Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has long warned of the danger posed to Israel, not many years hence, by Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. As of April 13, Israelis are contemplating the danger posed right now by a non-nuclear Iran that is working to entrench itself in Syria.
Two months after an Israeli Apache helicopter shot down an Iranian drone dispatched from Syria, 30 seconds after it crossed into Israeli airspace, Israel’s military censors finally allowed local media to report that the drone was not merely taking surveillance footage, but was carrying explosives and was primed to attack and damage an unspecified target somewhere in Israel.
The timing of the revelation – which was accompanied by the Israeli Air Force’s release of footage showing the Apache downing the infiltrating Iranian drone – was plainly linked to a potent attack, carried out pre-dawn on April 9, that reportedly caused substantial damage to a facility Iran has been building at the T-4 air base in central Syria, and from which that drone was launched on Feb. 10.
While the Israeli government has been silent, the April 9 raid has been widely attributed to Israel – by Russia, Syria, Iran and some in the US. At least seven Iranian military personnel were killed in the raid. Iran has threatened retaliation. A top aide to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned that Iran could destroy Haifa and Tel Aviv. Russian President Vladimir Putin asked Netanyahu not to cause destabilisation in Syria. And so, if anyone was asking why Israel would have risked the repercussions of a raid like the one on April 9, the subsequent revelations about the drone evidently provided at last part of the answer: Iran is now sufficiently emboldened to directly attack Israel.
The Feb. drone attack was the first direct Iranian confrontation with Israel, after years of it employing Lebanese and Palestinian proxies to target the Jewish state from Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza. That attack had a real cost for Israel, which lost an F-16 in retaliatory raids later that same day.
At the T-4 base in Syria, military sources indicated, Iran has been building a fully functional air base of its own in every respect, with only the fighter planes missing. It was the centre of Iran’s attack drone operations. It had surface-to-air missile defence systems and all manner of other protections.
And it is only one part of the gradual, strategic process of Iran establishing itself in the vicious combat zone across Israel’s northern border in Syria.
If Israelis might better understand now why their leaders and security chiefs allegedly saw an imperative to act on April 9, the potential repercussions, as discussed at length by the primetime Hebrew news shows’ top defence analysts, will have been deeply discomfiting.
Doubtless well-briefed by military officials, Channel 10’s analyst Alon Ben-David and his Channel 2 counterpart Roni Daniel used similar formulations to encourage Israelis not to take too seriously threats by Khamenei aide Ali Shirazi that Iran will raze Tel Aviv and Haifa to the ground if Israel doesn’t cease what he called its “childish games.”
“Calm down,” urged Ben-David. “They wouldn’t dare, and they don’t have the capacity.”
Echoed Daniel, “Okay, so they’re threatening. So what. Can they do it?” he scoffed.
But both analysts also acknowledged that Iran will emphatically seek to avenge the reported grave damage sustained in the April 9 attack – presumably by targeting Israeli soldiers from Syria. Channel 10 also reported that there is some concern in Israel that Iran, as it has done to devastating effect in the past, may seek to use its terrorist assets to attack Israeli or Jewish targets in the Diaspora.
Along with the concerns about the fallout from the T-4 attack, there are also now growing worries about Israel’s capacity to maintain the supremacy its air force enjoys in the skies over Lebanon and Syria – the supremacy that is vital to attacks such as the one attributed to Israel on April 9.
“This Iranian presence is something Israel cannot accept and must systematically attack all the time,” Channel 2’s Daniel said, while other reporters in the studio vouchsafed that the entire security establishment and key government ministers were all in agreement that the alleged T-4 strike was vital – one of the most important operational decisions approved by Netanyahu in his time as premier, as one of them put it.
But Russia’s potent military capabilities in Syria threaten to complicate such missions in the future. The Iranians are “lobbying hard” for Putin to reduce the IAF’s freedom of operation, Channel 2 Middle East analyst Ehud Ya’ari reported. “If they can persuade Putin to lock the radar of Russia’s air defence systems in Syria on the IAF,” he cautioned, “we’ll be in a completely different situation.”
Iran, Ya’ari added gravely, “should not be treated with contempt.”
Iran’s top priority right now is not to engage Israel in serious conflict from Syria. It is not frantically rushing to build up its forces on the Syrian side of the Golan. It is, rather, seeking to gradually establish a robust military infrastructure deep in Syrian territory – taking the longer view.
Following the latest revelations, Israelis are more aware of how complicated a challenge all this constitutes. Iran, which routinely demands the demise of Israel, and has for years been funding, arming and training terrorist groups to attack Israel, has now shown it is sufficiently emboldened to directly attack Israel itself.
At the same time, it is deepening its presence in Syria – and military analysts indicate that Putin has no intention of booting it out; he doesn’t seek to deploy large Russian forces in Syria, and wants Iranian-led militias to take much of that burden.
Israel’s capacity to prevent that strategic Iranian presence across the border could be constrained if Putin uses Russia’s air defence capabilities in the service of the Iranians.
Again using very similar language, Daniel told his viewers that “Putin is not our friend,” while Ben-David said that Russia, having presented itself as an ally of Israel, was now “showing itself to be on the side of the enemy.”
The Iranian nuclear spectre may still be a good few years down the road. But today, with the contours of the new Syria-Russia-Iran reality revealed, Israelis know there’s a very real and direct Iranian military threat, right now, just across the border. Indeed two months ago, they’ve just been told, the threat started to become a reality.
David Horovitz is the Founding Editor of the Times of Israel. © Times of Israel (www.timesofIsrael.com), all rights reserved, reprinted by permission.