With reported airstrike, Israel puts Syria, and Iran, on notice

Foreign reports of strike on base near Damascus suggest Jerusalem prepared to act on its warnings against a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Illustrative: An Israel Air Force F-16 fighter jet fires off flares during a demonstration on December 31, 2015. (Hagar Amibar/Israel Air Force/Flickr)
Illustrative: An Israel Air Force F-16 fighter jet fires off flares during a demonstration on December 31, 2015. (Hagar Amibar/Israel Air Force/Flickr)

With Syrian and Lebanese media reporting Israel carried out a missile strike overnight on a military base near al-Qiswa, some 13 kilometers (8 miles) southwest of Damascus and 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Israeli border, and in light of reports Iran is constructing a base in the area, Israel appears to have dramatically upped the ante regarding the Islamic republic’s military presence in Syria, turning its threats into action.

Top Israeli officials have in recent months repeatedly warned Israel will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to have conveyed a warning to President Bashar Assad just days ago, via a third party, that Assad’s regime will itself be targeted by Israel if he allows Iran a permanent presence.

While until now it was not clear to what extent Israel was willing to enforce this red line, the latest reported airstrikes signal the line is brighter than ever and Israel is prepared to back up its warnings.

According to some of the foreign reports, widely quoted in Hebrew media, the base in al-Qiswa attacked overnight was indeed the installation photographed in satellite images published by the BBC three weeks ago. Those reports indicate the base was not operational and had yet to be manned by any Iranian soldiers, advisers or personnel from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Expansion work was recently carried out at the site and it appears Israel was aware of the base’s purpose.

The airstrike sent a message to Assad, Tehran and Hezbollah, as well, of course, as Russian President Vladimir Putin, that Israel will not stand idly by if Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria continues.

Satellite image of alleged Iranian base in Syria (Airbus, Digital Globe and McKenzie Intelligence Services/BBC)

Messages to this effect have been relayed in recent months through diplomatic channels and appear to have made it to their intended audience to some extent, as Assad remains wary of allowing Iran to build a naval base on Syrian territory or permitting additional Iranian investment in the country.

In the case of the al-Qiswa installation, however, the warnings were apparently not heeded and Israel needed to resort to more blatant means to get its point across.

At the start of last month, reports said a weapons depot was destroyed in an airstrike near the city of Homs. It is not clear if these strikes were connected; there have likely been additional Israeli strikes on targets tied to Iran since then.

The latest airstrike would mark the first time an Iranian military facility in Syria, whose presence had been reported upon in the press only weeks before, was attacked. Official Syrian media asserted Saturday that the base was solely Syrian, but earlier reports on the site’s purpose leave little room for doubt.

Still, it is unlikely anyone in Israel believes the reported airstrike, which was apparently carried out by Israeli jets in Lebanese airspace, will be sufficient to deter the Iranians or cause Assad to distance himself from Iran. Tehran remains firm in its desire to advance its plans in Syria, and the Syrian dictator has consented to some of its goals.

It is safe to assume Israel will likely seek to send additional messages in the form of attacks in order to cause Assad to reconsider his open-door policy with Iran. With this, the potential for an escalation with Syria, Hezbollah and their allies will only continue to grow.

A poster bearing an image of Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is seen in Damascus on September 7, 2017. (AFP/Louai Beshara)

While Iran is often said to be capable of taking over areas of the Middle East with relative ease, that is not the case here, with Israel apparently poised to ensure Iran’s effort to dominate Syria will not be a cakewalk.

Furthermore, developments in Yemen would appear to constitute a major blow to Tehran’s goal of controlling that country, with forces loyal to former Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh on Saturday launching a large offensive against the Iranian-backed Houthis and inflicting a series of defeats.

While the collapse of the Houthis’ alliance with Saleh may not signal the end of Iran’s campaign in Yemen, there is little doubt it has not been received well in Tehran.

The reported airstrike underlines that, in Syria too, Iran is not having everything its own way.

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