- Israel is letting on that it sees an Iranian “air force” forming in Syria and that it may destroy it if it seeks to harm Israel.
- Russia, Syria, and Iran have accused Israel of killing Iranian troops in an airstrike on a Syrian air base earlier this month.
- Iran has announced plans to retaliate.
- But experts say Iran’s forces in Syria are exposed to Israel’s air force and are being warned that they could get knocked out if they cross a line.
Israel’s military on Tuesday apparently let leak a series of news reports indicating that it sees an Iranian air force forming in Syria and hinting that it may be willing to deal it a knockout blow.
Iran and Israel have clashed in the air recently, with Israel downing an Iranian drone it said flew over its territory with explosives in February and amid suspected Israeli airstrikes designed to punish Iranian forces in Syria.
Earlier this month, Russia, Syria, and Iran accused Israel of carrying out a strike on an air base in Syria known as T-4 that left at least 14 dead, including Iranian troops, and Israel made no effort to deny it.
The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman quoted a senior Israeli official as saying Iran had opened up a new front in the long-simmering conflict by trying a direct drone attack on Israel.
Friedman said the strike in April killed the Iranian colonel who led the drone unit. Iran threatened to retaliate but has not.
Iran’s growing forces in Syria
On Tuesday, an Israeli security official told Reuters that “the Israeli defence establishment” saw an Iranian “air force” in Syria “as the entity that will try to attack Israel, based on Iranian threats to respond to the strike on T-4.”
Though Israel doesn’t comment on its air incursions into Syria, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear that it is willing to do whatever necessary to prevent Iranian forces there from creeping closer to its borders or seeking to arm aligned anti-Israel groups like Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“The Iranians have been exploiting the chaos of the Syrian civil war to build up military assets there that target Israel, all the while sending advanced weaponry to Lebanon by way of Damascus, also under the fog of war,” Tony Badran and Jonathan Schanzer of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies wrote in The Wall Street Journal in February.
But while Iran has used “the fog of war” in Syria to cover its moving as many as 70,000 fighters and tons of military equipment through the country, Israel could crush its forces under that fog too.
Israel is positioned to knock out exposed Iranian forces
According to Reuters, Roni Daniel, the military editor for the Israeli TV station Mako, said Israel was signalling to Iran that its forces in Syria were “totally exposed to us, and if you take action against us to avenge [the T-4 strike], these targets will be very severely harmed.”
Badran previously described Iran’s military presence in Syria as “vulnerable.”
“It’s exposed to direct US fire, just like it’s exposed to direct Israeli fire,” he told Business Insider.
If Israel were to enter Iranian airspace to strike its military, it could cause a massive international incident and meet backlash from the UN and Arab countries alike.
But with Iranian forces far from home in Syria, where more than 70 countries have bombed or contributed to fighting, an Israeli strike could get lost in the noise.
“Israel is headed for escalation,” Yaakov Amidror, Netanyahu’s former national security adviser, told a Tel Aviv radio station, according to Reuters. “There could be a very big belligerent incident with Iran and Hezbollah.”
In an indication of the possible extent of fighting between Israel and Iran, Israel chose to keep its F-15 air superiority fighters home and on alert instead of sending them to the coming Red Flag military exercises, one of the world’s best jet-fighter-training programs, as planned.
With Syria’s air defences apparently a pushover target for Israel, and exposed Iranian forces openly posturing against the Jewish state, it seems a small retaliation from Iran could launch a much bigger conflict.
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