On November 10 the BBC revealed that Iran is building a “permanent military base in Syria.” The report came complete with aerial photos, yellow boxes and labels. It stressed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned Iran against such a permanent presence.
Then, during an interview published Tuesday on Ynet, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said that there is no physical Iranian presence in Syria. Liberman appeared to downplay the warnings from the prime minister, President Reuven Rivlin and others, asserting that the Iranian presence is relatively modest and consists of hundreds of experts and advisers.
The comments by Liberman come amid reports in the Kuwaiti Arabic newspaper al-Jarida that Netanyahu sent a warning to Syrian President Bashar Assad via Russian President Vladimir Putin to keep Iranian forces 40 kilometers from the border. Allegedly, this took place during Putin’s meeting with Assad on November 21, when the Syrian president hugged Putin and thanked him “for all the efforts that Russia made to save our country.”
Liberman chose his words carefully during the Ynet interview, speaking deliberately.
“Iran is not on our border,” he said, when pressed about his comment that “we don’t just speak,” implying that Israel also acts to defend its interests, and that all the “players” know Israel is a strong power in the region.
On the one hand, his comment could be seen as his response to feeling accused of not preventing Iran from establishing itself in Syria. But why downplay a risk that Israel has been pushing to the international community? Liberman was clear in the interview that Israel would not allow permanent Iranian bases in Syria.
The comments appear at odds with Netanyahu’s warnings, but it may be a slight difference of language. Netanyahu warned against Iranian bases in a July meeting in Paris, and told UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres that “Iran is busy turning Syria into a base of military entrenchment” in August. Rivlin warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel in September that Iran could “drag the whole region into war.”
The Liberman comments also come in the context of an alleged change in policy regarding Israel’s demands to Russia about Iranian forces in Syria. In September numerous reports asserted that Israel had demanded a 60-km. buffer along the border with Syria.
Then came the November report of the Iranian base at Al-Kiswah published in BBC. That base is 50-km from the border. Then, on November 26, the Kuwaiti newspaper claimed Israel has said it would target Iranian facilities within 40 km.
The real message here might not be for Assad and the Iranians, as much as it might be a quiet nod to the Russians. Israel might want to create daylight between the Russians and Assad.
Putin hosted Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani for a bilateral meeting on November 22, after hosting both Rouhani and Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Sochi. “We cooperate with you in almost all areas of mutual interest,” Putin told Rouhani, according to the short readout of the meeting from Putin’s office. “Once again I want to note our undeniable progress toward resolving the situation in Syria.”
Liberman’s statements provide Russia with the time to discuss with Assad what comes next and to weigh whether Iran’s presence in Syria is worth the possibility of Israeli action that would harm Moscow’s ally.
This is a very sensitive period, with tensions between Hezbollah and Saudi Arabia and Israel at an all-time high. With the war against Islamic State winding down and Russia, the US and Jordan signatories to a cease-fire in southwest Syria near the Golan border, no one wants a new conflict. Yet Iran is aggressively asserting itself. Gen. Muhammad Hossein Baqeri, the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces, told Shargh newspaper in Iran that he is seeking distant bases. “It may become possible one day to have bases on the shores of Yemen or Syria.”
Israel Air Force Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel said in August that Israel had carried out almost 100 air strikes in Syria over five years to prevent weapons transfers to Hezbollah. Russia, Iran and Syria all know that Israel can act. Liberman’s comments appear to put the breaks on the warnings, with hopes Russia will convince Assad that as the war enters a new phase in Syria, with cease-fires and de-escalation, it doesn’t need Iran as much.
According to Dr. Eran Lerman, the vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies and lecturer at Shalem College, Israel’s real interest today is to prevent Jordan from being destabilized by Iran. He said Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently referenced the need to “turn the West Bank into the next Gaza,” and that to do that Iran would want to gain access via Jordan.
“The larger question of Iranian bases deeper into Syria – that is a question of what to do about them. I don’t think they can change the strategic balance, given that the Syrian military is a shadow of its old self,” said Lerman.
The real redline today is not rhetoric about throwing the Iranians out of Syria, which isn’t realistic, “but in more limited terms there are real redlines we can talk to the Russians about.”