Analysis

Iran's Entrenchment in Syria Set Back Months After Most Extensive Israeli Strike in Decades

Israel thwarted Iran's revenge attack, struck dozens of Iranian military sites ■ Tehran could still use its big gun, Hezbollah, but is likely to reconsider its policy ■ Israeli politicians' arrogance poses a danger

Missile fire is seen over Daraa, Syria, May 10, 2018.
\ ALAA AL-FAQIR/ REUTERS

This time, the intelligence assessment was spot on. The Iranian reaction to previous airstrikes attributed to Israel arrived from the direction, at the time and in the manner Israel expected.

>>Iran might restrain itself from striking Israel in bid to save nuclear deal | Analysis

After a month of operational delays – some of them due to disruptions caused by Israel – at around midnight on Wednesday night, the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force executed its retaliation plan for the death of seven Iranians when the T4 air base in Syria was bombed on April 9.

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But the Iranian reaction was a total flop. Four of its missiles were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system and the rest fell in Syrian territory.

Iran targets Israel from Syria, Israel responds

Despite that failure, the Israeli reaction was completely disproportionate: Massive bombing of about 50 Iranian targets in Syria, which probably set back Iran’s effort to establish a military presence there by several months.

>> Israel struck 'almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria,' defense chief says

Ostensibly, Israel’s harsh response could cause the Iranians to stop and rethink their moves. Israel has already demonstrated its military and intelligence power with the series of strikes attributed to it in recent months. But the scale of Israel’s reaction early Thursday morning was something else entirely.

That said, arguably it would be better not to get caught up in the self-assurance and arrogance evident in certain reactions Thursday morning on news shows, among lawmakers and on social media.

There are constraints on Iran at this time. First off, it is relatively weak in Syria, and there is the concern that the Trump administration – having just withdrawn the United States from the nuclear agreement with Iran – might do something unexpected. Under extreme circumstances, or just later on, Tehran might whip out its biggest gun, Hezbollah, in which case the conflict could take on a very different form.

It seems the Israel Defense Forces carried out the directives of the political leaders, and the operational plans, admirably early Thursday morning. Even so, we can only hope the gratuitous reveling in our invincible wondrousness won’t end up reminding us of then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s boasting about Operation Density (aka “Fajr Night”), when the Israel Air Force claimed to have taken out all of Hezbollah’s long-range missile launchers and rockets on the second night of the Second Lebanon War in July 2006, or the euphoric “Churchill speech” in the Knesset that followed four days later.

Israel has acted in Syria exactly as it said it would. For months, the prime minister, defense minister and IDF chief of staff have been saying that Iran establishing a military presence in Syria would cross a line in the sand – something Israel couldn’t live with and would take forceful action to prevent.

The messages were also delivered in previous attacks, starting last September. In April, right after the raid on the Iranian T4 air base attributed to Israel, military sources hinted that the IDF could eradicate Iran’s military presence in Syria if Iran insisted on retaliating.

The Thursday morning attack turned threat into action, even if the airstrikes focused on infrastructure and logistics sites, rather than trying to kill as many Iranian fighters as possible.

Map of targets of Israeli strike in Syria

Israel has been on the brink in Syria for some time. Meanwhile, the aggressive line it is leading against Iran, with the full consent of the security cabinet and IDF General Staff, is yielding impressive results.

But this is the very time for sober judgment. It remains unclear what caused a person as experienced as the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force chief, Qassem Soleimani, to execute such a half-baked terrorism plot, when he knew full well that Israel was watching his every move. His failure on Wednesday night does not guarantee that Iran will retreat from its overall plans, or that it will accept the Israeli attacks and not plan further moves on other fronts against Israeli targets, either abroad or on the Lebanese border.

It seems that, first and foremost, the intelligence community is now keeping a eye out for possible retaliatory moves by Hezbollah.