JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s defense minister said on Tuesday President Bashar al-Assad was winning Syria’s civil war and urged the United States to weigh in as Damascus’s Iranian and Hezbollah allies gain ground.
Avigdor Lieberman’s comments marked a reversal for Israel, where top officials had from the outset of fighting in 2011 until mid-2015 regularly predicted Assad would lose control of his country and be toppled.
“I see a long international queue lining up to woo Assad, include Western nations, including moderate Sunnis. Suddenly everyone wants to get close to Assad. This is unprecedented. Because Assad is winning, everyone is standing in line,” he told Israel’s Walla news site.
In late 2015, Russia helped Assad turn the tide with a military intervention that put Moscow’s forces in the field alongside Israel’s most potent foes - Iran and the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah - opposite Syrian rebels.
The United States has focused its Syria operations on fighting rebel jihadis like Islamic State - dismaying Israel, which has tried to persuade both Washington and Moscow that Iran’s expanding clout is the greater threat.
In its decades under Assad family rule, Syria has been an enemy of Israel, with their armies clashing in 1948, 1967, 1973 and 1982. While largely keeping out of the Syrian civil war, Israel has tried to sway the world powers involved in the conflict and cautioned it could strike militarily to prevent Iran and Hezbollah entrenching further on its northern front.
“We hope the United States will be more active in the Syrian arena and the Middle East in general,” Lieberman said. “We are faced with Russians, Iranians, and also the Turks and Hezbollah, and this is no simple matter to deal with, on a daily basis.”
Lieberman did not elaborate on what actions he sought from the Donald Trump administration, which Israel has been lobbying for reassurances that Iranian and Hezbollah forces will not be allowed to deploy near its border or set up bases within Syria.
“The United States has quite a few challenges of its own, but as a trend - the more the United States will be active, the better it will be for the State of Israel,” Lieberman said.
(The story is refiled to add dropped source in third paragraph)
Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Ralph Boulton