US Secretary of Defense Jim Matthis took the latest Israeli military threat to strike back at Iran in Syria as one more thing to worry about. The IDF stated on Oct. 26, after the Islamic Jihad, an Iranian Palestinian proxy, slammed 51 missiles into Israel from the Gaza Strip, that if this aggression continues, Israel will not hesitate to take action against the Iranian Al Qods Brigades and its commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, whom the Israeli spokesman accused of ordering the attack. “No one in or outside the Gaza Strip is invulnerable,” he said.
For Secretary Mattis, this threat conjured up the specter of an impending military showdown involving Israel, Iran, Hizballah and Syria, that would inexorably drag US forces into a messy clash of arms.
While this was the first time an Israeli official had publicly threatened Iran’s Al Qods Brigades, the external arm of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Israeli jets did actually target them twice this year.
On Feb. 18, Israeli jets bombed a convoy of the “Harakat Hezbolllah an-Najaba Movement of the Party of Gods Nobles” – a mouthful for an Iranian-Iraqi Shiite paramilitary group. The convoy was on its way from Iraq into Syria. Then, on Aug. 23, Israeli planes struck another convoy of the same group which was moving in the opposite direction from Syria into western Iraq. An unknown number of Iranian officers of the Al Qods Brigades were killed in both attacks.
This joint Iranian-Iraqi militia, which is directly under Soleimani’s orders, maintains command posts and bases that straddle the Syrian-Iraqi border and are spread out between Abu Kamal in Syria and Al Qai’im in Iraq. US forces operate in this same border region on missions for eliminating Islamic State remnants which fled to this desert region from their defeats in Mosul and Raqqa.
Israel has never acknowledged the two attacks on Soleimani’s forces or revealed how they turned out. However, On Friday, Dec. 28, shortly before the massive missile attack on Israel from Gaza, a high-ranking Pentagon source was quoted by the Wall Street Journal as saying: “Israel has been conducting an aggressive military campaign across Syria against Iran-backed militia groups, an effort that has been encouraged by the White House but aroused the concern of many US military officials.” The source went on to say: “While the White House has applauded Israel’s assertiveness against Iran inside Syria, the military officials say they fear it could backfire if Iran’s belief that the US is behind many of the strikes prompts Iran-backed groups to attack American troops in Syria and Iraq. It’s a growing concern for us,” he stressed.
This leak underlined Secretary Mattis’ concern that Israeli attacks on Iranian forces could spark counter-attacks on the 5,000 US troops in eastern Syria, most of them Marines. But the White House nonetheless insists on taking Israel’s part in pursuing an “aggressive military campaign. The position held by the President’s Office is that “Israel has the right to defend itself and, further, the US welcomes Israel’s attempt to thwart Iran’s effort to create an ‘arc of control’ leading from Iran west through Iraq, Syria and, ultimately, Lebanon. Iran and Hizballah cannot be allowed to build an arsenal of weapons on Israel’s border that threatens the region,” the White House maintains.
Rather than joining Pentagon concerns about the spreading fallout of Israel’s operations and echoing the demands to limit them, the US President and his advisers welcome their widening impact against Iran’s expansionist plans for Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that heads of the Pentagon and CENTCOM are tensely braced for an Iranian comeback against US forces in the Middle East when US sanctions on Iran’s oil sales go into force in the coming week – if not directly then through Tehran’s armed proxies. The Iraqi Harakat Hezballah militia, in particular, moves around in the close vicinity of US bases in eastern Syria and western Iraq. This sort of belligerence occurred as recently as late September when Iraqi Shiite militias rained rocket and machine gun fire on the US consulate in the southern Iraqi oil port of Basra. An intelligence probe found the hand of Al Qods chief Soleimani behind that attack, the same hand that sent the Palestinian Jihad to launch missiles into Israel.
White House-Pentagon dissonance on Israel’s military involvement in Syria also has a personal aspect. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Bolton advocate an active Israeli role. They favor close US-Israeli coordination for slapping down Iran’s military presence in Syria and cutting short the free passage of pro-Iranian forces to and from Iraq and Syria for diminishing Iran’s schemes. Bolton wrapped up the joint ventures when he visited Israel in mid-August. The Pentagon viewed those understandings as a means for circumventing Matti’s objections to coordinated US-Israeli military action in Syria.