As Syria warms to Gulf states, Israel sees opportunity to curb Iran – report

A senior diplomatic official reportedly said Tuesday that Israel was taking a positive view of reconciliation between Syria and Gulf states, predicting it could help curb Iranian influence in the country.

The unnamed source, quoted by the Ynet news site, said that by drawing closer to Sunni countries, Syria may be indicating it wants to oust Iranian and other Shiite entities from within its borders.

Iran, along with Russia, has helped the Damascus regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad quell a civil war that has dragged on for nearly ten years. Although the government has regained control of most of the country, rebels still hold some territory. Israel is concerned that Iran is using its support for Assad as a cover for gaining a military foothold along the Syrian-Israeli border, something the Jewish state has vowed to prevent.

Israel has staged hundreds of strikes on Iran-linked targets inside government-controlled Syria over the years but rarely acknowledges or discusses the specifics of such operations. Some of the strikes reportedly targeted shipments of advanced weapons or military technology that Iran was transferring to its Lebanese proxy, the Hezbollah terror group.

“During the coming year there will be opportunities to reduce the Iranian presence in Syria,” the source was quoted as saying.

Syria is facing a serious economic crisis due to the civil war. Foreign investment could help prop up the economy and Gulf states have over the past months indicated to Damascus they are prepared to talk, according to the report.

Photo released Nov. 9, 2019 by the Syrian official news agency SANA shows Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria. (SANA FILE via AP, File)

The source also discussed a possible Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, which Jerusalem has threatened to carry out if the international community doesn’t succeed in curbing the Iranian program through diplomacy. Talks in Vienna between world powers and Iran are aiming to save a faltering 2015 nuclear deal.

The source said that if Israel went ahead with an attack, Hezbollah in Lebanon would respond with a strike against Israel.

Hezbollah “has very significant attack capabilities that pose a challenge to us,” the source said. “We are conducting defensive preparations in the northern arena.”

However, Iran’s nuclear program is “a great threat to Israel, even an existential threat,” the source said, and a nuclear-armed Iran will “exacerbate the terror activities of its proxies in the area.”

Israel could also face fire from Lebanon if there is a conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, the source noted. A Lebanese branch of Hamas, directed by senior officials of the terror group in the country rather than by its main leadership in Gaza, would likely join the fighting with permission, explicit or tacit, from Hezbollah, he said.

Hamas itself is losing popularity in Gaza, the coastal enclave it seized from the Palestinian Authority in 2007. Economic hardship in the Strip is driving support for its rival, Fatah, the political party that dominates the West Bank-based PA, the source said.

Confidence-building measures taken by Israel, such as granting thousands of work permits for Palestinians in Gaza to enter for employment, have embarrassed Hamas, the source added, noting that defense officials were reviewing the option of increasing the number of permits.

Israeli figures are also in contact with Gulf states to encourage them to invest in the Palestinian Authority, “albeit so far without success,” he said.

On Monday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that Israel could soon face a military confrontation with Lebanon or Gaza.

The premier said Israel was waging a multifaceted war against Iran and its proxy terror groups in the region — including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Gaza’s Hamas — adding that while Tehran is regarded as a regional power, it has many weaknesses, including having to invest its resources in controlling its own population and in transferring money to its proxies.

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