Israel beefs up air defenses, calls up troops as Iran payback for Syria strike looms

Speculation suggests Iran could attack Israel from its own territory rather than through proxies, sparking wider hostilities; Gallant says IDF prepared for every scenario

File - A billboard displays a portrait of slain Iranian general Mohammad Reza Zahedi, with a slogan in Hebrew saying 'You will be punished,' April 3, 2024, at Palestine Square in Tehran. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
File - A billboard displays a portrait of slain Iranian general Mohammad Reza Zahedi, with a slogan in Hebrew saying 'You will be punished,' April 3, 2024, at Palestine Square in Tehran. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The IDF said on Wednesday that it bolstered its air defense array and had called up reservists, as the country girded for a potential Iranian response to a strike in Syria earlier this week in which several high-ranking Iranian military officials were killed.

Both Iran and its proxy Hezbollah have vowed that Israel will not go unpunished for the Monday attack on a consular building next to Iran’s embassy in Damascus, which killed Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ most senior official in Syria, along with his deputy, five other IRGC officers, and at least one member of the Hezbollah terror group.

Zahedi was reportedly responsible for the IRGC’s operations in Syria and Lebanon, for Iranian militias there, and for ties with Hezbollah, and was thus the most senior commander of Iranian forces in the two countries. The IRGC is a US-designated terrorist organization.

A Channel 12 news report reflecting Israeli speculation on a possible reprisal pointed to the possibility that Iran could respond by directly launching missiles from its own territory rather than via any of its proxy groups, which include militias in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.

While Israel could suffice with letting the round of hostilities fizzle out, in the event that Iran responds via a proxy, such as a Hezbollah rocket barrage, an attack from Iranian territory would likely push the Israel Defense Forces to launch a significant reprisal, risking sending tensions snowballing further.

“I won’t be surprised if Iran fires directly at Israel,” former Military Intelligence head Amos Yadlin told the network, explaining that a January missile strike carried out by Iran on neighboring Pakistan set a precedent for such action.

Emergency services work at Iran’s consulate after it was hit by an alleged Israeli strike in Damascus, Syria, April 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Sanadiki)

Hebrew-language media reports said the decision to beef up air defenses and call up troops came following a threat assessment.

Several rockets have been fired at Israel from Lebanon by Hezbollah since Monday’s attack, though there has been no indication that they went beyond daily cross-border fire that has raised tensions on Israel’s northern frontier since October 8.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has vowed revenge for the Monday strike, and posters parroting his words have gone up around Tehran in a sign of public pressure for an Iranian response.

“The defeat of the Zionist regime in Gaza will continue and this regime will be close to decline and dissolution,” Khamenei said in a speech to the country’s officials in Tehran Wednesday.

Protesters attend an anti-Israel gathering as they wave Palestinian flags at the Felestin (Palestine) Sq. in downtown Tehran, Iran, April 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

“Desperate efforts like the one they committed in Syria will not save them from defeat. Of course, they will also be slapped for that action,” he added.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said earlier on Wednesday that Israel is “increasing preparedness” in the face of threats from across the Middle East.

Speaking at a home-front readiness drill in Haifa, Gallant said that the country’s defense establishment is “expanding our operations against Hezbollah, against other bodies that threaten us,” and reiterated that Israel “strikes our enemies all over the Middle East.”

“We need to be prepared and ready for every scenario and every threat” against near enemies and distant enemies,” Gallant said, vowing that “we will know how to protect the citizens of Israel and we will know how to attack our enemies.”

Addressing the daily attacks on the northern border by the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, Gallant said that one of the main issues Israel is facing is how to make it possible for some 80,000 displaced Israelis return safely to their homes in northern Israel.

“We prefer… an agreement that will result in the removal of the threat, but we have to prepare for the possibility of [using] force in Lebanon that can also take into account the scenario we are describing here, which is a scenario of war, and we need to be prepared for this issue and understand that it can happen,” Gallant said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant speaks during a home front command drill in Haifa, April 3, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/ Defense Ministry)

The drill evaluated the coordination between local authorities, government ministries, and rescue services in a war scenario, “in light of the increasing need to return the residents of the north to their homes,” the Defense Ministry said.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza, amid the war there.

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in eight civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 10 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries. Hezbollah has named 267 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria.

In Lebanon, another 50 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 60 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

The alleged Israeli attack on Damascus came after Israel indicated it was stepping up action against Hezbollah, hitting sites deeper inside Lebanon, in a bid to pressure the group into stopping the daily rocket fire.

It also occurred hours after an Iran-backed militia launched a drone at Eilat, hitting a naval base, in one of the more serious attacks on Israel since war erupted on October 7.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, US officials said they were watching closely to see if, as in the past, Iran-backed proxies would attack US troops based in Iraq and Syria after Monday’s Israeli strike, but had no picked up any intelligence suggesting they would do so.

Such Iranian attacks ceased in February after Washington retaliated for the killing of three US troops in Jordan with dozens of airstrikes on targets in Syria and Iraq linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and the militias it backs.

A missile is launched during a military drill in southern Iran, on January 19, 2024. (Iranian Army official website via AP)

One source who tracks the issue carefully and who spoke on condition of anonymity said Iran faced the conundrum of wanting to respond to deter further such Israeli strikes while avoiding an all-out war.

“They have faced this real dilemma that if they respond they could be courting a confrontation which they clearly don’t want,” he said. “They are trying to modulate their actions in a way that shows that they are responsive but not escalatory.”

“If they don’t respond in this case, it really would be a signal that their deterrence is a paper tiger,” he added, saying Iran might attack Israel proper, Israeli embassies or Jewish facilities abroad.

The US official said given the significance of the Israeli strike, Iran may be forced to respond by attacking Israeli interests, rather than going after US troops.

Elliott Abrams, a Middle East expert at the Council on Foreign Relations US think tank, also said he believed Iran did not want an all-out war with Israel, but could target Israeli interests.

“I think Iran does not want a big Israel-Hezbollah war right now, so any response will not come in the form of a big Hezbollah action,” Abrams said, referring to the Lebanese group seen as Tehran’s most powerful military proxy.

“They have many other ways to respond… for example by trying to blow up an Israeli embassy,” he added.

Iran could also respond by accelerating its nuclear program, which Tehran has ramped up since then-US president Donald Trump in 2018 abandoned the 2015 Iran nuclear deal designed to constrain it in return for economic benefits.

But the two most dramatic steps — increasing the purity of its enriched uranium to 90 percent, which is considered bomb grade, or reviving work to design an actual weapon — could backfire and invite Israeli or US strikes.

“Either one of those would be viewed by Israel and by the US as a decision to acquire a bomb. So… they are really taking a big risk. Are they ready to do it? I would not think so,” said the source, who tracks the issue closely.

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