On May 9, the Israeli Air Force blasted Iranian military facilities in Syria. The huge conventional air campaign sent an unambiguous message to Iran's dictatorship: the decades long "gray zone" and proxy war the clerical regime waged against Israel has left the covert shadows and become an overt war.
Tehran can no longer kill Israelis using proxy fighters; terrorists and criminal syndicates then deny responsibility and avoid reprisals.
Two weeks after the air strikes, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers in Syria and their Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen are still assessing Israel's calculated destruction of their heavy weapons, missile sites, ammunition bunkers, command posts, supply and maintenance depots and training facilities.
It's an extensive target list -- one indicative of the size and scope of Iran's operations in Syria and Lebanon. Both nations border Israel. So does Hamas-ruled Gaza. Iran supplies Hamas with weapons, training and money.
Prior to May 9, Israel had conducted limited attacks on Iranian positions in Syria. The newspaper Haaretz, citing Israeli defense officials, reported the May 9 air operation differed quantitatively. It was the largest Israeli military attack on Syrian territory since the two nations signed a disengagement agreement after the war of October, 1973.
In the early hours of that war, Syrian tanks surprised Israeli defenders on the Golan Heights and almost broke through to the sea. Were the Syrians to succeed, Israel would literally face annihilation.
Memories of that close call shape current Israeli defense policies, especially concerning Iran. The dictatorship's radical ayatollahs ritually threaten to exterminate Israel by whatever means -- including nuclear weapons. The October War demonstrated to many Israelis that a decision to pre-emptively strike, deferred by even a day, puts Israel's existence at risk.
The message has several dimensions. The second paragraph of this column describes the strategic message.
The ayatollahs and IRGC senior officers no longer have a privilege they granted themselves when Israel, the U.S. and Iran's score of other adversaries limited their military responses to Tehran's insistent aggression.
Since the mid-1980s, the self-proclaimed global Shia Islamic revolutionary regime has had wide leeway in starting wars, selecting its battles and recruiting "plausibly deniable" non-Iranian personnel to fight its battles. The recruited fighters are often Shiite Arabs, like those serving in Lebanese Hezbollah. However, Tehran will take, or hire, whoever is willing to carry a Kalashnikov or detonate an IED.
The regime has used this operational combination, with local adaptations, in numerous locales, including Iraq, Bahrain, Afghanistan, Gaza and Egyptian Sinai. It has infiltrated North African Arab countries with assassins and saboteurs. In sub-Saharan Africa Iran uses Lebanese Shia communities to support indigenous troublemakers.
Yemen and Syria are the most egregious and savage examples of Iran's "plausibly deniable" covert guerrilla and terror warfare. Iran pays and supplies Yemen's Houthi rebels. In turn, Houthi fighters fire Iranian battlefield missiles at Saudi Arabia cities.
Iran allegedly has 80,000 proxy fighters in Syria. And how many Iranians? That's a great question. "Several hundred" to "a few thousand" is the typical open source reply.
Iranian money and weapons give Lebanese Hezbollah the power to utterly dominate poor Lebanon. Southern Lebanon has served as a launch site for Iranian rockets aimed at Israel. In the Israel-Lebanese Hezbollah Rocket War of 2006, Iran supplied the bulk of the rockets - without Iran suffering military reprisal.
However, the Israelis have put a deadly spotlight on Iranian gray zone warfare. Prior to the May bombing, Israel claimed Iranian proxies fired on Israeli positions in the Golan. Israel contended Iranian Al Quds Special Forces troops and IRGC advisers were in the vicinity. Iran will not be allowed to control southwestern Syria and the Golan heights. Israel learned its lesson in 1973. From now on the ayatollahs' wars and violent troublemaking will exact a price in Iranian blood, equipment and treasure.