Israel girds for Tehran’s revenge as the price of getting Iran out of Syria

Wary of past mistakes, Israel is determined to keep the Syrian Golan from becoming like Hezbollah’s south Lebanon, even if it means absorbing some retaliatory attacks along the way

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

An Israeli soldier directs a Merkava Mark IV tank during a military exercise in the Golan Heights on May 7, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)
An Israeli soldier directs a Merkava Mark IV tank during a military exercise in the Golan Heights on May 7, 2018. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Israel’s north shares a border with two countries. In one country — Lebanon — Israel stayed quiet as the Hezbollah terror group amassed an estimated arsenal of over 100,000 missiles and rockets in the nearly 12 years since the 2006 Second Lebanon War.

In the other, Syria, it’s determined not to repeat that mistake.

To that end, Israel has taken a far more aggressive stance toward the entrenchment of Iranian forces and proxies in the civil war-torn country — allegedly striking not only positions along the border but also weapons caches and bases deep inside Syria — even though that policy may mean open conflict with Tehran.

On Sunday, Israeli defense officials warned that clashes with Iran could be rapidly approaching, briefing members of the press about recent Iranian efforts toward a suspected retaliatory strike against military targets in northern Israel in the immediate future in response to recent airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria that have been attributed to the Jewish state.

These raids notably include one on the T-4 air base on April 9 that killed at least seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and for which Iranian officials have vowed revenge. Jerusalem refuses to comment on the strike, but has said in the past that it is prepared to take action to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Israeli jets bombed the T-4 base in February after a drone carrying explosives was flown from it into Israel.

Syria’s Sayqal Air Base, located east of Damascus, which Israel believes to be partially under Iranian control. (Google Earth)

“Iran is in the process of building a war machine in Syria, and we are determined to prevent it from materializing on the ground,” Maj. Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror, a former head of Military Intelligence and one-time national security adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, told reporters on Monday.

Amidror, who now works in the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, compared Iran’s attempts at military entrenchment in Syria to its efforts in Yemen, where its proxies, the Houthis, manufacture and regularly launch ballistic missiles at neighboring Saudi Arabia’s capital.

To explain Israel’s position, Amidror referred to remarks made by his former boss, the prime minister, at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday morning.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on May 6, 2018. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / JIM HOLLANDER)

“We are determined to block the Iranian entrenchment, even at the cost of confrontation,” Netanyahu said. “We don’t want an escalation, but we are prepared for every scenario. We don’t want confrontation, but if there needs to be one, it is better now than later.”

Following the disastrous 2006 war in Lebanon, Israel took only limited action to prevent Hezbollah’s efforts to rearm itself, fearing renewed confrontation with the Iran-backed terror group. As a result of that policy, which put short-term quiet ahead of long-term security, Hezbollah was able to become one of the more powerful armies in the region and Israel’s primary military threat.

“We made a huge mistake in Lebanon. We let Hezbollah amass 120,000 missiles in Lebanon. We will not make the same mistake in Syria,” Amidror said in a phone briefing organized by the Israel Project.

A February study by Syrian news outlet Zaman Al Wasl, which is generally seen as supporting the opposition, appeared to back up this claim, reporting that Israel has been increasing the number of strikes it has conducted in Syria in recent years, from one in 2012 to over two dozen in 2017.

In total, the outlet found that Israel conducted 78 air raids against targets in Syria since 2012. This figure is slightly lower than the approximately 100 strikes outgoing Israeli Air Force chief Amir Eshel told the Haaretz daily that Israel had carried out.

An explosion is seen coming from an army base allegedly used by Iran-backed militias, outside the northern Syria city of Hama on April 29, 2018. (Screen capture, Facebook)

Iran has received a number of black eyes in recent months, most of them attributed to Israel. In addition to the strikes on the T-4 base in February and April, two other allegedly Iranian weapons depots were bombed last month, destroying hundreds of missiles and reportedly killing dozens.

Last week, Netanyahu also revealed that the Mossad spy agency had stolen from Tehran a massive trove of over 100,000 documents related to Iran’s nuclear weapons programs.

Further stoking tensions with Iran, US President Donald Trump is expected to soon determine the fate of the 2015 nuclear accord, which he has repeatedly threatened to leave. Iran’s foreign minister ominously warned last week that the Islamic Republic would “exercise our right to respond, in a manner of our choosing,” if the United States pulled out of the deal.

Avenging without sparking all-out war

The understanding among Israel’s defense services is that Iran is not currently interested in an all-out war and would therefore seek to keep its retaliation limited, focusing on military targets as opposed to civilian ones, which would invite a far harsher Israeli response.

A tank flying the Hezbollah terror group’s flag in the Qara area in Syria’s Qalamoun region on August 28, 2017 (AFP Photo/Louai Beshara)

The attack would also likely be carried out by a proxy — Hezbollah or a local Shiite militia — not by Iranian forces themselves, in a bid to prevent direct retaliation against them by Israel.

This use of proxies is a mainstay of Iran’s defense strategy, an attempt to limit the number of Iranian casualties and keep the fighting outside the Islamic Republic’s borders.

However, Israeli officials have made it clear that they will not be duped by this ruse and that they see Iran as being ultimately responsible for any strikes coming from Syria.

