Ahronoth. “It only re­mains for it to op­er­ate mil­i­tar­ily and in­de­pen­dently to curb the Ira­nian foothold in Syria, in the hope that its mil­i­tary ac­tiv­ity will not de­volve into an over­all con­fronta­tion.”

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