From Damascus, Iran vows to confront Israel

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Iran’s military chief warned Israel against breaching Syrian airspace and territory on a visit to Damascus on Wednesday, raising tensions with Israel as it voices deep concern over Tehran’s influence in Syria.

General Mohammad Baqeri pledged to increase cooperation with Syria’s military to fight Israel and insurgents, Iranian and Syrian state media said.

Iranian forces and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, including Hezbollah, have provided critical military support to Damascus, helping it regain swathes of Syria from rebels and militants.

“It’s not acceptable for the Zionist regime to violate the land and airspace of Syria anytime it wants,” Baqeri said at a news conference with his Syrian counterpart. “We are in Damascus to assert and cooperate to confront our common enemies, the Zionists and terrorists,” he said, a reference to Israel and Sunni Muslim jihadists including Islamic State.

“We drew up the broad lines for this cooperation,” Syrian state media cited the Iranian military chief of staff as saying.

Iran’s expanding clout during Syria’s more than six-year war has raised alarm in Israel, which has said it would act against any threat from its regional arch-enemy Tehran.

Israel’s air force says it has struck arms convoys of the Syrian military and Hezbollah nearly 100 times during the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said that Iran was strengthening its foothold in Syria and that Israel would “do whatever it takes” to protect its security.

Tensions have risen this year between Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Israel, which have avoided a major conflict since 2006.

This week, the Israeli military said it attacked a Syrian anti-aircraft battery that had fired at its planes over Lebanon. But the Syrian army said it hit an Israeli warplane after it breached its airspace at the Syria-Lebanon border.

“Our job is to prevent war, and you do that through deterrence. What we saw in Syria (on Monday) fell within this framework,” the Israeli defence minister told Israel Radio on Wednesday before the Iranian military chief’s comments.

“We will do whatever is necessary for (our) security,” Avigdor Lieberman added. “We will not change our operating procedures because of shooting or a threat of this type or another.”

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