Israel Smacks Iranian Bastion in Syria, Opening up Lebanese and Gaza Fronts for Reprisals

“Israel’s air strike on a Syrian air base will not go unanswered,” said Ali Akbar Velayati, senior adviser to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, when he arrived in Damascus on Tuesday, April 10. He went straight into urgent consultations with President Bashar Assad on the ramifications of Israel’s airborne missile strike the day before on the Iranian compound in the big T-4 air base near Homs in central Syria. Seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) aerospace arm were killed including a colonel. Tehran released their names and ranks with pictures of their funerals – a step so unusual that it jerked Israel’s armed forced into alert posture for Iranian retaliation.

Not too far away, in the Golan town of Katzrin, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said he did not know who staged the attack on the Syrian air base (sic), but he did know one thing: “We shall not let Iran establish itself in Syria, whatever the cost. We have no other choice. Accepting a permanent Iranian presence in Syria means accepting an Iranian noose around our necks. We can’t let this happen.”

In an oblique message to Moscow, Lieberman remarked, ”Some parties could prevent this happening…and I hope that those parties do the right thing and use their powers to prevent Iran from settling in Syria and so avert unnecessary friction.”

DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources note that the second part of the defense minister’s comment showed that Israel had not despaired of its understandings with Moscow, despite deep erosions, and still hoped that Moscow might help contain Iran’s deepening military grip on Syria. Some Israeli officials continued to pretend that the oral deals and understandings forged between President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still had value and insisted that the two military commands were still liaising smoothly in Syria. It cannot be denied, however, that Israel’s faith in those understandings was severely challenged by Moscow’s deepening ties with Iran in Syria:

  1. Iran has been permitted to step up its arms shipments for Hizballah to Syria and Lebanon, some of them unloaded at air bases shared with the Russian air force.
  2. Iran is being allowed to set up an increasing number of military bases in Syria, some of them connected to Russian facilities.
  3. Russian “mercenaries,” purportedly hired from a private security contractor in Moscow, have been attached to Iranian and Hizballah forces conducting military operations – especially in southeastern Syria.
  4. Israeli military leaders are worried by the Russian military advisers helping to establish new Syrian army units, especially the Fifth Syrian Assault Corps. They are also helping to set up and train the pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militias newly arrived in Syria. It is suspected in Israel that these militias are to be posted to Lebanon for beefing up its southern border with Israel.
  5. They were appalled when President Putin agreed to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ordering his army to invade the northern Syrian Afrin region and snatching it from the Kurdish YPG. This was Moscow’s reward for Turkey joining the Russian-Iranian pact in Syria and purchasing Russian weapons. (See separate story on their failed summit.)
  6. Russian-Israeli relations tanked steeply after the wide-ranging air strikes that Israeli carried out in Syria on Feb. 10 in reprisal for an Iranian drone intrusion. Israel downed the drone and then Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 fighter. After that episode, Putin withdrew the free hand he had extended hitherto for Israeli air operations in Syrian air space. He was additionally irked by the discovery that the Israeli raiders had, inter alia, wiped out the entire radar network around Damascus, exposing the Syrian capital and half of its territory to aerial and missile assault.

In the four years since Russia’s military intervention in Syria, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israel’s military chiefs often reminded themselves that the two governments had different interests in the Syrian arena but were getting along. But this did not ease the upset when that piece of wisdom manifested itself suddenly in April. Trump’s strategy for Syria and Iran (See separate article) came in the nick of time for Israel to recover from the loss of its former comfortable relationship with Moscow. Not that Israel sought bad relations with Moscow, only was finding it hard to live with Russia willingness to enhance Iran’s political and military hold on the country.

Hoping to salvage a remnant of their former amity, Netanyahu put in a call to Putin on Wednesday, April 11. It soon became a shouting match. Our exclusive sources reveal that the Russian president told the prime minister in no uncertain terms that, after the T-4 strike, Israel must halt its operations over Syria and start respecting its sovereignty and security. Netanyahu retorted that he stayed as determined as ever to disrupt Iran’s military expansion into Syria. Their conversation ended in discord.

The rush of this and other seminal events around Syria since January have restored Israel to its tradition of strong political and military ties with the United States from before the Obama interregnum. Very soon, therefore, Israel will be involved in some way in the joint US, French and British operation in Syria, whether with its own air force and missiles, or by opening its military bases to the Western forces taking part in the operation.

It is obvious that Iran, Syria and Hizballah will not stand idle while this is going on. Tehran has marked Israel down for punishment for the strike on its T-4 compound and Moscow has gone so far as to agree to Iran combining this with its own plans for countering the forthcoming US-British-French-Arab operation in Syria. The Israeli security cabinet, which met on Wednesday, April 11, decided that, in the event of Iranian or Hizballah retaliatory aggression, the IDF will deliver a crushing blow to Iranian positions in Syria or Hizballah targets in Lebanon. A military standby is also in force on the Gaza front in case Tehran eggs Hamas on to further escalation.

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