Israel and Iran find themselves once again, for the third time in a year and a half, in a round of exchanged blows and revenge-fueled assaults that in extreme circumstances could deteriorate into a broader conflict.
But this time, as opposed to the tension that played out between February and May of last year, the clashes span a larger area, which according to media reports stretches beyond Syria to Iraq and Lebanon as well.
The Israel Defense Forces said Saturday night that it had managed to thwart an Iranian plan to launch drone strikes at military and infrastructure targets in northern Israel. The first attempt of the Al-Quds Brigades of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards was disrupted on Thursday under circumstances that have not been disclosed. On Saturday night, the Israel Air Force struck a base in the village of Aqraba, southeast of Damascus, from which the drone strike was to have originated.
The Israeli action was relatively extensive, but at the moment there are no reports from Syria regarding casualties. According to the IDF, Shi’ite militiamen and Revolutionary Guards were at the base.
In an unusual step, Israel revealed a fairly large number of details about the assault with both the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issuing statements about it. Netanyahu, his bureau said, had spent the night in the air force war room along with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi. In its statements Israel departed, albeit not for the first time, from its policy of ambiguity with regard to most incidents in Syria in recent years. The reason for this might be that in this case the action was to stop a threat ahead of time, a moment before an Iranian assault. Of course, it’s possible that electoral considerations were also at work here.
Another interesting incident happened during the night. Explosions were heard in Beirut and Hezbollah said two drones that had approached Dahyeh, the Shi’ite suburb south of Beirut, had crashed. In that case, Israel has volunteered no information. Israel rarely attacks in Lebanon, and certainly avoids doing so from the air.
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Hezbollah has in the past marked aerial attacks in Lebanon as its red line (while showing restraint when it came to dozens of assaults attributed to Israel against the organization’s weapons-smuggling convoys in Syria). And even when Israel uncovered factories to produce precision weapons in Beirut, it preferred doing so via Netanyahu’s speech in the United Nations and not by bombings.
This time, meanwhile, Israel has not reacted to the incident in Beirut. Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who is usually happy to appear as Lebanon’s protector, is set to address the incident in a speech later Sunday.
There is a possibility that the drones that had crashed were not Israeli but rather Iranian, and that this is linked to a thwarted Al Quds plan to carry out an attack. Israel and Hezbollah may have had a shared interest to quell the tensions, at least on the Lebanese front.
The IDF and Netanyahu have an advantage in the north
The thwarted Iranian action was apparently planned as revenge for an assault on a weapons warehouse belonging to the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias in Iraq on July 19, which was attributed to Israel. Tehran saw this as an Israeli attempt to expand the arena of conflict. Even the United States objected to the assault, over concern that it would hinder ties with the government in Baghdad, and it made sure to leak details and criticism of Israel to the New York Times, which were published on Friday.
On Thursday, in a very unusual departure from the policy of logical information security, Tehran even hinted of an expected response on its part. A commentator close to the Revolutionary Guards wrote in the Iranian newspaper Kayhan that Israeli actions in Iraq and Syria would be met with surprises, such as launches of UAVs at sensitive security targets, ports and nuclear sites in Israel. The plan that was foiled, according to the IDF, was identical to the action threatened beforehand by the commentator.
The repeated strikes against Iranian targets in Syria show the IDF’s advantage when the conflict with the Revolutionary Guards takes place close to Israel’s border. The Israeli intelligence community monitors events in Syria closely and the air force is able to strike the Iranians and disrupt their plans without great difficulty so far.
But that is not to say that Iran has given up its aspirations in Syria. After the many assaults last year, the Iranians made changes in their deployment, such as moving the focus of their activities from the Damascus airport to the T4 air base near Homs, which is farther from Israel. They have not abandoned their attempts to strengthen their military presence in Syria and have not stopped smuggling weapons to Hezbollah.
Iranian revenge now depends on whether the Revolutionary Guards are still capable of immediate responses, but it also depends on the magnitude of casualties. If it turns out that Iranians were killed in the Israeli action, among them senior figures, the motivation for revenge will be greater. The IDF has already taken a number of defensive steps, including the deployment of Iron Dome aerial defense batteries in the north.
This is all happening in the backdrop of tension between the United States and Iran in the Persian Gulf and the crisis over the American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. The Trump administration has already made it clear that the U.S. doesn’t want war with Iran, but the friction between the two sides is ongoing and the Iranians can continue to attack targets associated with the oil industry in Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, as they do against Israel from Syria.
The assault in Syria and the incident in Lebanon shed a different light on claims critical of the government over a lack of offensive action toward Hamas in the Gaza Strip. And as in the affair of the discovery and destruction of tunnels dug by Hezbollah in Lebanon in December, it turned out belatedly that there are other considerations behind the policy of restraint in the Gaza Strip, which are not always disclosed to the public in real time.
The tension in the north is increasing as the election campaign reaches its final lap ahead of Election Day on September 17. The prime minister is preparing for elections while in the background are deadly attacks in the West Bank and growing friction with Hamas in Gaza that could lead to another exchange of blows there. But in the north, as opposed to Gaza, Netanyahu meanwhile feels comfortable politically: He appears to be in control of the situation and is managing the use of force relatively cautiously. At the moment, no Israeli citizens have not been directly threatened or injured in the north. And so Netanyahu will probably try to politically leverage military action in Syria, while trying to limit as much as possible discussion of the situation of residents of the Gaza border area.
As for the north, Netanyahu’s opponents don’t have much to say except to express somewhat forced support of the government’s policy and the IDF’s actions. And yet, the question arises as to whether the decision (as reported) to expand Israeli assaults to Iraq was not too great a risk and whether this was not the straw that broke the Iranian camel’s back and drew Saturday night’s attempted response.