Tuesday’s extensive airstrike in eastern Syria, which struck multiple Iranian targets, was the fourth strike attributed to Israel in the last two weeks. Other attacks over the last two years on targets closer and farther away have been attributed to Israel, but this one was different, mainly due to the number of targets, their distance and the number of fatalities they caused.
Even though Israel prefers to keep silent regarding these strikes, defense establishment sources say that the attack occurred against the backdrop of Iranian entrenchment on the Syria-Iraq border, and rising tensions in the region ahead of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden taking office.
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Intelligence assessments in early 2019 suggested that Iran would have difficulties establishing a presence west of Damascus due to Israeli airstrikes and the sanctions imposed on it. Iran did move its forces to the Syria-Iraq border, to areas under total Iranian control. It set up infrastructure for moving forces and smuggling operations between Iraq and Lebanon.
Iran established militias with fighters from various countries in that area, including Hezbollah forces. Tuesday’s strike included dozens of targets, including headquarters and logistics centers used by Iran and the militias they sponsor.
"Iran did a damage assessment after it understood that it will have a hard time operating close to the Israeli border, and reassessed western Iraq," said an Israeli intelligence official in recent closed-door talks. "It transferred there missiles that can hit anywhere in Israeli territory, and can move them through a smuggling route to even closer positions. [Iran] is establishing a system of drones and cruise missiles and military industries it could not sustain in the Damascus area."
According to situational assessments presented to politicians, defense establishment officials are concerned that after Biden takes office, Washington will lose interest in Iraq, and it will become a vassal Iranian state. There is also a possibility that the United States will reenter the nuclear accord with Iran, and ease the sanctions it applied to it. According to intelligence assessments, a combination of these factors could embolden Iran's Revolutionary Guards to take risks in operations against Israel and other states.
A senior defense official recently said in a closed discussion that if the United States does return to the nuclear deal, "The Iranians might understand it to be a green light to keep doing anything non-nuclear." According to the source, "This means that they'll start tightening the rope more than they've done until now, and Hezbollah might also be affected by this. Israel will not accept this, and the Iranians understand that.”
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A former defense official, who was involved in efforts to prevent Iranian entrenchment in the area, said that Israel has an interest in showing the United States that it will not accept differentiating between the nuclear issue and Iran's actions in Syria or aid to Hezbollah, so long as they pose a strategic threat to Israel.
He added that if Iran and Hezbollah do increase their activities in the region, Israel will need to "Stretch the limit of the 'battle between the wars,' maintaining operational activity below the level of war, and to decide if that's enough to solve this problem."
Two weeks ago, Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi bestowed commendations on several units, honoring their operational activities, including “missions having supreme importance for state security.” Among the recipients were units and people with roles involving combat in distant arenas, including clandestine missions most of the public is unaware of. Among the recipients was a submarine flotilla, honored for “dozens of classified operations, carried out in a dangerous environment involving changing areas of friction between the powers.”
Military Intelligence and the Mossad were awarded commendations for a significant classified operation in the campaign against high-precision missiles. The Israel Air Force also received a commendation for collecting intelligence which led to a successful operation. Naval commandos were cited for a string of groundbreaking operations, performed “in a changing and challenging environment.”
Even though Israel has tried to formally maintain some vagueness regarding its operations, it has long since been dispelled. Behind closed doors, there are clear statements about Israel being in direct confrontation with Iran. “Neighboring states know that Israel is the only one capable of standing up to Iran and hitting it hard,” says a senior defense official. Others say that the Middle East is on hold, waiting to see what policy Biden adopts for the region.
“All the powers are now engaged in their internal problems," says another defense official. "The economic and health situation, as well as China, worry the United States much more than the Middle East." This leads to an assessment that the powers will reduce their involvement in the region in order to focus on their more urgent problems.
Despite Iran’s intentions, officials say Israel has some significant advantages. Israel’s ties with the United States have been strengthened in recent years to levels not seen previously. There is a constant sharing of intelligence, giving all sides a better picture. This makes it harder for Iran to slip under the radar, and exposes it to attacks which cause it significant damage.
Israel’s intelligence services have carried out targeted assassinations, discovered attack tunnels on the Lebanese border, exposed nuclear sites and foiled attempts to carry out attacks, causing Iran embarrassment and uncertainty regarding the information Israel possesses. The normalization agreements with Gulf states has been a significant development, giving Israel a closer and better look at Iran.