Opposition forces in southern Syria arrested a number of suspected Hezbollah members in the past week, including one man who said he was awaiting orders to fire rockets at Israel, a rebel commander told The Times of Israel late Sunday night.
News of the arrest raids came as defense officials warned that Iran, through its proxies, was apparently planning to carry out a missile attack against military bases in northern Israel in retaliation for a number of airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria, which were attributed to Israel.
“Israel has recently identified with certainty Iranian preparations to fire at the north,” Israel’s Channel 10 reported on Sunday. “We are not on the eve of war with Iran… but Iran is very determined to carry out an attack” to avenge the T-4 strike and the deaths of its military personnel, it said.
It was unclear if the arrests of the suspected Hezbollah members in southern Syria were directly connected to the Israeli defense officials’ warnings of an impending Iranian strike. While relatively simple Grad missiles were said to be in the possession of the suspects arrested in southern Syria, Israeli defense officials said they were concerned about attacks from the longer-range, heavier and far more advanced Fateh-110 missiles.
According to the Syrian rebel, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Muhammad al-Akhtubut al-Asmar, literally, “Abu Muhammad The Dark Octopus,” the eight suspects — seven men and one woman — were arrested over the past few weeks.
In what appeared to be an unrelated incident, Arabic media reported on Sunday that 11 members of the Syrian regime’s air defense forces were killed when their bus was blown up by an improvised explosive device in the southern Syrian city of As-Suwayda.
The soldiers were said to have served in the Syrian army’s 150th Regiment, one of the units that fired on Israeli fighter jets during an air battle on February 10, after an Iranian drone, bearing explosives, penetrated Israeli airspace.
The reports did not specify who was believed to be behind the attack.
One of the suspects arrested by the Syrian rebels said in a filmed confession, in Arabic, that he had been in possession of four Grad rockets with a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles) and was awaiting instructions to fire them.
In addition to the plans to attack Israel, the suspects arrested over the weekend were believed to be behind several assassination attempts against rebel commanders in southern Syria, The Octopus said, in a series of text messages to The Times of Israel.
They were arrested in the Quneitra area, near the border with Israel.
News of the arrests was first published Sunday evening in the Syrian news outlet Zaman Al Wasl, which is generally seen as supporting the opposition forces.
“They had poison, improvised explosive devices and pistols with silencers to carry out the assassinations and Grad rockets to launch in order to create trouble in the region,”al-Akhtubut said.
Tehran vowed revenge after the T-4 army base in Syria was struck in an air raid on April 9, killing at least seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The strike was widely attributed to Israel, though Jerusalem refused to comment on it. Late last month, a second strike, allegedly conducted by Israel, against an Iranian-controlled base in northern Syria was said to have killed more than two dozen Iranian soldiers.
On Sunday, all of Israel’s nightly news broadcasts reported that the Israeli military and intelligence services had identified preliminary efforts by Iran in Syria to carry out a reprisal, using its IRGC and local Shiite militias to launch a barrage of precision-guided missiles, likely at Israeli military targets in the north.
In his confession, the suspect who said he was awaiting orders to attack Israel also admitted to having already fired rockets at the Jewish state last year.
The man identified himself as Marwan Awad al-Jubor, 43, from the southern Syrian town of Jassim.
He told the interrogators that he joined Hezbollah in 2014 and received training on how to launch Grad rockets.
According to al-Jubor’s testimony, approximately “six or seven months ago” he fired two rockets at Israel. This appeared to refer to a rocket attack from Syria that struck the Golan Heights in October, which Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said at the time was ordered by Hezbollah. This was not confirmed by the Israel Defense Forces.
However, in that case, the army said that four — not two — rockets had been fired. It was not clear what accounted for the disparity.
Al-Jubor told his interrogators that on April 4 — prior to an alleged Israeli airstrike against the Iranian-controlled T-4 air base in central Syria — he was instructed to pick up 10 Grad rockets from a warehouse in As-Suwayda, the same city in which 11 air defense soldiers from the Syrian military were killed in an apparent bus bombing on Sunday.
However, al-Jubor said, his car was only able to hold four rockets at a time. When he went back a few days later to pick up the rest he “ran into some trouble and so [he] went home.”
On April 27, he was arrested by the local military council. His confession was filmed a few days later. The other seven arrests were conducted over the weekend, according to the Zaman Al Wasl report.
The Octopus said the rebels had leads on other suspected Hezbollah members and were likely to make additional arrests as more are identified.
