For the third time in a week, the Israeli Air Force carried out air strikes from the Occupied Syrian Golan on Sunday against a site outside the Syrian capital Damascus. Syria said the attack had resulted in some material losses without giving details or identifying the target of the Israeli missiles.
Two days earlier, Israeli jets targeted several sites in the vicinity of Damascus, injuring two soldiers and causing some material losses, according to Syrian sources.
However, residents said they saw the missiles hitting a moving target in central Damascus. Video footage showed smoke billowing in the Kafr Souseh area of central Damascus, a security district, and a heavy presence of ambulances and firefighting vehicles soon after the strike.
Syrian sources stated that the target was the convoy of an Iranian figure allied to the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad.
Ten days earlier, the Aleppo International Airport in northern Syria was also targeted by Israeli strikes. It was the second such bombing to have taken place in a month, and the target was an arms depot belonging to militias allied to Iran.
The strike put the vital facility out of service for two days. A few days earlier, Israel bombed targets at the Al-Dabaa Military Airport in Qusayr on the border with Lebanon.
On 7 March, a similar bombing also put the Aleppo Airport out of service for several days, killing three people including one Syrian officer.
Israel has been carrying out attacks and air strikes inside Syria for years, mostly targeting Iranian and sometimes Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah sites inside Syria. These have included arms and ammunition depots and planes transporting unknown shipments to Syrian airports.
Israel rarely confirms its strikes inside Syria, but it repeatedly states that it will continue to combat Iran’s attempts to consolidate its military presence in the country.
Iran admitted the death of two of its military personnel in the recent strikes. Mohamed Reza Tuysarkani, a representative of Iran’s Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei in the Air Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, said that “Israel’s crime of killing advisers in the Revolutionary Guards in Syria, who are there defending holy shrines, will not go unpunished.”
In a statement, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard condemned “the silence and inaction of international bodies regarding Israel’s repeated crimes and aggressions and the continuous violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an independent state that is a member of the United Nations,” referring to Syria.
Some years ago, Israel targeted Iranian and Hizbullah sites close to the Syrian-Israeli border or in southwest Syria, since Tel Aviv believed that their presence close to its border was an “existential threat.”
In the past three years, Israel has also targeted Iranian soldiers, depots, planes and military advisers across Syria as Iran’s presence and influence has expanded across the country.
Israel believes that the threat to it from Iranian forces in Syria is growing and is no longer limited to border areas. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said recently that Israel was “forcefully fighting terrorism and is now fighting its enemies on all fronts.”
The intensity and frequency of the Israeli strikes on Syrian sites in recent weeks have been unprecedented, raising questions about whether Israel is now stepping up its strikes inside the country. It also indicates that the increase in Iranian militia movements and arms shipments in Syria is of serious concern for Israel.
Diaa Qadoor, a Syrian expert on Iranian affairs, said that “since the number of Israeli air raids on Syria has been unprecedented in recent days, this indicates an accumulation of elements that Israel views as a threat to its national security in the country.”
“Iran consolidated these elements during the period of the devastating earthquake that took place in Syria in February, and Israel is now trying to compensate for the hiatus following the earthquake when it ceased all air strikes against Iranian targets. Meanwhile, Iran has taken advantage of the humanitarian disaster to accumulate threatening elements, whether missiles, drones, or at the leadership level.”
Israel is concerned about the increased Iranian military activity in Syria, and it is now targeting military advisers and not just military targets. Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said recently that “if necessary, we will chase them out of Syria,” referring to the Iranians.
Israel’s worst fear is the development of precision weapons by Iran and Hizbullah, as well as attempts to position Iranian forces on the Syrian side of the Occupied Syrian Golan. But hundreds of Israeli air and missile strikes have not stopped Iran from continuing its unconventional weapons programme nor deterred it from digging in its heels in the Golan region a stone’s throw from the Israeli border.
Hizbullah claims it has 150,000 medium- and long-range missiles in the country, which is a serious concern for Israel. Despite its air raids, Israel has only been able to destroy a small portion of the stockpile of Iran’s militias in Syria.
Syrian opposition figure Ahmed Rahhal said that there “has been an increase in the quality and quantity of weapons entering Syria from Iran, and Iran brought many weapons into the country under the guise of humanitarian aid during the earthquake period.”
“This crosses many Israeli red lines, as Iran has also increased production inside Syria. All the weapons coming on oil ships entering the port of Banias go to Hizbullah’s warehouses in Syria until they are transported to southern Lebanon.”
Since the start of the Syrian uprising 12 years ago, and Iran’s direct military intervention in the country, the Israelis have not seen a strong Iranian response to their attacks. Tehran’s responses have been carefully calculated so as not to lead to direct confrontation, but some believe that the increased Israeli strikes and the targeting of Iranian military advisers will lead to a tangible Iranian response.
“Six Iranian soldiers were killed, not two, as per Iran’s version that hides the real numbers,” Rahhal said, however.
“I do not think there will be an Iranian response other than words. Iran did not respond to the killing of [Revolutionary Guard leader] Qassem Suleimani, nor the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Fakhri Zadah, nor the killing of Hizbullah’s Emad Maghniyeh. All that Iran, Hizbullah, and the Syrian regime can do is to face the Israeli missiles, as is evidenced by the fact that their forces and militias are located in the Occupied Syrian Golan but not a single bullet has been fired towards Israel.”
Tehran has succeeded in transferring its war with Israel outside Iran’s borders and specifically to Syria. Syrian territory has become an arena for settling scores between Israel and Iran, and Syria’s airspace is being violated by Israel to the advantage of Iran.
Syrian military sites are being bombed due to an Iranian presence that does not necessarily serve the interests of the Syrian people, who worry that Israel’s responses will grow out of hand and target vital Syrian facilities, while entrenching Iranian ambitions in the Middle East.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 April, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly