The secret war waged between Israel and Iran for the last two years has burst into the open.
On Sunday, Iran launched a mid-range missile towards Israel, which was intercepted by Iron Dome in full view of skiers at the Mount Hermon resort. It was a rare daylight attack.
Hours later, as Israeli aircraft carried out a retaliatory strike on bases of Iran’s Qods Force in Syria, the IDF spokesman put out an unprecedented real-time statement that it was carrying out the attacks.
It was the second attack by Israel in Syria that day. There had been an earlier series of air strikes against Iranian targets near Damascus on Sunday morning. In both cases, Syria’s air defence batteries fired dozens of rockets in an attempt to intercept Israeli aircraft and incoming missiles.
The flurry of air and missile strikes is not in itself out of tempo with the previous pace of attacks.
Only a week ago, the outgoing IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot had said that Israel had carried out “thousands” of similar strikes in recent years. Iran has also tried at least twice in 2018 to launch attacks on Israel using missiles and, in one case, an armed drone. What has changed is the overt nature of much of the activity.
Both Israel and Iran are trying to establish the rules of engagement in a region where the superpowers, the United States and Russia, seem either uninterested or incapable of establishing any order.
Israeli military officials believe that they have succeeded, through constant targeted bombardment in the past two years, in preventing Iran from establishing permanent bases in Syria. But they also believe the Qods Force commander, General Qasem Suleimani, has a Plan B.
Iran is returning to its tried and tested strategy of building up its regional proxies: this means Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shia militias in Iraq and Syria.
The next stage in enhancing its proxies’ capabilities, Israel claims, is to equip them with more accurate long-range missiles, enabling them in the future to threaten precise Israeli targets.
Much of the recent rounds of air-strikes are aimed at preventing Iranian shipments of missile systems from reaching Hebzollah’s arsenal in Lebanon.
“Qods Forces are operating next to Syrian forces, it’s a liability for them,” said Jonathan Conricus, the Israeli military spokesperson, on Monday.
“Iran is exploiting Syria. The Syrians are paying a price for allowing the attack to be planned and carried out from their territory.”
Iran’s air force commander Aziz Nasirzadeh said in Tehran that his country is prepared to fight Israel “and eliminate it from the earth.”
Both countries are fighting mainly for oversight of Syrian territory, but the level of open warfare between them is unprecedented.