The explosion in Syria’s Hama province late Sunday night, which has been attributed to an Israeli airstrike, registered 2.6 on the Richter scale — a small earthquake, the kind that won’t knock down a building, but might knock a picture off your shelf.
The epicenter of this tremor was a military base south of the city of Hama, which is connected to the Syrian military’s 47th Brigade and has been identified by Syrian opposition sources as being under Iranian control and housing a weapons depot.
Casualty reports from the strike varied, ranging from 16 to 38 people killed. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that there were 26 fatalities, most of them Iranian.
Iran has officially denied losing any troops in the explosion. But if the reported Iranian death tolls are to be believed, the Sunday night strike could be one of the deadliest in more than six years of the civil war in Syria.
The massive explosion near Hama, which could be felt and seen throughout the area, was not likely caused by the missile or rocket used, but by the target that was hit.
“It may be ballistic missiles with heavy warheads. The level of explosion that even moved the needle of an earthquake detector is not from the munition that attacked these places, but from the target,” said Amos Yadlin, a former head of Military Intelligence and the current director of the influential Institute for National Security Studies think tank.
فيديو للإنفجارات في ريف حماه ..نسأل الله السلامة للرجال هناك ..????الشفاء العاجل للجرحى ..حتى الآن لم يصرح مصدر مسؤول عن ماهية الإنفجارات ..#محردة_الآن
Posted by محردة الآن on Sunday, 29 April 2018
Yadlin, speaking to reporters in a phone briefing organized by the Israel Project, noted that the strike came after CNN reported last week that Israeli and American intelligence services were closely monitoring flights between Iran and Syria, including to Hama, out of an understanding that these aircraft were being used to transport advanced weaponry.
One eagle-eyed digital skywatcher, using open source flight tracking software, spotted an apparent transport lift from Mehrabad toward Hama and then from Hama to Damascus the night before the strike.
Plane of Interest: Syrian Arab Air Force 585th Transport Squadron of the 29th Air Brigade’s four-engine turbofan strategic airlifter Ilyushin Il-76T YK-ATD flew from Tehran Mehrabad to -likely- Hamah military airport through Iraqi airspace. pic.twitter.com/AzqM3n5QlE
— Yörük Işık (@YorukIsik) April 28, 2018
In general, the concern in Jerusalem is that precise medium- and long-range missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles — like the armed one that Israel says entered its airspace in February — or sophisticated air defense systems will make their way into Syria or to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
If Israeli intelligence spots such a shipment, the country’s decision-makers must determine if the risk of retaliation outweighs the threat posed by the incoming system in question.
“Do we confront Iran before it has these capabilities, or do we wait?” Yadlin said.
If Israel were indeed behind Sunday night’s attack, the answer seems to be the former.
A second site in Syria, near an airfield outside Aleppo, was also reportedly hit late Sunday night, though the destruction there was apparently not as extensive. Photographs from the scene show that this second target was a large building with a sign reading, “Zeido Auto Test Center.” Photographs from inside the building, posted to social media by the Israeli defense blog Intelli Times, showed that it could also be used as a potential storage facility for weapons.
These advanced weapons systems are not comparable to the threat of a nuclear Iran, Yadlin said, but are still “very serious.”
The week before the CNN report, Israeli officials also leaked a map and satellite images of five Syria airfields and Tehran’s Mehrabad airport, from which these alleged arms shipments were taking off. While the Hama base was not included in this map, the Aleppo airfield — the site of the second strike on Sunday night — was one of the five sites.
No one thus far has taken responsibility for the attack, nor has Iran or Syria made any specific accusations, though some outlets affiliated with Iran and its proxies have indicated that Israel is believed to be behind it.
Notably silent in the aftermath of the late night strike is Russia, which was far more vocal following an April 9 strike on a central Syrian air base.
There was initial speculation that the attack may have been carried out by Syrian rebel forces in the nearby city of al-Rastan — the Hama base had reportedly been used in the past to carry out strikes against opposition forces — but Yadlin dismissed this as highly unlikely given the level of sophistication involved.
