Syria strike and its aftermath raise chances of open clashes with Iran

The last time Tehran acknowledged casualties in Syria, two IDF soldiers were killed in a retaliatory attack. Can Russia calm the situation?

Judah Ari Gross

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

File: Israeli soldiers peer into Syria from their tank on the Golan Heights on February 18, 2016. (Ariel Schalit/AP Photo)
File: Israeli soldiers peer into Syria from their tank on the Golan Heights on February 18, 2016. (Ariel Schalit/AP Photo)

With a high body count, conspicuous timing, and highly irregular responses from Russia and Iran, the airstrike against Syria’s T-4 Air Base in the pre-dawn hours of Monday that was attributed to, but not acknowledged by, Israel has sparked widespread discussion and speculation.

What was the target of the attack? Why now? How will Iran respond? Why did Russia, in an unprecedented move, claim Israel carried it out? What will this mean for future Israeli actions in Syria?

Jerusalem has maintained its official policy of ambiguity regarding the Syria airstrike and neither confirmed nor denied that it was behind the attack. But US officials were apparently not a part of this effort and told America’s NBC News that Israel was responsible, and had informed Washington ahead of time.

The Russian military also broke its long-standing custom of not commenting on such alleged Israeli strikes and specified that the attack was carried out by two Israeli F-15 fighter jets, which fired eight missiles at the T-4 base, also known as the Tiyas base. Fourteen people were reportedly killed in the strike.

The Tiyas, or T-4, Air Base, outside of the Syrian city of Palmyra, which Israel claims is being operated by Iran and its Quds Force. (Screen capture/Wikimapia)

News outlets affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reported on Tuesday that at least seven of the group’s members were among those killed in the alleged Israeli strike, including one high ranking officer, Col. Mehdi Dehghan, who reportedly held a senior position in its drone unit.

Though Iran’s foreign ministry did not acknowledge the casualties in Syria, the semi-official Fars news outlet did. This is only the second such admission by Iran, the first being the case of an IRGC general killed in a 2015 strike directed against Hezbollah leader Jihad Mughniyeh, which was also attributed to Israel.

On Tuesday, a senior Iranian official told a Lebanese TV station that the alleged Israeli strike “will not remain without response.”

In the case of the 2015 strike that killed Mughniyeh and six others, including IRGC Brig. Gen. Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, Hezbollah exacted its revenge 10 days later by firing anti-tank missiles at two IDF jeeps, killing two IDF soldiers and wounding seven more.

Israeli military vehicles are seen burning following a Hezbollah missile strike across the border on January 28, 2015. Two IDF soldiers were killed in the attack. (AFP/MARUF KHATIB)

“Obviously Israel took a risk here,” said Ofer Zalzberg, a senior analyst for the International Crisis Group think tank and advocacy firm, whose research focuses on the Middle East.

The specific nature of the target of Monday’s alleged strike was not immediately known, but the air base’s connection to the Iranian drone program makes that a likely candidate.

A photograph of Col. Mehdi Dehghan, reportedly a senior officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ drone program, who was said to be killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike on a Syrian air base on April 9, 2018. (Iranian state media)

It was likely of particular importance, judging by the large number of casualties. Israel generally avoids unnecessary deaths, as the more people killed in a strike, the more likely it is that Iran or its proxy Hezbollah will feel obligated to retaliate, as in 2015.

“Israel prefers the ambiguity so as to not force, so to speak, Tehran or Damascus to react,” Zalzberg said.

According to the veteran analyst, Russia’s public comments about the strike could be seen as an attempt to limit the feeling among Iranians and Syrians that they have to retaliate, as the superpower is taking charge of the situation.

If Monday’s alleged attack on the T-4 air base sounded vaguely familiar, it’s because Israel also carried out a strike against the T-4 air base in February, specifically against a mobile command center from which the Israel Defense Forces said an Iranian operator had flown a drone into Israeli airspace.

