On the night of February 9, Iran dispatched an armed drone from Syria that penetrated Israeli airspace just south of the Golan Heights. Israel destroyed it with an Apache helicopter. The following day, Israel sent eight F-16s across the border to strike the T-4 base in the Homs governorate, where the drone originated, as well as a handful of other Iranian targets. Although the mission was a success, Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed one F-16 – though the pilot made it back to Israel, where he and his navigator ejected successfully. Israel then launched a second wave of strikes, destroying a number of Syrian anti-air defense sites.
This was the most extensive clash to date between Israel and the so-called “Axis of Resistance” – Iran, Syria’s Assad regime, and Hezbollah – since Iran began deploying military assets, soldiers, and proxies to Syria six years ago. Israeli Air Force (IAF) Chief of Staff Tomer Bar described it as the “most significant attack the air force has conducted against Syrian air defenses since Operation Peace for the Galilee” in 1982. At the same time, Israeli officials insisted that its response was limited and its intent was not to spark a wider conflagration.
But it was clear that the conflict would not be contained to this one incident. Iran was exploiting the chaos of the Syrian civil war to deploy military assets there, all with the intent of targeting Israel. All the while, Iran was sending advanced weaponry to Lebanon by way of Damascus under the fog of war. The Israelis have destroyed some of this hardware – both systems destined for Lebanon and those slated to remain in Syria – with one-off strikes.
Complicating Israel’s limited operations was Russia’s entry into Syria. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid multiple visits to Moscow, hoping to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin to curb Iran and its proxies. Putin has been deploying military hardware, personnel, and Russian soldiers of fortune to Syria since 2015, ostensibly to combat the Islamic State but also to prop up his Arab client, the Assad regime. Putin partnered with the Iranians for his Syrian mission. He therefore has little interest, let alone ability, to reign in the Iranians who command Assad’s foot soldiers.
Iran thus continues to move assets into Syria to target Israel. On the night of May 9-10, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force operatives reportedly fired at least 20 Grad and Fajr 5 rockets at Israeli forward military positions in the Golan Heights. According to the Israel Defense Force (IDF), none of the rockets resulted in any casualties or damages. Four of them were intercepted by the Iron Dome defense system.
To deter future incursions, the IDF then unleashed a large-scale response lasting several hours, during which it struck an array of Iranian targets in Syria. Operation House of Cards, as it was dubbed, included strikes on Quds Force intelligence outposts, logistical headquarters, military compounds north and south of Damascus, arms depots inside the Damascus airport, as well as positions in the demilitarized zone. During the operation, Syrian regime air defenses fired at IAF warplanes, which responded by taking out several batteries.
The strikes were so comprehensive that Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman claimed “almost the entire Iranian infrastructure in Syria” was hit. While this may have been an exaggeration, Liberman’s statement underscored Israel’s determination to defend its three red lines in Syria: preventing Iranian entrenchment in Syria, the transfer of strategic weapons, and the establishment of an active front on the Golan Heights.
As Israel continues to strike sporadically at Iranian assets, it has become clear that its strategic imperatives have not changed. However, the execution of its policy requires increasingly risky operations, and the likelihood of further escalation grows. Prime Minister Netanyahu explicitly warned that Israel is determined to stop Iranian aggression in Syria, “even if this involves a conflict.”
Israeli strikes continue with the goal of preventing southern Syria from becoming an active front on its border. Israel also seeks to leverage these strikes to negotiate with Russia, and perhaps even the United States, for an Iranian exit from Syria. But this is by no means the likely outcome. The risks continue to mount, particularly in the wake of the regime camp’s offensive in late June to retake southern Syria, setting the stage for the next phase of the Syrian war.
Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism-finance analyst for the US Department of the Treasury, is senior vice president at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JSchanzer. Tony Badran is a Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow Tony on Twitter @AcrossTheBay. Matthew RJ Brodsky is a Senior Fellow at the Security Studies Group focusing on the Middle East. Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.