Airstrikes on Syria follow weeks of rising tensions

Israel has always viewed Iran’s role in Syria and its support for Hezbollah as a threat. However, developments in Syria have brought that into greater clarity in the past year.

Boeing's F-15IA Advanced fighter jet (photo credit: BOEING)
Boeing's F-15IA Advanced fighter jet
(photo credit: BOEING)
The airstrikes on Syria reported Sunday morning came amid rising tensions in the region and followed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warning that Iran should leave Syria as “quickly as possible.” Israeli officials have been more open in the last few weeks about past Israeli strikes on Iranian targets in Syria.
On January 13, Netanyahu said Israel was prepared to confront Iran’s activities in Syria, after admitting Israel carried out a January 12 strike on a warehouse. This was a message to Russia, as well as to Iran and Syria, because Russia is the main backer of the Syrian regime and has supplied the S-300 air defense system to Damascus in the wake of a September airstrike in Latakia that resulted in the downing of a Russian Il-20.
Israel has always viewed Iran’s role in Syria and its support for Hezbollah as a threat. However, developments in Syria have brought that into greater clarity in the past year. As the Syrian civil war has wound down, questions have remained about whether Iranian forces will stay in Syria. Iran sent advisers to Syria to help the regime fight the rebels. That became part of a creeping Iranian presence that includes bases and factories and warehouses.
Israel has warned repeatedly since 2017 about this presence. In November 2017, for instance, details of an Iranian base south of Damascus near El-Kiswah were leaked to Western media. In the fall of 2018, details about Iranian shipments to Hezbollah and Iran’s use of civilian cargo airliners as cover for weapons transport were also leaked by Western intelligence sources. Bit by bit, a picture of Iran’s activities have been revealed.
At the same time, as details emerged about Iran’s role in Syria and as Israel released official statements urging Iran to reduce its presence, airstrikes against Iranian targets have increased. At first, these airstrikes took place during the fog of war, with no one claiming credit for them. In August 2017, Israel Air Force head Maj.-Gen. Amir Eshel revealed that the IDF had struck arms convoys 100 times in Syria during the civil war. Iran was using the chaos of war to transport weapons over the mountains from Damascus to Hezbollah.
In September 2018, Israel said it had carried out 200 attacks on Iranian targets in Syria over a year-and-a-half period. This came after months of tension that included an Iranian drone entering Israeli airspace in February 2018 and the crash of the Israeli F-16 returning from airstrikes in Syria that month. Full details of the shadow war being fought over Syria were never detailed. Foreign media, including Syrian regime media, reported on strikes here and there. Sometimes the spillover from the strikes was visible. In March 2017, for example, Israel activated its Arrow missile defense system to stop a missile fired from Syria. On December 25, 2018, pictures online showed an air defense missile activated near Hadera.
Speaking with The New York Times, outgoing IDF chief Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot said Israel had struck thousands of targets in Syria. He noted that Israel had not taken credit for these strikes at the time, but the numbers appeared far more than the 100 or 200 sites mentioned previously. The overall picture was of increased targeting of Iranian assets in Syria.
This has also impacted Israel-Russia relations, as Moscow has become more critical of Israel’s actions since last fall. Russia has warned against “hot heads” creating provocations in Syria. It also reportedly warned this month about more strikes near Damascus Airport. The warning came amid concerns that airstrikes might endanger civilian aircraft. On January 20, a Mahan Air flight allegedly turned around during daylight airstrikes. Syrian air defense has shown that it can make mistakes during alerts.
Syrian claims of a daytime airstrike during on Sunday show that while Iran wants to continue supplying Syria and Hezbollah, the Syrian regime’s air defenses are alert and now know that airstrikes might come in the daytime as well as at night. This comes as the US has warned Iran about its role in the region. US National Security Adviser John Bolton was in Israel this month, and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to the Gulf and Cairo to condemn Iran’s activities. Israel was reportedly concerned about the US withdrawal from Syria and the implications it might have for Iran’s foothold in Syria or its attempt to carve out a corridor to the sea via Syria and Iraq.