Syria in the crossfire

Karam Said, Tuesday 14 Nov 2023

Iranian military sites and areas of influence in Syria are under mounting political and security pressure, reports Karam Said

Israeli attacks on Syria


On 9 November, Washington and Tel Aviv launched air strikes against Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Hizbullah locations in Syria. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said the strike targeted an Iran-linked weapons depot.

The following day, three Iranian-linked fighters were killed in Israeli strikes on Hizbullah positions near the Syrian capital, Damascus. The strike was said to be in retaliation for a drone that crashed into a school in the southern Israeli city of Eilat. On 9 November, Israel carried out a strike against some Hizbullah military posts in the vicinity of Baalbek, Lebanon, causing some material damage.

The latest US and Israeli military actions in Syria and Lebanon took place amid mounting regional pressures on Washington and Tel Aviv. Following the launch of the Israeli ground offensive in Gaza, pro-Iranian Islamic resistance factions in Iraq fired drones and missiles against military bases in Iraq and Syria where US troops are stationed. On 3 November, Iranian-backed Iraq factions launched two drone strikes against the Israeli city of Um Rashrash (now Eilat).

US forces in Syria and Iraq have come under frequent attack since Hamas’ Al-Aqsa Flood Operation in October. The latest occurred on 10 November when the Islamic resistance in Iraq fired a drone against the US army barracks at Al-Tanf base in Syria. Before this, the US Ein Al-Assad air base in Anbar province was struck by two drones on 22 October and the Harir air base, where US forces are garrisoned in Erbil, in northern Iraq, was hit by another drone. According to the Pentagon, more than 45 attacks have been carried out against US bases in Syria and Iraq in the past weeks.

US and Israeli strikes against Iranian targets in Syria coincide with the sharpening tenor of Iranian rhetoric against US-backed Israeli actions in Gaza. During a meeting with the Iraqi prime minister on 6 November, the Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi condemned the US for encouraging Israel to continue bombing Palestinians in Gaza. “These horrible crimes against humanity are a genocide, which is carried out by the Zionist regime with the support of the US and certain European countries,” Raisi said.

Clearly the US and Israeli attacks against Iranian interests are intrinsically linked with their fear that Tehran may become involved in the war in Gaza through covert military assistance to Hamas. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian fed these fears in late October when he suggested that pro-Iranian parties in the region could intervene to fight the escalating aggression against Gaza.  

Again, on 27 October, he warned that Lebanese and Palestinian fighters loyal to Iran would “pull the trigger” if efforts to reach a ceasefire failed. Those fighters would not be alone. Iraqi armed groups affiliated with Iran have recently threatened to target US interests in the region if Washington continues to support Israel in its war on Gaza. For example, Abu Hussein Al-Hamidawi, a senior official of the Hizbullah Brigades in Iraq, stated, “it is a religious duty incumbent upon us to take our place in the field to repel the evils of our enemies.”

Washington and Tel Aviv’s intensification of their strikes against Iranian military targets in Syria could also be related to concerns over how the war in Gaza might affect the Israeli front with Syria. This was reflected in repeated Israeli strikes against the Damascus and Aleppo International Airports, the latest of which occurred on 22 October. According to an Israeli army statement, the strikes were a response to shells fired from Syria into the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. But of greater concern to Washington and Tel Aviv than a possible Golan Heights front in the current war is the potential actions of armed groups loyal to Tehran. Clearly, they are worried that those groups might launch military operations against US forces in Arab countries or elsewhere on the grounds that the US is the main moral and material supporter of Israel’s barbaric practices in Gaza.

One possible set of goals behind US and Israeli strikes against Iranian military command centres and assets in Syria is the desire to strengthen and perhaps supplant Iranian presence there. Previous attempts to do this have failed, but given the circumstances surrounding the Gaza war, they see it as a priority to obstruct Iranian attempts to take advantage of the Israeli and US preoccupation with Gaza to re-engineer other conflict areas in the region to suit Iranian interests. More immediately, they want to neutralise the military capacities of Iranian-affiliated groups that might be tempted to retaliate against the Israeli offensive against Gaza.

There is also the possibility that their attacks against Iranian targets in Syria and Lebanon may be informed by a desire to deflect attention from the genocide Israel is carrying out in Gaza by painting Tehran and affiliated groups in Iraq and Syria as “terrorists”. The danger is that the attacks are provocative and invite escalation and a widening of the areas of friction with Iran. This could induce Iran to strengthen its support for affiliated groups as a precaution against adverse developments in the region, especially given Israel’s intention, backed by the US, to broaden the scope of war in the region.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 November, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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