Israel’s battle against Iran

Bennett threatens to take even more aggressive measures, but neither side wants an escalation.

Israel’s battle against Iran (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel’s battle against Iran
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The recent attack by Israel Air Force (IAF) warplanes against Iranian and Syrian sites in Syria was very massive, one of the largest strikes in the last three years. The wide-scale strikes occurred in the early hours of Wednesday, November 19. Israeli security officials said that 16 targets of the al-Quds Force and its affiliated Shi’ite militia were hit, including warehouses and missiles near Damascus International Airport, as well as in southern Syria and in other parts of the country.
Several anti-aircraft batteries were also damaged after Syrian forces failed to fire missiles to intercept the Israel planes. Yet it is worth noting that the IAF was very cautious and refrained from targeting the advanced Syrian S-300 ground- to-air aircraft batteries which are still manned by Russian personnel. In the past, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would not have hesitated to attack even the S-300 batteries, which were delivered to Syria six months ago. But it’s clear that Israel doesn’t want to upset the delicate choreography of the dance in Syria between Syria, Iran and Russia.
It’s not clear how many people were killed in the raid. Syrian officials said that only two civilians died. Israeli officials said that the two killed were Iranians while the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that the Iranian casualties were higher and that 23 people, including 16 non-Syrians, most likely Iranians, were killed in the Israeli airstrikes.
Israeli military officials explained that the strikes were in response to four rockets fired by an Iranian unit into the Israeli-held Golan Heights near Mount Hermon, which were intercepted by the Iron Dome anti-aircraft battery.
But the Iranian rocket launch seems to be just an excuse. This is part of a much larger tit-for-tat campaign. It is more and more evident that Israel and Iran – supplemented by its allies, Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias – are involved in a much wider confrontation, which is expanding all the time.
The erosion process has been incremental but unavoidable. Israel began attacking Syrian and Hezbollah targets in Syria as early as 2013. It was the first stage. Under the fog and chaos of the bloody civil war in the country, IAF fighter planes and bombers struck more than 800 times over the years since.
The main purpose was to destroy Iranian-made ground-to-ground and ground-to-air missiles shipped to Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as sophisticated equipment aimed to improve the precision and accuracy of Hezbollah missiles. The Israeli strikes were relatively easy. The Syrian regime was very weak, and on the verge of collapse. Hezbollah and Iran were preoccupied with rescuing Syrian President Bashar Assad. Russia was not involved in Syria at the time.
By taking advantage of the circumstances, Israeli military officials operated under the radar. The modest Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot employed a wise policy of ambiguity. He kept a low profile approach. He never boasted about IAF operations and never talked about them publicly.
But after 2015, the Russian military moved in and deployed thousands of troops, including Special Forces warplanes, aircraft carriers, intelligence systems, bombers, rockets, missiles and the most advanced S-400 anti-aircraft batteries. The rules of the game changed.
The Assad regime, helped by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah as well the US, began to defeat ISIS and other jihadi zealots. Assad grew more confident, recovered more territory and stabilized his regime.
Then came the second phase. Iran wanted to be compensated for the heavy price it had paid in blood, material and billions of dollars to Assad. It wanted to reap the dividends of the war, and increase its influence in the Middle East. It aspired to be a hegemonial power, and created a land corridor from Iran, via Iraq, to Syria and Lebanon. 
In addition, Iran decided to establish in Syria ground-to-ground missiles, anti-aircraft batteries, drones, intelligence gear, and bases to house tens of thousands of Shi’ite militias under the command of Gen. Qasem Soleimani of the al-Quds Force.  Iran’s goal was and still is to challenge and engulf Israel by forming a second front in addition to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and to activate it in case of an all-out war by Iran and its allies against Israel.
However, the Iranian aspirations stood in the way of Israeli interests. Israel decided to do almost everything it could to thwart Iranian efforts and prevent Iran’s deployment of troops and weapons in the strip from Damascus to the border on the Israeli Golan Heights.
But it was easier said than done. Israeli military and Mossad chiefs have shown determination and imaginative operations, and kept pounding relentlessly at Iranian bases, weapons and military sites. As Israel became more daring in its attempts to stop Iran, it became less cautious. The policy of deniability – “don’t tell” – has been occasionally breached, especially in the last year.
In his desperation to break the impasse of paralyzed Israeli domestic politics and in order to divert attention from the corruption charges against him, Netanyahu was ready to take risks, play a game of brinkmanship, express arrogance, reveal secrets, and threaten Iran publicly. According to foreign reports, Israel began not only to target Iranian assets in Syria, but also in Iraq and Lebanon.
Nevertheless, Iran has shown itself to be as determined as always, even though it faces domestic problems as a result of US sanctions, dwindling oil revenues, street protests and a harsh economic reality. Iran has refused to cave despite the incessant Israeli strikes. It continues to deploy its forces and weapons in Syria as well as at the Iraqi-Syrian border crossings and to retaliate from time to time, even in small measure, just to make a point.
Both sides now face the third and most dangerous phase. Israeli military chiefs and cabinet ministers are already stuck in a political conundrum. They can’t and don’t want to solve Gaza’s economic, social and military problems and the deadlock with the Palestinian Authority. And they now seem to be more aggressive and even adventurous.
Although no one knows how long the new defense minister, Naftali Bennett, will hold his post, he has threatened to take even more aggressive measures against Iran, hinting at the targeted assassinations of Iranian military chiefs.  On the other hand, it’s clear that any Israeli escalation will be met with Iranian retaliation, which may lead to a much larger confrontation – which neither side wants at this time.
Yossi Melman is co-author of Spies Against Armageddon: Inside Israel’s Secret Wars. He tweets at @yossi_melman