'Complicated IAF mission' was largest in Syria for 40 years

‘Operation House of Cards,’ the IAF mission to cripple Iran’s presence in Syria

Army clip shows Israeli strike on launcher; officer says campaign a success, but warns Iran still has missiles in Syria: ‘It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack’

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

During two pre-dawn hours, Israeli F-15 and F-16 fighter jets evaded “dozens of missiles” and dropped “many dozens” of bombs on over 50 Iranian targets throughout Syria as the Israel air force carried out an extensive campaign, dubbed “Operation House of Cards,” to debilitate Iran’s military presence in the country.

The mission — the largest air campaign carried out by Israel in Syria in over 40 years — was “very successful,” a senior air force officer said Thursday, but warned that Israel believes that Iranian forces in Syria are still in possession of surface-to-surface missiles that could again be fired at Israel.

In light of that threat, the Israeli military remained on high alert on Thursday evening.

Just after midnight on Wednesday, some 20 rockets were fired at northern Israeli military bases by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force from southern Syria, Israel said.

According to the military, four of them were shot down by the Iron Dome missile defense system, the rest failed to clear the border.

This attack prompted extensive Israeli retaliatory raids, which targeted IRGC intelligence centers, weapons depots, storage facilities, observation posts, and logistics centers in Syria, as well as the rocket launcher that carried out the initial attack, the army said.

One launcher was hit as it readied to launch rockets at Israel, military sources said. Another launcher was hit as it was firing.

The IDF also targeted multiple Syrian air defense systems. On Thursday night, the military released footage of one of the strikes, against Pantsir-S1 launcher, filmed from the Israeli missile itself as it struck the anti-aircraft battery.

A photo provided by the pro-regime Syrian Central Military Media, shows anti-aircraft fire rise into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense positions and other military bases around Damascus, Syria, on May 10, 2018, after the Israeli military says Iranian forces launched a rocket barrage against Israeli bases on the Golan Heights, in the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

“We used many dozens of bombs. The weather conditions were limiting, the skies were full, which demanded coordination and synchronization, all of this while dozens of missiles were being fired at our planes — this was a complicated mission,” the air force officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity,

The Israel Defense Forces said that it suffered no casualties, either on the ground or in the air, and that no rockets fired from Syria made impact in Israeli territory.

The senior officer said that “dozens” of Syrians anti-aicraft missiles were fired at the Israeli fighter jets, but no harm was done.

“All of our planes returned home safely,” the army said earlier on Thursday.

The same could not be said in February, during another clash between Israeli, Syrian, and Iranian forces, in which an F-16 fighter was shot down and crashed in a field in northern Israel, after the pilot and navigator ejected.

Ready for anything

“I don’t know what the situation will be going forward, but we are ready and prepared for any scenario in the northern arena,” the officer said.

“Our air defense network is spread out across the country in recent weeks, including on the Golan Heights,” he said.

An Iron Dome missile defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is deployed in northern Israel on May 7, 2018. (Jalaa Mary/AFP)

Collectively, the army’s efforts in the past week to prepare for and prevent an Iranian attack was name “Operation Chess,” the army said on Thursday.

The officer also appeared to confirm foreign reports that Israel had conducted an airstrike in Syria on Tuesday.

“We are invested in locating missile launchers before the launch. Yesterday, we didn’t succeed,” he said referring to the 20 missiles fired at Israel. “It’s like searching for a needle in a haystack.”

“But two days ago it was a success,” he said.

On Tuesday night, Syrian state media reported that Israel carried out an air raid — apparently targeting a missile launcher — in el-Kiswah, south of Damascus, an area previously identified as the site of a suspected Iranian military base. The strike reportedly killed nine pro-Iranian fighters.

Explosions in Syria’s el-Kisweh region, south of Damascus, on May 8, 2018. (Twitter)

The air force official said that the clashes with Iran could spread beyond Syria, into Lebanon where the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group “could operate against us.”

Coordinated with US and Russia

The air force officer told reporters that Thursday’s air raids were coordinated with Russia and the United States.

“We told the Russians that we were going to strike in Syria, but we didn’t tell them where we exactly we were striking or what the targets were,” the officer said.

Since large numbers of Russian forces arrived in Syria in 2015, Jerusalem and Moscow have maintained a so-called “mechanism” to ensure that the two countries keep out of each other’s way in the war-torn country.

“The mechanism worked to its fullest and we preserved our freedom of operation,” the air force officer said.

In addition to the strikes on the Iranian targets, the army targeted four varieties of Russian-made air defense systems: the long-range SA-5, also known as the S-200, which is the predecessor of the more advanced S-300 and S-400; the high altitude SA-2, or S-75; the short- to medium-range SA-22, also known as the Pantsir-S1; and the SA-17 medium-range air defense system, also known as the Buk.

According to the senior air force officer, the army targeted “every battery that fired” at Israeli jets.

The officer noted that the IDF warned Syria not to intervene during the airstrikes against Iranian targets.

The air force planned to review Thursday’s raids, the official said.

“We are continuing to review the operation, even when you have a successful operation, there is still a lot to review,” he said. “Despite the success today, we are taking our enemy very seriously.”

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