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Israel and Iran engaged in a shadow war in Syria

At least for now, America and Europe—and even the majority of the Arab world—recognize that Israel has the right to defend itself. This is new, and it signifies a huge shift.

An aerial photo released by the Israeli Defense Forces on May 11, 2018, showing Iranian intelligence sites in Syria. (IDF Spokesperson)
An aerial photo released by the Israeli Defense Forces on May 11, 2018, showing Iranian intelligence sites in Syria. (IDF Spokesperson)
Fiamma Nirenstein

Qasem Suleimani, the mythological general of the elite Quds Force who spearheads Iran’s imperialist expansion and its acquisition of ballistic missiles, is undoubtedly musing over the consequences of his recent strike on the Golan Heights. For the first time in history and with extreme arrogance, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard decided to carry out a rocket attack against its most hated enemy, Israel.

Suleimani had vowed revenge in the wake of Israel’s strike on its T-4 airbase—from which Iran had launched a sophisticated armed drone that entered Israeli airspace—in central Syria that killed seven of his men. He has now made good on that promise, and it is perhaps no accident that he opted to do so the day after Trump backed out of the nuclear deal and in light of the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

It was an interconnected strategy that didn’t work: Iran, enraged and full of vitriol, issued not only a furious response to Trump, but also swore unswervingly to destroy Israel by launching 20 Russian rockets—16 of which failed to cross the border into Israel, while Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system intercepted the other four.

Aerial photo released by the Israeli Defense Forces on May 11, 2018, showing Iranian intelligence sites in Syria.

The response from the Jewish state came shortly after midnight. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just returned a half-hour earlier from a historic one-day visit to Moscow in the company of Russian President Vladimir Putin, who pulled out all stops to graciously host him as if to say the following to Trump: Don’t think you are the only one to have leverage vis-à-vis Israel. Israel’s national anthem was played alongside that of Russia’s while the country commemorated the 73rd anniversary of Russia’s heroic resistance against Nazi fascism during World War II, in particular the contribution of Jews who served in the Red Army.

Following the festivities, the two leaders discussed the situation in Syria behind closed doors, and if we allow our imaginations to run wild, Netanyahu must have assured that he would not interfere with Russia’s presence in those parts, but that he is nonetheless fully determined to curtail Iran’s military buildup there. He also most likely expressed his worry over Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is tied to Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, and who may seek to obtain decisive weapons from Russia.

We don’t know if Netanyahu declared his intention to use military intervention as needed, but we can assume that just as he didn’t receive a green light to attack Iranian military installations in Syria, he didn’t receive a red one, which logically suggests that he spoke to him in advance.

As soon as Netanyahu returned from Moscow and met with his cabinet, Israel decided to respond to the rocket-launchings by carrying out a military strike against Iran in Syria. Shortly after it occurred, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman had these words for Iran: “If we get rain, they’ll get a flood.”

Approximately 28 F-15 and F-16 Israeli fighter jets hit around 60 targets, drawing an almost complete map of Iranian military bases. We don’t know the number of fatalities, but we know that there were Iranians among them. It was a blow to which the ayatollahs will have to fully take into consideration before seeking to retaliate against Israel because it clearly demonstrates that Israeli intelligence has not only detailed knowledge of Iranian bases in Syria, but has also prepared a decisive military strategy.

Certainly, Iran’s “revenge” won’t bring glory and honor to its regime. No matter how much it attempts to ingratiate itself, over time the truth of its real nature is coming to the fore on social media, and on clandestine radio and TV. The regime currently finds itself in a weak position, contested by the Iranian people, who are oppressed and increasingly impoverished, and now without any illusions that economic well-being is on the horizon as they thought would occur once the Iran deal—forged by the Obama administration—took effect.

The Iranians won’t, however, bury their hatred for Israel, and we can expect them eventually to respond to Israel’s maneuver. Iran doesn’t intend to be ousted from Syria—its best stage from which to carry out its Middle East expansion—but it will have to devise new strategies. Without any moral remorse–as demonstrated by the appalling attacks on Jewish centers in Buenos Aires, which took place in 1992 and 1994, leaving hundreds of people dead and wounded—it’s easy to imagine that they will attempt ground-based terrorist attacks inside Israel’s borders.

Israel, of course, is taking the necessary precautions.

In general, the mood in the Jewish state is high, despite the fact that many people in the Golan Heights depend on tourism, particularly families who come to vacation in its mountains, and stay at its hotels and B&Bs on the weekends. The latter are suffering due to the numerous cancellations. Hoteliers are calling upon people to come on holiday because as they say, “we are here, everything is quiet, and we are here to stay.” Bomb shelters have been opened, soldiers from some reserve units have been mobilized, and it is said that the beloved pilots of F-15 and F-16 fighter jets had already all been called up and ready for several days before the attack.

A sense of justice seems to be winning, given that the entire world must finally recognize that the nuclear deal failed by allowing Iran to continue its ballistic-missile weapons strategy, in addition to nuclear enrichment. Because even if Europe defends the interests of its investors and has very little regard for its children’s future, there are more important things to defend, first and foremost the existence of one’s country. In Israel, that is done with modesty but great determination. And at least for now, America and Europe—and even the majority of the Arab world—recognize that Israel has the right to defend itself. This is new, and it signifies a huge shift.

Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies, served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Translation by Amy Rosenthal.

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