What started out as the Syrian civil war has fast become the Syrian war and the The Tiyas Military Airbase or T-4 as its known seems to be at the heart of it. On April 30 Israel demonstrated an escalation in its shadow war in Syria against Iran, with an overnight airstrike against the military base that hosts Iranian-backed mercenaries, killing 26 pro-government fighters, mostly Iranians. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah said that the airstrike was a “historic mistake” and put Israel in a state of “direct confrontation” with Iran. “This is unprecedented in seven years: that Israel directly targets Iran’s Revolutionary Guards,” he said.
The most recent attack on the Syrian air base near the desert town of Palmyra in central Syria drew new attention to a conflict between Iran and Israel that has been steadily increasing in intensity while mostly hidden in the shadows of Syria’s civil war. T-4 is Syria’s largest airbase complete with Soviet-era fortifications and is presently the focus of a possibly cataclysmic war, between Israel and Iran because it is where Iran has established a military foothold. “The chances of an escalation into a full-scale military conflict in Syria are higher than ever before,” Israel’s former military intelligence chief, Amos Yadlin stated after the attack.
Israeli officials have on several occasions said that one of their main objectives in Syria is to keep Iran in check and hence safeguard the border with Israel. This attack came in the thick of rising tensions between Iran and Israel after an airstrike earlier on April 09, on the same Syrian airbase. While Iran and Russia blamed Israel for that attack, which killed seven Iranian military personnel, Israel did not confirm or deny it. The attack came a day after the U S, France and the UK vowed to respond to the alleged chemical weapons attack by Assad in Eastern Ghouta. On February 10, the airbase had already seen the largest strike to date, when an Iranian drone launched by a Quds Force unit operating out of the T4 airbase was shot down after it penetrated northern Israel airspace.
Iran has long been a close affiliate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both countries see themselves as part of the “Axis of Resistance,” a group opposed to growing American and Israeli power in the Middle East. Agitated that Iran is using the cover of the war to bolster its allies in Syria, Israel has carried out at least 100 cross-border strikes, although until the recent attack they have always targeted Iran’s proxies, including weapon delivery convoys to Hezbollah. In August 2017, the outgoing commander of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel, acknowledged as much.
Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has long desired to disrepute Tehran, which he brands a “terrorist regime”. In a presentation on April 30, he declared that Israeli intelligence had uncovered Iran lying about its nuclear weapons programme. The Mossad operation in Iran was revealed less than two weeks before Donald Trump is due to decide on May 12, whether to continue to abide by the 2015 deal by waiving US sanctions on Iran.
There is no question that tension between Israel and Iran is at its climax, and for the first time in their histories, the two countries have recently clashed openly and directly. But Iran, for all its fist-shaking has not retaliated yet. True, Iran doesn’t want to upset the US right now since its priority at the moment is protecting its nuclear program. All the while, cashing in on this is Israel which is acting unreservedly in Syria’s sky, thinking Iran would be afraid to react.
But what happens if it miscalculates?
What happens if Iran decides, contrary to everything to toss Hezbollah into the inferno that is Syria today. Hezbollah with its extensive operational experience and even more extensive arsenal could inflict real damage on the Israeli home front, and ground fighting in Lebanon would cost the Israeli army dearly. A war like that could also involve Hamas in Gaza. Moreover, though so far Israel has managed to establish and maintain coordination with the Russian air force to prevent hostility in the Syrian skies. But what happens if Moscow decides to resist orders from Tel Aviv?
Is Israel merely antagonising Iran to react or is this just part of a very well executed plan to facilitate the greater Israel project which aims at weakening and eventually fracturing neighboring Arab states as part of a US-Israeli expansionist project.
The motive is irrelevant as long as the endgame is the same.Will Iran take the bait remains to be seen.
— The writer is Research Fellow, Institute of Strategic Studies, a think-bank based in Islamabad.