Tensions Run High

Revenge by Iran Could Push Israel to Terminate Tehran's Presence in Syria

Iran knows reacting to the 'Israeli strike' could endanger its interests in Syria, and hitting back could inflame the region

Destruction to T-4 base in Syria, as distributed by Iran

Israel’s military leaders are arguing for a more aggressive line against Iran in Syria. That opinion, which is shared by all the departments of the defense establishment, has also been shared with the political echelon.

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The air raid that Israel is said to have mounted Monday against the Iranian airbase called T4 in Syria was apparently a watershed moment in Iran’s aspiration to establish a local foothold. The bombing raid had significant results compared to previous attacks, and Tehran’s threats to retaliate make the collision course already marked with Israel more likely. An Iranian retribution may lead in turn to an Israeli response that could almost entirely wipe out Iran’s military presence in Syria.

At first Iran operates in Syria via proxies, first and foremost Hezbollah. During the civil war it began to place intelligence and surveillance personnel there, targeting the Israeli border. In recent months, as the Assad regime turned out to have triumphed over the rebels, Iran has begun to collect a dividend for its contribution to the axis’ success, as demonstrated by its broad move to establish army bases and camps for the Shi'ite militias, whose activity it funds, around Syria. Iranian air force fighting equipment has also been moved there, and Iran has been pressing the Assad regime to let it assume control of the seaports and build airbases.

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Twitter picture of the targeted Iranian base in Syria, according to Iranian media.
Fars News Agency

Though it was broadened, Iran pursued this move with calculation and caution. It didn’t want to step on Russian toes, and also has constraints at home – over two years ago, the Revolutionary Guard Corps suffered hundreds of deaths in Syria, which led to internal protest in Iran. The Iranian leadership decided to bring most of its fighters home and replaced them with Shi'ite militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, whose pay and orders come from Tehran.

The Iranians say they’re in Syria to protect the Assad regime and help in the war against the rebels, especially with ISIS. Israel claims that hasn’t been their real main objective for ages. When they suspended their nuclear activity pursuant in the Vienna agreement in 2015, they began trying to forge a military front against Israel in Syria, alongside the line of contact between Hezbollah and Israel along the Lebanon border.

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It’s been half a year now that the leadership in Jerusalem – the prime minister, defense minister, cabinet ministers and chief of staff – have been openly stating that as far as they’re concerned, a new line has been drawn in the Syrian sand. Israel will do what it takes to frustrate Iran’s military establishment there.

Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks in the Golan Heights near the Syrian border
AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

Based on foreign media reports, these threats were backed by acts: first with attacks ascribed to Israel in which it reportedly reacted to fire from battles in the Golan between the Assad forces and the rebels that seeped over the border; Iranian transponders and intelligence outposts on the border were also bombed.

Early last September, a big military facility was bombed at Masyaf, by the city of Hama. Foreign reports said the facility had been a Syrian-Iranian assembly line making kits to improve the accuracy of guided missiles that were later smuggled to Hezbollah.

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As Iran expanded, the range of the bombing raids widened to other targets. In early December, a base Iran was building for Shi'ite militias in Al-Kiswah, near Damascus, was bombed, not long after a hidden hand leaked aerial photographs of the site to the BBC.

On February 10, the Israeli army knocked down an Iranian drone that had penetrated Israeli territory in the Jordan Valley; reacting to the drone, Israel bombed the drone’s command center at T4, and Iranian advisers were killed. That day, after Syrian anti-aircraft knocked down an Israeli F-16 fighter jet, other Iranian and Syrian targets were attacked as well.

This time Israel, according to the foreign press, is taking another, further step, again at T4. In the latest attack, people were hurt: seven advisers were killed, including the colonel who had commanded the Revolution Guard Corps drones. Infrastructure and means of war were also damaged. Images of extensive damage were aired on Iranian television, of all places.

The base itself is the epitome of the latest developments in Syria. Formerly belonging to the Syrian air force, it is huge. Now the Iranians and Russians use it too, operating in separate, independent areas.

It seems the target this time hadn’t been yet another convoy bringing arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon; it certainly wasn’t yet another transponder by the border. Iran is reacting accordingly, announcing the number of deaths, and their identities. Ali Akbar Velayati, adviser to the spiritual leader Khamenei, is already threatening that Israel will pay for its crimes.

The latest attack ascribed to Israel exposes Iran’s real intentions: Major General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and a crony of Khamenei’s, is building an extensive, smart system in Syria, aimed against Israel. The nature of this activity is being kept secret from Russia, which sees itself as allied with the axis supporting Assad. Its dimensions are apparently also secret from top Iranians as well: President Hassan Rohani balks at increasing investment in the Quds Force and in the wars that Soleimani is pursuing in the region.

For Russia and the Assad regime, it is a big headache. A collision between Israel and Iran would imperil the regime’s ambition of regaining control and could have other prices for Assad. Soleimani, according to Israeli pundits, is in effect undermining Russian interests in Syria. Meanwhile Assad lost a lot of his anti—aircraft power because of Israeli raids after the F-16 was shot down.

Israel claims that an Iranian decision to react now would be a bad strategic mistake by Soleimani and his superiors. The analysis of the series of attacks ascribed to Israel shows how exposed and penetratable the Iranian activity is. Tehran surely knows why T4 was attacked at this point in time and should assume that Israel has similar information about what it’s doing in other bases and sites around Syria.

In the event of escalation, it’s hard to believe the slow pace of attacks, once every few weeks, will continue. For Tehran, to react now would drive to immediate escalation and could endanger Soleimani’s entire project in Syria, say Israeli military and political leaders in closed conversations. Meanwhile, a huge conflict is brewing between the U.S. and Russia, based on U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan to punish Assad for using chemical weapons on civilians in Douma. An Israeli-Iranian clash amidst the tensions between the superpowers isn’t something the Russians want either.