“The power and precision points to state-grade operational capabilities,” he said.
This effectively leaves either the United States and its coalition with the United Kingdom and France — which attacked targets in Syria earlier this month in response to a chemical weapons attack by dictator Bashar Assad’s forces — and Israel — which has been waging a quiet war with Iran and its proxies as the Islamic Republic tries to entrench itself militarily in Syria.
“I think the latter makes more sense than the former,” Yadlin said.
However, while the US might not have been behind the Hama strike, it at least appeared to have given it some degree of tacit approval for it.
The attack came hours after a short official visit by newly named US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a day after a phone call between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump, and while Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was in the United States on his own official visit there. It also followed a largely unpublicized trip by the head of the US military in the Middle East, Gen. Joseph Votel, last week.
These visits and phone calls were more likely directly connected to Netanyahu’s announcement Monday night that Israel had obtained half a ton of secret Iranian files proving a nuclear weapons program whose existence it has consistently denied. However, they nevertheless gave the appearance of coordination.
Israel doesn’t need American permission for strikes in Syria, but diplomatic support and “legitimacy,” Yadlin said.
An April 9 strike on an allegedly Iran-controlled portion of the Syrian T-4 air base near Palmyra killed 14 people, including at least seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. In that case, Israel was explicitly accused by Iran, Syria and Russia of carrying out the attack. Israeli officials refused to comment.
Unlike with Sunday night’s deaths, these casualties were reported in semi-official Iranian outlets, one of the few times that Tehran has publicly recognized any losses in Syria.
In the weeks following the attack on T-4, Iranian officials made a number of direct threats against Israel, indicating that reprisals were only a matter of time.
But by not formally acknowledging the dead and injured from Sunday, Iran can avoid the type of public humiliation that would otherwise force it to retaliate immediately.
An official in the pro-Assad alliance in Syria — made up of Assad, Iran, Hezbollah and Shiite militias — told The New York Times on Monday that Iran’s response may instead come in approximately one week, after Lebanon holds parliamentary elections on May 6, as to not interfere with the chances of the multiple Hezbollah candidates who are running.
According to Yadlin, an additional body count from Sunday’s strike would not dramatically alter Iran’s plans if it had already decided to retaliate for the April 9 attack on the T-4 base.
The former intelligence chief said an Iranian retaliatory strike could take several forms: a missile attack from Syria, Lebanon or Iran itself; an assault on one of Israel’s borders; or the bombing of an Israeli or Jewish site abroad, as in the 1994 bombing of a Buenos Aires Jewish community center.
The Iranians “can use a proxy or they can do it directly,” Yadlin said.
The prospect of such a retaliation presents a major dilemma to Israel. Is the price of a reprisal worth the benefit of preventing Iran and its proxies from bringing advanced weaponry to Israel’s doorstep?
Yadlin offered a comparison to Hezbollah in Lebanon, where Israel did not take the same level of constant action in order to prevent its arms buildup.
The Iran-backed organization, which was estimated to have an arsenal of a little over 10,000 rockets during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, is now believed by the Israeli military to possess nearly 150,000 rockets and missiles today. Once a two-bit terrorist group, Hezbollah is now considered the primary threat to the Israel Defense Forces. With significant experience from its fighting in Syria, Hezbollah has grown to become the enemy by which the IDF measures its preparedness.
At the same time, Israel has had nearly no direct clashes with Hezbollah in the almost 12 years since the Second Lebanon War.
“[Do you] pay a small price now by preventing or a high price in the future?” Yadlin said.
While the prospect of a future high price may seem the less preferable option, especially in light of the threat posed by Hezbollah — in the tumultuous Middle East, an extra few years of relative quiet is not an insignificant achievement.
Yet Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman has said repeatedly that Israel is prepared to pay the small price today.
“I know one thing for sure — we will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Whatever the cost. We have no other choice,” Liberman said during a tour of northern Israel earlier this month.