Omri Ceren writes from The Israel Project with this backgrounder for journalists. He has folded information derived from a lot of sources — I have deleted the 24 alphabetized footnotes — into the message. I would add only that The New York Times has just reported: “Later Saturday morning, clashes appeared to be continuing. There were new Israeli airstrikes around the capital, Damascus, according to Syrian state media and Damascus residents.” Omri writes:
Overnight Iran launched its first direct military operation against Israel, dispatching a drone commanded from the Tiyas Airbase in Syria’s central Homs region.
The Israelis used an Apache helicopter to intercept and down the drone, then sent four jets to destroy the command center (an Israeli military spokesperson confirmed “accurate hits of Iranian UAV control facility”). One of the Israeli F-16s was abandoned by its pilots over Israel, amid what the Israelis describe as “massive Syrian anti-air fire.” Syrian anti-aircraft fire reached Israeli territory, triggering extended emergency activities in Israel’s northern communities.
Iran and its proxies had been escalating their threats to attack Israel over the last few weeks. Hezbollah threatened to attack Israel for a range of reasons, from energy resource disputes to the Israelis building a border fence. Iranian cleric Ayatollah Ebrahim Raisi, one of the front-runners to be the next Iranian Supreme Leader, toured the Israeli-Lebanese border and boasted about operations to secure “Jerusalem’s liberation.”
A couple of things to watch:
(1) Military — Iran and its proxies have structured their forces in Syria and Lebanon to guarantee mass casualties during their next war with Israel — In Syria, Hezbollah says it has 10,000 fighters ready to attack Israel and to create a single front across all of Israel’s north and northeast. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has transformed hundreds of villages into “military strongholds,” according to the AP, effectively conscripting human shields who will become civilian casualties blamed on Israel, according to the NYT. They’ve stockpiled roughly 150,000 rockets and missiles, allowing them to saturation bomb Israeli population centers with 1,500 rockets and missiles per day for over three months, and Hezbollah chief Nasrallah says the group will use those projectiles against Israel’s civilian nuclear installations and chemical facilities, triggering tens of thousands of casualties. Hezbollah leaders also say their Syrian battle experience will allow them to launch a ground invasion of Israel, in part through advanced hardened military tunnel infrastructure.
(2) DC politics and policy — The exchanges touch nuclear and non-nuclear Iran issues — On nuclear, recent reports confirmed that parts of the windfall Iran received from the nuclear deal flowed to Hezbollah. On non-nuclear, the Trump administration this month targeted Hezbollah with sanctions. Differing proposals to fold missile restrictions into the nuclear deal are at the core of the debate over President Trump’s request for Congress and Europe to “fix” the deal.
Omri adds this note via Twitter.
The Israelis say the military drone used by Iran in last night's attack was highly sophisticated and emulated Western technology. Somehow in the last few years the Iranians got the breathing room, resources, and knowledge to build and deploy these things. https://t.co/xQvTTv700u
— Omri Ceren (@omriceren) February 10, 2018