Netanyahu says Israel protecting Europe in Syria

Israeli PM says Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria are preventing Sunni refugees from fleeing to other countries.

LONDON - Israel has attacked Iranian-backed Shi'ite Muslim militias in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, casting such actions as potentially helping to stem a Syrian Sunni Muslim refugee exodus to Europe.

Israeli officials have previously disclosed scores of air strikes within Syria to prevent suspected arms transfers to Lebanon's Shi'ite Hezbollah guerrillas or Iranian military deployments.

But they have rarely given detail on the operations, or described non-Lebanese militiamen as having been targeted.

Netanyahu accused Iran, which has been helping Damascus beat back a seven-year-old rebellion, of bringing in 80,000 Shi'ite fighters from countries like Pakistan and Afghanistan to mount attacks against Israel and "convert" Syria's Sunni majority.

"That is a recipe for a re-inflammation of another civil war - I should say a theological war, a religious war - and the sparks of that could be millions more that go into Europe and so on ... And that would cause endless upheaval and terrorism in many, many countries," Netanyahu told an international security forum.

"Obviously we are not going to let them do it. We'll fight them. By preventing that - and we have bombed the bases of this, these Shi'ite militias - by preventing that, we are also offering, helping the security of your countries, the security of the world."

Netanyahu did not elaborate. About half Syria's pre-war 22 million population has been displaced by the fighting, with hundreds of thousands of refugees making it to Europe.

Syria's population is mostly Sunni Muslim. President Bashar al-Assad is from the Alawite religious minority, considered an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Under recent deals between Assad's government and mainly Sunni rebels, insurgents have left long-besieged areas sometimes in exchange for Shi'ite residents moving from villages surrounded by insurgents.

The political opposition to Assad says the deals amount to forced demographic change and deliberate displacement of his enemies away from the main cities of western Syria. The Damascus government says the deals allow it to take back control and to restore services in the wrecked towns.

Drone deal

Germany has agreed a nine year deal worth over half a billion dollars to lease Israeli military reconnaissance drones capable of carrying missiles, the aircraft's manufacturers said Thursday.

European aerospace giant Airbus, which signed the $600 million (500 million euro) agreement on behalf of the German defence ministry, will maintain and provide operational support for the Heron TP drones, Israel Aerospace Industries said.

An official from the state-owned Israeli firm, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the deal covered five drones.

The German military currently uses Israel's Heron 1 in Afghanistan and Mali, with the more advanced Heron TP drones expected to replace earlier models.

Netanyahu said Thursday that the German parliament had approved the deal the previous day following the government's green light.

"It's a very large deal," Netanyahu said, "and that of course helps our defence industries and I think it helps security in Europe."

"It's a very, very good piece of news," he told the security conference in occupied Jerusalem.

IAI said the deal was pending German federal budgetary approval.

In 2016, then-German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen said the intention was to use the Israeli drones until a similar European model was operational.

Germany had considered buying Predator drones from the United States, but ultimately opted for the Heron TP, which German officials have said could be made available more quickly and would provide a smoother transition between models.