As Syrian war winds down, Israel sets sights on Hezbollah

PILON MILITARY BASE, Israel (AP) — With President Bashar Assad seemingly poised to survive the Syrian civil war, Israeli leaders are growing nervous about the intentions of his Iranian patrons and their emerging corridor of influence across the region.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is agitating against Iran in global forums like this week’s U.N. General Assembly. The Israeli military is holding war games targeting the Iran-backed Lebanese Hezbollah, and generals are issuing tough threats in hopes of avoiding what could be another ruinous Israeli entanglement in Lebanon, this time with Iranian advisers and troops on Israel’s doorstep.

Israel has long identified Iran as its biggest threat, citing its suspect nuclear program, development of long-range missiles and hostile rhetoric. But gains by Syrian troops and their Iranian-backed allies have given those concerns new urgency.

Israel fears the establishment of a Shiite “corridor,” with land links from Iran to Lebanon, allowing the movement of fighters and weapons across the region. At the heart of those fears is Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that battled Israel to a stalemate in a monthlong war in 2006. The group has greatly beefed up its arsenal of rockets and missiles since then, and after years of fighting in Syria, is more battle-tested than ever.

In his U.N. address Tuesday, Netanyahu warned that Iran was spreading a “curtain of tyranny and terror” across the region, and said Israel would defend itself.

“We will act to prevent Iran from establishing permanent military bases in Syria for its air, sea and ground forces. We will act to prevent Iran from producing deadly weapons in Syria or in Lebanon for use against us. And we will act to prevent Iran from opening new terror fronts against Israel along our northern border,” he said.

Israel last week wrapped up its largest military exercise in two decades — mobilizing some 30,000 troops to train for the next war against Hezbollah.

In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, the commander of the exercise, Maj. Gen. Tamir Hayman, said that despite Hezbollah’s gains, the balance of power has greatly shifted in favor of Israel since 2006.

“If Hezbollah’s capabilities have grown linearly, ours have grown exponentially, in intelligence, in targets and in the ability to attack,” he said. If fighting resumes, “the damage to Hezbollah will be severe, mortal and comprehensive.”

He said he was pleased with the performance of his troops, and said the…

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