Israeli military on high alert amid Iran threats to avenge Syria strike

Top Iranian official blames Israel, says Monday’s missile barrage ‘will not remain unanswered’ after at least seven IRGC fighters are said killed on air base

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

Israeli soldiers survey the border with Syria from a military post in the Golan Heights, following a series of aerial clashes with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria, on February 10, 2018. (Flash90)
Israeli soldiers survey the border with Syria from a military post in the Golan Heights, following a series of aerial clashes with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria, on February 10, 2018. (Flash90)

Israel’s military has been put on high alert amid heightened tensions along the northern border and with Iran threatening to avenge an airstrike on a Syrian air base believed to have killed at least 14 people, including 7 Iranian military personnel.

Russia, Syria, Iran and the United States have all said Israel carried out the predawn Monday missile barrage on the T-4 Air Base near Palmyra in central Syria. Israeli officials refused to comment on the strike.

On Tuesday, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei threatened Israel.

“The crimes will not remain unanswered,” Ali Akbar Velayati said during a visit to Syria, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry also accused Israel of “flagrant” aggression in Syria following the attack.

Israeli officials did not appear to be taking the threat of a retaliatory attack lightly — either by Iran, or its proxy, the Hezbollah terrorist group.

On Tuesday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman appeared to allude to the strike, saying that Israel “will not allow Iranian entrenchment in Syria. Whatever the cost.”

Keeping in line with Israel’s stance of ambiguity on attacks outside the country’s borders, the defense minister prefaced his remarks with a wry “I don’t know what happened.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman visits at a new Army center in Katzrin, Northern Israel, April 10, 2018. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

“Accepting Iranian entrenchment in Syria would be to accept Iranians putting a chokehold on us. We cannot allow that,” Liberman said.

In a highly unusual move, Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency acknowledged that “Iranian military advisers” were killed in Monday’s attack on the military airfield.

The Tasnim media outlet, which has been affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, specified that seven IRGC members were killed in the strike, including one high-ranking officer, Col. Mehdi Dehghan, who reportedly served in one of the group’s drone units.

Monday’s Iranian Foreign Ministry’s press release made no mention of the dead.

This appeared to be only the second time that Iran has acknowledged casualties in Syria. The first was in 2015, when an IRGC general was killed in a strike directed against Hezbollah leader Jihad Mughniyeh, which was also attributed to Israel.

In that case, the Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist group retaliated 10 days later with an ambush, firing anti-tank missiles at two IDF jeeps, killing two soldiers and injuring seven more.

Tehran, along with Moscow, is Syrian President Bashar Assad’s main ally, and has played an important role in his recent victories.

The Syrian regime and Moscow blamed Israel for carrying out Monday’s strike, later that morning saying two Israeli F-15 fighter jets fired eight missiles at the base, some of which they said were shot down.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the country’s conflict, said 14 were killed, including Syrian army officers and Iranian personnel. The Syrian regime did not confirm the number of casualties, but said “there are martyrs and wounded.”

Later, American officials confirmed to NBC News that Israel had conducted the strike and that they were notified of it in advance.

Israel is believed to have carried out numerous raids inside Syria since 2013, targeting the regime and its Lebanese arch-foe Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran.

Iran has deployed thousands of fighters to Syria, presented as “volunteers” from Afghanistan and Pakistan and trained locally by Iranian “military advisers.” It denies having a military presence in the war-torn country.

Iran does not recognize the existence of Israel and routinely calls for and predicts its demise. Israel views Tehran under the regime of the ayatollahs as an existential threat that seeks nuclear arms and funds and arms terrorist groups, notably Hezbollah, the Lebanese terror group on Israel’s northern border.

Israel has regularly expressed its concern about the Iranian presence in Syria, fearing the long-term establishment of hostile forces in the neighboring country.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that Israel will hit anyone who intends to harm the country, appearing to indirectly refer to the predawn missile strike.

An Israeli fighter jet takes off during a training sortie in February 2010. (photo credit: Ofer Zidon/Flash90)
An Israeli fighter jet takes off during a training sortie in February 2010. (Ofer Zidon/Flash90)

“We have one clear and simple rule and we seek to express it constantly: if someone tries to attack you — rise up and attack him,” Netanyahu said.

Israel conducted an airstrike against the T-4, also known as Tiyas, base on February 10, after an Iranian operator working out of it flew an Iranian-made drone into Israeli territory, according to the army. That incursion sparked a series of aerial clashes that resulted in the Iranian aircraft being shot down, an Israeli F-16I getting hit by Syrian anti-aircraft fire and crashing in a field, and a significant percentage of Syria’s air defenses being destroyed in retaliation.

“Iran and the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ special unit] Quds Force for some time have been operating the T-4 Air Base in Syria next to Palmyra, with support from the Syrian military and with permission from the Syrian regime,” the Israel Defense Forces said in a statement at the time.

Construction Minister Yoav Galant, a former IDF major general and a member of Israel’s security cabinet, would not comment directly on the attack, but on Tuesday reiterated the “red lines” that Jerusalem considers grounds for launching strikes.

“In Syria, many forces, from various bodies and coalitions, are operating. Each one says what it says and denies what it denies,” he told Israel Radio. “We have clear interests in Syria and we set red lines. We will not allow weapons to pass from Syria to Lebanon, and we will not allow the establishment of an Iranian base.”

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