A war of words has broken out between Israeli and Iranian leaders over Iran’s efforts to establish at least five military bases in Syria. Iran has already begun to launch drone attacks on targets in northern Israel from a base in central Syria known as T-4, while Israel has retaliated, directly targeting members of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) stationed at those bases for the first time.
On April 9, two Israeli F-15s flying in Lebanese airspace launched missiles at the T-4 base in central Syria which killed seven members of the Quds force, including Mehdi Dehghan, the commander of Iran’s drone missile unit at the base. The open hostilities began on February 10, when an armed Iranian drone launched from the T-4 base was shot down by an Israeli Apache helicopter shortly after it entered Israeli air space. The drone, which carried explosives, was on course to carry out an attack on the northern Israeli town of Beit She’an along the Jordan River.
During an Israeli air raid in reprisal for the drone attack, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile shot down an Israeli F-16 which crashed in Israeli territory. The two pilots bailed out and survived, but one of them was seriously injured. Israel then responded by launching an air raid which destroyed a significant portion of Syria’s anti-aircraft defenses.
Israeli leaders have long warned that Israel will not tolerate the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, while Iranian leaders insist that they will retaliate against any Israeli attacks on their bases in Syria.
Since 2013, Israel has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in Syria, most of them targeting convoys of sophisticated arms being transferred to Hezbollah. But since the beginning of this year, Israel directed many more of its air strikes to target Iran’s military facilities in Syria, especially the anti-aircraft systems and armed drones deployed at the T-4 base.
Israel’s Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has said that allowing Iran to solidify its military presence in Syria would be the equivalent of “permitting the Iranians to placing a noose around Israel’s neck. We will not allow Iranian consolidation in Syria. We won’t allow any restriction when it comes to Israel’s security interests.”
ISRAEL FACING A NEW REALITY
Lieberman explained that “Israel is facing a new military reality. The Lebanese army, in cooperation with Hezbollah, the Syrian army, the Shia militias in Syria, and directing them all, Iran, are forming a single front against Israel.”
The defense minister insisted that Israel is not planning for war, but it recognizes that “Iran is setting up weapons systems in Syria that are aimed only against us.” He added that “those who threaten Israel need to understand they will pay a heavy price.”
In light of the increased tensions with Iran, the Israeli military has taken steps to increase its state of readiness. For example, Israel canceled plans to send some of its F-15 fighter jets to a two-week-long Red Flag military exercise hosted by the US air force in Alaska, in order to keep them available to carry out missions against targets much closer to home.
Israel has released updated aerial photographs of five military bases currently being used by the IRGC. They are the T-4 base in central Syria, the Damascus International Airport, bases near the cities of Deir al-Zor and Aleppo, and another airfield south of Damascus. Israel says Iran has been using civilian airliners to ferry more troops and equipment, including surface-to-surface missiles and drones, to the bases. The photo of the base at Deir al-Zor shows a Russian-built Ilyushin plane which was used to transport weapons.
The Israeli military was said to be expecting the IRGC to launch another attack on Israel from its bases in Syria using precision-guided missiles and armed drones.
According to a Lebanese news site, Ad-Diyar, the Iranian drone attack took place on April 19. Three explosives-laden drones were reportedly launched from a base south of Damascus on a similar route as the drone which was launched on February 10 but were shot down by the Russians before they reached the Israeli border.
Over the past three years, Russia has been very successful in helping the Assad regime to survive and regain control over much of the country. It is believed that Russian President Vladimir Putin would now like to withdraw from Syria as soon as he can, so he might think that it is in Russia’s interest to delay the outbreak of a more serious round fighting in Syria between Iran and Israel until he can get his people out of the way.
