Syria strikes send clear warning message to Iran, but stick to familiar playbook
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Analysis

Syria strikes send clear warning message to Iran, but stick to familiar playbook

The stakes may be higher, but Wednesday’s predawn air raids aren’t the game-changer that Defense Minister Naftali Bennett claims they are

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

A large explosion is seen over the Damascus skyline in footage purportedly taken on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, November 20, 2019 (video screenshot)
A large explosion is seen over the Damascus skyline in footage purportedly taken on the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, November 20, 2019 (video screenshot)

Israel’s airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria in the predawn hours of Wednesday morning were some of the most significant in the past year and a half, destroying dozens of sites and killing between 10 and 20 fighters, most of them Iranians, according to an Israeli official.

Yet these were not the game-changer that newly installed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and other senior Israeli officials have sought to paint them as, but rather a maintenance of Jerusalem’s longstanding Syria policies and one of its clearest and firmest red lines.

Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has publicly made plain that it would retaliate to any violation of Israeli sovereignty — whether in the form of accidental spillover fire from fighting on the Syrian Golan Heights or the infiltration of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace in February 2018. Indeed both of these met swift Israeli responses.

In some cases, Israel has launched airstrikes ahead of an expected attack from Syria, as was the case in August, when the IDF targeted a facility it said was being used to launch armed drones into northern Israel.

Illustrative: Missiles rise into the sky as Israel hits an air defense position and other military bases, in Damascus, Syria, May 10, 2018. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)

So when four rockets were fired at the Golan Heights and northern Galilee regions from Syria early Tuesday, the Israel Defense Forces responded the next day in much the same way it did in May 2018 when rockets were fired at the Golan — with dozens of airstrikes on Iranian facilities, as well as on Syrian air defenses after those batteries fired at Israeli jets.

The difference in Wednesday’s airstrikes was their timing, coming as Israel believes Tehran is feeling both emboldened by the general American withdrawal from the region and also vulnerable as large-scale protests are held by Iranians throughout the country.

In recent weeks, Israeli defense officials have warned that Iran was adopting a more aggressive posture in the region and would retaliate to Israeli strikes on its military and its proxies, whereas in the past the Islamic Republic would stomach the losses.

As such, the Israeli military as of Thursday remains on alert out of concern that Iran will respond to its airstrikes in Syria by week’s end.

The change in Iran’s attitude, Israeli Military Intelligence believes, came after Iran shot down an American drone, attacked international oil tankers and destroyed large portions of a major Saudi petroleum facility over this summer only to face no serious consequences for those actions.

The Saudi military displays what it says are an Iranian cruise missile and drones used in recent attack on its oil industry at Saudi Aramco’s facilities in Abqaiq and Khurais, during a press conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, September 18, 2019. (Amr Nabil/AP)

Seeing no pushback from international superpowers for these attacks appears to have convinced Tehran that it can act with a degree of impunity.

According to foreign reports, after a brief lull this fall, Israel has stepped up its attacks on Iranian and Iranian-supported forces in the region in recent weeks, reportedly striking a number of times in eastern Syria along the Iraqi border, where Iran is allegedly behind the construction of a crossing site in order to better facilitate the movement of weapons and equipment throughout the region.

Syrian military sources told the Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper that these recent strikes prompted Tuesday morning’s rocket attack on the Golan — a sign that Israel’s assessment that Iran would retaliate to its strikes was correct.

Israel’s forceful response to that rocket attack — dozens of strikes at multiple locations, causing a larger than normal number of casualties — can therefore be seen as an effort to convince Tehran to abandon this more combative stance.

In addition to Israel’s physical, kinetic response to the rocket attack, Bennett — who was installed as defense minister last week — has also been leading a PR campaign against Iran, threatening its leadership.

New Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (R) meets with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi on November 13, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry

“The rules have changed: Whoever fires at Israel during the day will not sleep at night. That was the case last week and it is the case this week,” said Bennett, also referring to Israel’s targeted killing last week of a senior leader in the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza, which sparked a two-day conflagration.

“Our message to the leaders of Iran is simple: You are not immune anymore. Wherever you send your octopus tentacles, we will hack them off,” Bennett added.

However, some in the defense establishment question and criticize this tactic, warning that such rhetoric could backfire and make it more likely that Iran will retaliate, potentially leading to a wider conflict.

“The comments about killing Iranians and the direct threat to Iranian leadership are unnecessary rhetoric with no strategic benefit. Actions are important; words and chatter can lead to a gratuitous escalation. Silence is a sign of wisdom,” said Amos Yadlin, a former Military Intelligence chief and the head of Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies.

Iranians take to the streets in support of the Islamic Republic’s government and supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the central city of Arak, southwest of the capital Tehran, on November 20, 2019 (STR / AFP)

Further complicating the matter are the protests currently taking place throughout Iran.

Israel hopes that this internal issue will distract the Islamic Republic from its conflict with the Jewish state. And Bennett, speaking to reporters Wednesday night, appeared to be encouraging this.

“We have a profound respect for the Iranian people. Unfortunately the Iranian leadership is wasting national resources and human life on dangerous adventures and spreading terror, instead of taking care of their people at home,” he said.

However, this too has the potential to backfire. Backed into a corner domestically, the Iranian leadership could strike out against Israel, as some in Iran have already called for it to do.

Iran’s response in the coming days and weeks will signal if it will revert back to largely tolerating Israel’s strikes on its forces and proxies in the region or if we are headed for the large regional conflict we’ve all been dreading.

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