The missile fire in Syria early Tuesday, which for several hours led to speculation about another Israeli attack, turned out to be the result of excessive anxiety within the Syrian air defense system. Tensions on Israel's northern borders remain very high in light of the American punitive attack against the Assad regime and the expectation of Iranian retaliation for a strike attributed to Israel. Unusual air traffic was apparently interpreted by the Syrians as preparations for an attack, prompting the mistaken firing of missiles that, as far as we know, hit nothing. The Syrian military admits it too now – somewhat belatedly.
This is far from being the end of the story. The Trump administration has, as far as it is concerned, gotten the job done, and the Americans are not showing any signs that they intend to leave troops in Syria, despite French President Emmanuel Macron's optimistic assessment early this week. Washington is again leaving the Syrian theater to Russia and Iran. And the Iranians, as they say every couple of days, have a score to settle with Israel after the strike on the drone base in Syria last week.
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This is the background for the energetic activity by Israel's public diplomacy apparatus, which is working overtime in a week that is naturally flooded with military and security issues. Yesterday, The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quoted a senior IDF official as admitting Israeli responsibility for the attack last week, a step that Israel has officially refrained from taking so far. This morning saw the distribution to several Israeli websites of wide-ranging information about the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' aerial systems in Syria, whose officers and advisers were killed in the recent attack.
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The information shows the depth of Iran's military buildup in Syria. It is possible to surmise that there are two messages Israel is sending to Iran. The first: We are determined to continue to confront you if you decide to expand your military in Syria. And the second: Your military is transparent to Israeli intelligence and is therefore very exposed to additional attacks.
As Iran and Israel exchanged threats, Hezbollah's deputy chief released a statement saying he expects retaliation against Israel. However, in an interview with pro-Hezbollah news outlet Al-Maydin, he made sure to say that the response will be Iranian – in other words, not through its proxy, Hezbollah. He also emphasized that the "axis of resistance will not allow its freedom restricted in Syria."
These comments may indicate the outline of a possible response on the Israeli-Syrian border – and it seems that if a clash is in the cards, then that may be where all sides prefer that it play out.
Hezbollah is gearing up for parliamentary elections in Lebanon on May 6, and Israel hopes to keep the organization's fire power away from the possible clash to minimize its force. It's also doubtful that Iran is interested in harnessing Hezbollah for a full-on confrontation whose fallout is hard to gauge.
The latest declarations and developments from all parties point in one direction: This year's Memorial Day and Independence Day will take place in an atmosphere of notable tension concerning security matters, in light of the possibility that Iran will choose this opportunity for retaliation. If such a scenario does become reality, the results of the Iranian operation will be what dictate the nature of Israel's response, too. A huge gap exists between a noncommittal volley of missiles into an open area and an intentional attempt to disrupt the Independence Day ceremonies.
We must assume that the decision makers in Tehran are aware of the risks involved in a direct confrontation with Israel, given that Iranian personnel are quite exposed in Syria and Iran's military presence is inadequate for waging a war – if they do not want to drag their resource-heavy project in in Lebanon into a war with Israel.
Still, the regular assessment, in which Israel has for years been only a two or three mutual mistakes away from a war in the north, seems truer than ever this week.