Israel’s security services believe that Iran is looking to conduct its retaliation in such a way as to avoid full-fledged war with Israel, and will therefore likely target military, and not civilian, locations, according to Israeli news reports, which did not attribute the information to any specific source.
No special instructions were given to residents of northern Israel. Indeed, the heads of local councils in the north have reportedly been told to tell citizens not to take any specific precautions and to go about their lives as usual.
Israel was working to prevent or counter such an attack, but was also preparing for the possibility that the Iranians “succeed in hitting a base in the north with missiles,” Channel 10 reported. The Israel Defense Forces was threatening to hit all Iranian targets in Syria if Tehran launched an attack on Israeli territory, the TV report said.
Seeking Russian pressure on Iran, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to present the information on Tehran’s preparations to strike Israel to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting Wednesday in Moscow, the reports said.
Earlier on Sunday, Netanyahu said that while Israel is not interested in a military escalation with Iran, if there has to be a fight, he would prefer it be now, rather than later.
“We are determined to block the Iranian entrenchment, even at the cost of confrontation,” Netanyahu said at the start of the weekly cabinet meeting. “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.”
The prime minister also suggested Iran could directly launch a strike on Israeli territory.
“In recent months, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards transferred to Syria advanced weaponry in order to attack us both on the battlefield and the home front, including weaponized UAVs, ground-to-ground missiles and Iranian anti-aircraft batteries that would threaten air force jets,” he said.
Sunday night’s warning about Iran’s plans to attack, as disseminated on the TV news broadcasts, appeared to constitute an attempt by Israel to show the Iranians that it was aware of their plans and was prepared to respond if they went through with the reprisal.
A Hadashot TV report said the warning was aimed both at deterring Iran and making it plain to the Iranians that Israel knows what they are planning, and that it will not be fooled if the missiles themselves are fired by Syrian militiamen.
A mainstay of Iran’s defense strategy is the use of proxies to do its bidding across the Middle East — the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shiite militias in Syria and Iraq, as well as the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and West Bank. This is seen as an effort to limit Iranian casualties and keep any fighting limited to outside the Islamic Republic.
Last month, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said Israel was prepared to strike the Iranian homeland. “If they attack Tel Aviv, we will strike Tehran,” he said.
The unnamed defense officials on Sunday did not specify when the Iranian attack was expected to take place. The Channel 10 report said Iran’s preparations had been going on for weeks, but had been disrupted in recent days because of several strikes on targets in Syria, including on missile stocks in the Hama area, attributed to Israel. “But the Iranians have not given up,” the report said.
It added that Hezbollah members had been brought from Lebanon to prepare Shiite militias in Syria to attack Israel. “The idea is to use heavy Iranian missiles, including the Fateh-110” — under the command and with the advisory work of Hezbollah but “without an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps presence,” Channel 10 said.
Iran has been taking a number of heavy blows of late, including Israel’s seizure of its nuclear weapons archives from under its nose in Tehran, Channel 10 noted, and is determined to strike back but without having the confrontation escalate into war.
Last month, a member of the coalition supporting Iran’s ally, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, told The New York Times that the reprisal would likely not come before the Lebanese parliamentary elections, which began on Sunday.
Further stoking tensions, this week US President Donald Trump is expected to determine the fate of the Iran nuclear accord, which he has repeatedly threatened to leave. On Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that if America abandoned the Iran deal, it could lead to a war.
Earlier on Sunday evening, Israel’s security cabinet held a three-and-a-half-hour session to discuss recent developments in the region, including the tensions with Iran in Syria and the upcoming decision by Trump regarding the nuclear deal. Channel 10 said this meeting was not a routine meeting, but it was prevented by Israel’s military censorship from explaining why.
Sunday’s warning was not the first intimation by Israeli defense officials of a potentially imminent retaliatory attack by Iran. Shortly before Israel’s Independence Day, the military prepared for the possibility of a direct attack from the IRGC’s air force.
The Times of Israel learned at the time that Israel’s defense establishment believed the Iranian revenge attack would likely be carried out with surface-to-surface missiles or armed drones. Others have speculated that an Iranian retaliation could come in the form of a cyber attack.
In an apparent effort at deterrence, the IDF last month provided Israeli media with a map showing five Iranian-controlled bases in Syria that would likely constitute potential targets for an Israeli response, should Iran carry out any kind of attack. Satellite photographs of bases were also provided.
Those were 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, including Hezbollah.
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 warned Israel. 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.
Israel sees Iran, which has vowed to destroy the Jewish state, as its main 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.