Attack drone revelation shows grave, immediate, adjacent threat to Israel: Iran

Attack drone revelation shows grave, immediate, adjacent threat to Israel: Iran

Netanyahu has vowed to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence in Syria. But Tehran is getting bolder, and Russia may make Israel’s challenge even more complex

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has long warned of the danger posed to Israel not many years hence by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. As of Friday night, Israelis are contemplating the danger posed right now by a non-nuclear Iran that is working to entrench itself in Syria.

Two months after an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian drone dispatched from Syria, 30 seconds after it crossed into Israeli airspace, Israel’s military censors on Friday finally allowed local media to report that the drone was not merely taking surveillance footage, but was carrying explosives and was primed to attack and damage an unspecified target somewhere in Israel.

The timing of the revelation — which was accompanied by the Israeli Air Force’s release of footage showing the Apache downing the infiltrating Iranian drone — was plainly linked to a potent attack, carried out pre-dawn Monday, that reportedly caused substantial damage to a facility Iran has been building at the T-4 air base in central Syria, and from which that drone was launched on February 10.

While Jerusalem has been silent, the Monday raid has been widely attributed to Israel — by Russia, Syria, Iran and some in the US. At least seven Iranian military personnel were killed in the raid. Iran has threatened retaliation. A top Iranian aide to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that Iran could destroy Haifa and Tel Aviv. Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Netanyahu not to cause
destabilization in Syria. And so, if anyone was asking why Israel would have risked the repercussions of a raid like Monday’s, Friday’s revelations evidently provided at last part of the answer:

Iran is now sufficiently emboldened as to directly attack Israel. The February drone attack was the first direct Iranian confrontation with Israel, after years of it employing Lebanese and Palestinian proxies to target the Jewish state from Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. That attack had real cost for Israel, which lost an F-16 in retaliatory raids later that same day.

The Tiyas, or T-4, Air Base, outside of the Syrian city of Palmyra, which Israel claims is being operated by Iran and its Quds Force. (Screen capture/Wikimapia)

At the T-4 base in Syria, military sources indicated Friday, Iran has been building a fully functional air base of its own in every respect, with only the fighter planes missing. It was the center of Iran’s attack drone operations. It had surface-to-air missile defense systems and all manner of other protections.

And it is only one part of the gradual, strategic process of Iran establishing itself in the vicious combat zone across Israel’s northern border in Syria.

The fallout

If Israelis might better understand now why their leaders and security chiefs allegedly saw an imperative to act on Monday, the potential repercussions, as discussed at length by the primetime Hebrew news shows’ top defense analysts on Friday night, will have been deeply discomfiting.

Doubtless well-briefed by military officials, Channel 10’s analyst Alon Ben-David and his Hadashot counterpart Roni Daniel used similar formulations to encourage Israelis not to take too seriously Thursday’s threat by Khamenei aide Ali Shirazi that Iran will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground if Israel doesn’t cease what he called its “childish games.”

“Calm down,” urged Ben-David. “They wouldn’t dare, and they don’t have the capacity.”

Echoed Daniel, “Okay, so they’re threatening. So what. Can they do it?” he scoffed.

But both analysts also acknowledged that Iran will emphatically seek to avenge the reported grave damage sustained in Monday’s attack — presumably by targeting Israeli soldiers from Syria. Channel 10 also reported that there is some concern in Israel that Iran, as it has done to devastating effect in the past, may seek to use its terrorist assets to attack Israeli or Jewish targets in the Diaspora.

Along with the concerns about the fallout from Monday’s attack, there are also now growing worries about Israel’s capacity to maintain the supremacy its air force enjoys in the skies over Lebanon and Syria — the supremacy that is vital to attacks such as the one attributed to Israel on Monday.

“This Iranian presence is something Israel cannot accept and must systematically attack all the time,” Hadashot’s Daniel said Friday night, while other reporters in the studio vouchsafed that the entire security establishment and key government ministers were all in agreement that Monday’s alleged strike was vital — one of the most important operational decisions approved by Netanyahu in his time as premier, as one of them put it.

But Russia’s potent military capabilities in Syria threaten to complicate such missions in the future. The Iranians are “lobbying hard” for Putin to reduce the IAF’s freedom of operation, Hadashot’s Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari reported. “If they can persuade Putin to lock the radar of Russia’s air defense systems in Syria on the IAF,” he cautioned, “we’ll be in a completely different situation.”

Iran, Ya’ari added gravely, “should not be treated with contempt.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (C), Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) and President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani (L) pose for a photo ahead of the Turkey-Russia-Iran Tripartite summit in Ankara, Turkey on April 04, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / TOLGA BOZOGLU)

Iran’s top priority right now is not to engage Israel in serious conflict from Syria. It is not frantically rushing to build up its forces on the Syrian side of the Golan. It is, rather, seeking to gradually establish a robust military infrastructure deep in Syrian territory — taking the longer view.

As of Friday night, Israelis are more aware of how complicated a challenge all this constitutes. Iran, which routinely demands the demise of Israel, and has for years been funding, arming and training terrorist groups to attack Israel, has now shown it is sufficiently emboldened to directly attack Israel itself.

At the same time, it is deepening its presence in Syria — and Friday night’s military analyses on Israeli TV indicated that Putin has no intention of booting it out; he doesn’t seek to deploy large Russian forces in Syria, and wants Iranian-led militias to take much of that burden.

And Israel’s capacity to prevent that strategic Iranian presence across the border could be constrained if Putin uses Russia’s air defense capabilities in the service of the Iranians.

Again using very similar language, Daniel told his viewers that “Putin is not our friend,” while Ben-David said that Russia, having presented itself as an ally of Israel, was now “showing itself to be on the side of the enemy.”

The Iranian nuclear specter may still be a good few years down the road. But as of Friday, with the contours of the new Syria-Russia-Iran reality revealed, Israelis know there’s a very real and direct Iranian military threat, right now, just across the border. Indeed two months ago, they’ve just been told, the threat started to become a reality.

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