Several Arab media sources have reported that twelve Iranian military personnel were killed in an Israeli air strike on an Iranian base in Syria Friday night. The Jerusalem Post has confirmed the strikes but apparently not the death count.
Israel fired the missiles at a base Iran has been building near the Syrian city of al-Qiswa (also spelled al-Kiswah) about 50 kilometers from the Golan Heights. Reportedly, the strike destroyed an arms depot.
The day before the strike, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned in a video clip that Israel would not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria. The day after the strike, his office released the clip for public consumption.
We will not allow a regime hell-bent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.
The Jerusalem Post offers a time line of events leading to the strike.
For more than a year, there have been warnings that Iran was intent on constructing permanent bases in Syria, laying the groundwork for the era after ISIS would be defeated.
On November 10 the BBC released a report that Iran was “building a permanent military base in Syria.” The report had three satellite images with it – from January, May and October – showing a site near El-Kiswah, south of Damascus. It was about 50 km. from Israeli forces on the Golan Heights. The changes at the site showed new buildings and the BBC ascribed the information to a “western intelligence source.”
Just before the release of the November 10 report, the U.S., Russia, and Jordan had agreed to a Memorandum of Principles regarding a cease-fire in southern Syria. The agreement was supposed to remove foreign fighters from the area.
From the U.S. point of view, one purpose of the agreement may well have been to reassure the Israelis that Iranian elements would not be operating in proximity to the Golan Heights. Israel had been seeking assurances that Iranian forces would be kept 60 km. from the Golan.
Two days after the November 10 report about Iran’s permanent military base, a State Department official indicated to Israeli media that the cease-fire memorandum would include the removal of Iranian forces from areas near the Golan. Three days later, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the agreement did not provide that Iranian- backed forces would be withdrawn.
On November 15, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman responded: “With regards to Iran, we will simply not allow for Shi’ite consolidation and Iranian entrenchment in Syria, nor will we allow Syria to become a forward operating base against the State of Israel.” However, Iran continued to make no secret of its intent to be a major presence in Syria, and its base testified to that intention.
Thus, Israel struck the base at the beginning of December.
The JPost asks several questions about these events. First, why did “Western intelligence” release pictures of the Iranian base? Second, why did Israel wait for weeks to attack it?
The answer to the second question might be that Israel wanted to give Iran time to pull its people out of the base before an attack, thus avoiding deaths that might lead to a wider confrontation. As noted, it is not entirely clear whether, or to what extent, Iran took advantage of this opportunity.