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Despite blowback over Syrian strike, some Israelis say more military action needed

An F-15, belonging to the Israeli air force, lands during the "Blue Flag" multinational air defence exercise at the Ovda air force base, north of the Israeli city of Eilat, on November 8, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ (Photo credit should read JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images) (AFP Contributor/AFP/Getty Images)

JERUSALEM — Israel received stiff warnings Tuesday from Russia and Iran after allegedly carrying out an airstrike a day earlier on a military base in Syria, killing Iranian personnel stationed there.

But even as Israel was being criticized for the raid, some security officials have been calling for a more aggressive approach in Syria aimed at preventing Iran and its proxy militia Hezbollah from expanding their influence there and their ability to menace Israel.

In Moscow, Israel’s ambassador, Gary Koren, was summoned to a meeting to discuss the episode with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, the state Interfax news agency said. Alexander Sherin, chairman of the State Duma Defense Committee, called Israel’s action “evil and unfriendly.”

Russia’s Defense Ministry earlier accused Israel of the attack and detailed how the operation was carried out, and Dmitry Peskov, a spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, said Russian military advisers could have been present at the base, Reuters reported.

Israeli analysts and commentators said the harsh tone of the Russian response appeared to be designed to signal to Israel that its previous freedom in carrying out military action in Syria might no longer be acceptable. Russia has been playing a decisive role in Syria’s war, lending crucial support to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied it was behind the predawn raid Monday, widely attributed to Israeli F-15 fighter jets, on the T-4 air base, outside of Palmyra. 

Iran’s Tasnim News Agency reported Tuesday that seven Iranians were killed in the strike. Their bodies were brought to Tehran for burial, it said.

Moscow bureau chief Anton Troianovski describes Russia’s tensions with the U.S. and how state media are covering the alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria. (Video: Sarah Parnass, Anton Troianovski/The Washington Post, Photo: Sputnik Photo Agency/The Washington Post)

Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Israel’s actions a “crime” and said it “will not remain without a response,” Lebanese news channel Al Mayadeen reported.

Over recent years, Israel has carried out scores of airstrikes against Hezbollah weapons convoys and the group’s infrastructure in Syria and Lebanon, according to regional media reports and local analysts.

Israeli officials have taken official responsibility for very few of those strikes. But Israel has made clear that it will take action to prevent Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite militia backed by Iran, from using Syria as a springboard for attacks against Israel and to block Iran from transferring weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

More recently, Israel’s leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have also spoken about preventing their enemy Iran from establishing a permanent presence in Syria and from creating a corridor of Iranian influence spanning from Tehran to the Mediterranean Sea.  

Until now, however, Israel has largely avoided being drawn into the seven-year-long Syrian civil war on its northeastern border. 

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported Tuesday that security officials are increasingly pushing for a more determined effort to stop Iran from expanding in Syria. Military chief Gadi Eisenkot told reporters recently that “the final and desired situation is the removal of all Iranian-Shiite forces from Syria,” the paper reported. “We won’t let them get near the borders.”

Yaakov Amidror, a retired major general and a former national security adviser to Netanyahu, said that if Iran continued to extend its influence, this would lead to a direct confrontation.

“Israel’s policy is clear; it will not allow the Iranians to build military facilities in Syria,” Amidror said in an interview.

Two months ago, Israel acknowledged carrying out an attack on Iranian targets in the T-4 air base. That strike came after Israel downed an Iranian drone that strayed into its territory. In that same incident, an Israeli F-16 fighter jet crashed under Syrian antiaircraft fire. 

“There are two colliding trends, the first being that Iran is growing bolder as highlighted by the sending of a drone to Israel in February,” said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at Le Beck International, a Middle East-based geopolitical and security consultancy. “The second trend is Israel’s feeling that neither Washington nor Moscow are willing to do anything about it, which in turn forces Israel to take additional risks.”

Horowitz said that the Iranian presence at the T-4 base included members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force, who sent the drone and “hence directly and actively threatened Israel.”

“By striking the base once again, Israel sends the message that Russia simply cannot ignore this trend, both because of the risks it implies, and because Russian and Iranian soldiers are physically working a few feet away from each other,” he said. 

The increase in regional tensions comes as President Trump has announced his intention to pull back U.S. troops from Syria, a move some in Israel fear would leave it in a precarious position.

“The State of Israel does not have a world power today that it can rely on to confront the Iranian expansion,” analyst Alex Fishman wrote Tuesday in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “It only remains for it to operate militarily and independently to curb the Iranian foothold in Syria, in the hope that its military activity will not devolve into an overall confrontation.”

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