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Liberman says 'no Iran military force in Syria', in apparent contradiction of PM

Le nouveau ministre de la Défense israélien Avigdor Lieberman (g) er le Premier ministre Benjamin Netanyahu (d) lors d'une réunion gouvernementale aux abords de Jérusalem, le 2 juin 2016
ABIR SULTAN (POOL/AFP)
Iran's physical presence in Syria limited to 'some Iranian advisers and experts', Liberman says

Israel's Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman appeared to contradict Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's warnings of a burgeoning Iranian military presence in Syria in an interview with the Yedioth Ahronoth news outlet published Tuesday in which he asserted that "there is no physical Iranian military presence at the moment in Syria."

Netanyahu has long accused Iran, its main enemy, of taking advantage of Syria's civil war to send its Revolutionary Guard and its Lebanese Shiite ally Hezbollah into southern Syria, close to Israel's border.

While the Israeli Defense Minister did acknowledge Iran's expanding influence through proxies in Syria and elsewhere, Liberman asserted explicitly that "there is no Iranian military force on Syrian soil."

He said that Iran's physical presence in the country was limited to "some Iranian advisers and experts."

Netanyahu has previously warned that Iran was building permanent military installations in Syria, and the head of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps Qassem Soleimani has been photographed along with other Iranian troops in the country.

BBC news reported earlier this month that Iran had established a military base just south of Damascus. The report showed satellite imagery apparently showing construction of military installations, but the images could not confirm whether this construction was indeed initiated by the Iranian military.

Asked about his apparent contradiction of the Prime Minister, Liberman said "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," he told Ynet.

Netanyahu has on multiple occasions signaled that Israel would take military action in Syria when it sees fit as it seeks to ensure Iran-backed forces stay away from its territory.

"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," Netanyahu vowed in an address to the United Nations in September.

More recently, Netanyahu told French Prime Minister Emanuel Macron during a telephone call last week that Israel views Iranian activity in Syria as a legitimate "target" for Israeli strikes.

Despite Israel professing a policy of non-interference in Syria's over six-year long civil war, it has reportedly carried out numerous air strikes on targets inside Syria over the last several years, chiefly targeting weapons and other supplies it considered destined for Hezbollah.

Israel's security cabinet convened on Monday to discuss threats along its northern frontier, the first high-level meeting to be held since the implementation of a ceasefire agreement for southern Syria struck between the US and Russia aimed at limiting the encroachment of Iran-backed militias along the Israeli border.

Israel was left disappointed by the deal, arguing that the agreement does not push Iranian forces far away enough from its territory.

Lebanon-based Hezbollah remains the most serious military threat facing Israel, with an estimated arsenal of some 100,000 and 120,000 short- and medium-range missiles and rockets, as well as several hundred long-range missiles trained on the Jewish State.

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