Israel Shifts from Air to Ground Tactics against Iranian Military Targets in Syria
Neither of the belligerents in the Israel-Iranian contest in Syria has acknowledged that a radical shift to a new dimension took place on Saturday, May 18. It was then that mysterious ground strikes hit Iranian Revolutionary Guards centers in Syria, instead of Israel’s almost-routine air raids, usually by F-16 and F-15 fighters, like the bombardment of the big T-4 air facility near Homs that was conducted on May 9, the day US President Donald Trump took the US out of the nuclear accord with Iran.
Israel’s four-month aerial campaign for obliterating Iran’s military presence in Syria has only cost a single F-16 jet shot down – an impressive record, given the exceptionally dense Syrian air defense lines on the ground. At the same time, an aerial operation has its limits and some military experts were wondering how long Israel would keep it up, when many of Iran’s scattered military assets remained out of reach from the air. The answer came on May 18, when a base in the northern town of Hama was attacked in broad daylight – from the ground.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence source can reveal that a ground force let loose a barrage of missiles from a position opposite that base. The explosions leveled Revolutionary Guards arms, ammo and military equipment depots, and were powerful enough to destroy the Syrian air force facility that shared the base, including aircraft hangars. Indeed, the entire complex was burned to the ground. Analysis of the missile fragments and their precise targeting ruled out the claim of responsibility by a Syrian rebel militia and established that the attack was the work of a highly-trained, professional special operations force.
Five nations, Russia, the US, Britain, France and Turkey, maintain special forces in Syria. None is likely to have executed this pinpointed attack on a major Iranian facility. This leaves Israel with the capabilities, proximity and declared motivation for this type of attack,
Doubts about responsibility for the mysterious assault were dispelled three days later by a second operation. On Monday, May 21, another Iranian facility came under a similar missile attack from the ground. Its target was the Syrian military academy at Najjah near Damascus, which had been converted to the use of a number of Revolutionary Guards/Hizballah intelligence departments that supported their war room in Damascus. Those departments, along with an Iranian electronic warfare facility, were deliberately housed outside the capital and distanced from the Syrian high command.
In the space of three days, therefore, Iran lost major elements of its command and operational infrastructure in Syria to missile-wielding ground assaults. They are expected to continue.
Israel neither admitted nor denied the twin attacks, yet the IDF’s apparent switch to ground combat against Iranian military targets in Syria was not unexpected for three reasons:
- Israel’s strategists found a window of opportunity for knocking out Iranian military facilities in Syria at a time that Tehran was constrained from fighting back, or unleashing Hizballah, by the talks taking place with European powers for a renegotiated nuclear accord. They asked Tehran to show a willingness to give up its ballistic missile development so as to draw the Trump administration into reconsidering the US exit from the pact.
- Israel believed Iran’s leaders to be floundering at sea after Trump’s decision to quit the nuclear accord and the unexpected snap-back of US sanctions. Tehran was still reeling on May 21, when US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed the next stage of Washington’s no-holds-barred strategy with a 12-point ultimatum to give up Iran’s nuclear and missile programs, dump its terrorist proteges and change its expansionist ways. On top of the blows raining down from the Trump administration, Iran’s leaders were hit sideways by the failure of their candidate to make it to a majority in Iraq’s general election.
- Israel was determined to settle a special score with Iran for funding and orchestrating the deadly Palestinian outbreaks in Gaza for launching a campaign of attrition. Iranian brainpower was detected in the Hamas scenario for inciting Palestinian masses to crash the Gaza Strip’s border fence and surge across to destroy military border defenses and invade civilian locations. IDF snipers were forced to stop the incursion at gunpoint at the cost of 60 Palestinian dead and thousands injured.