(April 30, 2018 / JNS) If Israel was behind the latest reported air strikes in Syria, targeting two bases that appeared to contain Iranian weapons depots, this would seem to be the latest sign that Jerusalem’s determination to stop Iran from building a war machine in Syria remains absolute and unshakable.
The term “Iranian war machine” is how former Israeli national security adviser, Maj. Gen. (Res.) Yaakov Amidror, described Iran’s ambitions in Syria during a radio interview on Monday. It is a term that accurately describes what Iran is working to build in Syria—and what Israel is determined to nip in the bud—before Syria joins Lebanon in becoming a second Iranian proxy state.
The massive explosions that resulted from the strikes were so powerful that they were registered as a 2.6 magnitude earthquake by the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre. It also indicated that heavy weapons—possibly surface-to-surface missiles with extended ranges and big warheads—were the target.
If Iran had smuggled such weapons into Syria, their only conceivable target could be Israeli cities, sensitive strategic sites and military bases. In other words, Iran is continuing to try and build up its attack capabilities in Syria, and testing Jerusalem’s determination to stop it.
This is part of Iran’s grand strategy of “a thousand cuts” in Syria, designed eventually to complete its takeover of the country, following the victory of the pro-Syrian President Bashar Assad alliance led by Iran and Russia.
Conflicting reports emerged about casualties in the latest incident. This may be because Iran chose to enter a sphere of deniability over the latest strike. Not acknowledging the extent of the damage that Iran incurred would suit its interests because the weapons that were struck in those depots should not have been in Syria.
Whatever did explode during the strikes, it is safe to assume, was part of Tehran’s ongoing attempt to build up its strike capability.
If left unchecked, the Iranians could try to mobilize military formations to the Israeli border via emerging land corridors connecting Iran to Syria. For years, Iran has used planes to smuggle weapons, proxy militia fighters and send its own military units into Syria, with many of these activities disrupted in the process.
Israel’s messaging has been persistent, despite the fact that the stakes are clearly going up. Israel will not allow Iran to proceed with its takeover plans for Syria and is not willing to step back from enforcing its red lines, irrespective of Iran’s threats of retribution and Russia’s concerns over the situation.
At the start of April, Iran tried to create “new rules” for the escalating conflict between it and Israel on Syrian soil. In response to an alleged Israeli airstrike on an Iranian air base in central Syria, which killed several IRGC members, Iranian officials started openly threatening revenge.
If Israel struck again on Sunday night, the resulting message appears to be that Iran can “keep score” all it likes of past strikes and can continue to threaten revenge, but this will not deter Israel from responding to intelligence of threatening activity that comes in.
Taking Iran’s threats seriously
Israel’s determination to protect its vital interests in Syria should not be confused with trivializing the Iranian threats. The Israeli defense establishment is taking Iran’s vows to respond quite seriously.
Iran can be expected to react in a way that would be painful for Israel, but still avert an escalation into a full-scale conflict. Yet such an option remains evasive for any Iranian strike that can be traced back to it could result in major Israeli counterstrikes on Iranian assets—be they in Syria or elsewhere.
This high stakes, low-profile conflict could escalate significantly if Hezbollah—Iran’s proxy army in Lebanon—becomes involved.
While no side is seeking all-out war, smaller incidents hold the potential of snowballing into larger conflicts; for this reason, threats of Iranian retaliation cannot be dismissed.
A small display of Israel’s capabilities
Nevertheless, assuming that Jerusalem conducted the strikes, the latest reported incidents have given Iran and its axis a taste of Israel’s unparalleled intelligence and strike capabilities.
The ability to track Iran’s movements around the region with such accuracy—and to back up this intelligence with precision strike capabilities—is bound to make Iran think twice about how to respond.
Moreover, a remarkable level of cooperation exists between Israel’s air force, which acts as the police force in the skies, tracking and responding to violations of Israeli red lines; the Military Intelligence Directorate; and the IDF’s C4i Branch, which built a cutting-edge digital military network. This cooperation has created new abilities for the Jewish state.
The Iranians will have no choice but to take stock of these abilities when they consider their options in responding to the latest developments. An ability to strike two targets in northern Syria suggests an equal ability to conduct mass strikes with the same level of precision. Such capabilities would put many things that are dear to Iran in Syria at significant risk.