Israeli defense chief: Assad and Iran must leave Syria as part of deal


WASHINGTON (JTA) — Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said any outcome in Syria must include the ouster of the Assad regime and its Iranian backers, a posture that could lead to tensions with President-elect Donald Trump.

“What is crucial for any deal on Syria, two preconditions: Assad out of Syria, Iranians out of Syria,” said Liberman, speaking Friday at the annual Saban Forum, a convocation of Israeli and U.S. leaders organized by the Brookings Institution.

Trump has said he wants to enhance cooperation with Russia in combating the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria. Russia, allied with Assad and effectively allied with Iran, will not agree to ousting Assad. And as recently as Thursday, at his first major post-election rally, Trump said he would not seek to topple regimes.

Liberman said the ouster of Assad and his Iranian enablers was necessary in part because of the carnage his regime authored during the civil war, with at least 500,000 dead and 8 million people displaced. “We must put Assad in his place; we must put Iran its place,” he said.

Israel does not want an empowered Iran on its doorstep. Liberman said he hoped for a more robust American role in the Middle East, a plea reflecting Israeli unhappiness with outgoing President Barack Obama’s reluctance to enhance U.S. actions in the region, but also to the isolationism Trump seemed to embrace on the campaign trail.

“It’s impossible to reach any solution without strong American participation in this process,” he said.

He noted Trump’s pledge to crush the Islamic State, but said that this could not be done at a remove. “The time for splendid isolation was 100 years ago,” he said. “If you really want to control this phenomenon” of Islamist terrorism, “it has to start from the Middle East.”

Liberman welcomed Trump’s rhetoric regarding Iran, suggesting that Obama was not doing enough to enforce the Iran nuclear deal, which traded sanctions relief by the international community for a rollback of Iran’s nuclear program.

“It’s crucial to move forward with more sanctions” to address continued Iranian belligerence in the region, he said.

Pressed by CNN’s Jake Tapper, who was moderating the event, Liberman would not say that he wanted the Iran deal scrapped. Trump has said the deal is a bad one, but has stopped short of saying he would pull the United States out of the deal.

He also declined to say whether he welcomed Trump’s pledge to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

“Every election we see the promise to move” the embassy to Jerusalem, which would effectively recognize the city as Israel’s capital, Liberman said. “We will wait and we will see.”

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