Analysis |

Israel's Preventative Actions Thwart Iran's Revenge From Syria – for Now

8 Iranians said killed in Damascus strike ■ Israel opens shelters in north ■ Third Israeli action in 10 days may force Iran to reconsider nature, timing of payback

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
Sight of the strike in Syria attributed to Israel, May 9, 2018
Sight of the strike in Syria attributed to Israel, May 9, 2018Credit: (AP)
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

UPDATE: Israel launches most extensive strike in Syria in decades after Iranian rocket barrage

The air raid ascribed to Israel on Kiswah, south of Damascus Tuesday night, looks like a preventative strike designed to thwart Iran from firing rockets from Syria at northern Israel. Eight Iranians were reported to be among the 15 killed in the attack.

This would be the third report in 10 days about an urgent Israeli move to foil Iranian plans. For example, last week a major cache of Iranian missiles in Syria was bombed north of Hama.

Come Sunday evening, intelligence was leaked to the Israeli media that Iran was poised to make an imminent move.

In none of these cases were rockets ultimately fired at Israel. For now, Israel's preventative measures seem to be spoiling retaliation by Iran. Israeli army sources, however, assume that Iran will keep trying.

Iran would like to fire rockets at Israeli army positions in the Golan Heights, the army assesses. Civilians in the area cannot be left defenseless while the army bases go on high alert, hence the unusual order Tuesday night to open the public shelters in the Golan for the first time since the Syrian civil war erupted more than seven years ago.

The Iranian effort follows an attack ascribed to Israel that took place a month ago, on the T4 Syrian air force base near Homs. Seven members of the Iranaian Revolutionary Guards Corps, who had apparently been in the middle of establishing an Iranian air base complete with anti-aircraft batteries within the Syrian air base, were killed. Tehran publicly announced that it would retaliate. Since then, the commander of the Quds Force in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, has been consolidating the reaction.

According to leaks, Soleimani is working on a joint venture: Iranian planning, commanders from Hezbollah, and the rockets would assumedly be fired by Shi'ite militias operating in Syria with Iranian funding.

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Israeli reports, like the actual acts taken, attest that the Iranian preparations have been exposed. That could force Soleimani to rethink the manner and timing of the mission. But the account remains open, and in the background the bigger mission is still underway: the effort Tehran is making to deepen its military grip on Syria, and the stated Israeli decision to block it from doing so, whatever it takes.

Even though the Israeli media still has to rely on foreign accounts, Israeli cabinet members seem to have shrugged off such restrictions when speaking to the Ynet news site. On Monday, Yuval Steinitz threatened the life of Syrian President Bashar Assad if he allows Iran to fire on Israel from his country. On Wednesday morning, Yisrael Katz stated that Israel is preventing the Iranians from retaliating.

Hurricane Donald

All this is happening on the backdrop of U.S. President Donald Trump's speech on Tuesday night. Exactly 18 months after he won the U.S. presidential election, the full force of Hurricane Donald has hit the Middle East. His announcement that the United States is withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran heralds a strategic change for the region. It fits in with the immediate and more direct tension between Israel and Iran in Syria.

The messages Trump conveyed in his live address seemed totally coordinated with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump listed all the problems Netanyahu had cited in the nuclear agreement over the years, and announced that he saw the exposure of Iran’s nuclear documents by Mossad as definitive proof of Tehran’s intention to continue to deceive the international community.

Trump and Netanyahu share a common line on three key issues: abandoning the nuclear agreement; encouraging regime change in Iran; and stopping Iranian military buildup in Syria.

With Netanyahu's active encouragement, Trump is now leading a more aggressive and combative line against the nuclear program.

In effect, Trump called on the Iranian people to rise up against their rulers, based on the hope that new sanctions, on top of the existing economic deterioration, will pose a more serious challenge to the regime than before.

The American president is leaving the fight against the Iranians in Syria to Israel, but his condemnation of Iran's support for terrorism can be interpreted as support for the Israel Defense Forces' actions in the north.

Contrary to some of the leaks published before the president’s announcement, Trump seems poised to reimpose broad sanctions on Iran, relatively quickly. At least according to the statement, Trump isn’t leaving much room for negotiations with the three European signatories to the agreement (Britain, France and Germany) regarding the next steps. The United States is taking action and leaving its partners to decide for themselves what to do.

Trump, who had been harshly critical of the nuclear deal throughout his election campaign, has two guidelines: To prove that he keeps his campaign promises (as was the case with moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, which is supposed to happen next week); and to erase everything identified with the legacy of his predecessor, Barack Obama.

From an Israeli perspective, there is no doubt that the level of Trump’s identification and support is very high. But the harder test is maintaining planned and coordinated moves later on – and here the administration has not shown a calculated, continuous approach, despite tight coordination between the security and intelligence establishments in both countries.

Amid the tensions, the U.S. has sent an interesting message by dispatching the USS Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier to the Mediterranean, between Israel and Cyprus, in the next few days. Despite having its course set in advance, it seems the American presence in the region can be perceived as backing Israeli deterrence against Iran and Hezbollah. In recent months, the aircraft carrier participated in action against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. It has been recently noted by the Israeli top brass that Trump is reexamining his decision to extract 2,000 special forces operatives from Syria, and that the administration may delay their departure by a few more months.

Rules of the game are changing

The strategic reality in the region has had two main driving forces in recent years: The intense fighting between the Shi'ite axis and the Sunnis in Syria; and the nuclear deal spearheaded by the Obama administration, following which the United States avoided direct confrontation with Iran.

The Syrian campaign was effectively decided months ago, in favor of the Assad regime, Iran, and the Shi'ites. On Tuesday, Trump began to tear down the second foundation. From now on, the rules of the game are changing, and the first place this will be felt is the fight between Israel and Iran in Syria.

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