WASHINGTON (Circa) — The Russian Defense Ministry reported two Israeli F-15 fighter jets struck Syria's Tiyas or T-4 air base outside Homs Monday morning, local time. The warplanes reportedly fired eight guided missiles from Lebanese air space intending to target Iranian assets being housed in the Syrian base.
Three of those missiles hit their targets while the other five were intercepted by Syrian air defense, according to reports from Russian defense officials. The strikes destroyed portions of the military base and killed at least 14 servicemen, including Iranian military advisers. Both Iran and Syria backed Russia's claim that Israel is responsible for the strike.
The timing of the strikes fueled initial speculation that the United States was retaliating against the Syrian regime for its alleged chemical weapons attack in Douma, where dozens of civilians were killed over the weekend. Experts suggest the strike, if accurately attributed to Israel, was not related to the chemical weapons attack, but part of the Israel's relatively covert, long-term campaign to prevent Iran from establishing a foothold in Syria.
"There are two things going on," explained Natan Sachs, director of the Brookings Institution's Center for Middle East Policy. There's the American response to Bashar Assad's alleged use of chemical weapons, which has yet to be seen, and there's what appears to be an Israeli strike on Iranian assets inside Syria, which points to an escalation in tensions between the rival powers.
"The fact that they are close in time is meaningful, but I would not conflate them," he advised.
Syrian state media initially reported the strikes were carried out by the United States. The Pentagon denied the reports Sunday evening in a statement saying, "At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting air strikes in Syria."
The Israeli government has not officially responded to the allegations and U.S. officials have refrained from publicly attributing the source of the missile strike. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson told Circa that they "do not comment on the issue."
According to an NBC news report, Israeli officials reached out to the White House to give advanced notice of the strike that two unnamed U.S. officials confirmed was carried out by Israel.
Russia, with its heavy military presence in Syria, was reportedly not informed before the attack, one of the reasons it was reported that Moscow "outed" Israel. It is generally well-known that Israel has been conducting military operations against Iranian proxies in Syria for at least the past year, but Russia has often refrained from publicly naming Israel, an arrangement that has helped prevent tensions between Tehran and Tel Aviv from boiling over.
It is unclear whether Russia's decision to publicly identify Israel as the alleged perpatrator of the attack will cause Iran or Syria to directly retaliate against Israel. In the past, Iran has often responded asymmetrically using Hezbollah militants across Israel's border with Lebanon, or in providing support for Hamas in the Palestinian territories.
On Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attributed the strikes to Israel, calling it a "dangerous development." A Kremlin spokesman raised concerns that Israel's failure to provide Moscow with advance notice of the strike potential put the lives of Russia military advisers at risk. Russian foreign and defense officials reportedly reached out to their Israeli counterparts request "explanations" for the attack.
Russia's sharp condemnation of Israel is not likely to translate into a "physical confrontation" between the two, Sachs said, though a breakdown of deconfliction could raise the risk of unintended conflict inside Syria.
More likely, is that the long-simmering tensions between Israel and Iran could flare up. "We certainly are seeing a low-level fight between Israel and Iran directly," Sachs noted.
"It's considerably more tense," he added, pointing to recent months direct clashes between Israel, Iran and Syria and the added component of Moscow's disapproval of the latest strike.
In itself, the missile strike against the T-4 airbase is a relatively high-level case of a longstanding Israeli policy. Specifically, using military force inside to strike a blow to Iran inside Syria, but not to take credit.
The former commander of the Israeli Air Force, Maj. Gen. Eitan Ben Eliyahu acknowledged Monday that Israel was likely responsible for the attack. Only Israel or the United States is capable of carrying out such an attack, he told Radio 103 Tel Aviv, and if the United States did it, they "they would have had no reason to deny it."
Asked why Israel would carry out the strike, Ben Eliyahu stated his country's long-standing position, saying, "Israel's goal is to prevent Iranian consolidation in Syria."
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
James Carafano, national security and foreign policy expert at the Heritage Foundation, noted that the timing of the missile strikes raised a number of questions. "At this point, it's still not 100 percent clear if the Israeli reaction is separate from the American response or coordinated with the Americans or coincidental," he suggested.
Speculation that the United States was responsible for the attack was fueled by President Donald Trump's statement on Twitter over the weekend, warning there would be a "Big price...to pay" for the chemical weapons attack. Trump implicated Syrian President Bashar Assad and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran for "backing Animal Assad."
