In defiance of UN appeals for a freeze on armed conflicts in the Middle East while the world fights the Covid-19 pandemic, Israel staged a pre-dawn attack on a suburb of Damascus on Monday. It did not comment on the strikes, which caused several casualties.
Israeli missiles struck the “homes of residents in the villages of Al-Adliya and Al-Hujeira on the outskirts of Damascus, killing seven,” Syrian state news reported on Monday. The Syrian authorities gave no details of the locations that were hit, the possible causes of the strikes, or why they had targeted civilians in a couple of tiny villages so close to the capital.
However, according to the opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), the strikes targeted locations belonging to Iranian, Hizbullah, Syrian and other militias in areas south and southwest of Damascus. Seven people were killed in the pre-dawn raids, four Iranian soldiers and three civilians, including a child, the London-based Observatory reported.
Israel has increased its strikes in Syria in recent years, primarily targeting Syrian army mid-range missile manufacturing facilities and Iranian and Hizbullah forces. On 20 April, an Israeli airstrike killed nine fighters from pro-regime and Iranian forces in the vicinity of Palmyra in central Syria.
“The Israeli raids certainly targeted Iranian Revolutionary Guard locations near Damascus,” SOHR director Rami Abdel-Rahman told Al-Ahram Weekly. “Several sites belonging to Tehran’s militias were destroyed south of Damascus and four fighters were killed.”
Despite Damascus’s repeated protests, Israel insists that it will continue to fight what it describes as Iran’s attempts to embed itself militarily in Syria by sending advanced weaponry to Hizbullah.
The loud explosions that awoke residents of Damascus on Monday morning came from areas just south of the capital where there are numerous facilities belonging to Iranian and Hizbullah forces and allied groups of Syrian and other nationalities. The areas are almost totally controlled by the Iranians and Lebanese Hizbullah.
According to Syrian opposition forces, one of the Israeli strikes targeted a meeting attended by Iranian and Syrian individuals among whom were several Iranian military commanders.
The Israeli air force has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes in Syria since the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. For the most part, it has targeted camps, logistics facilities, personnel and other military targets belonging to Hizbullah and Iran. It has also struck Syrian military targets such as the Syrian Defence Ministry’s scientific research centre, which is responsible for Damascus’s missile development programme. Israel rarely claims responsibility for its attacks.
The Israeli strike on Monday morning came a week after a brief visit by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif to Damascus on 20 April. The visit, in which Zarif met with Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, surprised observers as it occurred while Iran, like the rest of the world, has been struggling to fight the spread of the Covid-19.
It appears that the visit was a response to criticisms levelled against Al-Assad in the Russian press and was therefore a means to demonstrate Iran’s continued support for the Damascus regime.
Immediately after the visit, the three Astana Process partners of Russia, Iran and Turkey held a teleconference at the foreign-minister level to discuss developments on the ground in Idlib and east of the Euphrates in Syria, the political process, humanitarian situation and the return of refugees.
The teleconference, convened at Tehran’s request, produced little apart from affirming that Iran is still a key player in Syria.
Just as Iran is worried by a surge in Russian media attacks against the regime in Damascus, Moscow is also worried by the threat Iran poses to Russian aims in Syria. Israel is concerned about the threat the Iranian presence in Syria poses to its national security.
Iran clearly has every intention of remaining in Syria, and it will certainly be expecting payback from the regime after the support Tehran has given it since 2011 despite mounting pressures in the form of US sanctions and Israeli strikes.
Thus far, such pressures have not been sufficient to compel Iran to withdraw militarily from Syria or relinquish its influence there. Tehran will continue to manoeuvre in ways to ensure it remains a key player in Syria, and it has escalated its actions towards this end since being sidelined from last year’s Russian-Turkish de-escalation agreement in Idlib.
Iran feels it is in its interests to obstruct Russian efforts to promote a political settlement in Syria because it fears that this would pave the way to future arrangements that would exclude Iran.
The US and Israel have long made it clear that they want Iran out of Syria, and increasingly the rest of the international community has been moving more firmly in this direction as well. For this reason, Iran will continue to nettle Israel from Syrian territory and Israel will continue to stage strikes into Syria, at least until international efforts succeed in achieving a comprehensive and lasting political solution to the Syrian crisis.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 30 April, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: United we stand