Last Thursday night, unidentified aircraft attacked an Iranian military base in the district of Salah al-Din in Iraq. It is a desert area very close to the border between Iraq and Syria, through which passes the main land corridor connecting Iran to Syria and Lebanon via Iraq.
The Iranian base was full of ballistic missiles and dozens of operatives from Al-Heshid al-Shaabi [a pro-Iranian Iraqi Shiite militia] and Lebanese Hezbollah operatives were inside during the bombing. According to reports in the Arab media, several people were killed and dozens of fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah operatives were injured in the attack. Several fires broke out during the night as a result of the weapons and ammunition igniting.
At the time of writing, it is still not clear who carried out the attack. No one has taken responsibility. A number of media outlets suggested at first that the US may be behind the operation, but a few hours later the Pentagon issued a denial and made it clear that the US was not involved.
It is important to note that this area has already been attacked in the past with the purpose of disrupting the direct Shi’ite corridor from Iran to Syria and Lebanon, thus preventing Hezbollah and other terrorist proxies from receiving advanced weapons that could threaten Israel’s security. The previous attack, which took place about a year ago in June 2018, happened not far from last week’s bombing site, where it is now reported that 52 jihadists, mostly Iraqis, were killed.
Officially, Israel refuses to comment on the development, but behind the scenes many are suggesting it was an Israeli operation.
For example, the Minister for Regional Cooperation, Tzahi Hanegbi, said in a radio interview on Monday morning (July 21) that “we are the only ones who kill Iranians, we strike the Iranians hundreds of times in Syria, sometimes they admit it, and sometimes foreign publications expose the matter.”
It is no secret that Israel has been striking Syria for several years and is preventing Hezbollah from obtaining advanced weapons from Iran. Most of these operations are published by the Syrian media. Israel is trying to maintain a low profile so as not to provoke the other side to initiate a response. It was years even until Israel admitted to carrying out the 2007 airstrike on Dir al-Zawar, where the Israel Air Force destroyed a nascent Syrian nuclear reactor being built with help from North Korea. Israel tries to avoid confirming its involvement in real time, but will often admit carrying out such strikes in retrospect.
Israel’s political echelon will also often threaten future attacks, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even said that hitting targets in Iraq is not out of the question. The Iranian base hit last week in Iraq is certainly one that poses a threat to Israel.
To save face, Iran and Iraq have not volunteered much information regarding the strike, but it is clear that the Iranians and their Shiite allies were dealt a heavy and strategic blow. If war breaks out in the Persian Gulf anytime soon, Iran will now have a much harder time carrying through on threats to punish Israel using missiles positioned in Syria and Lebanon.
As the tension mounts, the risk of war in the Middle East increases. The question is whether Iran will follow in the footsteps of Saddam Hussein, who launched missiles at Israel in response to being attacked by the US, or use its proxies to do the dirty work. Israel isn’t waiting around to find out, and remains busy eliminating threats preemptively.