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July 31, 2017 11:59 am

Former IDF General Raises Alarm Over Trump’s Wavering on Iranian Military Presence in Syria

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The other quartet: a poster showing Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. Photo: File.

One of Israel’s foremost military intelligence experts is expressing concern that the recent deal on Syria reached between the US and Russian presidents leaves the Jewish state dangerously exposed to the increasing presence of Iran and its proxies on the ground there.

In a forthright criticism of the Trump administration’s stance on the question of Iran’s presence in Syria, Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yossi Kuperwasser — a former director general of the Israel Ministry of Strategic Affairs and head of the Research Division of IDF Military Intelligence — argued that the American president’s oft-expressed desire to upend the Iran policy of his predecessor, Barack Obama, conveyed the “impression…that in return for allowing the Russians to keep Assad temporarily in power, [Trump] would demand from them a commitment to oust the Iranians from Syria.”

“But the latest deal reached [in Hamburg on July 7 ] between Trump and [Russian President Vladimir] Putin seems to ignore this commitment,” Kuperwasser wrote in a policy paper for the influential Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs think tank. “That worries Israel…because it casts doubt over the depth of American commitment, the ability of the Americans to deliver, or the relevance of the ‘Art of the Deal’ to the Middle East and international politics.”

Under the terms of the Trump-Putin arrangement, four “de-escalation” zones have been created in Syria — two of them in the Daraa and Quneitra provinces in the south of the country, close to the borders with Israel and Jordan. According to Kuperwasser, the deal has given “legitimacy to the prolonged presence of Iranian and Iranian-backed forces throughout the regions of Syria nominally controlled by the Assad regime.”

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Kuperwasser identified five distinct threats to Israel posed by Iran in the Syrian theater. Israel, he said, had been successful in dealing with only two of those — preventing the Iranians from gaining a foothold in the northern Golan Heights and carrying out dozens of lethal air strikes upon arms shipments sent by the Iranians to their allies in Syria, the Lebanese Shia terrorist group Hezbollah and the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad.

However, the three other threats remain largely unaddressed, Kuperwasser said. Firstly, he noted, “Iran almost assuredly wants to turn Syria into an Iranian military base…so that instead of threatening Israel from 1,300 kilometers away, the Iranian forces could sit on Israel’s doorstep.” Secondly, Iran emerging as the hegemonic force in Syria would severely weaken the Sunni Arab states, especially neighboring Jordan.

Finally, and perhaps most worryingly, Kuperwasser suggested that Iran could continue its nuclear weapons research on Syrian soil.

“Under the JCPOA [the Iran nuclear deal of July 2015], the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) can monitor nuclear activities in Iran, but has no authority to monitor Iranian activity abroad or to follow Iranian scientists,” said Kuperwasser. “Iran may use these loopholes to conduct research and development of nuclear-related material in Syria.”

Kuperwasser was pessimistic over the prospects of Putin’s regime pressuring the Iranians to reduce their presence in Syria. “Russia considers Iran as an irreplaceable protector of Assad,” he wrote. “Continuous Iranian presence in Syria is a strategic interest for Moscow.”

Iran’s expansion in Syria is part of a larger regional strategy to weaken Sunni Gulf state monarchies like Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and extend its political influence and military presence in Iraq and Yemen. One former US official quoted in a Buzzfeed report on Monday on Iran’s imperial ambitions was candid about Tehran’s mastery of its proxy militias. “In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen — anywhere we’ve trained — they suck; they can’t shoot straight,” the official said. “The Iranians train these guys and they become good fighters.”

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