Judging by historic precedent, the report Fox News aired Wednesday on the new Iranian military base in Syria is like cocking a gun: it’s the warning before the blast. The same happened in December. A few weeks after the BBC reported based on “Western intelligence” sources, on a base for pro-Iranian Shiite in Syria, the base was bombed from the air. Foreign media attributed the attack to Israel, though Israel as usual declined to comment.
The last week has brought more reports about Iran’s establishment in Syria – the deployment of Shiite militias, the presence of military experts, soldiers from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, as well as plans to build bases and weapons factories. First The New York Times published a detailed map showing the Iranian reinforcement, now Fox News reports that the new base near Damascus includes big hangars, that could house missiles capable of hitting anywhere in Israel.
Fox News, like the BBC before it, broadcast satellite images of the suspect site. The conservative news network quoted the same opaque Western sources. One may assume that definition is a relatively flexible one, and that it’s perfectly accurate if one reads that as sources located somewhere west of Iran.
Irrespective of the sources’ specific identity, Tehran and Damascus are probably taking things seriously and assuming that this is a signal, direct or indirect, from Israel.
These reports follow a number of other developments, one being Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s unusual speech last week at the International Security Conference in Munich, Germany, on February 18. There for the first time he threatened a direct hit on Iran and military action against the Assad regime. Another is Netanyahu’s anticipated meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington next month; and when a group of senators returned home from visiting Israel, they stated that the new threats by Iran require the administration to reconsider giving Israel more military aid.
Speaking to the Voice of Israel radio on Wednesday morning, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Israel would not accept Iranian establishment in Lebanon, and certainly not let it position long-range missiles there. The minister however repeated that Israel is not looking for war up north.
Most of the Syrian medium- and long-range missiles were used up or destroyed during the seven-year civil war. Iran’s attempts have centered so far mainly on arming Hezbollah and, lately, it’s been trying to improve the accuracy of the Lebanese organization’s guided rockets.
Yet assuming that Iran is preparing for future war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, it makes sense, as far as it’s concerned, to prepare a second front deep inside Syria. That would force the Israeli air force to stretch its aggressive capacities over a wider area, enabling the Iranians and their partners to launch missiles at Israel from a greater distance, even if the Israeli army embarks on a broad ground campaign in Lebanon.
The new threat against Iran was issued two and a half weeks after the day of Israeli-Syrian-Iranian fighting on February 10. That day the Israeli army shot down an Iranian drone that had penetrated Israeli territory by Beit She’an; in retaliation, Israel attacked an Iranian command bunker by Tadmor (Palmyra) in central Syria, and the Syrian aerial defense downed an Israeli F-16 fighter jet.
Despite the price the parties paid (including Syria, after Israeli jets bombed its antiaircraft batteries in response), the latest report seems to show the parties are continuing to follow their own original plans. Iran continues to increase its assets in Syria, which Israel may target again. The foreign press hasn’t reported any more Israeli bombing raids on Syria since February 10, but senior Israeli sources have already spelled out that the policy of deterrence in the north will continue.
In other words, in light of the Fox News report, it's fair to assume that the countdown has started for another aerial clash in the Syrian skies. Even with the parties stating that they do not want war, it will take extraordinary navigational skills to prevent matters from spiraling out of control.