Israel will respond decisively to any Iranian retribution against it carried out from Syria, Israeli security sources said Tuesday, referring to threats made by Tehran that it would respond to a missile strike the T-4 military airport in which seven Iranian military advisers were killed.
Iran, Syria and Russia have said Israeli jets carried out the April 9 attack on the base between Homs and Palmyra, some 250 kilometers from Damascus. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied the reports, but a military official appeared to confirm responsibility to the New York Times earlier this week, saying, “it was the first time we attacked live Iranian targets — both facilities and people.”
Iran has said it will respond to the attack. “The Zionist entity will sooner or later receive the necessary response and will regret its misdeeds,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said.
Israeli military sources believe Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the extraterritorial and covert operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, is planning a revenge operation for the alleged Israeli strike, in which the commander of the Guard’s drone force Colonel Mehdi Dehghan was killed. Any Iranian response is likely to come in the form of a guided missile strike on targets in Israel or an armed drone attack operated directly by Revolutionary Guards and not via one of the Iranian proxies in the region such as Hezbollah or other Shi’ite militias operating in Syria.
“The IDF will do everything required to make sure that Independence Day passes peacefully and that Israel’s citizens will be able to enjoy the holiday. The IDF is prepared for a wide range of scenarios,” sources said.
The IDF is believed to have prepared for the possibility of an Iranian attack and its response is likely to threaten the stability of the Assad regime, which controls some 70 percent of Syria with Iranian and Russian backing.
Israel’s fear that Iran could launch a direct attack rather than employ proxies stems from the entrenchment of Iranian aerial forces in Syria with the goal of carrying out an offensive strike through UAVs or missiles. Israel believes that Tehran is no longer willing to rely solely on Hezbollah and other proxies, and that Soleimani, who has strong ties with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, is pushing for a strategic escalation against Israel.
Military sources noted that while the Revolutionary Guard does not have aircraft in Syria, its assets in the country include both intelligence and attack drones. It also possesses short and medium range surface-to-surface missiles, including Fateh 110 missiles with a range of up to 200 kilometers and Fajr 5 rockets with a range of up to 75 kilometers, as well as Shihab ballistic missiles based in Iran with a range of 1,300 kilometers that are capable of striking targets in Israel.
Military sources note that in 2015 Saeed Izadi, the head of the Palestinian Division of the Quds Force planned a rocket attack on northern Israel that was carried out by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The IDF hit 14 Syrian military positions in response to that attack, which caused bush fires in the Golan Heights but no casualties or injuries.
The PIJ rocket attack came as a proxy response to an Israeli strike that killed senior Hezbollah commander Jihad Mughniyeh, Mohamad Issa, the chief of Hezbollah operations in Syria, Iranian Brigadier General Mohammad Ali Allahdadi, as well as several other Hezbollah fighters and Iranian soldiers, as they toured the Syrian side of the Golan Heights to prepare a terrorist attack on Israel.
Then-Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon warned at the time that the rocket strike was a curtain raiser for future Iranian and Iranian funded attacks.
Military sources note that while the 2015 incident was the first time the Revolutionary Guard operated directly against Israel, the first time its aerial division did so was on February 10 of this year when an armed Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace, leading to a massive Israeli response that included a strike on the drone’s command and control center at the T-4 Military Airport, some 250 kilometers from Damascus. An Israeli jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses over Israeli territory as it returned from the mission.
Iran also possesses air defense capabilities in Syria headed by Ali Akbhar Sidon that are capable of detecting fighter jets and other aerial craft. Other sections of the Revolutionary Guard Aerospace Force, headed by General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, are also believed to have set up at five locations around Syria in Haleb, Deir ez-Zour, Damascus International Airport and the Dumair Military Airport south of Damascus.
They are also believed to be using Russian-made Ilyushin 76 transport planes to provide missiles and munitions for Hezbollah, and missiles and drones for its own use.
After entering the Syrian war, the Revolutionary Guard at first operated against rebel forces, but after Russia intervened on behalf of the Syrian regime, the Aerospace Force began to concentrate on preparing to attack Israel from Syria. Israeli officials believe that Iran’s strategic long arm in Syria is aimed at deterring Israel from striking Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Despite the fact that de-facto, the Iranians have initiated the mobilization of the Aerospace Force as a front against Israel, some officials in Jerusalem believe that the Iranian entrenchment in Syria has advantages, as it allows the IDF to easily and accurately apply its full force against Iran at the time of its choosing.
A former Israel Air Force commander said recently that in order to get to T-4, as well as other air bases and facilities at which the Iranian forces and militias are based. “[Israeli jets] don’t need to travel hundreds of kilometers, refuel mid-flight, and then deal with the Iranians’ significant aerial defense systems. We can do it rather easily and with relatively simple and cost-effective methods when they are in Syria. We don’t need to get to them [to Iran].”
The officials believe that Iran’s direct involvement in Syria, which Israel has been emphasized for years in the international arena, allows Israel to pressure and threaten Assad’s regime and Russia, as well as the Iranians themselves and Hezbollah.
All of those players’ primary interest, the officials believe, is to maintain and promote stability in Syria. Every one of those players: Russia, Assad’s regime and Iran will be able to cash in on the benefits of rehabilitating Syria only in a situation where Syria is stable.
The officials also note divisions within Iran between President Hassan Rouhani’s pragmatic base, which is interested in improving the Iranian people’s economic state, and the militant, radical, line led by the Revolutionary Guard and Soleimani that wants to see Iranian hegemony in the region and conflict with Israel.
The officials also note that Israeli revelations about Iranian involvement in Syria come shortly before the May 12 deadline for United States President Donald to renew sanctions waivers under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal. Trump has threatened to suspend the deal as he wants changes made, a move that would have catastrophic effects on Iran’s economy. Israeli officials note that an Iranian strike against Israel would likely swing Trump’s decision.
Yona Schnitzer contributed to this report.