Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gestures as he delivers a speech in Mashad, Iran, March 21, 2018 - REUTERS
CAIRO – 19 April 2018: Conflict between two longstanding adversaries, Iran and Israel, has been threatening to erupt in Syria for many years. While Israel has avoided getting bogged down in the war, so tempting for many regional and global powers, the growing presence of between 100,000 and 200,000 Iranian-backed militiamen in Syria, with many along Syria’s eastern border, threatens to upset the delicate balance which has kept both militaries at bay.
Israel has been in a fight with Iran since the Iranian Revolution in 1979 and the rise of Islamic Republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. But unlike the Arab-Israeli feud, which broke out into open conflict on several occasions, the Iranian-Israeli battle has been fought in the shadows. For nearly four decades the battle has been fought through espionage, assassinations, cyber-warfare and proxies, nut is yet to spill out on the battlefield in direct, prolonged open conflict.
Israeli-Iranian aggression in Syria
On February 10, Israel identified and tracked an Iranian UAV which had reportedly violated Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights. Footage later released by the Israeli military depicted the drone being destroyed by an Israeli Apache helicopter, which was allegedly armed and intending to carry out an attack on Israeli territory. Israel sent jets across the Syrian border in retaliation, and conducted airstrikes targeting the T4 air base in Eastern Homs where the drone was supposedly launched by a Quds Force unit. Syrian surface-to-air missile systems engaged the jets on their return, and under “substantial Syrian anti aircraft fire” – allegedly upwards of 20 missiles – an Israeli F-16 was brought down after its two-man crew ejected; the first combat loss for the Israeli Air Force since 1982.
Remains of the Iranian Shahed-141 drone downed over northern Israel by the Israel Air Force on February 10, 2018 - IDF Spokesperson's Unit
After the downing of the fighter jet, Israel launched a “large-scale attack” – the largest Israeli attack in Syria since 1982 – which targeted 12 military sites in Syria, including three air defense batteries and four military positions. It is said that several of these sites where Iranian, while the majority were Syrian.
“More than confrontation, but less than war,” was how the Israeli Defense Forces distinguished the chain of events, and warned Iran and its allies against “playing with fire”. Hezbollah, Iran’s most influential satellite in the Levant, said in a threat to its adversary that the escalation of hostilities and developments show that “the old equalities have categorically ended.”
Jump forward two months and the T4 air base was the target of Israeli jets once again, on April 9. Crossing into Lebanese airspace, a number of cruise missiles fired eastward towards the military base, specifically targeting a secluded hanger run by the Quds Force, the foreign-focused branch on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) headed by the infamous Qasem Soleimani. Several Iranian officers were reportedly killed in the attack, including Colonel Mehdi Dehghan, who led the drone unit. Iran has threatened to retaliate, while Israeli officials are yet to comment.
The conflict draws the opponents into deeper rivalry, and it appears that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is doing little to pour water on the flames. On April 17, Israel released satellite images that pinpoint several Syrian military bases being used by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces; a veiled threat against Iranian forces in Syria, but a severe threat nonetheless.
Although Israel has avoided getting involved in the conflict, it has conducted dozens of clandestine airstrikes in Syria which have targeted Hezbollah weapon convoys and Iranian installations. While strategically important, these interventions have generally passed under the radar and have not received major media attention. Israel’s generally passive approach to the conflict has limited the Syrian response to these strikes; however, signs of a change became clear with the recent targeting of Israeli jets. With the Syrian government engaged in conflict on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad attempts to regain control of the country, opening a new front on its southern border could severely dampen the government’s advances.
Photo of Iranian drones and control center, released by Israel after it struck T-4 air base in Feb - IDF Spokesperson's Unit
Does either side want war?
In response to the most recent Israeli attack on the T-4 air base, a clear signal has been sent that an Iranian retaliation is in the works. Amongst the critical cries against the Israeli attack, the statement of Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, stands out. He called the attack which killed seven Iranians a “historic mistake”, and ushers in a new phase of “direct confrontation” between Israel and Iran.
“This is unprecedented in seven years of war in Syria that Israel directly targets Iran’s Revolutionary Guard,” Nasrallah said.
Iran’s clout across four foreign capitals – Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa – has been no easy feat to establish and maintain. Cannon fodder from Afghanistan and Pakistan are filling the ranks of Iran’s militia as Soleimani looks to operate autonomously across Iraq and Syria. With the promise of $800 a month and residency in Iran, a pledge of allegiance to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is more an economic opportunity to some, than an ideological alliance. Economic challenges are still ripe in Iran however, as demonstrated by the recent crash in the Iranian rial, but Soleimani and his Quds Force are likely to be deterred by domestic calls to reallocate finances.
Iran’s IRCG, injected with money gained following the end of economic sanctions, have been building more permanent military bases and missile factories in Syria. Israel believes that Iran’s attempts to establish independent and permanent bases in Syria are not only a direct state-to-state challenge for Israel, but show Soleimani’s desire to improve Iran’s capacity for asymmetric warfare against Israel. High-tech surveillance and weaponry can be easily transported to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and threaten the Israeli border on multiple fault lines.
On this note, Israel is determined not to repeat the mistakes it made in Lebanon and allow Hezbollah to take grip on the country. While it is true that Israel has sat on the sidelines during the war in Syria, Netanyahu made clear his intention to combat the Iranians from the start.
Soleimani has extended Tehran’s hold on key parts of the Sunni Arab world, and is keen to reap the rewards of his investment. An Iranian attack is anticipated, and will allow Iran to demonstrate the power it holds across the region. Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are all viable options to launch a missile or rocket attack from – the expected retaliatory delivery – putting Israel in an uncomfortable position where it must demonstrate its defence mechanisms. Syria and Lebanon are the most convenient locations to launch an attack, and a military base offers the most likely target in a tit-for-tat strike.
An Iranian retaliation is expected to be imminent; firstly for Iran’s need to save face, and secondly because an attack on Israel on its independence day, 70 years since the foundation of the State of Israel, would send a symbolic message.