Ahead of Israel’s Independence Day, the military was preparing for the possibility of a direct attack by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ air force in response to a strike on Iran’s air base in Syria earlier this month, The Times of Israel has learned.
In an apparent effort at deterrence, Israeli media was provided by the IDF with a map on Tuesday showing five Iranian-controlled bases in Syria, which would apparently constitute potential targets for an Israeli response should Iran carry out any kind of attack.
Iranian officials have made increasingly bellicose remarks following the April 9 strike on the T-4 air base, near Palmyra in central Syria, which killed at least seven members of the IRGC, including the head of its drone program, Col. Mehdi Dehghan.
Iran, Syria, Russia and some US officials have all said explicitly that Israel was responsible for the strike. Israeli officials refuse to comment on the matter, though The New York Times quoted an Israeli military official as acknowledging that the Jewish state was behind the attack.
On Monday, a spokesman for Iran’s Foreign Ministry said the country’s retaliation against Israel will come “sooner or later” and that Jerusalem will “regret its misdeeds.”
“The Zionist regime should not be able to take action and be exempt from punishment,” spokesman Bahram Qasemi told reporters, according to Iranian news media.
Tensions rose again on Tuesday, as additional strikes were initially reported on two air bases in Syria, with the Syrian military claiming to have shot down incoming missiles. Later, the Syrian army clarified that no missiles had actually been fired, but claimed that its countermeasures were triggered by a joint Israeli-American cyberattack.
Israel’s defense establishment — the country’s various intelligence services and the military — believes an Iranian revenge attack would likely be carried out by the IRGC’s air force, with surface-to-surface missiles or armed drones, The Times of Israel has learned.
That would be a departure from previous clashes between Israel and Iran, in which Tehran’s reprisals were carried out through proxies, like the Hezbollah terrorist group, rather than by its own Revolutionary Guard Corps.
There was no indication of when such an attack might take place, though Independence Day festivities scheduled for Thursday may serve as a tempting target for Iran.
“The Israel Defense Forces will do everything to ensure that Independence Day passes quietly and that the citizens of Israel can enjoy the holiday. The IDF is prepared for a wide variety of scenarios so that the citizens of Israel can celebrate the 70th Independence Day properly,” defense officials told the Ynet news site.
In what could be seen as a not-so-subtle threat, a map was distributed to Israeli media outlets on Tuesday showing five Iranian-controlled bases in Syria — potential targets for the Israel Defense Forces if Iran does carry out reprisals. Satellite photographs of bases were also provided.
These are Damascus International Airport, through which Iranian transport planes bring in weapons and military gear; the Sayqal air base; the T-4 air base; an airfield near Aleppo; and a base in Deir Ezzor, which was recaptured from the Islamic State terror group by the regime last year.
Israeli intelligence believes the sites are used by Iran for its missions in Syria, as well as to transport weapons to its proxies in the region.
Their exact locations on the map are not entirely accurate. (The Sayqal air base, for instance, is located east of Damascus, not south of it as it appears on the map.)
Israel believes Iran’s retaliatory effort is being led by Major General Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, which operates around the world, with assistance from the head of the IRGC air corps, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh; the head of its surface-to-surface missile program; Col. Mahmoud Bakri Katrem Abadi; and the head of its air defense operations, Ali Akhbar Tzeidoun.
Soleimani has repeatedly threatened Israel, and he threatened to “wipe out the Zionist entity” in February over the assassination of a Hezbollah leader, which has been attributed to the Mossad and America’s CIA.
Iran has access to a variety of surface-to-surface missiles, from short-range Fajr-5 rockets to medium-range Fateh 110 missiles, which have a range of approximately 300 kilometers (190 miles) to long-range Shehab ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets over 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away.
To counter those threats, Israel has a multi-tiered missile defense system consisting of the Iron Dome for short-range rockets and mortar shells, the David’s Sling for medium-range missiles and the Arrow for long-range ballistic missiles.
Iran has been supporting Syrian dictator Bashar Assad since the start of his country’s civil war, first providing him with things like riot control gear at the start of the clashes and then expanding that assistance to include routine war materiel drops.
Western officials have accused Iran of using seemingly civilian airlines as fronts for the IRGC to conduct military transport missions to Syria from Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport.
Pouya Airlines, for instance, was subjected to US sanctions in 2014 for “transporting illicit cargo, including weapons, to Iran’s clients in the Levant,” according to the US Treasury Department.
Over time, the IRGC began setting up its own facilities on Syrian military bases and air fields.
Earlier this year, the Syrian news site Zaman Al Wasl quoted an Assad regime military official as saying that Iran had operatives placed on military bases throughout the country.
The Syrian outlet identified other Iranian sites in the country in addition to the five bases on the map sent out to Israeli media, including an air base near Homs under Iranian and Hezbollah control that is used to train Shiite forces.
The T-4 air base, also known as the Tiyas air base, has specifically been tied to the IRGC’s drone program.
Israel targeted the base on February 10, after a drone loaded with explosives was flown into Israeli airspace in order to carry out an attack, according to the Israeli military.
An Israeli attack helicopter shot down the drone moments after it entered Israeli airspace and Israeli fighter jets later targeted the mobile control center on the T-4 air base from which it was piloted.
The drone appeared to be a relatively new stealth model known as a Saeqeh, whose design was stolen from an American unmanned aerial vehicle that was captured by Iran in 2011, according to aviation analysts.
During the Syrian counterattack against the Israeli jets, one F-16 was hit by anti-aircraft fire and crashed in a field in northern Israel after the pilot and navigator ejected from it.
In response to that downing of the fighter jet, Israel launched a large-scale attack on Syria’s air defenses, destroying between one-third and one-half of its capabilities, according to the IDF.
Israel sees Iran, which has vowed to destroy the Jewish state, as its central enemy in the region. Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that Israel will not allow Iran to entrench itself in Syria, marking it as a “red line” that it will fight militarily if necessary.