(July 2, 2019 / JNS) The airstrikes that hit multiple targets across Syria early on Monday were extensive and too widespread for the Bashar Assad regime to be able to deny. The overall message behind them appears to be aimed at telling Iran that it should give up on attempts to turn Syria into a war machine against Israel.
The details coming out of Syria appear to suggest that a major wave of strikes targeted Iranian and Hezbollah weapons development, storage and transfer facilities, at least some of which were embedded in Syrian military bases.
Syrian state media said the Israeli Air Force hit targets around Damascus, Homs in western Syria and on the Syrian-Lebanese border on Monday morning, adding that 16 people were killed (15 were noted in original news reports).
The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Israeli jets and naval missile ships pounded targets belonging to the Assad regime, Iranian militias and Hezbollah.
One of the targets reportedly included the notorious Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC), a major complex that develops biological, chemical and missile-weapons technology. Israeli satellite company ISI published images on Monday showing that a hangar at the SSRC—thought to contain advanced weapons, and which was linked to Iran and Hezbollah—was obliterated.
The strikes indicate that Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, were involved in a major new weapons’ development or smuggling project, possibly aimed at giving Hezbollah new precision missile capabilities with which it can target strategic Israeli sites.
‘Lebanon is turning into an Iranian attack site’
Speaking hours after the attack at the Herzliya Conference, Mossad director Yossi Cohen seemed to provide valuable context to the shadow war raging between Israel and Iran.
“I believe that Iran will reach the conclusion that it is just not worth it,” said Cohen, relaying Israel’s long-term goal in Syria.
In addition, he said, the Mossad has seen Iran and Hezbollah shift their activities in Syria northwards, setting up bases further away from Damascus and away from the Israeli border. This comment matches previous reports that said Iran is increasingly relying on more distant sites, like the T4 airbase in the central Syrian desert, for smuggling in and developing weapons.
“They mistakenly think it will be harder to reach,” Cohen warned, issuing an explicit Israeli threat. Iran is also creating weapons bases in neighboring Iraq and in Lebanon, he said.
In Lebanon, Iran is moving “huge quantities of weapons” into Hezbollah bases, and pursuing a “widespread program” that seeks to convert unguided projectiles into accurate missiles, said Cohen. “Lebanon is turning into an Iranian attack site. During a war, Lebanon could be damaged by Israeli defensive measures. It is important for the Lebanese government to stop Iran from building offensive weapons in Lebanon.”
The Mossad plays a key role in the Israeli campaign to contain and thwart its aggressive activities. Cohen’s comments provide a small glimpse into a much wider confrontation. The comments also carry clear warnings to the Islamic Republic and to Lebanon over the dangers of their actions, and Israel’s firm determination to stop them.
Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, former security adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told the Israel Project on Monday that the latest events are a reminder of Israel’s decision to prevent “the Iranians from building an independent war machine in Syria,” whatever effort is needed to accomplish that.
Referring to the trilateral meeting held in Jerusalem last week, which saw national security advisers from Russia, the United States and Israel meet to discuss Iran’s role vis-à-vis Russia and its proxies entrenched in areas north of Israel, Amidror said the fact that “we had important meetings in Jerusalem should not prevent us from the important efforts to contain the Iranians.”
Ultimately, Israel must remain “very determined not to let the Iranians build what they have in mind in Syria,” argued Amidror. “We won’t let the Iranians bring weapons systems, and transfer technology and know-how to Hezbollah. Whatever is the place [that was hit], it was probably connected to one of these efforts by the Iranians,” he assessed.
‘Israel is a player in the Syrian balance of power’
During a conference call with journalists, organized by Media Central, a media liaison center based in Jerusalem, Col. (res.) Eran Lerman, a former senior Israeli intelligence official, discussed the significance of that trilateral conference last week.
“Israel is a player in the Syrian balance of power,” he said. “The Russian leadership has a very healthy respect, based on experience and knowledge, for Israeli military capabilities … this is why this conversation takes place here,” he said.
Lerman, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, said that Israel’s realistic hopes from the conference is to get “a very clear delineation and a capping of Iranian penetration [of Syria]. Gradually getting rid of the Shi’ite militias that the Iranians have been bringing in. And a very clear limit on how much the Iranians can use Syrian territory.”
Iran has been seeking to use Syria, both to destabilize Jordan and launch attacks on Israel, said Lerman.
Israel would hope to see a clear signal from Moscow, he added, according to which, if Assad wishes to have Moscow comfortably at his side during the very difficult period of rebuilding Syria, “he needs to be much more proactive in not letting the Iranians run the country.”
The question of whether Tehran will continue to use Syria to attack Israel, threaten Jordan and consolidate its hold on Lebanon—or whether it will be marginalized, and Russia becomes the key player in stabilizing Syria—lay at the heart of the summit, stated Lerman.
In the meantime, the latest strikes indicate that Iran and Hezbollah have not evacuated the Damascus area and have paid a significant price as a result.
With Iran’s regime under considerable economic pressure at home due to U.S. sanctions, the Islamic Republic’s “long reach” in Syria is also under severe Israeli pressure.
Iran’s plans to surround Israel with terrorist armies doesn’t stop with Syria. During his speech, Cohen of the Mossad revealed that Tehran paid more than $100 million for the military build-up of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in the Gaza Strip over the past two years.
While Israel is prepared to deal with threats from Gaza, its top focus appears to be Iran’s ongoing attempt to take advantage of its role in the Syrian war to consolidate its power. As Syria—bloodied and battered after eight years of fighting—edges back towards becoming a state again, Iran must have no military or terrorist presence in it, Israel is clearly saying.
It remains to be seen whether Iran will heed the message.