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.

In this image made from video provided by Yehunda Pinto, the wreckage of an Israeli F-16 is seen on fire near Harduf, northern Israel, February 10, 2018. (Yehunda Pinto via AP)

In the aftermath of the February clashes, the IDF said the T-4 base had been home to “Iran and the [Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ special unit] Quds Force for some time.”

Israeli officials have repeatedly stated that the Jewish state will not accept Iranian entrenchment in Syria, marking it as a “red line,” which it has vowed to prevent, militarily if necessary.

The chemical factor

The timing of this particular strike also raised eyebrows around the world, coming on the heels of a deadly chemical weapons attack on Saturday night in the rebel-held town of Douma, outside Damascus, which was allegedly conducted by the Syrian regime.

At least 40 civilians, including women and children, were said killed in the poison gas attack, with many of them found suffocated in basements and shelters, according to Syrian activists and rescue officials. Approximately the same number were also reportedly killed in concurrent conventional weapon attacks.

This image released early Sunday, April 8, 2018 by the Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets, shows a rescue worker carrying a child following an alleged chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

Syrian President Bashar Assad has denied that he was behind a chemical attack, and ally Russia has backed him up, though their siege of the area has prevented an independent investigation.

Some current and former Israeli officials have claimed a connection between the strike and the chemical attack, though it’s unlikely that this was the sole reason for the alleged Israeli action. If for no other reason, this can be understood from the fact that the T-4 base was not the launchpad for the Douma chemical attack.

In addition, on Sunday the Lebanese military was quoted in local media as saying that Israeli reconnaissance drones had been operating extensively along the country’s Syrian border for the past three days. If these flights were conducted in preparation for Monday’s strike, that would mean it was planned before the Douma gassing.

Amos Yadlin speaks during a speaking event organized by IsraPresse for the French-speaking community at the Begin Heritage Institute, Jerusalem, February 22, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“I think it’s related to the gas attack. Israel is saying, ‘Look, even though we attacked something of operational importance, something more Iranian than Syrian, we will not sit quietly as it relates to gas,'” said Amos Yadlin, the former Military Intelligence chief and current head of the influential Institute for National Security Studies think tank.

The timing may have been a coincidence, albeit a particularly poignant one.

“Sometimes a strike can have two different strategic motivations. In this case, one that’s connected to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the other that’s saying, ‘Folks, mass slaughter of civilians is not acceptable to us,'” Yadlin said.

What did Russia know and when?

Monday’s reported attack shed light on the ever-present tensions between Israel and Russia; the United States and Russia; and Iran and Russia.

As the main power broker in Syria, Moscow maintains connections with Washington, Jerusalem, and Tehran.

According to Zalzberg, the animosity between Israel and Iran requires Russia to strike a balance between the two, something that is made more complicated when that simmering conflict boils over into public clashes.

In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, November 1, 2017. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Russia has refrained from publicly discussing Israel’s strikes in Syria, except for those that Jerusalem has already acknowledged, as was the case in February. It broke that policy on Monday.

“Israel is losing its ambiguity,” said Zalzberg.

“It will become increasingly difficult for Russia to not take sides,” he said. “By saying it was an Israeli attack, it will be more difficult for them in the future to not act as judge and jury.”

Russia also coupled its allegation with a condemnation of Israel’s military response to recent mass protests along the Gaza border, calling it “indiscriminate and unacceptable.”

Some questioned if Moscow’s unprecedented move of outing Israel was prompted by anger over that fact that it was not informed of Monday’s alleged attack ahead of time.

By saying it was an Israeli attack, it will be more difficult for them in the future to not act as judge and jury

Israel and Russia maintain what they refer to as a “mechanism” for ensuring that their respective militaries do not accidentally clash over Syria. This includes a hotline between the deputy chiefs of staff of their respective militaries.

