The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

Major General (res.) Yaakov Amidror :“If you want to make clear to the other side that you are determined to prevent something, either you escalate the operation, or you say in public I’m doing it, meaning I’m ready to take the risk”.

The New York Times, 20.1.2019

By Isabel Kershner

 

The Israeli military said on Monday that it had attacked Iranian military targets in Syria, capping an exchange of blows in a rare, direct confrontation between the two antagonists that risks escalating the fight over Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.

Israeli military officials said the latest strikes, most likely the broadest wave in months, were in retaliation for Iranian forces launching a surface-to-surface missile from the Damascus area on Sunday toward the northern part of the Israeli-held Golan Heights. They said that the missile had endangered a ski resort and other areas where civilians were present, but that it had been successfully intercepted by Israel’s air defenses.

The Iranian missile, in turn, was fired shortly after a strike against a weapons store in Syria, for which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel strongly hinted that his country was responsible.

Israel’s acknowledgment of its strikes reflect a shift in policy, with the country increasingly taking responsibility for specific attacks in Syrian territory after years of ambiguity.

Eight days earlier, Mr. Netanyahu said that Israeli forces had recently attacked Iranian weapons depots in Syria. Iran and Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, are sworn enemies of Israel and have been crucial allies of the Syrian ruler, Bashar al-Assad, in his country’s long and devastating civil war.

Analysts have warned that Israel’s new openness could ratchet up tensions, making it harder for Iranian leaders to ignore attacks and pushing them to retaliate.

Israel’s lifting of the veil on its fight against Iran in Syria came during a changeover of military chiefs of staff, and as Mr. Netanyahu is campaigning for re-election under a cloud of corruption investigations.

“Last night, the air force strongly attacked Iranian targets in Syria after Iran launched a missile from there at our territory,” Mr. Netanyahu said on Monday. “We will not ignore such acts of aggression as Iran attempts to entrench itself militarily in Syria.”

He specifically noted comments on Monday by the Iranian Air Force commander, Aziz Nassirzadeh, though they differed little from countless previous Iranian threats against Israel.

Iran’s “current and future generations are ready, impatiently, and with every fiber of their being, for battle with the Zionist regime and to wipe it off the face of the earth,” Mr. Nassirzadeh told the Young Journalists Club, a hard-line Iranian news outlet.

A hard-line Iranian news website, Tabnak, said that Iran and Israel were heading toward a dangerous confrontation over Syria, adding that Israel had recently changed what it called the unwritten rules of the conflict.

The Israeli military said the overnight targets included sites in Syria of the Iranian Quds Force, the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps that is responsible for foreign operations, as well as a large weapons storage facility in the Damascus International Airport, an Iranian intelligence site and an Iranian military training camp.

“We see a clear presence of Quds forces in Damascus International Airport, inside Syrian army bases and even Quds Force buildings right next to Syrian armed forces, which is a liability to the Syrian regime and its armed forces,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, told reporters on Monday.

Colonel Conricus said Syria had ignored Israeli warnings to keep out of the hostilities overnight, firing dozens of surface-to-air missiles. In response, he said, Israel conducted three sorties and attacked several Syrian antiaircraft batteries.

“Iran is exploiting Syria,” Colonel Conricus said, adding, “Syria paid a price for allowing Iran to conduct attacks from its soil.”

He described the Iranian missile attack as “premeditated,” and said it had been launched from an area in Syria that Israel had been promised would be free of Iranian forces. He refused to say who had made that promise.

The Israeli military was on an elevated level of alert on Monday and the popular ski site, on Mount Hermon, was closed for the day as a precaution.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a Twitter post that Israel had destroyed warehouses and sites of the Iranians, Hezbollah, and the Syrian military and killed 11 fighters, without specifying their nationality.

The Syrian state news media said that Syria’s air defenses downed most of the Israeli missiles before they reached their targets. The Defense Ministry of Russia, another country fighting for the Syrian government, said the Israeli strikes had killed four Syrian soldiers and asserted that Syrian forces had intercepted 30 Israeli missiles since Sunday.

Russia supplied Syria with the sophisticated S-300 ground-to-air missile system after a Russian military plane was shot down over Syria in September, killing 15 Russian service members. Syrian forces shot the plane down accidentally, trying to hit an Israeli jet after an Israeli airstrike, and Russian officials blamed Israel.

But Israel and Russia have a system for communicating with each other to avoid accidental clashes in Syria. Colonel Conricus said the mechanism was being “honored by both sides and continues as we speak,” and that it was used overnight.

“The Russians are dancing at every wedding possible,” wrote Alex Fishman, a military affairs analyst, in the Monday issue of Yediot Ahronot, an Israeli newspaper. “On the one hand, they’ve allowed Israel to continue to bomb while, on the other, trying to interfere with the Israeli air force’s ability to do so.”

Israeli officials have acknowledged carrying out hundreds of strikesagainst weapons convoys and Iranian targets in Syria, but had previously avoided confirming responsibility for specific attacks immediately after they took place in an effort to deter retaliation.

But soon after Sunday’s strike against a weapons store in Damascus, Mr. Netanyahu, who was visiting Chad, said, “We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us.”

During the visit to Chad, the first by an Israeli prime minister in decades, the two countries announced a resumption of diplomatic relations.

Many Israelis have questioned the motives of Mr. Netanyahu and the military for lifting some of the secrecy from Israeli strikes in Syria.

Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, said he did not know if it was spurred by the departing military chief of staff’s desire to sum up his four-year term, if it was meant as a signal to the Iranians that Israel is ready to take more risks to restrain Iran in Syria, “or a combination of both.”

“If you want to make clear to the other side that you are determined to prevent something, either you escalate the operation,” Mr. Amidror said, “or you say in public I’m doing it, meaning I’m ready to take the risk. Israel instead of escalating, decided to make it public, signaling to the Iranians, ‘Yes, we are ready to take the risk.’”

Mr. Amidror discounted the possibility that the Israeli elections, scheduled for April 9, had anything to do with the decision.

But Mr. Netanyahu, who also serves as the defense minister, among other roles, faces possible bribery charges, and some critics have accused him of focusing on security threats to draw attention away from his legal troubles, and have voiced concern about a wider conflict.

Omer Bar-Lev, an Israeli legislator in the opposition and a member of the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, wrote on Twitter on Monday, “After the Iranian provocation in broad daylight it was right to attack forcefully in Syria! But the Iranian provocation was a reaction to the lifting of ambiguity.”

If the Iranian missile had exploded among the skiers on Mount Hermon, he added, “today we would have been in an unnecessary war, only because of pre-election bragging.”

The New York Times, 20.1.2019

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