The attack on the T4 air base in northern Syria at around dawn Monday, which foreign media outlets have attributed to Israel, is the third in the country within a week. In the two previous cases, Israel was reportedly reacting to fire against it. This time, according to the foreign media, the target was Iranian interests.
As Haaretz reported in February, this year Iran has changed some of the characteristics of its operations in Syria.
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Against the backdrop of Israeli attacks, and dissatisfaction with Russia and Bashar Assad's regime, Iran's Revolutionary Guards moved their main activity from the Damascus airport to a base farther north, T4, which is next to Homs. The Iranians have operated from that base before, and Israel bombed it a number of times in 2018.
In the past, Israeli attacks targeted Iranian arms shipments via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. They also aimed to thwart the Guards' deployment of drones and air defense systems from sites the Iranians set up at Syrian bases.
The latest attack adds to two incidents last week. First, a Syrian antiaircraft launcher was destroyed at Quneitra, in the Syrian Golan Heights, after it fired at Israeli jets. Syria reported that two soldiers were killed. On Saturday night, two rockets had been fired from Syria into Israel, one landing on Mount Hermon. There were no casualties. The Israeli air force reacted with attacks on Syrian army targets.
Israeli defense officials are having a hard time determining exactly who fired the rockets Saturday night. The usual explanation over the years for incidents of this type – errant fire during exchanges between Syrian army forces and the rebels – has not been relevant for a year now.
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The Assad regime has total control of southern Syria; no significant force challenges him there. The Syrian army has returned to the Syrian Golan Heights, reminiscent of the deployment of its forces on the eve of the civil war. It has reasonable control over what goes on there.
At the same time, the Syrian air defenses are edgy and seek every opportunity to shoot down planes that approach Syrian air space.
The rocket fire on the Hermon on Saturday night therefore looks like a deliberate move by the regime. But the power behind it could be the Syrian army, the Revolutionary Guards or one of the Shi’ite militias that Iran operates in southern Syria.
There are many possible reasons: the Shi’ite Quds Day, which was marked this year by numerous threats against Israel by Iran and Hezbollah; another veiled threat by Iran because of the tensions with the United States in the Persian Gulf; or Syrian revenge for the previous Israeli air raid.
If the rocket fire was supposed to be revenge, it backfired. A few hours later Israeli forces attacked a number of targets in southern Syria. The Syrian opposition later reported dozens of casualties from the Israeli raids, including Iranian fighters, though this number looks inflated.
On Monday morning came the attack against the T4 air base, apparently targeting Iran. Reports in Syria cite two casualties. Israel held the Assad regime responsible for the Hermon incident, as the one controlling the territory on its side of the border, and made no specific allegations against Iran.
These incidents demonstrate that although Assad has regained control over the territory in the south, the border area is not completely stable. Israel's leaders keep saying they can't accept an Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, and from time to time they back up these words with deeds. Yet the friction between the two militaries is less intense than a year ago, partly because Iran is being more cautious than before. But the underlying tension remains.
Meanwhile, Israel is also drawing lines in the sand regarding Lebanon. It recently sent a warning through the Americans to the government in Beirut against attempts by Iran and Hezbollah to set up production lines to upgrade Hezbollah's guided missiles in Lebanon.