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Syrian Rockets Fired at Israel Are Part of Iran's New Deterrence Policy

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Israel's border fence with Syria, March 2019.
Israel's border fence with Syria, March 2019.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Update: Israel strikes dozens of Iranian and Syrian targets following rocket barrage

Recent events on the Syrian border express what Military Intelligence has described over the past two months as the establishment of a new deterrent. Iran has decided to act against any attack it attributes to Israel, whether against Iran or organizations linked to it in the Middle East. At around 5 A.M., members of a Shi’ite militia fired four rockets from Syria into Israel in the northern Golan Heights; an Iron Dome battery intercepted all four and there were no injuries or damage.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 49

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The assault, which Israel believes was carried out at Iran’s behest, isn’t much different from previous attempts by Shi’ite militias to fire rockets from southern Syria into the Golan. There were similar incidents in May 2018, and in January and September this year, but no rockets reached Israel and most were intercepted by Iron Dome.

The rocket fire in September was declared an Iranian response to an airstrike attributed to Israel against members of a Shi’ite militia in Iraq near the Al-Bukamal border crossing with Syria. The airstrike happened at the end of August, after a day when airstrikes took place in Syria as well (near the Israeli border) and in Lebanon (in Dahiyeh, the Shi’ite neighborhood in south Beirut).

But in recent years, many attacks have been attributed to Israel and the Iranians responded in only a few cases. This time, according to intelligence, it can be assumed that Iran has a sweeping policy: Every action has a reaction. So what was the explanation for the rockets before dawn Tuesday?

As of now, things aren’t completely clear; both Israel and Iran have remained silent. On Monday, the Israeli intelligence company ImageSat released satellite photos documenting what it calls the rapid construction of an Iranian base near the Al-Bukamal crossing.

A photo released by a pro-Iranian militia in Iraq after it launched an attack near the Syrian border, August 2019.Credit: AFP

There are also reports in the Arab media, of questionable credibility, of an incident at the beginning of the week in which a convoy of Shi’ite militias was struck in the desert in eastern Syria west of Deir Ezzor.

These incidents are happening against the backdrop of heightened preparedness by the Israeli military (which regularly moves Iron Dome batteries between southern and northern Israel), ongoing tension in the Gaza Strip (after the fighting with Islamic Jihad last week), intensive action by the Israel Air Force and a surprise drill declared Monday by the Northern Command. At the same time, Israel is in a political crisis as the time allotted to Kahol Lavan chief Benny Gantz to form a governing coalition draws to a close. This is a period when the dangers of mixing security and political considerations is higher than usual.

Protests from Libya to Iran

But apparently the most important regional development in recent days – and the competition is great – isn’t happening in Israel or Syria, but in Iran. Despite the regime’s harsh steps, above all cutting the country off from the Internet almost completely, the impression is that the protests against the government because of rising fuel costs are spreading.

Reports by opposition activists and journalists coming indirectly to international media outlets reveal a major wave of violent demonstrations, organized attempts to use violence to suppress them, the deaths of dozens of protesters and a few members of the security forces, and methodical large-scale destruction of property. The real number of the injured or killed, like the exact scope of the demonstrations, is unclear.

Iranian-American journalist Farnaz Fassihi, who writes for The New York Times, tweeted on Monday night: “I’ve covered Iran for 25+ years. Never seen protests this brazen, this angry, this widespread. This is serious. That’s why there is a total Internet blackout. Regime is scared.” The protests in Iran broke out against the backdrop of the crises in Iraq and Lebanon, countries under strong Iranian influence.

A gas station that was burned during protests following authorities' decision to raise gasoline prices, Tehran, November 17, 2019. Credit: Abdolvahed Mirzazadeh / ISNA via AP

In recent days, Arab newspapers have been covering their front pages with protests, incidents and mass-casualty disasters from Iran, Lebanon, Libya and Sudan. To some extent, these seem like a reincarnation of the Arab Spring, which was buried by the murderous civil wars that broke out in its wake. But this time, the main address for the protest in some of the countries is Iran, whose influence and power have grown, especially after the Assad regime's victory in Syria.

Ostensibly, recent developments in Iran should encourage Israel after a few months of the Iranians showing confidence and upping their provocations against the Gulf states and the United States. But officially, Jerusalem has been restrained in its public response. Perhaps more surprisingly, that has also been President Donald Trump’s response; in recent days he has been in no hurry to comment on Iran.

This is surprising because Trump has been harshly criticized, justifiably, for his inaction in the face of Iranian military operations. Now, when it seems that his sanctions policy is finally sparking a response in Iran, Trump is mired in political disputes at home.

Israeli defense officials have adamantly refused to predict what can be expected in Iran and are waiting for more information. Raz Zimmt, an expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies, has written on the think tank’s website that right now there are no signs that the Iranian regime is in danger of collapse or is considering flexibility or giving in to Western demands regarding the nuclear agreement, despite the double pressure of protests and sanctions.

Zimmt is very cautious in his predictions; the regime in Tehran has been very effective in suppressing protests. But one lesson of the Arab Spring is the great difficulty in predicting the masses’ behavior during violent clashes and anticipating how protests will unfold.

Israel, by the way, didn’t have to wait for the Arab Spring to reach this conclusion. It learned this quite well during the first intifada, and to a lesser extent at the beginning of the second intifada.

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