Iran is facing severe economic pressure due to U.S. sanctions, yet recent reports indicate that the Islamic Republic is still investing significant resources in building up attack capabilities throughout the Middle East, with a new focus on Iraq.
According to the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, Israel struck two Iranian military sites this month in Iraq. The report, citing Western diplomatic sources, said Israeli stealth F-35 jets hit an Iranian rocket depot northeast of Baghdad on July 19, and on July 28, a base in Iraq that lies just 80 kilometers from the Iranian border in an airstrike. That base reportedly contained a shipment of Iranian ballistic missiles, as well as Iranian "advisers," the report stated.
Iran's apparent shift to Iraq comes after an intensive Iranian push in recent years to turn Syria into a missile, drone and terrorist launchpad against Israel. That attempt ran into a brick wall in the form of hundreds of Israeli airstrikes that largely prevented the rise of an Iranian war machine in Syria. Iran already established a forward division in Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah, and Israel has no intention of allowing Iran to replicate that success in Syria.
Iran appears to have responded to Israel's intelligence superiority by repositioning itself in Iraq. If the latest reports are true, Israel is signaling that it is prepared to use the same effective combination of intelligence and precision firepower to thwart Iranian threats as they form in Iraq, just as it did in Syria.
In addition, it seems that the shadow war between Tehran and Jerusalem in Syria is far from over. Last week, Israeli jets reportedly struck a target in southern Syria's Tel al-Hara, apparently to stop Iranian-backed forces from seizing control of a strategically important hill that can be used to gather intelligence on Israel.
Reports also surfaced last week of a Hezbollah operative—a Syrian-Druze resident of the village of Khadr, near the Israeli border—being killed after his car exploded as it drove in south Syria.
And on Sunday, rebel media sources in Syria released images of smoke rising from a Hezbollah headquarters building north of Damascus in what could be an additional strike.
Israel's "War Between Wars," the low-profile campaign designed to stop Iran from setting up attack and weapons bases in Syria and beyond, seems to remain highly active. It is a direct response to Iran's own intensive attempts to build up threats against Israel, including the attempt to flood Syria with missile factories, rocket launchers, drone bases, and terror cells.
Iran has failed to achieve many of its central goals in Syria, so the Iranian Quds Force, led by the notorious Qassem Soleimani, looks determined to set up some of the missile bases on Iraqi soil instead.
From a practical perspective, Iran's commitment to expanding its forces around the region while its economy crumbles makes little sense. But Iran's fundamentalist Shi'ite ideology and hegemonic ambitions have fused to keep this effort going.
Iran Working to Construct Land Bridge to Mediterranean
In this context, reports that a new border crossing that links Syria to Iraq is set to open deserves special attention.
According to a July 25 report published by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center, preparations are underway to open the Albukamal border crossing in the coming two months.
The Meir Amit Center identified why this crossing is critical to Iran's ambitions, noting that it is "vital for the land bridge Iran seeks to construct between its territory and the Mediterranean Sea. The route allows Iran to send forces, supplies and weapons through Iraq to Syria and from there to Lebanon. It can be assumed that Iran is of the opinion that the land bridge will enable it to reduce its dependence on risky aerial and naval routes. The new crossing, when it opens, will enable larger numbers of vehicles to enter Syria and make it easier to preserve secrecy."
In June 2018, reports surfaced of unidentified planes striking Iranian-backed militias in the Syrian border town of Albukamal, resulting in many casualties.
With the new border crossing under construction, it seems difficult to believe that Israel would allow Iran to create its long-desired land bridge.
The Meir Amit Center assessed that "it is likely that the new crossing is being constructed with Iranian aid, and possibly with Iranian involvement. In addition, Iran participates in securing the area between Albukamal in Syria and al-Qa'im in Iraq by using Shi'ite militias deployed permanently in the region."
Hezbollah and Shi'ite militias backed by Iran seized Albukamal in November 2018, remaining active on both sides of the Syrian-Iraqi border.
It seems unreasonable to believe that after putting a dent in Iran's scheme to flood Syria and Lebanon with arms by trafficking them in planes, Israel would simply agree to those same arms entering the area by road.
Ultimately, it is the Israeli Air Force that acts as Israel's "police force" in the skies of the Middle East, enforcing Jerusalem's red lines against Iranian entrenchment.
To be able to achieve this, its personnel must function in a very high operational tempo and remain with a finger on the pulse of the rapidly changing geopolitical reality. The challenge is enormous.
Nevertheless, the IAF has been highly successful in waging Israel's active defense campaign as it maneuvers in the most dangerous and sensitive regions in the world. Syria alone has the most densely crowded air-defense network on the globe and is also the scene of intense Russian military activity.
Operating largely behind the scenes, the IAF has been able to protect Israel's vital security interests, roll back Iran's presence and so far, delay the outbreak of the next major war.
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