Iran's growing role in Syria poses a threat to Israel, the Middle East and the world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.
"Mr. President, with joint efforts we are defeating Islamic State, and this is a very important thing. But the bad thing is that where the defeated Islamic State group vanishes, Iran is stepping in," Netanyahu told Putin during talks at Russia's Black Sea resort of Sochi.
"We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel," Netanyahu said. "It (Iran) arms terrorist organizations, it sponsors and initiates terror."
Netanyahu also said that "Iran is already well on its way to controlling Iraq, Yemen and to a large extent is already in practice in control of Lebanon".
Iran denies sponsoring terrorism.
Putin, in the part of the meeting to which reporters had access, did not address Netanyahu's remarks about Iran's role in Syria.
Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, its forces fighting what it deems Islamist terrorists. Russia is acting in partnership with Iran and Lebanon's Hezbollah group, Israel's arch-foes.
In the past few months, Russia has been the main broker of de-escalation zones set up in Syria. Israel worries those zones will allow Iranian troops and Hezbollah forces to deploy in greater strength.
Moscow argues its big-power clout deters Iran or Hezbollah from opening a new front with Israel.
In comments published last week, the chief of Israel's air force said Israel had struck suspected Hezbollah arms shipments in Syria around 100 times during the Syrian civil war, apparently without Russian interference and rarely drawing retaliation.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to Russia on Wednesday to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and give him top-secret intelligence on Iran’s military expansion in the region.
Netanyahu was joined on his trip to the Black Sea resort of Sochi by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, who will reportedly provide Putin with “sensitive, credible and very disturbing detailed intelligence” on Iran’s military presence in Syria, the Yedioth Ahronoth daily’s intelligence correspondent reported.
The visit comes after a senior Israeli delegation reportedly shared the same evidence with the Americans last week. Israel is striving to limit Iran’s expansion into the region.
However, there was “grave concern” in Israel after Cohen and other senior intelligence officials failed to obtain an American commitment during their trip. Israel has been pushing the US, and now Russia, not to support a peace deal in Syria that allows Iran and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah terror group to keep boots on the ground.
Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office said on Wednesday that Israel has updated the US on the upcoming meeting with Putin, the Walla news site reported.
“The Iranian effort to establish a continuous territorial arch from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea is a danger to security. It is good that Netanyahu is trying to block the intolerable front of threats against Israel,” former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon tweeted. Ya’alon has been one of Netanyahu’s most vocal foes in recent months since he was fired from his position.
In addition to Cohen, Netanyahu is also being joined on the trip by newly appointed National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat.
Thousands of Iranian-backed fighters in Syria’s central desert region are advancing east, bringing Tehran closer to its goal of securing a corridor from its border, through Iraq and all the way to the Mediterranean and providing it unhindered land access to its allies in Syria and Lebanon for the first time.
The land route would be the biggest prize yet for Iran in its involvement in Syria’s six-year-old civil war.
It would facilitate movement of Iranian-backed fighters between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as the flow of weapons to Damascus and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s main proxy group. It also positions Iran to play a prime and lucrative role in what is expected to be a massive rebuilding effort in both Iraq and Syria, which have been devastated in their ongoing wars.
The potential for a physical artery for Iran’s influence across the region is raising concern in predominantly Sunni Arab countries and in Israel, the nemesis of both Iran and the Hezbollah terror group. It poses a challenge to the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight Iran’s growing reach.
The route is largely being carved out by Iran’s allies and proxies, a mix of forces including troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias on both sides of the border aiming to link up. Iran also has forces of its own Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp directly involved in the campaign on the Syrian side.
A corridor would be a boost for Israel’s powerful enemy Hezbollah, which has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles. Iran currently ships weapons to Hezbollah mostly by flying them to Syria to be shipped on the ground to Lebanon.
Inside Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen are gaining more influence in predominantly Sunni areas bordering Syria. Militiamen are involved in the battle to retake the Iraqi town of Tal Afar, which would boost the militias’ hold on the nearby border region. The Shiite militiamen are also present in Iraq’s western Anbar province bordering Syria.