FORCES IN SYRIA REALIGNING
Military analysts agree that as the Syrian civil war winds down, Iran, Hezbollah and Shiite militias, which have been fighting to preserve President Bashar Assad’s regime, have been realigning their forces in Syria to threaten Israel. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, Yaakov Amidror, told the Wall Street Journal, “They’ve succeeded in the war for Assad to survive. Now their first priority has changed and Israel is the target. For us, it is essential to stop Iran and for that we are ready to take the risk of a war.”
Former US undersecretary of defense Dov Zakheim, writing in Foreign Policy magazine, describes the strategic threat to Israel today from Iran and its allies in even broader terms. “Coupled with Hezbollah’s growing strength, and the weekly Hamas-inspired protests in Gaza, Israel faces the spectre of a three-front war for the first time since 1967.”
Zackheim said that Israel’s strategic problem in Syria is complicated by the presence of Russian military forces which have been providing air support, military equipment and technical advisors for Syrian troops fighting the anti-Assad forces in the civil war, as well as diplomatic cover for the Assad regime in the United Nations Security Council. Israel has gone to great lengths to avoid any direct confrontation between its aircraft and Russian military forces operating in Syria. Netanyahu has also warned Putin that Israel will not permit Syria to become a base for Iranian attacks against Israel.
But Israel is worried by Russia’s announcement that it plans to provide Syria with its advanced S-300 anti-aircraft system in response to the cruise missile attack by the US, Britain and France on Syrian bases earlier this month, in retaliation for Assad’s most recent chemical attack which killed dozens of Syrian civilians in the town of Douma.
The Assad regime and the Russians denied that they used chemical weapons in Douma, but they did not permit international weapons inspectors to enter the city for two weeks in order to give them enough time to dispose of the incriminating evidence.
The Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, said that Russia felt threatened by the joint US, British and French attack on the Syrian chemical weapons sites and was sending the sophisticated anti-aircraft system to Syria to help protect its ally from further attack.
The Russian announcement also came with a warning of “catastrophic consequences” for any country which tried to take out the new air defense system. However, it was not clear whether the system was going to be turned over to Syrian personnel to operate, or whether Putin would permit the S-300 to be fired at Israeli aircraft in Syrian airspace.
Putin had considered selling the S-300 system to Syria several years ago, but was talked out of it by Netanyahu who did not want to see it used against Israeli aircraft. The S-300 has the capability to defend against multiple aircraft and missiles simultaneously and has a range of more than 180 miles.
The S-300’s deployment in Syria would considerably complicate Israeli air force missions against targets under the system’s protection, but they would not be impossible. Since 2015, the Israeli air force has been carrying out joint air drills with Greece near the island of Crete where a Russian-built S-300 system is in operation.
THREAT OF A TWO-FRONT MISSILE WAR
Last week, Iranian and Hezbollah leaders threatened to launch a two-front missile war against Israel, prompting an immediate response from Netanyahu. Speaking to his cabinet on Israel’s 70th Independence Day on 5 Iyar, the prime minister said, “We hear threats from Iran, and the Israeli forces are prepared for every possible Iranian move. We will fight whoever tries to harm us. We will not shy away from action against those who threaten our security. They will pay a heavy price.”
Netanyahu was responding to a threat by Iranian Brigadier General Hossein Salami who warned Israel that, “If any war happens, it will definitely be followed by your annihilation.” He also predicted that Israel will “fade away” over the next 25 years despite the support it receives from the United States.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah also boasted last week that his “forces today have the ability, the power, and the missiles to hit any target in Israel.” It is not an idle boast.
During the summer of 2006, a steady barrage of Hezbollah missiles fired from hidden sites across southern Lebanon made normal life in northern Israel untenable. Israeli air force efforts to locate and destroy the hidden missile storage sites were largely unsuccessful. Since that time, Israel has perfected the Iron Dome missile defense system. But they could still be overwhelmed by the sheer number of missiles Hezbollah has stockpiled, believed to be in excess of 100,000.
