Israel’s Air Campaign Against Iran In Syria Continues Unabated
From Damascus in the south to Aleppo in the north to Deir ez-Zor in the east, suspected Israeli airstrikes across Syria over the past month aptly demonstrate how Israel’s air campaign against Iran-related targets in that war-torn country isn’t showing any signs of significant let-up.
In mid-August, as the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates was announced, Israel’s press reported that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) had shifted its focus from the country’s northern front to the Gaza Strip, where tit-for-tat clashes with Hamas were increasing.
Reports of a shift in focus for the IAF also coincided with the release of some new figures concerning its air campaign in Syria over the past three years.
During that period, Israel is estimated to have fired no fewer 4,200 air-launched missiles (likely many being Israeli-built Popeye cruise missiles) in about 1,000 airstrikes that destroyed an estimated one-third of Syria’s air defense systems along with a quarter of its surface-to-surface missile arsenal pointed at Israel and a fifth of its radar systems.
In the same period, Syria fired approximately 850 anti-aircraft missiles at Israeli warplanes and their standoff missiles. They only succeeded in knocking a single IAF F-16 out of the air in February 2018, and that was only because the pilot failed to take proper evasive maneuvers.
Last July 20, an Israeli airstrike on Damascus killed a Hezbollah member. The powerful Lebanese-based Iran-backed militia vowed to retaliate, and the Israel-Lebanon border became very tense as a result but the situation did not degenerate or escalate into war as it infamously did back in the summer of 2006.
There is plenty of circumstantial evidence indicating that Israel continued carrying out targeted airstrikes throughout Syria.
On Aug. 15, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) conflict monitor reported that unidentified drones attacked pro-Iranian fighters in Syria’s eastern province of Deir ez-Zor killing at least between 12 and 23, reportedly of Afghan and Iraqi backgrounds, and destroying their vehicles and ammunition.
Iran maintains an extensive network of Shiite proxy militiamen across the Middle East that’s estimated to number up to 200,000 and includes Iraqis, Syrians, Afghan, and Pakistani Shiite youths that do Tehran’s bidding.
On Aug. 31, Israeli missiles struck targets in southern Syria, again likely ones connected to Iranian proxies. Syrian state media claimed that three people were killed in the attack, two Syrian troops and a civilian woman. The civilian was reportedly killed by a Syrian anti-aircraft missile that crashed into her home, not by one of the much more accurate incoming Israeli missiles.
SOHR, on the other hand, claimed that at least 11 people were killed in the strike, the two Syrian soldiers, seven pro-regime and Iran-backed militiamen, and the civilian woman.
On the night of Sept. 2, the Syrian regime’s mouthpiece SANA reported that another Israeli airstrike targeted T-4 airbase in the central Homs province causing unspecified damage.
T-4 (also known as Tiyas after the eponymous village located nearby) is a major hub for Iran’s activities in Syria and, therefore, a priority target for Israel. Iran tried to set up a Russian-built Tor air defense missile system at T-4 in April 2018 to deter Israeli airstrikes. However, the IAF successfully destroyed it before the Iranian personnel could do so. That strike also killed seven Iranian troops, including a senior officer.
Israel has targeted the airbase on several occasions to prevent Iran from airlifting advanced weapons into Syria that it could pass on to Hezbollah and its other anti-Israel proxies. These strikes strongly indicate that Israel will go to great lengths to prevent Iran from improving and bolstering Syria’s decrepit air defenses, something that Tehran pledged it would do over the summer.
Early on Sept. 3, suspected Israeli airstrikes struck Deir ez-Zor province and killed 16 militiamen mere hours after the T-4 strike.
According to SOHR head Rami Abdul Rahman, the casualties consisted of “Iraqi paramilitary fighters loyal to Iran, seven of whom were killed outside the city of Mayadeen.” The other nine militiamen were killed south of the border town of Abu Kamal.
Abu Kamal is an important border crossing for these Iran-backed militias transiting between Iraq and Syria.
On Sept. 7, nighttime strikes against outposts belonging to more of these Iran-backed militias, also near Abu Kamal, reportedly killed 18.
Then, on Sept. 11, another suspected Israeli airstrike targeted buildings in al-Safira outside of Syria’s second city Aleppo. Two days later, the private Israeli intelligence firm ImageSat International released satellite photos from that strike. Those images showed one destroyed building and a damaged on beside it. The buildings were part of Syria’s al-Safira missile factory.
Israel likely decided to bomb the facility to prevent it from being potentially used for manufacturing missiles or missile components for Hezbollah’s increasingly sophisticated missile arsenal in neighboring Lebanon.
On Sept. 14, yet another suspected Israeli strike in the Abu Kamal area killed 10 Iran-backed fighters believed to have included eight Iraqis.
When taken together, these latest strikes are demonstrative of how committed Israel remains to actively foiling these various attempts by Iran and its proxies to entrench themselves in its northern neighbor.