The Israeli army has prepared for possible rocket fire towards Israel with plans for a number of potential responses after a strike in Syria was attributed to Israel hours after U.S. President Donald Trump announced U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear accord with Iran.
As part of its preparation, the Israel Defense Forces reinforced its aerial defense systems in the north and deployed additional Iron Dome batteries.
Israeli defense officials believe Tuesday’s airstrike on Syria has delayed an expected Iranian attack on Israel, but hasn’t dented the Iranians’ motivation to carry it out.
The airstrike on Syria, which Israel hasn’t officially claimed responsibility for though it is widely seen as an Israeli operation, targeted Iranian missiles aimed at Israel.
On Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot and other senior IDF officers toured the north to inspect the army’s preparations for the possible Iranian attack. While there, senior IDF officers briefed mayors on the situation and its expected ramifications for civilians living in the Golan Heights.
Syria said Tuesday that Israel carried out an attack on a military base south of Damascus, which was used by Iranian forces. According to reports, Israeli fighter jets entered Syrian airspace and struck Iranian missiles aimed at Israel.
The Israeli military said it identified what it called 'unusual movements' of Iranian forces in Syria, and believed those forces were preparing for an imminent retaliation against Israel.
Earlier on Tuesday, the Israeli military ordered communities in the Golan Heights, bordering Syria, to open public bomb shelters. Intelligence officers and other specialized forces have been called up, though reserve combat units have not been called up.
The IDF believes the Iranians’ deployment in Syria gives them only limited capabilities against Israel. Consequently, its assessment is that Iran will retaliate by firing short-range missiles or rockets at the Golan Heights.
According to this assessment, Iranians don’t actually want to kill Israeli civilians; Iran understands that killing civilians would provoke a harsher response than attacking Israeli soldiers.
A drop in the ocean
The IDF’s effort to prevent an Iranian strike isn’t necessarily for fear of military escalation in the Golan. Israeli intelligence assessments say that Iran plans a limited attack on a military target – a move that could avenge the humiliation of Israel’s strike on Syria’s T4 airbase last month without sparking a broader war.
A defense official told Haaretz that Israel’s main concern over the expected Iranian strike isn’t the limited, one-time launch of missiles at Israel, but a situation in which every Israeli strike in Syria is met with an Iranian strike on Israel.
“The situation today is one of who’s deterring the other more,” the official said. “Hitting missiles or other systems is a tactical measure, but the principal significance of these strikes is that we operate both before and after [any Iranian attack]; we won’t allow the rules in the region to be changed.”
Nevertheless, he acknowledged that, in the long term, Israel has limited ability to preserve its deterrence against Iran, determine the rules of the game and be the one to set red lines.
“The strikes on the Iranian missiles in Syria are a drop in the ocean. Even the army understands that this won’t prevent missiles and other systems from arriving [in the area], and we’re seeing that happen," he said.
Iran has several allies in Syria that it could use to carry out a strike against Israel. First, Hezbollah troops are still present in Syria, though in smaller numbers than at the peak of the Syrian civil war. These troops are stationed in the foothills of Mount Hermon. The IDF’s working assumption is that any arms in Hezbollah’s possession are arms Iran can use against Israel. Hezbollah’s forces in Syria don’t have long-range ballistic missiles, but they do have short- and medium-range rockets and missiles, which, because of their location close to the border, can reach much of Israel.
There are also Iranian-sponsored Shi’ite militias in Syria comprising tens of thousands of fighters, mainly from Afghanistan. For Iran, they serve as cannon fodder. But they take their orders from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds force.
Finally, Iran has its own fighters in Syria. What most concerns Israel are the senior Revolutionary Guards air force officers, who serve as advisors to the Iranian-sponsored forces in Syria and are the guiding force behind Iran’s military entrenchment in the country. They are the ones responsible for carrying out any Iranian strike on Israel.
The IDF believes Israel’s level of intelligence about Iran’s operations in Syria has surprised Iran. Israel has a fairly clear picture of what Iran is doing there, which is how Israel, apparently, obtained advanced warning of Iran’s preparations for a strike on Israel on Tuesday.
But Iran’s difficulties in carrying out a rocket or missile strike on Israel are liable to lead it to try a different tactic, such as getting its militias in Syria to start a violent incident near the border fence, IDF officers said. The army is therefore preparing for anything from a missile strike – possibly on IDF forces near the fence – to an infiltration of armed fighters across the fence with the goal of penetrating an IDF base. Its preparations for these possibilities have included altering the routine of soldiers near the fence and changing the staffing levels in nonessential military facilities in the vicinity
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