It was Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi’s first move against Iranian forces in Syria as the 22nd IDF chief of staff, and according to Syrian media he delivered a knockout punch to Qassem Soleimani – in broad daylight.
According to these reports, Kochavi set up the round in advance, jabbing Iranian troops with strikes on Damascus Airport. They returned with fire, launching a long-range rocket toward Mount Hermon. But the IDF was prepared and intercepted the rocket before it struck dozens of Iranian targets hours later in the dead of night.
The commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, one of the most prominent and influential military figures in Iran, walked right into the trap.
The Iranians have been looking for revenge since Israel carried out Operation House of Cards in May that decimated Iranian infrastructure in Syria.
Iran wanted Israel to pay a price for its airstrikes and deter it from carrying out further ones.
The missile launched at Mount Hermon carried a warhead capable of carrying several tons of explosives. Had it hit its target – an area filled with hundreds of civilians and soldiers – would have changed the rules of the game on the northern border.
The exchange of fire between the two foes revealed to the Israelis that Iran is holding an arsenal of longrange heavy missiles that can inflict significant damage on home front.
The Jewish state has warned repeatedly that it would not allow for an Iranian presence in Syria, and has admitted to carrying out hundreds of airstrikes in order to prevent the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
And while it may have been only one – that sole missile indicates that Israeli strikes have not been totally successful, and the possibility that Iranian missiles have reached Hezbollah in Lebanon remains a major concern.
Officials in the defense establishment believe the situation in Syria – especially with the Americans pulling their troops and the regime of Bashar Assad regaining control over the majority of the country – is encouraging Iran to act more brazenly against Israeli strikes.
Following the announcement of the US withdrawal from Syria, experts warned that the pull-out would give a green light to Iran to continue its activities in the war-torn country.
That could have dangerous consequences for Washington’s allies in the Middle East, especially Israel.
The withdrawal of American troops from Syria would essentially allow Iran to and their militias, including Hezbollah, to shift their entire focus toward Israel and its destruction, experts told The Jerusalem Post at the time.
When Iran entered the fight in Syria alongside Assad, Soleimani believed that he could turn the Islamic Republic into a regional super-power.
But the economic crisis in Iran – which has only spiraled even further since the reimposition of US sanctions – along with the growing outcry by its citizens and the Israeli airstrikes, have not allowed Soleimani to achieve his goals.
By launching one sole missile instead of firing dozens of projectiles toward Israel, it showed that those behind its launch (the type of rocket used needed approval from the highest officials in Tehran) was also an attempt at avoiding an all-out war.
While Israel has a multi-tiered defense system, a round of fighting between Israel and groups in the Gaza Strip last November showed that the missile defense systems are not hermetic.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad cheered their ability to challenge Israel’s fabled Iron Dome missile defense system by firing large missiles and mortar barrages at once.
And we can be sure that Iran is well aware of this.
A missile barrage against northern Israel would have not only changed the rules of the fight, but it would have led to an all-out war – something neither country can stomach at the moment.
While the military has operated under a policy of ambiguity since the 2007 strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor, in an attempt to allow for plausible deniability, Israeli officials have become more open in their claims of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
Former IDF chief of staff Lt.- Gen. Gadi Eisenkot was able to greatly expand the IDF’s “war between the wars” campaign, carrying out thousands of strikes against enemy targets across the region. He was crowned “the man who humbled” the IRGC’s Qassem Soleimani in an interview with The New York Times before his retirement.
And on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly mocked the Iranian general, telling him to examine “the state of Iranian bases he is trying to establish in Syria” instead of “interfering in the [Israeli] elections.”
That followed a report in a Kuwaiti paper that said Soleimani told Iranian leaders that strikes deep inside Israeli territory could bring down Netanyahu in the upcoming elections.
But Soleimani has not stopped trying to finish what he started. Planes are tracked flying to-and-from Damascus and Tehran on an almost daily basis. And so, Israel will continue to operate against the IRGC commander.
The two sides are back in their corners of the ring.
While Israel keeps its eye on its enemy, bruised and battered by the repeated strikes, Tehran is licking its wounds and calculating its next step.
It’s just a matter of time.