It began shortly passed midnight on Wednesday, May 9, with a Quds Force-initiated barrage of 20 rockets directed at Israel’s Golan Heights, and ended the following day with the destruction or near-destruction of some 50 Iranian targets throughout Syria. Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries that challenged the Israeli Air Force were reduced to expensive heaps of scrap metal. Twenty-seven pro-regime fighters, including 11 Iranians and 6 Syrians were killed.
After months of covert operations and military deployments, Israel and Iran threw their gloves off and duked it out on Syrian soil but Round 1 unmistakably went to Israel. The Israelis clearly seemed satisfied with the results of their operation – appropriately codenamed House of Cards. The Iranians on the other hand, are smarting from their wounds and lashing out with the usual banal rhetoric about the “Zionist entity” but aside from nonsensical bluster about destroying Haifa and Tel Aviv, they have remained largely passive.
It was the largest military operation undertaken by the Israel Defense Forces in Syria since the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and there are at least five takeaways from this brief but significant skirmish.
A Triumph of Israeli Intelligence, tactics and technology: Operation House of Cards demonstrated that the IDF excelled and dominated In terms of technology, tactics and intelligence. For all their bluster, the Iranians were hopelessly outmatched.
Of the 20 Fajr-5 and Grad rockets fired by the Iranians, four were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-rocket system while the remaining 16 fell short of their target and landed in Syria. Moreover, despite formidable Syrian air defenses, which include SA-17 and SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles, the Israeli Air Force dominated the skies over Syria. The IDF released fascinating video footage of a precision missile strike, launched from an F-16I Sufa fighter jet, possibly utilizing an Israeli-made Delilah missile, against a Syrian SA-22 aerial defense system.
The selected targets were hit with surgical precision and the target bank demonstrated meticulously gathered, uncanny intelligence. Nearly nothing occurs in Syria without Israeli intelligence catching whiff of it. Israel’s AMAN military intelligence is a well-oiled machine that uses a variety of sources and methods including human intelligence (HUMINT), signals intelligence (SIGINT), imagery intelligence (IMINT) and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) to keep tabs on its enemies. Indeed, a few days prior to the Iranian attack, Israel detected what it described as “abnormal” Iranian deployments, and preemptively struck the al-Kiswah military facility where Iran maintains a base. Fifteen foreign pro-regime fighters, including 8 Iranians were killed in that strike. Israel also called up specialized units from the intelligence and air force branches in anticipation of Iranian mischief.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps was outperformed and outmatched on all levels. Its tactics and technologies were dated and it failed to appreciate AMAN’s intelligence capabilities. Operation House of Cards, coming on the heels of an Israeli Mossad intelligence coup in which 100,000 nuclear-related documents were seized by Israeli operatives from a secretive Iranian facility in Tehran, proved to be a powerful one-two combination that severely undermined the Iranian regime and inflicted a grievous blow to the impression of power it wishes to project to the world.
Political victory for Israel and reversal for Iran: A day prior to Operation House of Cards, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow meeting with his counterpart President Vladimir Putin and attended Russia’s Victory Day Parade. Tellingly, Netanyahu was one of only two Western leaders in attendance; the other being Serbian Prime Minister Alexander Vučić. High on the agenda was Iran. Putin warmly greeted Netanyahu and the fruits of their meeting were almost immediately evident. Russia refused to condemn the Israeli operation and offered to mediate between Israel and Iran. More importantly, Russia publicly nixed the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Syria.
Western support for the Israeli action was near-universal. Even Bahrain, a nation that technically doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist asserted that Israel had the right to defend itself. This was an unprecedented statement and demonstrates the political inroads that Israel has made in the Arab world. Not only was Israel militarily victorious, it scored a resounding political success as well.
Fractures in the Syria-Iran alliance: The Iranians reportedly did not notify the Syrians prior to initiating their rocket attack. It was a unilateral action and demonstrates the disdain they have for their Syrian hosts. Just a few days prior to the Iranian attack, Assad was interviewed by a Greek newspaper where he stated, “I don’t think the third world war will begin in Syria because I trust the Russian leadership.” Assad is hedging his bets with the Russians, not with Iran. While there is some confluence of interest on Syria between Russia and Iran, Putin is by no means lockstep with the mullahs. Russia has no interest in seeing escalating tensions. Its goals are limited to preserving the Assad regime and maintaining its military bases. It does not share the Iran’s desire to stoke the flames of conflict or spread Shia ideology.
Iran was reportedly upset with Syria’s passivity after the Israeli strike. Iranian lawmaker Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh warned Assad not to side with the Russians and reminded Assad of the Iranian efforts and sacrifices to prop up his regime. After 7 years of fighting, Assad has managed to assert control over significant portions of Syria and is afraid that Iranian provocations will invite Israeli retaliatory measures that will only serve to weaken his hold on power. Moreover, it appears that Assad loyalists, composed mostly of Arab Alawites, are resentful of the way they are being treated by non-Arab, Persian Shia, who are ostensibly guests of the Assad regime. If it comes to choosing sides, they’ll easily choose Russia over Iran.
Iran in distress: Embarrassed by its impotence in the face of Israeli might, Iran and its Hezbollah allies disseminated fake news concerning the effectiveness of the May 9, rocket attack. Hezbollah’s propaganda outlet, Al-Manar, claimed that Israelis were fleeing and that Israel was deliberately obfuscating its losses. Lebanon's Hezbollah affiliated Al Mayadeen television showed photo-shopped images of Israelis in shelters, which were five years old and taken during the 2014 Gaza war. An IRGC-backed media outlet posted on twitter what it described was a satellite image of an Israeli base that was hit. The problem was that it was a go-cart track located west of Aleppo. The post was subsequently removed. We can expect the Iranians and their proxies to disseminate more fake news correlating to their defeats on the battlefield.
Israeli economic resilience: According to a report in CTech, the Israeli economy is extremely resilient and would fare much better than Iran in time of protracted conflict. The report attributes this to positive Israeli financial indicators, such as foreign exchange rates, low inflation, low unemployment and a strong Shekel. By contrast, Iran’s economy is anemic and suffers from high inflation and high unemployment. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the imposition of additional U.S. sanctions only adds to Iran’s economic woes.
Undoubtedly, the Iranians, smarting from their humiliation are preparing for Round 2. How that may materialize is anyone’s guess but it’s a sure bet that the Israelis aren’t resting on their laurels and are gearing up militarily and diplomatically for any future confrontation with the world’s premier state-sponsor of international terrorism.