(CNSNews.com) – Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu sought Moscow’s understanding Thursday to prevent a malevolent future role for Iran in Syria – one day after an Iranian-backed Shi’ite militia fighting there announced the formation of a special “brigade to liberate the Golan Heights.”
At a meeting with President Vladimir Putin, Netanyahu acknowledged Russia’s contribution to the campaign against Sunni terrorists in Syria led by al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS/ISIL).
“Of course,” he continued, “we do not want to see Shi’a Islamic terrorism led by Iran step in to replace Sunni Islamic terrorism.”
The matter is a sensitive one, given that Russia and Iran are allied – along with Iranian-backed Shi’a militia from Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere – in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Earlier this week Netanyahu told his cabinet he would seek Russia’s backing.
“Iran is trying to establish itself permanently in Syria, with a military presence on the ground and at sea, and also a gradual attempt to open a front against us on the Golan Heights,” he said.
“I will express to President Putin Israel’s sharp and vigorous opposition to this possibility. I hope we will be able to reach certain understandings in order to reduce possible friction between our forces and theirs, as we have successfully done up until now.”
As Netanyahu prepared to travel to Moscow, the Beirut-based pan-Arabic satellite channel Al-Mayadeen reported that Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, an Iraqi Shi’a militia sponsored by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and fighting in Syria announced it has established a special brigade focused on ending Israeli control of the Golan Heights.
“The formation of a brigade to liberate the Golan Heights is a step towards liberating sanctities [Islamic religious sites] in occupied Palestine and impeding the arrogant project in the region,” the channel quoted a spokesman for the group as saying.
The Golan Heights is a strategic ridge along the Israeli-Syrian border, which Syrian forces used to fire artillery at Israeli communities in the Galilee valley below – until June 1967, when Israel seized it during the 1967 Six Day War. (Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez al-Assad, was defense minister at the time.)
Israel annexed the Golan in 1981. Despite ill-fated attempts over the decades to reach a peace deal with Syria that could include the Golan’s return, support for retaining the territory is strong across the Israeli political spectrum.
Israel’s most pressing concern regarding the civil war that erupted in Syria six years ago this month is that it has allowed its primary foe, Iran, and especially its IRGC, to establish a foothold on more territory bordering the Jewish state. (Through its proxy Hezbollah, Iran already has an indirect presence in nearby southern Lebanon.)
‘Get Iran and their proxies out’
In comments evidently supportive of Netanyahu’s position as spelled out this week, President Trump’s ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley said in New York on Wednesday, “We have got to make sure we get Iran and their proxies out [of Syria], we have got to make sure that, as we move forward, we are securing the borders for our allies as well.”
Two evenings earlier, Trump and Netanyahu spoke by phone. A readout from Jerusalem said they “spoke at length about the dangers posed by the nuclear deal with Iran and by Iran's malevolent behavior in the region and about the need to work together to counter those dangers.”
Asked at a press briefing Thursday whether Haley’s comments reflected “a new U.S. objective” in Syria, State Department spokesman Mark Toner said no.
“We’ve consistently raised our concerns about the destabilizing nature of Iran’s activities in the region, but certainly in Syria, and we continue to hold the Iranian government accountable for its actions, using the tools at our disposal,” he said.
Toner noted that the U.S. has sanctioned the IRGC and Iran’s intelligence ministry for their support of the Assad regime.
The group claiming to have set up a Golan-focused brigade, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba (“Movement of the Noble Ones”), emerged from Asaib al-Haq (“League of the Righteous”), one of the two most controversial Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, which the U.S. government accused of carrying out deadly attacks on American troops during the conflict there.
Almost 4,500 U.S. military personnel were killed in Iraq between March 2003 and the end of 2011. The second half of the war saw growing Iranian involvement, and in mid-2010, then-U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey said he believed that groups backed by Iran were responsible for as many as one-quarter of U.S. combat deaths.
The two most prominent Iranian-backed militia in Iraq were, and are, Asaib al-Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah. The have a key role in the so-called “Popular Mobilization Forces” established in 2015 to help Iraq’s Shi’a-led government fight the Sunni jihadists of ISIS.
The militia have very close ties to IRGC Qods Force head Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who was designated by the U.S. Treasury in 2007 for supporting terror and in 2011 for supporting the Assad regime’s repression against the Syrian people.