Former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror (Flash90)

“We know, and they know that we know, that Iran stands behind it,” Amidror said.

While on Sunday Israeli defense officials pointed to a surface-to-surface missile strike as the most likely form an Iranian reprisal would take, in the past weaponized drones and anti-aircraft batteries targeting Israeli planes have been identified as possible options as well.

Indeed, much of the current heightened tensions can be traced back to February 10, when an explosives-laden Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace before being shot down by an Israeli attack helicopter.

Oddly, few Israeli officials have discussed the possibility of a cyber attack, despite Iran having a reputation as a world leader in cyber warfare. Such an attack could also potentially provide Iran with a level of plausible deniability.

However, Amidror dismissed the possibility outright. “The decision of the Iranians is to use a kinetic strike, not a cyber one,” he said.

Seeking calm, preparing for chaos

The unnamed defense officials cited on Sunday night did not specify when the Iranian attack was expected to take place.

An Israeli family takes cover in a bomb shelter made of a converted concrete pipe during the 2014 Gaza war. (Melanie Lidman/Times of Israel)

No special safety instructions were given to residents of northern Israel, despite the looming threat. Indeed, the heads of local governments in the north attempted to calm their constituents, saying they were always ready for any eventuality.

“We are prepared 365 days a year for a crazy person to do something irresponsible like launch missiles at Haifa,” said Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, according to the Walla news site.

As Israeli intelligence indicated that Iran would seek to exact its revenge with a missile strike against military targets, the country’s air defense systems were put on high alert in northern Israel.

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 Shahab ballistic missiles capable of hitting targets over 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) away.

Illustrative: IDF soldiers stand near an Iron Dome missile defense battery, March 2014. (AFP/David Buimovitch)

“We have very advanced anti-missile systems: Iron Dome, David’s Sling, the Arrow,” Amidror said, referring to Israel’s air defense batteries, which are designed to shoot down short-, medium- and long-range missiles, respectively.

“I hope that most of the missiles will be intercepted by our defense systems, and military targets are supposed to absorb such attacks from time to time,” he said.

If these active air defense batteries fail, however, there are concerns that Israel’s passive protection against missiles — bomb shelters — will not provide an adequate solution.

“The working assumption is that they are planning to strike military targets, but it can escalate at any moment, and we will find ourselves in an entirely different kind of situation,” Kiryat Bialik Mayor Eli Dukorsky told Walla. “This requires Israel to urgently fill in defense gaps in defense, but also requires each of us to understand that preparation should be on a personal level, as well as on a community level.”

In March, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman acknowledged that Israel lacked the bomb shelters necessary to properly defend residents of the north and called for a massive influx of funds to address the problem.

The working assumption is that they are planning to strike military targets, but it can escalate at any moment, and we will find ourselves in an entirely different kind of situation

In the areas closest to the northern borders with Lebanon and Syria — up to nine kilometers (5.59 miles) away — approximately 24 percent of Jewish and over 40% of Arab residents lack adequate bomb shelters, according to figures presented to the Knesset by the IDF in January.

Threatening reprisals

However, the best defense is a good offense, as the saying goes, and Israeli officials have threatened reprisals directly against Iranian targets should the Islamic Republic attack the Jewish state.

Israel also appeared to be attempting to drive a wedge between Iran and its main allies in Syria: Russia and Syrian dictator Bashar Assad.

Netanyahu, for instance, is reportedly set to present the information about Tehran’s preparations to strike Israel to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Moscow later this week. This, Israel hopes, may convince Putin that his desire for stability in Syria does not align with Tehran’s plans to use the country as a launching pad for attacks against Israel.

Jerusalem’s effort to persuade Assad was far less subtle.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz delivers a speech on July 12, 2017 at the 22nd World Petroleum Congress in Istanbul. (AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE)

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said the Syrian dictator would be killed and his government brought down if he continued to allow Iran to set up militarily in Syria.

“If Assad continues to let the Iranians operate from Syrian soil, he should know that he signed his own death warrant and that it will be his end. We will topple his regime,” Steinitz told the Ynet website in a video interview.

The minister later clarified that this was his viewpoint, not the government position.

According to TV reports from Sunday night, the Israel Defense Forces was threatening to hit all Iranian targets in Syria if Tehran launched an attack on Israeli territory.

Last month, a map and satellite images showing five Iranian-controlled bases in Syria were distributed to Israeli media, in what appeared to be a not-so-subtle threat by Israel that these sites would be targeted were the Jewish state attacked.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman inspects a sight on a rifle at a weapons manufacturing plant in the southern Israeli town of Sderot on December 14, 2017. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Last week, Defense Minister Liberman went further, telling a Saudi-owned newspaper that if the Iranians “attack Tel Aviv, we will strike Tehran.”

It’s unclear if Liberman’s was a serious threat or a rhetorical one. A strike against Iran itself could drive Iranians closer to the ruling regime, instead of sowing the sort of discord Israel would prefer to see in the country.

According to Amidror, Israel, as much as Iran, is looking to keep the situation in Syria from escalating out of control and would therefore limit its retaliation as well.

“Israel does not have an interest in a broad operation, but the Iranians would have to pay a price,” the former national security adviser said.

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