As the dust settles following last weekend’s U.S.-French-British attack on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, the countdown to the next round of military conflict between Israel and Iran has begun. Last week, Israel once again targeted the T-4 (Tiyas) base in Syria, which houses Iranian drone forces, killing 7 Iranians and apparently destroying a drone infrastructure project. This is the same base from which an Iranian drone was launched in February, which the Israeli air force intercepted. Israel then hit the T-4 base and an Israeli aircraft downed by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
An Iranian retaliatory strike against Israel is likely in the works. Where and how Tehran chooses to carry out its attack is still unclear, but for reasons that we describe below, it is most likely to be a rocket or missile attack launched from Syria. The choice will define what to expect for the future of Iranian and Israeli confrontations.
THE “WHY” QUESTION
There are very clear signals that this time Iran would indeed retaliate. Iranian media gave extensive coverage to the Israeli attack on T-4 last week. Iranian leaders, most noticeably Ali Akbar Velayati, the top advisor to Iran’s supreme leader, issued direct threats of retaliation. Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, also warned Israel that this time there would be a steep price to pay; the highly publicized funerals of Quds forces personnel was the latest such indication. Iran is now both deeply and publicly committed to retaliate. The stage is set.
Iran is determined to cash in on its huge investment in Syria, by improving its military presence and the means with which to pressure Israel. Ultimately, its aim is to firmly establish itself as a regional power. Meanwhile, Israel is determined not to repeat the mistake it made in Lebanon—watching from the sidelines as the Iranian threat from Hezbollah intensified. Israel has made clear its intention to combat the threat from the start, while it remains manageable.
In Israel’s view, the time to act is ripe due to both geopolitical and strategic factors. First, Russia’s desire to keep the situation in Syria relatively stable puts Israel in the unique position of acting as a potential disrupter. Israel thus has leverage over the larger, and more powerful Russian state. Second, Israel’s freedom to operate in Syria’s skies may be limited in the future by improved Iranian or Syrian anti-aircraft capabilities, or by an international accord.