Israel has been punishing Iran in Syria and looks to be preparing for a massive war -- but it's surrounded by rockets

Danny Makki via TwitterReported image of the strike on Iranian soldiers in Syria.
  • Israel appears to be readying for a big war with Iran, US officials reportedly said.
  • Israel stands accused of a series of airstrikes against Iranian forces in Syria, and Iran is expected to strike back.
  • Israel hasn’t gloated about the attacks, and reportedly hopes Iran will back down, but the conflict could erupt.
  • Israel has been pounding Iranian forces at will lately, but they’re surrounded by Iranian and Iranian-aligned forces that could rain down tens of thousands of rockets on them.

After a rash of mysteriousairstrikes hit Syrian airfields that house Iranian forces over the early months of 2018, Israel now appears to be readying for a big fight against Tehran.

“On the list of the potentials for most likely live hostility around the world, the battle between Israel and Iran in Syria is at the top of the list right now,” a senior US official told NBC News.

US officials also confirmed that Israel destroyed a munitions depot in Syria on Sunday, resulting in a massive explosion that registered as an earthquake as the bombs ignited the missiles stored in the building.

Israel has admitted to striking targets in Syria more than 100 times since 2012, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains that his country will continue to do so if it sees Iran moving people or military assets through Syria to reach its borders in Lebanon, but Israel is typically tight-lipped about the strikes.

But the last strike, which officials told NBC killed dozens of Iranian troops, some of them high-ranking, escalates the tensions to new heights.

Iran squared up, but Israel threw the first punch

T4 air base homsGoogle MapsThe Tayfur, or T-4 military airbase near Homs, Syria.

“There has been a big change in the situation in the last few weeks in a sense that up to now the confrontation between Iran and Israel has been essentially conducted through proxies,” Jonathan Eyal, the international director at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider.

Iran funds, trains, and equips several Shi’ite militias that are active in Syria and across the region. The 100 or so Israeli strikes against targets in Syria had mainly hit these proxy forces, until very recently.

“The confrontation between Iran and Israel is at a much a higher level now because it’s direct,” Eyal said.

Iran has reportedly increased troop and cargo movements into Syria while amassing 70,000 or so fighters in the country and potentially 150,000 rockets. The militias, once helping Syria’s President Bashar Assad fight off rebels and sometimes clashing with ISIS forces, now appear to be digging in to establish a permanent presence in the country, according to Eyal.

Meanwhile, Israel has been blamed for a series of hard hits on Iranian and Iranian-backed forces in Syria. In February, Israel downed an Iranian jet and claimed to knock out half of Syria’s air defences. In April, Israel is suspected of bombing an Iranian air base in Syria on two separate occasions.

A permanent Iranian presence in Syria represents a “red line,” according to Eyal, but war is not a foregone conclusion.

Iran is angry, but Israel is keeping them off balance

“It’s unlikely the Iranians will simply shrug in response,” to repeated deadly strikes on its forces from its sworn enemy in Jerusalem, but “the Israelis are trying very hard to deescalate” the conflict by not gloating about the strikes, which could help Iran save face, according to Eyal.

“That is why there has been almost no gloating by Israel for the attack the other day, despite indications that the attack has succeeded in one respect by hitting quite serious targets,” Eyal said.

Additionally, Israel unleashed a trove of documents it says its spy service stole from Iran and presented them to the world with a clear message: Iran lied about its nuclear program.

“The Israeli government calculated that Iran would feel less confident in retaliating militarily, possibly setting off a full-fledged regional war, if it were on the defensive in the international arena,” The New York Times quoted a senior Israeli military official as saying.

Israel has been pounding Iran, but it’s surrounded

Israel iran mapGoogle Maps

While experts previously told Business Insider that Iran’s forces are exposed in lawless Syria, where dozens of countries’ militaries operate and fight on air and land, Israel faces a real danger in confronting Tehran.

Iran has “the possibility of unleashing the Hezbollah from Lebanon and indeed from starting to fire missiles from Syria if they have them,” Eyal said. Iran can also stir up trouble with Hamas, a Palestinian group active in parts of Israel’s territory, and possibly call for another holy uprising.

“The Iranian challenge is a serious challenge,” Eyal said. “There are substantial military Iranian military assets in Syria.”

So while Israel sees Iranian forces as overextended and exposed in Syria, Iran sees Israel as surrounded on all sides.

In the end, avoiding or causing war could come down to both sides maintaining a healthy fear of bloodshed, or a simple misjudgment.

“This would not be the first war that’s started by people who misjudged their positions,” Eyal said.

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