Israel Takes the War Initiative against Iran’s Consolidation in Syria

Tension on Israel’s borders with Syria and Lebanon have been high for three weeks and the IDF armed forces kept on peak war alert. DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report cancelled leave in combat units; their officers, including reservists, are confined indefinitely to base. This advanced state of war preparedness hardly affects ordinary life in the country, since it is arranged through call-ups for one military exercise after another which roll out in an unbroken series. Domestic media ceaselessly rap out warnings that imminent Iranian revenge is in store for the IDF’s air and missile attacks on its Syrian bases – the Feb.10 one on the T-4 Revolutionary Guards drone base and this week’s strike against the command centers and missile depots at Hama and Aleppo of the 47th and 80th Brigades of the Shiite militias under the Guards command.

The Israeli public see their country as being beleaguered and on the defensive against a belligerent enemy, after striking a hostile military establishment before it takes root in Israel’s Syrian backyard.

DEBKA Weekly’s military sources draw a different picture: Israel has taken leave of its defensive posture and is now on the offensive. Binyamin Netanyahu decided to take the initiative for war for the first time in his nine years as prime minister, departing from his firm policy of avoiding Israel’s entanglement in any conflict – aside from two abbreviated operations in the Gaza Strip (in 2009 and 2013) to rescue the civilian population from constant direct Hamas attacks.

Netanyahu has stepped out of character and initiated military action against Iran and Hizballah in Syria on two levels: The airstrikes on Sunday, April 29, which killed 24 Iranian soldiers and targeted a newly-arrived arms shipment from Iran. This operation was described by US officials to NBC as “the latest sign that Israel and Iran are moving close to open warfare.” The same sources commented that the battle between Israel and Iran in Syria is “at the top of the list right now of potentials for the most likely live hostility.”

The next day, Netanyahu staged a widely televised presentation of a large archive stolen from Tehran that laid bare its longstanding – and long-denied – pursuit of nuclear weapons.

So what finally drove the Israeli prime minister to go on the offensive against Iran’s consolidation in Syria?

  1. Contrary to the general impression of belligerent might – Tehran’s finger is to be found in every troubled corner of the Middle East – the prime minister believes Iran has never been at a lower ebb militarily and economically. (See a separate article on the woes piling up for the Islamic Republic)
  2. He sees a unique opportunity for wiping out the menacing military infrastructure Iran has spent years on building up in Syria. He does not foresee Tehran launching an all-out war at this time – in particular, a punitive ballistic missile attack on Israel – in the light of estimates by Israel’s military and intelligence analysts that Iran will be loath to let its confrontation with Israel spill over onto its own soil.
  3. Tehran would prefer to send Hizballah into direct action against Israel, it is estimated – or at least the units based in Syria. This step would finally expose Iran’s Lebanese proxy to IDF action for crushing, or at least, damaging its war machine in Syria, along with that of its master – and possibly in Lebanon too. This enemy would finally get its comeuppance for the constant threats to the Jewish state. Israel would be able to correct the strategic mistake made in late 2013 and early 2014 when it turned a blind eye on Hizballah’s intervention in the Syrian war in support of the Assad regime. This intervention helped the Shiite group build up a vast rocket arsenal which is pointed in one direction, south.
  4. Netanyahu had reason to count on Russia’s Vladimir Putin excluding Russian military personnel, air force and advanced air defense weapons, from a clash between the IDF and Iranian and Hizballah forces in Syria. And indeed, Moscow was silent when Israel conducted air strikes over Hama and Aleppo on Sunday night, April 29. In contrast to previous incidents, when the Russians threatened to unleash their missiles against Israeli intrusions of Syrian skies, not a single shot was aimed against the three Israel F-15 jets which struck Iranian targets. To cover the embarrassment in Tehran and Damascus over their Russian ally’s desertion, the Syrian military claimed that the attack was conducted by Israeli F-35 stealth bombers to explain how they eluded Syrian anti-air missile fire.
  5. Netanyahu sensed that circumstances would come together in May in favor of an IDF move to tackle Iran’s buildup in Syria: Tehran is bound to be distracted by events high on its strategic agenda: Lebanon goes to the polls on May 6, and Iraq has a general election on May 12. Both are openings for Tehran’s minions to grab Beirut and Baghdad as the centers of Iranian influence for years to come.
  6. Israel has opted for a series of steadily escalating strikes, each pulverizing a segment of the military infrastructure Iran has assembled in Syria in the past five years. This tactic has worked until now. But Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gady Eisenkot can’t be sure how long Iran will endure these knocks without response. If Iran does retaliate against a target inside Israel, the war will break out in earnest.
  7. With a friend in the White House, Israel’s prime minister is coordinating his military moves against Iran with the Trump administration. This close collaboration served both his presentation of Iran’s Atomic Archive and his decision to start a war with Iran and Hizballah, for which he requested a green light.
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