May 30, 2018 | Amotz Asa-El
Syria’s skies had not seen such flocks of Israel Air Force (IAF) jets in nearly half a century.
Having detected, in early May, Iranian preparations for a missile attack on IDF outposts in the Golan Heights, Israel ordered bomb shelters in the area cleared and prepared the population to use them.
Then, on Wednesday night May 9 , the Iranians launched their attack. Jerusalem then unleashed, on that same night, an estimated two-dozen fighter jets on more than 50 Iranian targets throughout Syria. No IAF aircraft was hit, despite more than 100 missiles fired at the raiding jets.
Israel last operated with such force over Syria during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Striking surgically chosen targets at a radius of some 40 km surrounding Damascus, IAF missiles and rockets hit two divisional headquarters, a Revolutionary Guards intelligence centre, a military airport, armouries, warehouses, missile batteries, soldiers’ barracks and infantry outposts.
The Iranian attack that sparked the Israeli retaliation failed. Of the 32 missiles fired by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Force, 28 fell within Syria and four were intercepted by Israeli Iron Dome rockets.
The Israeli attack’s direct damage is unknown, except for the fact that there were casualties among both Syrian and Iranian troops. Even so, what is clear is that the Iranian buildup in Syria has been dealt a massive blow. This is in addition to the damage to the Syrian military, which lost five anti-aircraft missile batteries that the IDF targeted after missiles were fired at IAF jets.
This, then, was the military picture at dawn on May 10.
Then again, the militarily impressive attack’s most important dimension was neither the intelligence that mapped its targets nor in the firepower that it unleashed against them. Its primary significance was in terms of the strategic setback it dealt to Iran’s imperial designs, and an international reaction that left the Islamic Republic diplomatically besieged.
Strategically, the Iranian military deployment in Syria was shown to be woefully vulnerable, both physically and politically.
Iran lacks a modern air force, since its fleet of an estimated 170 combat jets consists mostly of American models purchased during the Shah’s era. The Iranians’ hope to modernise its military jets by purchases from Russia requires cash that Teheran currently lacks.
In any event, the Iranian failure to either predict or repel the Israeli raid has exposed the weaknesses of the Iranian buildup – with a patchwork of Iranian-commanded foreign legions whose Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani recruits not only lack a common language, but also proper air cover.
Politically, Iran’s Syrian encampment is far from its homefront, where the socially restless and economically disgruntled Iranian population is prone to deride this adventure as nationally uninspiring and financially unaffordable.
Yet Israelis see in the Iranian gambit a potential existential threat. The proof of that emerged the morning after the IAF’s raid, when the main opposition parties unequivocally backed the Government’s move as a fitting example of Israel’s longstanding doctrine of preempting any developing attack on the Jewish state.
Added up, the arena’s location far from Iran and at Israel’s doorstep means that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards may have manoeuvered the Islamic Republic into a Vietnam-style swamp – where a troubled Iranian society fights a distant and unpopular war while its enemy is united, motivated, and fighting to defend its home.
Iranian decision-makers now have good reason to expect that any effort to rebuild what the IDF has just levelled will meet with a similar fate. At the same time, politically, the Revolutionary Guards cannot afford to stage the sort of retreat that others in Teheran are likely to soon start demanding.
While this military/strategic dilemma is likely to haunt the mullahs who control the Iranian regime over coming months and years, the diplomatic predicament into which they have navigated is already here.
The European reaction to the raid indicated early on that Israel’s preemptive attack would be broadly justified with no ifs and buts.
In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel placed a telephone call to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and then condemned in his ears the missile attack on Israel, shortly after the Foreign Ministry in Berlin said, “Israel has a right to self-defence.” In London and Paris, Prime Minister Theresa May and President Emmanuel Macron shared both parts of Merkel’s statement.
While this unequivocal backing was good news from Israel’s viewpoint – considering Europe’s refusal to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran – responses from the other powers were even better as seen from Jerusalem.
The American response to the attack read as if it had been written by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself.
“We strongly support Israel’s right to act in self-defence,” the White House press release stated, before adding that “the Iranian regime’s deployment into Syria of offensive rocket and missile systems aimed at Israel – is an unacceptable and highly dangerous development for the entire Middle East.”
Washington thus made it plain that Jerusalem has its approval to do pretty much whatever it thinks must be done in order to confront Iran.
The rest of the world’s response was more unexpected and, from an Iranian viewpoint, much more ominous.
Arab capitals kept silent, saying nothing against Israel, and also nothing in favour of Syria. Moreover, the lone vocal Arab response, Bahrain’s, was unabashedly pro-Israeli.
“It is the right of any country in the region, including Israel, to defend itself by destroying sources of danger,” tweeted Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, while accusing Iran of using its military and missiles to “destabilise the Middle East.”
An island Sheikhdom off Saudi Arabia’s eastern coast, Bahrain’s statement was likely made with its Saudi overlords’ approval, and clearly echoes feelings throughout a Sunni Arab world which feels threatened by Iran no less than Israel.
Yet the most crucial was Russia’s response, which should be measured in this case not by its words but by its deeds.
Verbally, Moscow made do with a brief statement that it was “concerned” and called for “restraint on all sides,” a plea that was phrased in a neutral tone that ignored Russia’s sponsorship of the Syrian regime, and the blow that the Syrian military had just been dealt by the IAF.
Behind these words loomed the footage of Netanyahu’s arrival at the Kremlin for a tête-à-tête with President Vladimir Putin hours before the attack, shortly after the couple emerged in Red Square to jointly review the annual parade commemorating Russia’s victory in World War II.
Netanyahu was the sole Western leader at the imposing event, and his closeness with Putin was displayed for all to see, with timing that could hardly be more meaningful.
Diplomats and analysts are convinced Netanyahu briefed Putin about the imminent attack, for two reasons: Tactically, to make sure Israel did not accidentally hit any part of Russia’s military deployment in Syria; and strategically, to assure Russia that Israel is not out to harm Russia’s interests in Syria.
Putin’s high-profile appearance with Netanyahu before the attack, and the Kremlin’s subdued response following it, suggest Russia may actually be happy to see Iran’s Syrian project derailed.
Iran’s imperial quest to control a land bridge from Teheran to the Mediterranean competes with Russia’s quest to consolidate its naval and aerial presence along Syria’s Mediterranean coast. The Iranian effort is viewed by Putin with considerable suspicion.
Israel, at the same time, remains neutral concerning what Russia does generally, and in Syria in particular.
Unlike the rest of the West, Israel has not taken sides in the Russian-Ukrainian clash; it then refused to join anti-Russian sanctions; and it also failed to join Western countries in expelling Russian diplomats recently following the poisoning in Britain, allegedly by Russia, of a Russian spy turned defector.
Together with Washington’s abandonment of the Iran nuclear deal shortly before the attack, all this means that Israel’s resolve to evict Iran from Syria, besides being shared loudly by Washington, and echoed quietly by Arab governments, is also supported by Russia as well as Europe, each for its own reasons. Iran, in short, is diplomatically encircled.
Where this will lead the Ayatollahs is anyone’s guess.
For now, it is fair to say that the mullahs may be marching their nation to economic ruin, diplomatic isolation, and the kind of Vietnam-style quagmire that has forced far stronger nations to retreat from distant battlefields where history proved they should never have meddled.