Tehran, Jerusalem trade threats over attack in Syria

The situation in Syria is expected to be the main topic on the agenda when the security cabinet holds its regular Wednesday meeting, overshadowing even the tense situation on the Gaza border.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu chats with Israeli soldiers at a military outpost during a visit to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights overlooking the Israel-Syria border in 2015. (photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu chats with Israeli soldiers at a military outpost during a visit to Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights overlooking the Israel-Syria border in 2015.
(photo credit: REUTERS/BAZ RATNER)
Iran and Israel traded threats on Tuesday following Monday’s attack on the T4 Air Base in Syria that Tehran said killed seven Iranian military personnel.
Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, speaking on his arrival in Damascus on Tuesday, described the attack as “Israel’s crime” and said it would “not remain without response,” the Lebanese Al-Mayadeen channel reported.
Russia, Syria and Iran all charged that Israel carried out the attack. Jerusalem has neither confirmed nor denied involvement.
Velyati’s threats, however, did not seem to daunt Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria.
“No matter what the price, we will not allow Iran to have a permanent [military] foothold in Syria. We have no other choice,” Liberman said during a visit to Katzrin on the Golan Heights on Tuesday.
Trump condemns Syria chemical attack, vows quick action, April 9, 2018 (Reuters) 
Such a situation would be akin to a “noose around our neck,” Liberman said, adding that there was no better way to describe the scenario.
The situation in Syria is expected to be the main topic on the agenda when the security cabinet holds its regular tense situation on the Gaza border.
The T4 Air Base near Homs is the largest air force base in Syria and is thought to house an Iranian complex that supplies arms to Hezbollah, Iran’s ally in Lebanon. It is also believed that Israel, which is believed to have periodically conducted air strikes in Syria against Iranian and Hezbollah targets, struck the same base in February following an Iranian attempt to fly a drone into Israeli airspace.
One of those reported killed in Monday’s attack was a colonel who was a senior figure in Iran’s drone program.
Liberman said he knew nothing about the air strike.
“I don’t know what happened there or who attacked,” he said. “Unfortunately, we see more and more attempts by Iran to establish itself in Syria, and not for humanitarian or cultural reasons.
They have no intention of placing museums or cultural and educational centers there.
“We will do everything that is in our power to do” to block Iran from gaining control in Syria, he reiterated.
Liberman recalled how in the past some Israeli politicians operated under the illusion that Israel should return the Golan Heights, which it captured from Syria during the Six Day War in 1967.
“Imagine what would happen if today, God forbid, the Golan Heights were in the hands of the Assad regime. Or what would have happened if we had not destroyed the [Syrian nuclear] reactor in Deir al-Zor [in 2007]. We have clear understanding and strategy and we will do everything we have to do,” he said.
But force is not the only way to prevent an Iranian presence in Syria, Liberman added. He called on those who could influence the situation to block Tehran from creating military bases in Syria.
With regard to the United States he said America was “Israel’s strategic partner” and had historically supported Israel. But it is also the largest world power with its own interests and policies, Liberman added.
“We will accept any decision the White House makes,” he said, in reference to a decision pending in the White House regarding how to respond to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons in Douma on Sunday.
THE WHITE HOUSE said President Donald Trump now will not travel on Friday to the Summit of the Americas in Peru.
Trump canceled his travel to South America on Tuesday in order to be at the White House “to oversee the American response to Syria,” his press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said in a statement.
Speaking with reporters, she said that the administration continues to work on a plan with US allies.
“The president has been clear,” Sanders said.
“All options are on the table. But I’m not going to get ahead of anything the president may or may not do.”
The French said they would decide on a joint path forward with the Americans and the British in the coming days, after Trump offered a 48-hour time frame for deciding on a reaction to the chemical weapons attack in Syria. The Wall Street Journal reported that the US had moved warships to the Syrian coast to prepare for a possible strike against Assad, strongly indicating an attack is imminent.
Sitting next to the emir of Qatar in the Oval Office, a stern-faced US president declined to comment on the Syria deliberations despite a comment from his guest. “This matter has to stop immediately,” said Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al Thani. “With a war criminal, we cannot tolerate with someone who killed more than half a million of his own people.”
Instead of responding, Trump remained silent, and his staff quickly ushered journalists out of the room as they shouted questions over what might come.
Moscow’s Foreign Ministry, meanwhile, summoned Israeli Ambassador Gary Koren to discuss the attack on the Syrian air base.
A Russian Foreign Ministry statement issued after the meeting said Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov discussed “the situation in the Middle East” with Koren, with an emphasis on developments in and around Syria, as well as in the Gaza Strip.
The statement said, “A number of topical issues concerning Russian-Israeli bilateral relations were also touched upon.”
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem had no comment on the meeting.
This is not the first time Koren has been summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry following alleged Israeli attacks in Syria.
The same was done in March 2017, after an alleged Israeli attack in central Syria. That summons came just days after Koren took up his position in Moscow.
In a related development, the Russian Embassy in Tel Aviv took Israel to task on Tuesday for its condemnation of Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons on Sunday, saying it “notes with concern a hasty conclusion made in Israel with regard to the fake chemical attack in Douma.
“The truth is that there is no evidence of any chemical attack in Douma at all,” the statement read, citing “objective facts” collected by Russian military radiological, chemical and biological protection units “which examined Douma immediately after its liberation [from rebel forces].”
The embassy said, “Hasty conclusions prior to an independent international investigation on Douma seem to be shortsighted. This contributes to the dirty confrontation against Russia and Syria pursued by some Western governments that brings the world and the region closer to the dangerous threshold.”
This statement contrasted starkly with one the embassy put out last month praising Israel for not joining the chorus of countries condemning Russia for the alleged poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain.
Late Monday evening, after Moscow accused Israel of the attack on the Syrian air base and condemned Israeli actions in Gaza, Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement “strongly condemning the attack using chemical weapons” carried out by Syria.
The statement said that Syria continues to commit crimes against humanity by using prohibited chemical weapons, and that this attack joins other similar chemical attacks Assad has carried out since he committed to dismantling his chemical arsenal four years ago.
Not only does Syria continue to possess chemical weapons, the statement said, but it is even producing “new capabilities.”
Michael Wilner contributed to this report.