Report: Israel targeted advanced Iranian air defense system in Syria strike

Jerusalem conferred with Washington before launching April 9 attack, which killed at least seven Iranian troops, Wall Street Journal reports

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

A Russian-made Tor missile defense system. (Vitaly V. Kuzmin/WikiMedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)
A Russian-made Tor missile defense system. (Vitaly V. Kuzmin/WikiMedia/CC BY-SA 4.0)

An alleged Israeli strike on an air base in central Syria on April 9 targeted a soon-to-be-deployed Iranian advanced air defense system and a drone hangar, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday.

The article also confirmed that several days beforehand Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu alerted the White House of the IDF’s plans to carry out the strike on the T-4 air base, which killed at least seven Iranian soldiers, including a senior officer, and sparked a near unprecedented level of public threats between Tehran and Jerusalem.

The target of the April strike was a Russian-made Tor missile defense system, which is designed to “destroy aircraft, helicopters, drones, guided missiles and other precision weapons flying at medium, low, and extremely low altitudes, in difficult air and jamming environments,” according to its manufacturer.

If deployed, this relatively modern air defense system, first purchased by Iran in 2007, could make it more difficult for Israel to conduct air raids in the areas where it is deployed.

The airstrike also destroyed a hangar that was being used for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’s drone program, according to the report.

A photo released by Iranian media reportedly shows the T-4 air base in central Syria after a missile barrage attributed to Israel on April 9, 2018. (Iranian media)

Intelligence officials cited in the Wall Street Journal said that Iran sought the Tor missile defense system in response to an Israeli airstrike on the T-4 base earlier this year.

On February 10, the IRGC flew a drone carrying explosives on an attack mission into Israeli territory from Syria, according to Israel. An Israeli attack helicopter shot down the drone and the Israeli Air Force targeted the T-4 air base in central Syria from which the aircraft had been piloted remotely.

The mobile command center from which Israel says an Iranian operator flew a drone from Syria into Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

The Syrian military managed to hit one of the Israeli F-16 fighter jets with anti-aircraft fire, causing it to crash in northern Israel. In retaliation, Israel launched a second wave of strikes, destroying a significant percentage of the country’s air defenses.

The unnamed intelligence officials said Iran decided to bolster its own air defenses following the raid and Israel spotted the transport of the Tor missile defense system sometime soon thereafter.

The April 9 strike — which has been widely attributed to, but not officially confirmed by, Israel — was meant to destroy the Tor system before it could be set up, according to the report.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves part of an Iranian drone downed in Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018, during a speech on the third day of the 54th Munich Security Conference (MSC) held at the Bayerischer Hof hotel, in Munich, southern Germany, on February 18, 2018. (Screen capture)

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.

The Wall Street Journal article came a day after an apparent Israeli effort to deter Iran from conducting a retaliatory attack for the April 9 strike.

On Tuesday, 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.

A map of Syria, provided to Israeli media, April 17, 2018, shows the approximate locations of five bases that Israel believes to be controlled by Iran. These are Damascus International Airport; the Sayqal air base; the T-4 air base; an airfield near Aleppo; and a base in Deir Ezzor. Their exact locations on the map do not seem to be entirely accurate. The Sayqal base, for instance, is located east of Damascus, according to open-source satellite imagery, not south of it as it appears on the map.

Iranian officials have made increasingly bellicose remarks since the alleged Israeli airstrike, threatening to make the Jewish state “regret its misdeeds,” as Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman put it on Monday.

“The Zionist regime should not be able to take action and be exempt from punishment,” he 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.

Screen capture from video showing Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami, left, during the opening of a production line to produce Iran’s Mohajer 6 drone, in Tehran, February 5, 2018. (YouTube)

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.

The head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ air force Brig. Gen. Haji Zada. (Fars news)

In what could be seen as a not-so-subtle threat, a map was distributed to Israeli media outlets on Tuesday showing the five Iranian-controlled bases in Syria, along with satellite photographs of the bases and the portrait of the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ air force, Brig. Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh.

The five bases identified 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.

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

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.

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