Monday’s airstrikes by Israel that hit a Syrian base in central Homs province were an important milestone in the Syrian conflict.
The strikes were the first open assault on Iranian personnel stationed in the country. The Syrian base that was hit, known as the T-4 Airbase, primarily a launching pad for the Syrian air force, has also become a forward outpost for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Among other reasons, the Corps is interested in establishing bases like these to have a close striking point with which to harass Israel. The drone that flew into Israeli airspace back in early February that was subsequently shot down also emanated from the same T-4 base. Not surprisingly, the high profile Iranian casualty, Colonel Mehdi Dehghan was a member of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) unit, underscoring the fact that for all intents and purposes, T-4 is an Iranian long range strike installation. Dehghan was just one of at least seven Iranians killed in the attack.
It is important to put the strategic situation in Syria into perspective. Iran has deployed a huge number of military personnel in the country. Forces deployed by Iran in Syria today very likely outnumber all of Bashar Assad’s military units. These forces include soldiers from the Iranian army, IRGC personnel, and a wide spectrum of militias (some Iranian, some not). According to the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), the Ayatollahs pay monthly salaries to over 250,000 fighting men and other military “agents” in Syria. From the viewpoint of Israel and its defense apparatus, the whole of Syria is one big, country-sized Iranian military platform.
So what does this mean for the long-term projection in Syrian? The answer to that will likely be influenced by how recent international outrage aimed at Iran and Syria plays out.
Over the past week, there has been a wave of international reaction to Syria’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in the western Ghouta region. The kickback from reports of the attack has been so severe, that even Trump, who's recently been rather hell-bent on removing American troops from Syria, has promised a U.S. response. More importantly, international condemnation of the attack has come down hard on Iran, who many see as a de facto accomplice in anything Syria does. Feeling the pressure, Iran has responded by both condemning the use of chemical weapons and denying that Syria ever did.
Iran’s claims will probably do little to stop an international response to Ghouta, which seems like it might be soon in coming. The UN will conduct a special inquiry into the attack, and the U.S. has promised unilateral action if a satisfying resolution isn’t produced.
With a serious intervention into Syria on the horizon, the stage is set for significant moves to be taken against Iran’s buildup of forces. All of this could provide the pretext for increased Israeli actions targeting Iranian assets in the country, perhaps this time in close coordination with an American ally.