On Monday, a Russian spokesperson said Israel had not spoken to President Vladimir Putin ahead of the airstrike even though there may have been Russian military advisers at the base, which he said was “a cause for concern for us.”

Yadlin downplayed the significance of the Russian announcement, as it relates to Israel at least. The former Military Intelligence chief said the public claim was likely meant to exonerate the United States, which was first accused of conducting the strike.

Yadlin noted that Russia did not chastise Israel for the strike, but only said Israel had carried it out. Moscow, he said, does not want to ratchet up tensions between Tehran and Jerusalem, but cool them down.

Conflict between Israel and Iran does not serve the Russians. We saw this in February as well. The Russians told Iran and told Israel to restrain themselves.

“Russia is not threatening Israel. There’s something out of the ordinary, but I think it comes more from the Russian interest in deescalating the situation, not escalation,” Yadlin said.

“Conflict between Israel and Iran does not serve the Russians. We saw this in February as well. The Russians told Iran and told Israel to restrain themselves. It’s a similar thing now,” he added.

Zalzberg also said Russia’s claim that Israel conducted the strike and America’s apparent confirmation of it seemed to have more to do with each other than with Jerusalem.

“Clearly the thinking in the US and Russia on Syria is dominated by each other rather than by Israel,” the Crisis Group analyst said.

Zalzberg did, however, note that the fallout from the strike will likely have a long-term impact on Israel’s operations in the region.

One of the other interesting dynamics to play out following the alleged Israeli airstrike was the one between Moscow and Tehran, which quickly fell to bickering over whether or not Israel had informed the former of the impending raid.

While Moscow officially denied being informed, Iranian media reported that Russia had been tipped off by Israel and withdrew its personnel from the base before the strike. Iran’s supreme leader was said to be angry that Russia had not passed this message along to Tehran.

Anonymous security sources also told a United Arab Emirates publication that Russian personnel had left the base ahead of the attack, after being informed by Israel about the coming strike.

Zalzberg said it was not clear which of these claims were correct. Did Russia know in advance and was now just playing dumb in order to preserve its relationship with its ally Iran, or was Russia truly kept in the dark?

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend an event marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day and the anniversary of the complete lifting of the Nazi siege of Leningrad, at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow on January 29, 2018. (AFP PHOTO/ Vasily MAXIMOV)

According to the Crisis Group analyst, neither case leaves Israel in an advantageous position.

If Israel had indeed informed them ahead of time, the Russians would be hard pressed to employ this ruse again, as Iran would start suspecting foul play.

And if Israel didn’t let Moscow know ahead of time — because it feared Russia would oppose the strike — that might indeed threaten its relationship with the most influential superpower in the region.

Both options limit Israel’s ability for the future, as Russia would have to start taking a more hard-line approach or risk its relationship with Iran.

“[Israel’s strike] might put the Russians in an awkward position with their partners in Syria for the future, but maybe it was a price worth paying for this specific presence of the IRGC on the T-4 base. But it would really have to be something extraordinary,” Zalzberg said.

Going forward

With Iran and its proxy Hezbollah dedicated to destroying the State of Israel and the State of Israel dedicated to not being destroyed, the two sides are expected to oppose one another for the foreseeable future.

This situation is only expected to get worse as Assad finishes taking over the last rebel-held areas in Syria, including the one along the border with the Golan Heights.

The Syrian military has already reportedly begun moving tanks into the area near Israel’s border.

However, according to Zalzberg and the International Crisis Group, the antipathy between Israel and Iran does not necessarily have to deteriorate into violent clashes. The US and Soviet Union, for instance, were at war for decades without coming to direct conflict.

Earlier this year, the advocacy group released a comprehensive report on the situation in Syria, which found that the only thing that could prevent such a head-on collision between Israel and Iran is extensive Russian intervention.

According to this report, only through Russia can Israel and Iran reach understandings about the “modus vivendi,” the rules by which the two opposing sides can live side by side.

“Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation,” according to the report.

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