AVOIDING THE MISTAKE ISRAEL MADE IN LEBANON
Israeli military leaders say they will not allow Iran to get the same kind of military foothold in Syria that Hezbollah established in Lebanon. Israel is determined to prevent Iran from establishing forward air bases and highly accurate GPS-guided missile factories in Syria with which to supply its proxy forces in the region. Israeli leaders have also warned that if Iran does try to launch another attack from Syria, the Israeli retaliation will be designed to wipe out the entire infrastructure Iran has built up there to date.
However, the former chief of Israeli military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, suggested the use of restraint in Israel’s response to further attacks by Iranian forces in Syria. “A preventive strike doesn’t absolutely have to involve the danger of a full-scale confrontation,” Yadlin explained, “and I hope the people who sit in the cabinet room and the intelligence and security services know. . . when to go for the head of the Iranian snake in places that we can’t tolerate Iranian entrenchment in Syria. On the other hand, expelling every last Iranian from Syria is an unrealistic and incorrect goal.”
HOPING TO AVOID WAR
In an interview with Kol Yisroel Radio, Defense Minister Lieberman was adamant that Israel was ready to do whatever was necessary to prevent Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria, but when asked whether he thought war with Iran was imminent, he said, “I hope not. I think that our primary role is prevent war, and that requires concrete, real deterrence as well as readiness to act.”
Yisroel Katz, Israel’s intelligence minister, suggested that Israel’s ability to project its military power might convince other world powers, such as Russia, the US and France, to intervene to curb Iranian expansion in Syria in order to prevent a military escalation by Israel.
Iranian leaders have another concern, that President Trump could reimpose the economic sanctions against Iran that were suspended by the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a CBS interview in New York that the reaction of the international community to a decision by President Trump to withdraw from that agreement would “not be pleasant” for the United States and could result in Iran “resuming at much greater speed our nuclear activities.”
CHANGING THE 2015 NUCLEAR DEAL
In recent weeks, Iranian officials have warned that if Trump walked away from the nuclear deal, Iran would immediately feel free to install and operate thousands of uranium centrifuges that could quickly produce a large amount of weapons-grade material, but in his interview, Zarif insisted that Iran “has never wanted to produce a bomb.”
In his Senate confirmation hearing last week, Mike Pompeo seemed to take Zarif at his word and said that he was not expecting Iran to begin “racing to build a bomb” if the 2015 agreement was terminated.
In his interview, Zarif said that it would be unfair for “the rest of the world [to] ask us to unilaterally and one-sidedly implement a deal that has already been broken,” and repeated the accusations that the United States has already violated the 2015 agreement by using its dominant presence in the international financial community to “dissuade our economic partners from engaging with Iran.”
Zarif dodged an interviewer’s question about Assad’s use of chemical weapons and chose instead to criticize the US for having its troops “illegally” in Syria, while both Iran and Russia were invited there by the Assad government. He also criticized the US for supplying weapons to Saudi Arabia that are “bombing Yemeni children to smithereens,” and accused the US of being “engaged actively in what amounts to war crimes.”
LOOKING FOR A PRISONER SWAP WITH THE US
Zarif also said his government is willing to discuss the fate of three American-Iranian dual citizens who are imprisoned Iran on what the United States has said are bogus charges, provided that the US showed more respect and treated Iran as a sovereign nation, rather than making “demands. And if that approach led to change, then the United States would see a difference,” he added.
Zarif said his country might be interested in a prisoner swap which would see the release of several Iranian citizens who have been convicted and are imprisoned in the US for financial crimes and sanctions violations.
“[It] is a possibility, certainly, from a humanitarian perspective,” Zarif said,” but it requires a change of attitude. … You do not engage in negotiations by exercising disrespect for a country, for its people, for its government, by openly making claims, including this illusion about regime change. Then you do not leave much room for a genuine dialogue.”
