Home / Politics / News /  Israel’s ‘war between the wars’ with Iran expands across Middle east

TEL AVIV : The Israeli military says it has carried out more than 400 airstrikes in Syria and other parts of the Middle East since 2017 as part of a wide-ranging campaign targeting Iran and its allies, offering its fullest picture yet of its undeclared war with Tehran.

Israeli leaders refer to the campaign as the “war between the wars," which they say is aimed at deterring Iran and weakening Tehran’s ability to hit Israel in the event of an open war between the two regional adversaries.

Israel’s airstrike campaign in Syria has hampered Iran’s military ambitions, military analysts say, but it has also pushed the conflict into other arenas, with both countries now battling at sea, in Iran, and above Israel’s skies.

“It’s not 100% success," said Maj. Gen. Amikam Norkin, who retired last week as head of Israel’s air force, where he served as architect of the campaign. “But without our activity, the situation here might be much more negative."

Among the targets hit by Israel: Russian-supplied air-defense systems, drone bases operated by Iranian military advisers, and precision-guided missile systems bound for Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon.

The strikes have also killed more than 300 people, including Iranian military commanders, Syrian soldiers, militants backed by Tehran and at least three civilians, according to open-source reporting by Stephane Cohen of NorthStar Security Analysis, an Israel-based consulting firm.

The Israel campaign started with a narrow focus in Syria on Iranian arms shipments bound for Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. Over time, it expanded to target Iran-backed fighters in Syria and then began directly striking Iranian military positions in Syria.

The campaign has resulted in Iran’s forces largely retreating from positions near the Israeli border to safer spots in eastern Syria, said Carmit Valensi, a research fellow at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies. “It is an effective strategy, but insufficient to deal with Iran’s full-fledged entrenchment and the threats it possesses," she said.

Iran maintains broad influence in Syria, retains its clout with the country’s leadership, and continues to provide Hezbollah with sophisticated missile systems capable of hitting Israel with increasing accuracy, military analysts said.

Iranian and Syrian officials dismissed the air campaign’s effectiveness.

“Out of 20 or 25 strikes, only two typically destroy their targets," said an Iranian official close to the country’s security services. The official said Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps is responding in-kind to Israeli strikes.

“The Guards have drawn a red line," the official said. “If you attack us, we will retaliate, an eye for an eye."

A Syrian government adviser said the Israeli strikes hadn’t significantly dented Iran’s military influence in Syria. The Iranians “are strengthening their presence" across the country, he said. “It is quite difficult to undermine their position."

In a series of interviews with The Wall Street Journal, Gen. Norkin and other Israeli military officials offered the most far-reaching detail to date of their strategy against Iran.

At the Israeli military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Gen. Norkin showed a map of Syria dotted with hundreds of small orange symbols, each one, he said, marking an Israeli strike against Iran and its allies. Parts of Syria were completely obscured by the orange icons.

The strikes stretched across the country, with a central focus around Damascus and near Syria’s border with Israel. In all, the Israeli military said, it had carried out more than 400 airstrikes as part of its “between the wars" campaign, with most hitting targets in Syria. Israel says it has also hit a smaller number of targets in Lebanon and Iraq.

“When I got this position, I never dreamed that we would act like this," Gen. Norkin said.

Israel’s campaign against Iran in Syria—long an open secret—has become a matter of public debate in Israel amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Israel has an understanding with Moscow, another key backer of the Syrian government, that Russia won’t interfere with Israel’s airstrikes in Syria.

The dynamic has contributed to Israel’s limited support for Ukraine following Russia’s invasion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky criticized Israel for not providing Kyiv with weapons to fight Russian forces, but Israeli leaders worry that doing so would anger Moscow and jeopardize their ability to easily target Iran assets in Syria.

Israel and Russia use a hotline to avoid Russian casualties from Israeli airstrikes in Syria. Israeli officials said they have used the line to warn Russia before targeting military bases in Syria when Russian forces work with Iranians.

For years, Israel didn’t acknowledge most of the attacks in Syria. In 2018, Israeli leaders offered their first confirmation that they were carrying out a wide-ranging campaign when they said Israel had carried out 200 airstrikes in Syria in 18 months.

In 2018, Israel said it hit an Iranian drone hangar at a Syrian military base after shooting down an Iranian drone that flew into Israel. The following year, Israel said it hit Iranian weapons warehouses in Damascus.

Last year, Syria accused Israel of carrying out a series of strikes that killed 57 Syrian soldiers and pro-Iranian fighters. Last month, Iran accused Israel of a strike in Syria that killed two Revolutionary Guard officers. Iran vowed to exact revenge.

Retired Gen. Assaf Orion, who once oversaw planning for the Israeli military, said Israel’s campaign had set back Iran’s ability to retaliate against Israel. But the strategy has created other risks for Israel.

“With several exchanges of blows between Israel and Iran becoming direct and open—at sea, drone and missile attacks—the risk for escalation also grows," he said.

The Iran-Israel shadow war is shifting into a new phase with more reliance on drones.

Last year, the Israeli military said, Iran launched drones from its own military bases bearing small arms bound for Palestinian fighters in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, eschewing its usual strategy of having proxies in neighboring countries target Israel. Israel kept the details secret for 14 months, a sign of how sensitive the shadow war is for regional leaders.

Israel has also used small quadcopter drones to carry out strikes inside Iran, according to people familiar with the covert campaign.

The Israeli military provided the Journal with access to debris from what officials said were three Iranian drones that Israel shot down.

Israeli military experts estimate that the largest drone, with a 23-foot wingspan, can fly more than 1,200 miles. An Israeli pilot shot it down while flying an advanced F-35 jet fighter last year. It was one of two launched from Iran, more than 1,000 miles from Israel’s border, according to the Israeli military.

An analysis done for the Journal by Red Six Solutions, a private consulting firm, concluded that the drone was an Iranian version of the U.S. RQ-170 Sentinel that Iran brought down in 2011.

Red Six identified the engine of the second downed drone as a Chinese-made model that was used frequently by fighters in Yemen, Iraq and Syria whom the U.S. says Iran supplies. A similar drone, called a Samad, was used to hit a U.S. base in Erbil, Iraq, last April, the company said.

The Iranian drone threat has become a top concern for Israeli leaders, who publicly released satellite images of Iranian drone bases last November and warned Tehran that Israel wouldn’t tolerate expansion of the program.

“Sometimes the use of force, and a demonstration of it, is able to prevent the need for a stronger use of force," Defense Minister Benny Gantz said at the time.

Satellite imagery released in February revealed damage to a drone base in the western Iranian province of Kermanshah, which Israel’s Haaretz newspaper said was targeted by an Israeli drone attack.

Four weeks later, Iran launched a barrage of missiles at a compound in Erbil, Iraq, that Tehran said was used by Israeli spies to carry out the attack on its drone operations.

Iraqi officials dismissed the Iranian accusations as misguided, but the attack sent a distinct message to Israel and highlighted the risks of escalating conflict.

The evolving war extends to the sea, where clandestine Israeli teams have attacked ships carrying Iranian oil, triggering similar attacks from Iran targeting a variety of ships in the Gulf of Oman, the Journal has reported.

Israel has also carried out a series of attacks in recent years that have hit Iran’s nuclear and military programs, according to people familiar with the campaign. Iran accused Israel of killing one of its top nuclear scientists in 2020 and carrying out an attack on its underground nuclear program at Natanz in 2021.

Gen. Norkin said Israel’s campaign would continue as long as Iran remains a threat.

“If you can push [open] war into the future, we achieve a lot," he said.

—Benoit Faucon and Aresu Eqbali contributed to this article.

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