Israel’s Syrian strategy

Bassel Oudat , Friday 12 Apr 2024

Israel appears to have changed its strategy towards the Iranian presence in Syria, intensifying its attacks on Iranian and pro-Iranian targets in the country, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus.

Israel s Syrian strategy


On Monday, Israeli warplanes bombed Iran’s embassy in Syria in a strike that Iran said killed seven of its military advisers, including three senior commanders, marking a major escalation in Israel’s war with its regional adversaries.

Brigadier-General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, a senior commander of the elite Iranian Al-Quds Force, and Brigadier-General Mohammad Hadi Haji-Rahimi, his deputy, were named among the dead.

The attack will cause tremors across the region. Tehran has warned of a “serious response” to the attack, and the powerful Iran-backed Lebanese militant group Hezbollah said the strike would be met with “punishment and revenge.”

Iran reiterated that it would hold the United States “answerable” due to its support for Israel.

On 29 March, Israel launched its fiercest ever round of air strikes near Aleppo International Airport in northern Syria, killing 52 people, including 38 members of Syrian forces, seven Lebanese Hezbollah group members, and seven Syrians from pro-Iranian groups.

This is the highest casualty toll from Israeli strikes since Tel Aviv intensified its attacks against Syria following the outbreak of the war on Gaza on 7 October.

The raids, which struck missile depots belonging to Hizbullah and Syrian Ministry of Defence factories that are now controlled by Iranian groups, are part of hundreds of similar Israeli attacks against Syria in recent years, mainly focusing on Iranian and pro-Iranian Hizbullah targets, such as ammunition warehouses, weapons shipments, and Iranian military and intelligence figures.

However, Israel and the US appear to have changed their strategy towards the Iranian presence in Syria since 7 October, as the range of assaults is deeper and more sweeping.

Monday’s raid against Aleppo came hours after an Israeli strike killed two people in a building belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) near the Sayyeda Zeinab suburb of Damascus. The attack occurred shortly after a meeting of members of the IRGC, Hizbullah, Syrian officers, and officers from the pro-Iranian Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF).

Before that, Israel bombed warehouses in Deir Ezzor, assassinated Iranian officers in a residential building it bombed in the Mezzeh district of Damascus, struck a building in Idlib used for Iranian military meetings, bombed civilian international airports in Damascus and Aleppo to impede the flow of weapons from Iran, and struck Iranian militia headquarters in Albou Kamal, Mayadeen, and Aleppo.

According to Israeli military authorities, Israel has taken out some 4,500 Hizbullah targets in Lebanon and Syria in more than 1,200 air strikes.

Iran has been forced to adopt camouflage tactics, redistributing, and dispersing its officers in Syria to different areas and transferring some back to Tehran to work remotely out of reach of the Israeli threat.

It has also re-established some of its presence in Syria through Lebanese Hizbullah contingents or pro-Iranian Syrian militias. As a result, its presence in Syria remains largely undiminished.

Israel has not commented on the recent raids.

Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Nasser Kanaani condemned the attack on Aleppo, describing it as a serious threat to regional and international peace.

The Zionist regime’s “aggressive attacks on Syria are a desperate attempt to prolong and expand the crisis in the region to compensate for the deterioration of its image [in Gaza],” he said, adding that the attacks were “coordinated with attacks carried out by terrorist groups operating in Syria” against civilians in Aleppo and its vicinity.

“Every Iranian military and security officer in Syria has become a target for Israel,” dissident Syrian Brigadier-General Ahmed Rahal told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The Syrian regime is unable to defend its Iranian ally and counter Israeli raids because it does not have the air-defence capacities to down Israeli war planes and missiles. Most likely, Israel will also begin to hunt down Syrian regime officers working with Iran, such as senior officers of the Fourth Division, which is commanded by [Syrian President] Bashar Al-Assad’s brother Maher Al-Assad, and which has become semi-subordinate to the IRGC.”

Israel’s escalation of its attacks in Syria and against southern Lebanon has raised concerns that the conflict in Gaza will flare up into a fully-fledged regional war.

Syrian political analyst Saeed Moqbel said Israel’s escalation against Iranian targets in Syria relate to steps taken by anti-Iranian portions of the Syrian security apparatus and presidency.

“The Syrian regime wants to maintain calm on the Syrian-Israeli front, as it has done for five decades. But Iran’s recent attempts to indirectly embroil Syria in the Gaza war have prompted some Syrian security and military officers to divulge information on the locations of Iranian leaders and bases in Syria, enabling Israel to hunt them down and force Iran to reduce its presence in Syria or to keep Hezbollah from harassing Israel along its northern border,” he said.

Some pro-regime Syrian political analysts argue that the Israeli escalation reflects Tel Aviv’s anger at the Syrian leadership’s stance on Israel’s war on Gaza. One commentator said that Israel “wants to drag the entire region into a full-scale war and to undermine the foundations of security and stability in Syria and the region as a whole.”

However, Syria has not and cannot intervene in the Gaza war. Drained and fatigued by the 13-year Civil War in the country, it does not have the wherewithal to offer military, financial, or humanitarian support to Gaza.

Rahal suggested that Washington and Tel Aviv have come to perceive the Iranian presence in Syria as a threat to the interests of the US and its allies in the region. “Maybe what led them to that conviction is that the Syrian regime, which opened the doors to Iran, must end because any plan to strike the Iranian presence in Syria has to start with changing the regime that has turned Syria into an Iranian province,” he commented.

Russia has issued no official response to the attacks or taken steps to prevent Israel’s strikes against Iranian and Hizbullah targets in Syria. It is as though Moscow is implicitly condoning the attacks and wants to let Israel do the work of reducing the Iranian role in Syria.

According to Rahhal, it may be no coincidence that Russia has withdrawn from 80 percent of its military locations across Syria and reduced the Russian-backed Fifth Corps by more than a half.

The Russian withdrawal might be a sign that it has decided that it is no longer worth propping up the Syrian regime. Perhaps it has struck an agreement with other powers, especially Washington or Tel Aviv, to undermine the Iranian presence in Syria, now that Iran has not only penetrated the country militarily but also economically and socially as well.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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