Many dead, including women and children, in mindless CHEMICAL attack in Syria. Area of atrocity is in lockdown and encircled by Syrian Army, making it completely inaccessible to outside world. President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible for backing Animal Assad. Big price...— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
....to pay. Open area immediately for medical help and verification. Another humanitarian disaster for no reason whatsoever. SICK!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 8, 2018
Syria's Foreign Ministry claimed Israel attacked the airbase outside of Damascus with U.S. support. "Israel's continued aggression wouldn't be possible without the U.S. administration's absolute support," the Foreign Ministry said in a dispatch to the United Nations Secretary General and chairman of the UN Security Council.
The president's statement on Twitter raised the prospects of a U.S. military strike against Syria, particularly after Trump's previous military strike against Syria in April 2017. At that time, two U.S. warships delivered 59 Tomahawk missiles to crater Syria's Shayrat airbase in response to a chemical weapons attack that killed more than 80 civilians, including women and children.
The U.S. military is continuing to monitor the situation in Syria alongside its allies, Secretary of Defense James Mattis said Monday. Mattis faulted Russia for allowing the Syrian regime to hold onto its chemical weapons and said the United States will not "rule out anything right now" concerning military action against the Assad regime.
Defense Secretary James Mattis on the possibility of launching airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime in response to the suspected chemical gas attack on civilians: "I don't rule out anything right now" https://t.co/GqcFuyNRWH pic.twitter.com/SttejMzAlT— CNN (@CNN) April 9, 2018
Following a cabinet meeting, President Trump repeated that all options remain on the table, including the United States and its allies taking actions that impact Russia and Iran directly. "Everybody is going to pay a price," Trump said.
WHY THE T-4 AIRBASE AND WHY NOW?
If Israel did carry out the most recent attack on the Tiyas airbase, it would not be the first time. In February, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) conducted a largescale air raid in Syria, targeting Iranian military installations, including an alleged Iranian drone base stationed within the T-4 airbase.
The February attack followed an Iranian drone incursion into Israeli airspace. After the Israeli military successfully intercepted the Iranian drone, the air force flew a cross-border mission into Syria, hitting a dozen targets. After the raid, Syria downed an Israeli fighter jet as it was leaving Syrian airspace. The Assad regime has access to highly advanced anti-aircraft capabilities which it obtained from Russia in 2017.
After Israel intercepted the Iranian drone, the IDF confirmed that the Iranians were using the T-4 base, with the approval of the Assad regime, to provide weapons to Hezbollah and other Shiite militias. An Israeli official described the Iranian presence at the base as "part of a process of a force build-up against Israel."
It is possible that Israel is reacting to a changing dynamic on the ground in Syria, where it appears the Assad regime, with the backing of Russia and Iran, will be holding on to power. Such an arrangement between Damascus and Tehran could give Iran and Hezbollah a secure physical presence in Syria that could last for decades, Sachs noted.
"This has been a severe concern of the Israelis for at least the past year," he added. That concern escalated in recent days weeks after President Trump's declaration that the United States would be pulling troops out of Syria "very soon," with some reports indicating the pullout could occur over the next six months.
The Department of Defense insisted last week the U.S. mission in Syria was unchanged, though Trump told reporters Monday that his administration would reach a decision about troop withdrawal "very quickly." At the same time, Trump said his administration was looking into the alleged actions of Russia, Syria and Iran in the chemical weapons attack, implying possible consequences or even military retaliation.
"The Israelis are extremely worried about the U.S. position, as are other allies," Sachs noted. Trump has been sending "conflicting messages" about U.S. policy in Syria and the Middle East broadly, he continued. "That adds to the confusion and is damaging to the American position."
Amid conflicting reports about the future of the United States in Syria, Carafano stressed that President Trump's policy has to take Israeli security concerns into account.
"One of the objective of U.S. strategy is to ensure the conditions don't exist for direct conflict between the Iranians and the Israelis," he stated. One of the circumstances that would cause that conflict, he warned, is if the United States allowed Iran to establish a secure military presence within Syria with a groundline of communication leading straight to Israel's border.
Absent a U.S. assurance, Israel has made it clear that it will act on the basis of preserving its own security, whether that includes U.S. support or not.
President Trump said Monday that he will soon reach a decision on how to proceed in Syria.
United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley appealed to the UN Security Council Monday requesting a coordinated international response to the Assad regime's alleged use of chemical weapons. Haley also pinned pitted blame on Russia and Iran for their continued support for Assad.