In recent months, Israel-Iran tensions have evolved from covert and proxy battles to direct confrontations. Early Monday, Israel targeted the Syrian regime's T-4 military air base in Homs, killing at least seven Iranian personnel. One of the fatalities was a colonel with Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), responsible for overseeing Iran's unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) unit. The IRGC ordered Iranian state-affiliated media outlets to retract articles describing the incident.
Iran's drone program is a growing threat to Israeli national security. The Islamic Republic is assisting its terrorist proxies — mainly Hezbollah and Hamas — in acquiring and developing sophisticated drones to challenge Israel. Militant drones have been used to test Israel's air defenses and conduct surveillance over sensitive sites. In 2014, Hezbollah reportedly was the first terrorist group to utilize an attack drone to kill rival militants in Syria and continues to incorporate aerial capabilities in its offensive operations.
Now, bypassing its proxies, Iran directly challenges Israel through its UAV program. In early February, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that infiltrated Israel's airspace. Israeli jets subsequently bombed several military targets in Syria, including some under Iranian control. In the process, Syrian air defenses downed an Israeli jet — the first time an Israeli military aircraft had been taken out by enemy fire since the 1980s.
That escalation marks the first direct confrontation between Israeli and Iranian forces. Iran may have been provoking an Israeli response, demonstrating a growing willingness to use Syria as a base to challenge Israel directly.
Israel has set red lines throughout the Syrian civil war, focused on preventing "game-changing" weapons from landing in Hezbollah's hands and a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria. In late February, reports emerged proving that Iran constructed another military base in Syria with the ability to host missiles that can strike any part of the Jewish state.
Iran already oversees a military compound near the Damascus airport and other high-profile airbases and permanent military sites across the country.
In 2015, Israeli airstrikes in the Syrian Golan killed 11 members of the Hizballah-Iranian axis including senior Hizballah leaders and an Iranian general who were attempting to set up a base of terrorist operations to target Israel.
Israel's airstrike on Monday comes amid another high-casualty, Syrian regime chemical weapons attack targeting civilian neighbourhoods in Douma — a Damascus suburb. The timing of Israel's airstrike suggests that Israel is holding the Assad regime accountable for such a gruesome attack. However, Israel primarily is signaling to the Iranian regime that its neighboring drone program and permanent foothold in Syria is unacceptable.
Steven Emerson is executive director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism. He was a correspondent for CNN and a senior editor at U.S. News and World Report. Read more reports from Steve Emerson — Click Here Now.
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