Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1394, (17 - 23 May 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Israel strikes Iran in Syria

In the fiercest exchange of fire between the two countries in years, Israel last week fired some 50 missiles against Iranian bases in Syria, reports Ahmed Eleiba

 Israel strikes Iran in Syria
Israel strikes Iran in Syria

The fiercest exchange of missile fire in recent history took place on the border between Syria and Israel last week in the most violent exchanges since the intermittent rounds of fire that took place in September 2017 and February this year.

On 8 May, Israel struck the Al-Kaswa area of Syria south of Damascus, and 20 missiles were then fired from Syria towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The Israeli forces claimed that Iranian Republican Guard forces had been involved in the missile barrage, most of which it said had been intercepted by the Israeli Iron Dome defence system.

The Israeli offensive followed, with 50 missiles targeting five Iranian bases, and, according to Israeli defence officials, “hitting almost the entire Iranian infrastructure in Syria” and “setting back its military capacities by months”.

According to an Israeli communiqué, Israeli fighter planes struck eight targets in five areas of Syria that it described as military camps, defence systems, intelligence installations and military command and logistics centres.

The official Syrian News Agency (SANA) reported that Israeli missiles had “managed to strike a number of air-defence brigades, a radar station and an ammunitions depot” and that Syrian air defences had succeeded in “downing dozens of hostile Israeli missiles, preventing most of them from reaching their targets”.

Israel sent 28 F15 and F16 planes into Syria towards the vicinity of Damascus where most of the Iranian bases are located. The planes fired 60 to 70 missiles, around half of which were Delilah cruise missiles that are generally used as decoys to lure anti-missile operations and as camouflage for other missiles.

The tactic was calculated to severely challenge the Syrian air defences. In addition to the Iron Dome defence system, the Israeli forces are believed to have used their “David’s Sling” anti-aircraft system.

Israel also released images of what it claims are a military site and an intelligence centre belonging to the Iranian Al-Quds Force and which were among the installations it targeted in Syria. According to the Times of Israel, an Israeli newspaper, the images released by the Israeli army also included aerial photographs of installations at Tel Gharba, Tel Kleb, Nabi Yusha and Tel Maqdad in Syria.

The Syrian government said the targets hit by the Israeli strikes were part of its military infrastructure.

Israel said the strikes were “preemptive,” with Israeli officials saying that it was better to strike Iran in Syria now than wait for a further Iranian build-up. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that “we are determined to block Iran’s aggression against us, even if this means a struggle. Better now than later.”

He claimed that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were delivering advanced weapons to Syria “in order to attack us both on the battlefield and on the home front.”

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed that the strikes had eliminated almost all the Iranian military infrastructure in Syria, whereas other Israeli sources spoke more modestly of setting back Iranian capacities by months.

The lists of the targets appear to confirm the more modest assessment. They mention a centre for intelligence gathering, an observatory belonging to a precision-weapons unit, an airstrip, the 810th and 38th regimental headquarters on the Damascus-Deraa Road, the headquarters of military brigades at the Harmun, Mezzeh and Shayrat airbases, a weapons depot in Al-Kaswa, and other sites in Al-Suweida, Al-Baath and Tel Al-Kebir.

 Analysis of these targets suggests that the Israeli aim was to obstruct Iranian operations in Syria targeting Israel, to destroy the Iranian missiles that Iran and Hizbullah have transferred into Syria, and to keep the area south of Damascus from becoming a staging post for missile fire against the Golan Heights. This analysis also explains Israel’s missile bombardment of the Khan Arnabeh area in southern Syria.

Former Israeli military intelligence chief and director of the National Security Studies Institute in Tel Aviv Amos Yadlin outlined three possible scenarios for the anticipated Iranian response: missile fire targeting Israel from Iran and Syria, a land offensive from parts of Lebanon or the unoccupied portion of the Golan Heights, and attacks against Israelis abroad.

He did not think it likely that Tehran would pursue the course most awkward for Israel, which is to fire missiles directly from Iran, as this would likely trigger the kind of full-scale conflict that Iran does not want at this point.

Another scenario, the “Rezaee scenario” named after Mohsen Rezaee, secretary of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, one of the branches of the Iranian government, says that if Israel “makes the slightest move against the Islamic Republic,” Iran will “level Tel Aviv and deny Netanyahu any opportunity to flee”.

In spite of such threats, Tehran’s shift of its confrontation with Israel to Syria indicates that it is seeking to avert a direct confrontation, which effectively would invite a “Samson option” on both sides.

 Perhaps the most realistic prediction is a tit-for-tat scenario, or continued limited exchanges of fire, while a full-scale confrontation would be the least likely, according to many observers. In a recent article in the UK Sunday Times, Laurence Freedman, professor of military studies at Kings College, London, held that Israel and Iran would continue to joust but that they both knew that all-out war would be too risky.

Assaf Orion, former head of the Strategy Division in the Planning Directorate of the Israeli General Staff, agreed. The Iranians had suffered losses, and they would want revenge, he said. However, they would not fire missiles against Israel from Iran directly, as this would invite a direct Israeli response against the country.

However, against the backdrop of the current tug-of-war surrounding the Iranian nuclear question, there remains the likelihood of further escalation on Israel’s part, especially given Netanyahu’s recent claim to have obtained files revealing the locations of Iranian nuclear projects and apparently proving that Iran had lied about fulfilling its obligations under the nuclear deal with the West.

It should be borne in mind that last week’s flare-up occurred immediately after US President Donald Trump announced Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran.

A final question is how the battle between Israel and Iran in Syria will impact on the Russian-Iranian alliance. This was the first time that Israel had given Russia detailed advance notification of its strikes, which raises the possibility that Moscow might switch from the sidelines in the battle to become an active mediator. It might also serve as a channel for Iranian redeployments in Syria.

On the other hand, Russia might also have an interest in any ongoing confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria. For one thing, this would work to reduce Iranian military power and ambitions, which Russia regards with little enthusiasm, according to some analysts.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov passed over the details of the Israeli strikes and focused on the need to safeguard Syrian territorial integrity in his comments on the developments. This suggests that he sees last week’s missile exchange as a battle between two parties on the territory of a third, a stance that implicitly conveys a message of criticism against Iran for attempting to use Syria for its own ends.

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