5/11/18 Israel Attacks Iranians in Syria- The background Story
On February 10th an Iranian drone was tracked as it crossed Syria and entered Israeli airspace. A few moments after entering Israeli airspace an Israeli attack helicopter which was waiting for it shot it down. When the history of the Israeli-Iranian confrontation is written, this small event may take on outside significance.
The Iranians have been involved in the Syria Civil War for a number of years coming to the defense of the then-crumbling Assad regime. Assad is Alawite and the Alawites are considered offshoots of the Shites. The Syrian Civil War quickly had turned into a Sunni - Alawite/Shite War. The Iranian at first had their proxies- Hezbollah from Lebanon intervene, but when that was not enough they started sending their own troops and recruiting Shite militia from other areas. None of this had been enough, and it was only the intervention of the Russians with their air support that was able to turn the tide for Assad and ensure his victory.
While Israel was always concerned about the Iranian presence in Syria, that concern was initially tied to the concern that the Iranians would be able to use Syria as a springboard for transferring arms to the Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israel had over the past few years attacked a significant number of convoys and storage facilities involved in those transfers. Within Israel there, however, there was no clear agreement if Iranian involvement in Syria was mostly defensive in nature- ie just to save the Assad regime, or whether they looked at Syria as a strategic springboard in their ongoing fight with Israel. As it became clear in the last few months that the Assad regime was headed toward total victory in Syria that question became more vital. The drone attack settled that question. The launch of a drone at Israel by the Iranian from Syrian soil represented an escalation that Israel could not allow going unanswered.
Immediately following the drone attack Israel launched an attack on the base that had sent the drone, destroying the control van. The attack, however, did not go off as planned and an Israeli plane which had actually launched missiles from over Israel was downed by a Syrian missile. For a moment the Syrians and their friends celebrated the fact that an Israeli plane had been downed for the first time in decades. The downing was a psychological blow to the image of the Israeli airforce being invincible but was due to crew error in not paying enough attention to the incoming missile and not taking, as a result, the required actions to avoid the missile. It did not reflect any strategic change.
When the Iranian drone was first downed its mission was unclear. After examining its remains it became clear that it was armed and was on a mission to strike a target in Israel. Once that news was known Israel prepared a more extensive and better-planned response to that attack. On April 9th the Israeli air force struck the base that had sent the drone, destroying the Iranian facilities on the base and killing up to 12 Iranians including the Iranian commander. The Iranians vowed revenge.
Most observers expected that the Iranians would wait for two events to happen before responding. The election in Lebanon- where they were concerned that any action could negatively impact the vote for Hezbollah. Second an announcement from the US as to whether it was walking away from the nuclear agreement. Therefore although Israel expected an Iranian attempt at revenge it expected that revenge to take place only after the above two events.
The Lebanese elections were held on May 6th, and President Trump moved up his announcement that was expected to be the 12th to May 8th. From the moment President Trump made that announcement the IDF went on high alert. It made the rare public announcement that it had observed Iranian activity that was indicative of a preparation of a missile attack. It then publicly warned that Iranians that if they attacked Israel would eliminate all of their bases in Syria. That night the IDF launched a preemptive raid against the missile site. The raid set off a chain of secondary explosions indicating that it was successful.
The next day tension continued to rise, and the IDF prepared for a potential attack, warning Golan Height residents to be ready. The Iranian went ahead with the attack despite the warnings. Since their primary missiles had been destroyed the night before, they were forced to use backup missiles. They fired 20 missiles, 16 did not reach Israeli position and the four that reached the border were downed by Israel’s Iron Dome. Israel then did what it had promised and attacked 40 Iranian targets in Syria. According to Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the IAF destroyed all of the sites attacked and substantially set back Iranian efforts in Syria.
A few points are worth making. I have heard critics of Israel claim that Israel was taking advantage of President Trump's announcement on the nuclear accord to attack the Iranians. The opposite seems true, observes had said for weeks that the Iranians would wait until after the Trump announcement and that is what happened. Also, it should be very clear that the Iranians should have understood the consequences of the attack. Israel was clear that it would destroy as much of the Iranian presence in Syria as it could and that is what happened.
As to the future- the Iranians are not likely to accept what has just happened without trying to respond. They have little chance to respond conventionally from Syria. The gap between the 21st-century Israeli army and the Iranian army is too wide. They do have a number of methods to respond. The biggest question is what is the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran. The Iranian support has clearly been the key to the rise of Hezbollah, but the question is, will Hezbollah be willing to lose its new status in Lebanon by going to war with Israel. A war that would clearly bring untold destruction to Lebanon. No one really sure about that? The sense today is that Hezbollah is no longer under total Iranian control, and without Hezbollah there is no real threat to Israel, but it is the big unanswered question. They can of course resort to international terror, something they have done in the past. That is clearly a potential threat that must be taken seriously.
The long run is much cloudier. With the US walking away from the agreement all indications are that the Europeans will not be able to sustain it. As I have written before there is no American plan B. The hope is that the Iranian government will collapse due to the economy imploding. I am very dubious of that scenario when the economy goes south dictators often do best. I fear there is no other plan and that is scary.
One final thought: Vladamir Putin. The emerging consensus in Israel is that he has concluded that it is not in Russia’s interest for Iran to have too much control over Syria, that would compete with their own control. Clearly, he gave Netanyahu the green light for the attack. There also seems to be a very true chemistry between the two. As much as I may dislike both of them, it’s certainly in Israel’s interest that they maintain that chemistry.
I could go on…