Israel’s airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria in the predawn hours of Wednesday morning were some of the most significant in the past year and a half, destroying dozens of sites and killing between 10 and 20 fighters, most of them Iranians, according to an Israeli official.
Yet these were not the game-changer that newly installed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett and other senior Israeli officials have sought to paint them as, but rather a maintenance of Jerusalem’s longstanding Syria policies and one of its clearest and firmest red lines.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has publicly made plain that it would retaliate to any violation of Israeli sovereignty — whether in the form of accidental spillover fire from fighting on the Syrian Golan Heights or the infiltration of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace in February 2018. Indeed both of these met swift Israeli responses.
The difference in Wednesday’s airstrikes was their timing, coming as Israel believes Tehran is feeling both emboldened by the general American withdrawal from the region and also vulnerable as large-scale protests are held by Iranians throughout the country.
In recent weeks, Israeli defense officials have warned that Iran was adopting a more aggressive posture in the region and would retaliate to Israeli strikes on its military and its proxies, whereas in the past the Islamic Republic would stomach the losses.
As such, the Israeli military as of Thursday remains on alert out of concern that Iran will respond to its airstrikes in Syria by week’s end.
The change in Iran’s attitude, Israeli Military Intelligence believes, came after Iran shot down an American drone, attacked international oil tankers and destroyed large portions of a major Saudi petroleum facility over this summer only to face no serious consequences for those actions.
Seeing no pushback from international superpowers for these attacks appears to have convinced Tehran that it can act with a degree of impunity.
Syrian military sources told the Lebanese al-Akhbar newspaper that these recent strikes prompted Tuesday morning’s rocket attack on the Golan — a sign that Israel’s assessment that Iran would retaliate to its strikes was correct.
Israel’s forceful response to that rocket attack — dozens of strikes at multiple locations, causing a larger than normal number of casualties — can therefore be seen as an effort to convince Tehran to abandon this more combative stance.
In addition to Israel’s physical, kinetic response to the rocket attack, Bennett — who was installed as defense minister last week — has also been leading a PR campaign against Iran, threatening its leadership.
“The rules have changed: Whoever fires at Israel during the day will not sleep at night. That was the case last week and it is the case this week,” said Bennett, also referring to Israel’s targeted killing last week of a senior leader in the Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group in Gaza, which sparked a two-day conflagration.
Further complicating the matter are the protests currently taking place throughout Iran.
Israel hopes that this internal issue will distract the Islamic Republic from its conflict with the Jewish state. And Bennett, speaking to reporters Wednesday night, appeared to be encouraging this.
“We have a profound respect for the Iranian people. Unfortunately the Iranian leadership is wasting national resources and human life on dangerous adventures and spreading terror, instead of taking care of their people at home,” he said.
However, this too has the potential to backfire. Backed into a corner domestically, the Iranian leadership could strike out against Israel, as some in Iran have already called for it to do.
Iran’s response in the coming days and weeks will signal if it will revert back to largely tolerating Israel’s strikes on its forces and proxies in the region or if we are headed for the large regional conflict we’ve all been dreading.
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