What is believed to be guided missiles are seen in the sky during what is reported to be an attack in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media.
(photo credit: FACEBOOK DIARY OF A MORTAR SHELL IN DAMASCUS/YOUMIYAT QADIFAT HAWUN FI DAMASHQ/VIA REUTERS)
The top US intelligence chief warned that Israel’s ongoing strikes against Iranian targets in Syria increase the threat of regional war.
“We assess that Iran seeks to avoid a major armed conflict with Israel,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence on Tuesday. “However, Israeli strikes that result in Iranian casualties increase the likelihood of Iranian conventional retaliation against Israel.”
Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over Iran’s presence in Syria and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from the Islamic republic to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are redlines for the Jewish state.
“Iran’s efforts to consolidate its influence in Syria and arm Hezbollah have prompted Israeli air strikes as recently as January 2019 against Iranian positions within Syria, and underscore our growing concern about the long-term trajectory of Iranian influence in the region and the risk that conflict will escalate,” Coats said.
His assessment echoes concerns raised by Israeli officials that Iran would likely increase its response to IAF strikes in Syria.
Speaking at a conference in Tel Aviv on Monday, President Reuven Rivlin warned that Tehran would likely “intensify its responses” to Israeli strikes against its forces in Syria.
“I believe Iran will retaliate with greater force in Israel’s North,” the president said, adding that: “It appeared as though Iran would be restrained by our understandings with Russia and its defeats on the northern front – but in recent months, the trend is changing.”
Israel rarely comments on alleged IAF operations on the northern front, but former IDF chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gadi Eisenkot said that Israel fired 2,000 missiles against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in 2018 alone.
But according to Coats, Israeli strikes have not deterred the Iranians, who continue “to pursue permanent military bases and economic deals in Syria, and probably want to maintain a network of Shia foreign fighters there, despite Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria.”
In early January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel has a permanent policy of preventing Iran’s entrenchment
in Syria, and that it would be enforced whether he is in Israel or abroad.
On Monday, Maj.-Gen. (res.) Nitzan Alon, who was in charge of a special IDF project to coordinate all issues related to Iran, said that Israel’s operations in Syria have “to a large extent” succeeded in blocking Iran’s goals of establishing a permanent military presence in the war-torn country.
“To a great extent, we halted Iranian aspirations in Syria. There is a significant gap between where the Iranians wanted to be and where they are right now,” he said during a panel discussion with former IAF commander Maj.-Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel and former military strategist Brig.-Gen. (res.) Yoram Hamo.
Last year, Alon warned that the chances of war on Israel’s northern border were greater than ever before due to the victories of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is backed by Iran and Hezbollah.
“In the northern arena, there is a change coming due to the strategic developments in the Syrian internal fighting. The Iranians and Hezbollah, who are backing [Assad], are getting freed up to start building their power,” he said, adding that “we are not allowing these things to happen without our involvement. We are acting and will continue to act.”
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