Israel and Iran moved a step closer to outright war Thursday, after Israel pounded Iranian military targets in Syria in response to rockets fired at Israeli army positions in the Golan Heights.
The exchanges follow months of rising tensions over Iran’s growing military activities in Syria. Israel has repeatedly hit Iranian positions over the border, and braced itself for blowback. Shortly after midnight Thursday, that Iranian response finally came — the first time Tehran has struck Israel from inside Syria.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that his country’s forces had hit almost all of Iran’s infrastructure in Syria in retaliation. The U.K.-based monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 23 people had been killed in the Israeli strikes.
“I hope we finished this chapter, and everyone got the message,” Lieberman said. But with tensions in the region at boiling point over the Syrian civil war, the disintegration of the Iran nuclear deal, and the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem Monday, few expect this to be the end of the matter.
“When he says it’s the end of the chapter, the question is what is the rest of the book?” Yossi Mekelberg, head of international relations at Regent’s University London, told VICE News.
“This is very serious — for the first time the direct exchange of fire between Iran and Israel. It’s the buds of war. This is where war could start if it’s not managed now.”
According to Israel’s military, 20 rockets were fired towards Israeli military positions in the Golan Heights, territory captured from Syria and occupied by Israel during the 1967 Six Day War. Israel officially annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, a move that hasn’t been recognized by the international community.
Lieberman said four rockets were shot down by the Iron Dome air defense system and the other 16 landed in Syrian territory, and that no Israeli citizens were harmed or property damaged.
“Last night, Iran tried to attack Israeli sovereign territory and failed,” he said.
Israeli military spokesman Lt.-Col. Jonathan Conricus said the strikes had been ordered by the head of the Quds Force, an external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The Israeli military responded with airstrikes targeting about 50 Iranian military sites in Syria, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft units that unsuccessfully attempted to shoot down Israeli planes. Syrian state media reported that dozens of Israeli missiles hit Syrian air defense positions, a radar station and an ammunition depot. Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted an unidentified security official as saying the strikes were Israel’s most significant attack inside Syria since the 1973 Arab-Israeli War.
Conricus said the Iranian casualty count was not yet known.
Why is it happening now?
The strikes did not come out of the blue. Tensions over Iran’s presence in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad have been building for months, with Israel repeatedly stating its determination to prevent Tehran entrenching its forces on the Israeli border.
“Israel sees Iran as way too close to its borders,” said Mekelberg, adding that the strikes were also a signal to Hezbollah, Iran’s powerful proxy in Lebanon, which Israel fought a war against in 2006.
To underline its position, Israel has allegedly — it has neither confirmed nor denied it was responsible — carried out a series of raids on Iranian military sites in Syria in recent weeks.
On April 9, Israel is believed to have carried out strikes on the T4 military base in central Syria, in which seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards were reportedly killed. On April 29, it allegedly followed up with a missile strike on an Iranian missile depot near the Syrian city of Hama, reportedly killing 11 Iranian troops.
And on Tuesday, it reportedly struck another Iranian-linked military base southwest of Damascus, killing at least eight Iranians and seven other pro-regime fighters.
How has Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal played into the tensions?
Mekelberg said that while an Iranian response to the Israeli strikes were expected, Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal would have only brought the parties closer to conflict, by emboldening hardliners within Iran and fueling the sense Iran was under attack by their American and Israeli enemies. Israel’s strikes on Iran Tuesday came just hours after Trump made the announcement.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been leading the charge to kill the Iran nuclear deal, presenting what he claimed was evidence last month that Tehran had kept and expanded its nuclear weapons knowledge after signing the landmark 2015 agreement. Trump cited the Israeli dossier in announcing his decision to pull out of the deal Tuesday.
“I would have expected the Iranian strikes anyway, but the nuclear deal announcement definitely contributed to it,” Mekelberg said. “There was already a barrel of explosives, and Trump decided to throw in another match. It’s another trigger that adds to the sense that Iran has nothing to lose.”
Another of Trump’s major decisions in Middle East policy is likely to add fuel to the fire in the coming days, when the American embassy in Israel is officially relocated to Jerusalem, he said. The move will come the day before Nakba Day, the “Day of the Catastrophe,” when Palestinians mark the anniversary of the creation of Israel with widespread protests.
“Symbolically it’s so important, and it adds another tier to this unnecessary provocation in the Middle East,” said Mekelberg. “I don’t think Trump understands the implications of what he’s doing — he keeps throwing grenades in the midst of this conflict.”
The Israeli defense minister acknowledged Thursday that the embassy opening would be a flashpoint in the coming days, “but we are ready.” “There is no peace in the Middle East,” he said. “Whoever talks about that in this region is confused about their geography.”
What has been the international reaction?
While world leaders from France, Britain and Russia urged restraint in the wake of the attacks, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended Israel’s actions and said it confirmed that it was the right decision to leave the nuclear deal.
“This just further shows that the Iranian regime cannot be trusted. Israel absolutely has a sovereign right to defend itself and we support them in whatever efforts they have in order to defend themselves,” she told Fox News.
Mekelberg said that urgent diplomatic intervention was needed to prevent the confrontation from spiralling into outright war between the bitter foes, but that the U.N. Security Council or the European Union would be best to lead the initiative rather than the United States.
“I don’t mention the Trump administration here, because he’s one of the problems, he’s not part of the solution,” he said, adding that if “both sides come to their senses they’ll realize they don’t want to escalate it, it’s too dangerous.”
“But these kind of events have their own dynamic,” he said. “You know where you start, you don’t necessarily know where it will end.”
Cover image: This photo provided early Thursday, May 10, 2018, by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media, shows missiles rise into the sky as Israeli missiles hit air defense position and other military bases, in Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Central Military Media, via AP)