Israel bombed 20 targets it said were used by Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria around the capital Damascus early on 20 November in response to rocket attacks that had been launched from Syria on Israel the previous day.
One of Israel’s targets was the house of Akram Al-Ajouri, a leader of Islamic Jihad, with the house in the affluent neighbourhood of Al-Amza being destroyed and killing some of Al-Ajouri’s companions and a son.
Avichai Adrae, a spokesman for the Israeli army, said that Israeli planes had bombed dozens of military targets belonging to Iran’s Al-Quds Force and the Syrian army inside Syria, including headquarters, weapons depots and military bases.
Syria confirmed the bombings and said they had destroyed homes and killed civilians. It said it would rebuild the destroyed homes and compensate the victims.
Western military reports said that while Israel was carrying out the air strikes in Syria, it jammed signals over Damascus. Although Syria had launched four defensive missiles, these had been blinded by the jamming and had dropped on homes and killed civilians.
According to Israeli media sources, the air raids were not designed to thwart attacks from Iran, but were part of Israel’s attempts to prevent Iran from establishing a military presence on Israel’s border.
Israeli air and missile attacks against Iranian targets in Syria have continued for two years, targeting weapons depots, Hizbullah training camps, military bases of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRG) and other locations where medium-range rockets are allegedly being produced.
Syria has thus become a battleground for a conflict between Iran and Israel that has nothing to do with the Syrian people.
According to unofficial estimates, Israel has launched “hundreds” of air strikes on Syria over the past five years, the majority of which in the last two years. In 2018 alone, Israel attacked military targets in Syria using more than 2,000 bombs. In 2017, the main target of Israel’s attacks was Syrian regime forces that it said were facilitating operations for Hizbullah in south-west Syria and Syrian military facilities that it claimed were developing chemical weapons or medium and long-range rockets.
After 2017, Israel’s main targets became the IRG, the Al-Quds Force, Hizbullah, and Syrian military bases supervised by Iranians.
Recurring Israeli air strikes against Syria over the past two years have killed IRG members and forced Qassem Suleimani, commander of the powerful Iranian Al-Quds Force, to change the deployment of Iranian forces in Syria. However, they have not stopped Iran from pursuing its ambitions to control Syrian territory, especially along the border with Israel.
Israeli Defence Minister Naftali Bennett said a message had been sent to Iran by bombing targets inside Damascus. “Wherever they [the targets] are, Israel will bomb them,” he said.
The bombing of military targets in Syria coincided with massive protests in Iraq and Lebanon, countries where Iran influences political and military decisions, as well as protests in Iran itself against hikes in the price of fuel.
Nizar Al-Sahli, a Palestinian-Syrian researcher, told Al-Ahram Weekly that “despite the air raids, there is nothing new in the official news coverage of the Israeli strikes. The Syrian regime destroys schools, hospitals and homes, and Israel destroys and violates whatever is left of national sovereignty to remind Iran and the Arabs that it is the top power in the Middle East.”
“This allows the Syrian regime to continue its rhetoric saying it is steadfast in confronting the Israeli occupation as a way of covering up the killing of one million Syrians and destroying three-quarters of the country’s towns and villages. It is political blackmail by the regime, which has not taken any real action in response to hundreds of Israeli air raids.”
Israeli officials did not at first comment on the air strikes or take responsibility for them, but over the past two years they have made fiery statements against Iran and Hizbullah that have included Syria if it facilitated Iranian operations close to the Israeli border.
Israel said it was “dealing with security threats from Iran in Syria” and would not allow Suleimani to establish a presence on the border with Israel. Israel is also worried about the increasing number of Hizbullah rockets fired from Syria, saying this was a “red line” it would not allow to be crossed.
Talal Salma, a researcher, told the Weekly that the “Syrians are not to blame for what is happening between Israel and Iran on Syrian territory. They are the victims. Neither Israel nor Iran care about Syrians, and both are looking for confrontations on Syrian territory.”
“The Iranian regime is using its militias to oppress and control the Arab region and to prevent the overthrow of authoritarian regimes in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. It believes that if they fall and are replaced by democratic regimes, this will end Iran’s influence in the Arab region. Therefore, Tehran continues to provide what it can to keep them in power,” he said.
Some analysts believe that the US has influenced Israel’s escalating stance, especially since it wants to rein in Iran in the Middle East, possibly beginning with Syria. Current US policies are sanctioning Iran as a “rogue state” with a view to “changing its behaviour” in the region. But punishing Iran through Syria harms the Syrian people, while the regimes in Iran and Syria circumvent the US sanctions including by mafia tactics.
Salma said the US “always keeps the door ajar in its relations with Iran in order to bargain under the table when necessary. The US did not prevent Iran from interfering in Syria, and it used it in the balance of power throughout the war since Washington does not want to see any party have an outright victory.”
“The US-Israeli escalation is taking place when Iran’s role in Syria seems to be diminishing to be replaced by that of Russia. A few air strikes against Iran in Syria, an intermediary country, are not a harsh or painful punishment except for the people of Syria,” he added.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 November, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.