Israel views Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime as the weak link in the Iranian-Shi’a axis, and Assad should keep that in mind when weighing whether or not to let Iran set up military bases in his country or transfer precision missiles to Hezbollah, National Infrastructure, Energy and Water Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday.
Steinitz – a member of the 12-member security cabinet that discussed on Sunday possible next steps following Saturday’s incursion by an Iranian drone and the ensuing downing of an Israeli F-16 – hinted broadly in an Army Radio interview that Israel would act against Assad if Iran crosses the red lines that Israel has established.
The first red line, he said, was turning Syrian into a “forward” military base for the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, including intelligence, naval and air-force bases.
The second red line, he said, was that Syria would enable Iran to upgrade Hezbollah’s missile capabilities by turning those missiles into precision weapons that would constitute a much greater threat to Israel than they currently are.
Today there is no difference between Syria and Lebanon, Steinitz said, and the Syrian army and Hezbollah are two arms doing Iran’s bidding.
“Assad and Hezbollah are the same, and if there will be an attack against us, we will not be obligated to act only against the source of the attack,” he said. “We will reserve the right to choose the right front.”
For example, Steinitz said, “the Assad regime is the weak link in the Iranian-Shi’a axis, and I think Assad should think very well whether he wants to turn Syria into a forward base for Iran or allow precision missiles through Syria to Lebanon, because he himself, his regime, his government and his army can be hurt in that situation.”
Meanwhile, Britain joined the US on Monday in standing behind Israel following Saturday’s developments in the North. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson issued a statement saying the United Kingdom is “concerned at developments over Israel’s border with Syria this weekend.”
“We support Israel’s right to defend itself against any incursions into its territory,” the statement said. “We are concerned at the Iranian actions, which detract from efforts to get a genuine peace process underway. We encourage Russia to use its influence to press the regime and its backers to avoid provocative actions and to support de-escalation in pursuit of a broader political settlement.”
No such similar statement has been issued by EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini.
On Sunday, the White House issued a statement saying the US supports Israel’s “right to defend itself from the Iranian-backed Syrian and militia forces in southern Syria.”
This is a message that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to deliver when he goes to Lebanon later this week as part of a five-county tour of the Mideast, including Egypt, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey.
On the first stop of his tour in Cairo on Monday, however, the focus was on other issues, with Tillerson saying the US supports Egypt’s fight against Islamic State. But he reiterated that the US advocates free and fair elections there.
Speaking at a joint news conference with his Egyptian counterpart, Tillerson said Washington remains committed to achieving a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, despite President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Regarding US-Egypt relations, Tillerson said: “We agreed we would continue our close cooperation on counterterrorism measures.
The Egyptian people should be confident that the US commitment to continue to support Egypt in its fight against terrorism and bringing security to the Egyptian people is steadfast.”
The Egyptian military campaign comes ahead of a presidential election in March, in which President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is seeking a second term in office.
Asked about the election, Tillerson said the United States supports a credible, transparent election in Egypt and Libya.
“We have always advocated for free and fair elections, transparent elections – not just in Egypt but in any country,” he said.
“The US is always going to advocate for an electoral process that respects the rights of citizens,” Tillerson told journalists, adding that the US was also keen to continue supporting Egypt in its economic recovery.
Reuters contributed to this report.