Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow was closely monitored in Tehran. “Will Netanyahu achieve his objective of dividing Russia and Iran?” was the headline of an article published on August 24 in Tasnim News Agency, a mouthpiece of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.). The article points out that Netanyahu has discussed Syria with Putin several times over the past two years for two key purposes: First, to ensure there is a mechanism in place to avoid any accidents between Russian and Israeli air forces; and second, to persuade Moscow to halt its cooperation with Tehran in Syria and expel Iranian and Hezbollah forces from Syria. But the article stressed that Moscow would not betray Tehran as the two countries’ interests converge in Syria.
Iran’s Azad News Agency wrote that Israeli military officials are worried that Iran is carving out a land bridge to Lebanon through Iraq and Syria. It added that as the Islamic State is collapsing in Syria and Iraq, “Israel is more vulnerable to [threats] by the resistance front led by Iran.” According to the Iranian outlet, Israel is also concerned about the I.R.G.C. testing its long-range missiles in Syria. The article also envisaged that Russia will not distance itself from Iran because of shared interests in Syria.
However, Emad Abshenas, an Iranian analyst, told the Iranian Labor News Agency that a convergence of interest between Russia and Iran in Syria does not necessarily mean Moscow would not give any concessions to Tel Aviv. The state-run Islamic Republic News Agency wrote that Netanyahu will return from Moscow “empty-handed.” Quoting the Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper, it said Israeli leaders are worried that “Iran now shares border with Israel, but Israel does not share border with Iran” – alluding to the presence of I.R.G.C. forces and Iranian-backed militiamen in southern Syria.
Other Iranian outlets opined that Netanyahu failed to change Moscow’s calculus vis-à-vis Iran – referring to remarks by Russia’s Envoy to U.N. Vasily Nebenzya, who reportedly said after Putin-Netanyahu meeting that Moscow is aware of Israeli concerns about Iran, but that the Kremlin considers Tehran’s role in Syria as constructive.
Comment: The Iranian media correctly states that Israel is increasingly concerned about the presence of the I.R.G.C. and Iranian-led militia forces in Syria. In his meeting with Putin on Wednesday, Netanyahu warned that Israel was prepared to act unilaterally to prevent Iran from expanding its presence in Syria. “Iran is already well on its way to controlling Iraq, Yemen and to a large extent is already in practice in control of Lebanon,” Netanyahu told Putin. “We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel,” Netanyahu said. “Israel opposes Iran’s continued entrenchment in Syria. We will be sure to defend ourselves with all means against this and any threat.”
Israel is particularly concerned about the concentration of Iranian forces in southern Syria and wants to keep I.R.G.C., Hezbollah and Iranian proxy militia forces away from the Golan Heights.
Over the past six years, Iran has played a key role in propping up the embattled regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Now that Iran’s ally in Damascus is in control of Syria’s key population centers, the Islamic Republic and its regional proxies are already planning to consolidate their presence in Syria for the long haul to secure Tehran’s geopolitical interests in the broader region. This has alarmed not just Israel but also the United States and its regional allies. In March, for example, one prominent Iran-controlled militia group announced that it had created a new brigade of well-trained combatants to fight Israel and reclaim the strategic Golan Heights from the Jewish state.
“The Golan Liberation Brigade will fight shoulder to shoulder with its brothers in the Syrian Army. The axis of resistance is working on the main goal, which is the Palestinian issue. And these efforts have a great impact on reshaping the regional map by annihilating the occupying Zionist regime,” Nasr al-Shammari, the deputy military chief of Harakat al-Nujaba’s said in an interview with Iran’s Mehr News Agency. “The weapons of the resistance and Islamic and Arab armies should target this regime. With this in mind, the Harakat al-Nujaba announced that a brigade should be set up to liberate Golan,” he added. “If this regime is destroyed, regional problems will be resolved completely.”
The creation of the Golan Liberation Brigade further alarmed Israeli leaders. Netanyahu during his previous trip to Moscow sought assurances from Putin to prevent Iran from taking advantage of the conflict in Syria to station its proxies permanently on Israel’s northern border. “I made it clear to President Putin our resolute opposition to the consolidation of Iran and its proxies in Syria,” he told reporters after the meeting. “We see Iran trying to build a military force, military infrastructure, with the intention to be based in Syria, including the attempt by Iran to build a seaport. All this has serious implications in terms of Israel’s security.”
Given Israel’s military superiority in the region, Iranian proxies cannot seize the strategic Golan region. Also, the regime of Bashar al-Assad is still fighting for its survival against a wide range of Sunni rebel groups and is unlikely to engage in a self-defeating war with Israel. But Israeli leaders are worried that Iran and its proxies are expanding the Southern Lebanon front to the Golan Heights – threatening Israel’s security and stability. The fact that Iranian-sponsored Iraqi militia groups and the Afghan Fatemiyoun Division fighting in Syria have close operational links with Hezbollah, has added to Israeli concerns. Moreover, senior I.R.G.C. commanders have recently visited the Syrian-controlled regions of the Golan Heights on military and reconnaissance missions.