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Alleged strike shows Israel is chasing Iranians deep into Syrian desert

June 3, 2019 at 6:08 pm

A picture taken early on 21 January, 2019 shows Syrian air defence batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus [STR/AFP/Getty Images]

The attack on the T-4 airbase in northern Syria at around dawn on Monday, attributable to Israel, is the third on Syrian soil within a week. In the two previous cases, Israel was reacting to fire against it. This time, according to foreign media, the target was Iranian interests, reports Haaretz.

As Haaretz reported in February, this year Iran changed some of the characteristics of its activity in Syria.

On the backdrop of the persisting Israeli attacks, and the dissatisfaction with Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s regime, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps moved its main activity from the Damascus international airport to a base more distant from Syria’s centre – T4, which is next to Homs. The Iranians have operated from that base before, and Israel bombed it on a number of occasions in 2018.

In the past, the Israeli attacks targeted Iran’s arms shipments via Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. They also aimed to thwart the IRGC’s establishment in Syria – deploying drones and aerial defence systems from sites the Iranians set up for themselves within Syrian bases.

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The Sunday night attack adds to two prior incidents last week. First, a Syrian antiaircraft launcher was destroyed at Quneitra, in the Syrian Golan, after it fired shells at Israeli jets. Syria reported that two soldiers were killed. On Saturday night, two rockets were fired from Syria into Israeli territory, one landing in the area of Mount Hermon. There were no casualties. The Israeli air force reacted with a series of raids against Syrian army targets.

The Israeli defence establishment is still having a hard time determining exactly who fired Saturday night’s rockets. The usual explanation over the years for incidents of the type – errant fire during exchanges between the forces of Assad and the rebels – has not been relevant for a year now.

The Assad regime has total control of southern Syria and there is no significant force there challenging him. The Syrian army has returned to the Syrian Golan Heights, in the format reminiscent of the deployment of its brigades on the eve of the civil war and it has reasonable control over what goes on there.

At the same time, the Syrian air defences are primed, edgy, and seeking every opportunity to shoot down planes that approach Syrian air space.

The rocket fire on the Hermon on Saturday, therefore, looks like a deliberate move connected to the regime. But the power behind it could be the Syrian army, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or one of the Shi’ite militias that Iran operates in southern Syria. The possible reasons could also be multiple: to mark the Shia Al Quds Day, which was marked this year by numerous threats against Israel by Iran and Hezbollah; another veiled threat by Iran against the tension with the United States in the Gulf; or Syrian revenge for the previous Israeli air raid.

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If the rocket fire was supposed to be revenge, it backfired. Some hours later the Israeli forces attacked a number of targets in southern Syria. The Syrian opposition later reported dozens of casualties from the Israeli raids, including Iranian fighters. It could be that there were casualties in the airstrike but the number looks inflated.

On Monday morning came the attack against T4, apparently targeting Iran. Reports in Syria cite two casualties. Israel held the Assad regime responsible for the Hermon incident, like the one controlling the territory, and made no specific allegations against Iran.

These incidents demonstrate that although Assad has regained control over the territory, the border area is not completely stable. The Israeli leadership keeps saying it cannot accept Iranian military establishment in Syria, and from time to time, backs up the words with deeds. Yet the friction between the two armies is less intense than a year ago, partly because Iran is being more cautious than previously. But the underlying tension remains.

Meanwhile, Israel is also drawing lines in the sand regarding Lebanon. It recently sent a warning through the Americans to the government in Beirut, against attempts by Iran and Hezbollah to establish production lines to upgrade the guided missiles in Hezbollah’s possession in Lebanon.

Israel, Lebanon tensions at the border - Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]

Israel, Lebanon tensions at the border – Cartoon [Latuff/MiddleEastMonitor]