BEIRUT (AP) — Suspected Israeli airstrikes in Syria in recent weeks have killed two Iranian military advisers, temporarily put the country’s two largest airports out of action and raised fears of a regional escalation.
While Israel has waged a shadow war with Iran in Syria for years, it has intensified recently, with almost daily airstrikes blamed on Israel by Syrian officials over the past week.
The escalation of attacks comes after what appears to be a rare infiltration by a Lebanese gunman into Israel. and Iran’s reconciliation with regional rival Saudi Arabia last month. It also comes against the backdrop of a major internal crisis in Israel over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government plan to reform the judiciary.
Israel, which has vowed to stop Iranian entrenchment in neighboring Syria, has carried out hundreds of strikes against targets in government-controlled parts of that country in recent years but rarely acknowledges them. Since the beginning of 2023, Syrian officials have attributed 10 strikes on Syrian territory to Israel, including four airstrikes in five days starting Tuesday.
The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has had its own recent clashes with Iranian forces in Syria. In late March, US forces responded with airstrikes on sites in Syria used by groups affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. following a suspected Iran-related drone strike that killed an American contractor and wounded six other Americans in northeastern Syria. An official with an Iran-backed group in Iraq said the US strikes killed seven Iranians.
The blowout between the US and Iran did not escalate, but some fear that the tug-of-war between Israel and Iran will.
Since the early years of the 12-year conflict in Syria, Iran has deployed hundreds of military advisers, as well as thousands of Iranian-backed fighters from countries including Iraq and Lebanon, who helped tip the balance of power in favor of President Bashar Assad. The Iranian-backed fighters are deployed in different parts of Syria.
Israel has long considered Iran its main enemy, citing Iranian calls for the destruction of Israel, its support for anti-Israel militant groups such as Hezbollah and its nuclear program. Israel and Western countries say Iran is trying to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies.
Iran has blamed Israel for attacks on its territory, including the killings of some of its nuclear scientists and damage to nuclear facilities.
The airstrikes in Syria reflect Israel’s concerns about the deployment of fighters near its northern border and fears that Iran is trying to transfer sophisticated weapons, such as guided missiles, to Hezbollah. Both Israel and Hezbollah have avoided all-out war since their 34-day war in 2006 ended in a stalemate. Israel views Hezbollah, which is believed to possess more than 130,000 rockets and missiles, a major threat.
Lebanese military expert and former army general Hisham Jaber said Iran has around 1,800 military advisers in Syria, most of them deployed with Syrian troops.
The surge in attacks on Syria began with an attack on January 2 that temporarily put Damascus airport out of action, just after the most right-wing government in Israel’s 74-year history took office.
The attacks continued despite massive protests in Israel, including open disagreement between Netanyahu and his defense minister Yoav Gallant over controversial government plans for judicial reform. At one point, Netanyahu fired Gallant for criticizing the plan, but then backtracked, temporarily halting push for the revision until parliament reconvenes in a month.
The two men have made several public appearances in recent days, alluding to military activity in Syria without outright confirming it.
“We will not allow the Iranians and Hezbollah to harm us. We have not allowed it in the past, we will not allow it now or in the future,” Gallant said this week. “When necessary, we will drive them out of Syria to where they belong, and that is Iran.”
However, Jaber said he believes the recent attacks will not escalate into a full-blown conflict, partly because the US is at war.
Attacks attributed to Israel in Syria in recent weeks have targeted both figures and infrastructure linked to Iran.
They have attacked the airports in Damascus and Aleppo, a move that was apparently intended to prevent the flow of arms shipments to Syria, but also disrupted aid shipments after the deadly February 6 earthquake that struck Syria and Turkey.
On February 19, the first reported Israeli strikes after the earthquake targeted residential areas in the Syrian capital Damascus, killing at least five people and injuring 15. Opposition activists said the strikes were targeting Iranian-backed militias.
In mid-March, the Israeli army said its soldiers had killed a gunman suspected of entering the country from Lebanon. and fly a car. The incident, which injured an Israeli, puzzled Israelis. Officials suspect the man infiltrated from Lebanon and may have been sent by Hezbollah or directly by Iran.
A few days after the alleged infiltration, a commander of the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad was shot dead. outside his apartment building near Damascus in what the group described as an assassination by Israeli agents.
Last Tuesday, Netanyahu said that the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad helped Greece prevent a planned terror attack against at least one Jewish site. in Athens. Greek authorities said two men described as of Pakistani origin were arrested for allegedly planning an attack on a Jewish center.
On Friday, an Israeli attack on a southern Damascus suburb killed two advisers to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. Hours later, the Israeli air force shot down a drone that entered Israel from Syria. and alleged that Iran was behind its release.
Yoel Guzansky, an Iran expert and senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, said Israel’s intensified action in recent weeks could be in response to recent alleged infiltration from Lebanon.
Guzansky noted that Iran rarely acknowledges the death of its officers and advisers as quickly as it did after Friday’s attack. He said the quick public acknowledgment could indicate that “Iran will retaliate or respond to Israeli attacks,” possibly targeting Israelis abroad.
An official from an Iran-backed group in the region has warned that if Israel continues its attacks, Tehran and its allies will retaliate. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter with the media.
Iran’s semi-official Tasnim news agency quoted the Revolutionary Guard as saying the killing of two Iranian advisers “definitely will not go without retaliation.”
Federman reported from Jerusalem.