Zarif said that Iran is also looking for “a change of language” from Trump, who has frequently denounced Iran’s Islamic leadership, as well as an end to suggestions by administration officials such as National Security Advisor John Bolton supporting regime change in Iran. “The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and, therefore, the only solution is to change the regime itself,” Bolton told members of an Iranian opposition group several months ago, before he accepted his current position at the Trump White House.
Zarif also rejected President Trump’s demand that the flaws in the 2015 nuclear deal must be fixed or he will refuse to sign the sanctions waiver on May 12. He is demanding new restrictions on Iranian development of ballistic missiles and on Iran’s expansionist activities in the region.
Zarif said that Iran would not agree to a proposed side agreement that would cover those Trump demands and that Iran insists that the US comply with its own obligations under the original agreement to facilitate foreign investment in Iran.
US failure to stay in the original agreement, Zarif added, would send a message to North Korea and other countries engaged in negotiations with the United States “that you cannot reach an agreement with the United States … and expect it to be observed.”
IRAN’S ECONOMY IN CRISIS
Sitting with French President Macron on Tuesday, President Trump said that if the Iranians “restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems than they’ve ever had before.” He repeated for emphasis, “You can mark it down, if they restart their nuclear program, they will have bigger problems than they’ve ever had before.”
A threat by Trump to reimpose crippling US economic sanctions on Iran comes at a time when the Iranian economy already seems to be in serious trouble.
There are also reports that Qassem Soleimani, commander of the IRGC Quds Force, is in a political power struggle with the president of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, over who will become the successor of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Since signing the 2015 nuclear deal, the Iranian regime has spent most of the financial windfall it received on its foreign military adventures in Syria and Yemen and in support of Shiite terrorist organizations and militias such as Hezbollah throughout the region and around the world. This has come at the expense of the economic welfare of ordinary Iranian citizens who had expected to be the main economic beneficiaries of the nuclear deal.
Instead, just the opposite has happened. Iran’s currency, the Rial, has lost close to half of its value against the dollar since September 2017, while inflation in the country soars. The price of vegetables rose almost 100 percent last week while chicken prices increased by 30 percent.
Factories and other businesses had to lay off workers because they are no longer able to import goods and materials. As a result, unemployment has risen to a staggering 45 percent.
GROWING INTERNAL DISCONTENT
Predictably, Valiollah Seif, the Governor of the Central Bank of Iran, put the blame for Iran’s current financial crisis on foreign enemies rather than the misguided policies of Iran’s leaders, but there are increasing signs that Iran’s people are not buying it.
Video taken inside an Iranian mosque taken during Friday prayers showed worshippers shouted slogans saying that Iran’s real enemy is the Islamist regime and not the US or Israel.
“Our enemy is right here. They’re lying when they say it’s America,” the crowd chanted.
Buildings across Teheran are marked with graffiti expressing displeasure with Iran’s foreign policy. “Leave Syria, think about us! No to Yemen! No to Lebanon and Hezbollah! Our lives for Iran,” say the slogans painted on walls of Iran’s capital.
The message finally seems to have gotten through to Supreme Leader Khamenei, who suddenly warned last week that Iran is in the middle of a war against a “huge powerful front of enemies” and has to develop “offensive strategies.”
He instructed Iran’s intelligence services to get ready to fight an “intelligence war over public opinion and the integrity of the country’s ruling ideology,” implicitly acknowledging for the first time that his regime is in serious trouble.
What effect Iran’s internal economic and political power struggles will have on the behavior of its Al Quds shock troops and terrorist proxies in Syria and throughout the Middle East is hard to predict. Previous protest movements and grass roots uprisings against the Islamic rulers of Iran have petered out, or been violently suppressed, so it would be foolish for Israel to count on the dangerous situation in Syria today being resolved by sudden regime change in Tehran.
Instead, Israel’s leaders need to continue sending a strong message of deterrence that says that while they do not seek war, they will not permit Iran to turn Syria into a base for attacks on Israel.
The Washington Post contributed to this story.