Why has Israel escalated its attacks against Iranian targets in Syria?

The tempo of attacks reflects a more general readiness for confrontation as the region enters a new phase.

Illustrative image of an airstrike. (photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)
Illustrative image of an airstrike.
(photo credit: ABED RAHIM KHATIB/FLASH90)

A notable uptick in Israeli air operations against Iran-linked targets on Syrian soil has taken place over the last month, according to regional media.

Israeli aircraft struck Aleppo Airport in northern Syria on September 6. This operation followed on the heels of an earlier strike at the same target, on August 31. According to SANA, the official Syrian regime media agency, the raid on September 6 damaged the runway, putting it temporarily out of service. 

SANA reported that missiles were launched from over the Mediterranean, west of Syria’s Latakia coastline. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), meanwhile, associated with the Syrian opposition, reported that the raid targeted a warehouse used by an Iran-linked militia. 

"If planes whose purpose is to encourage terrorism land, Syria’s transport capacity will be harmed.”

Ram Ben-Barak

North Press, a media agency associated with the Kurdish de facto authority in northern Syria, had a slightly different account. The September 6 raid, the agency contended, targeted a plane bound for Najaf, in southern Iraq, which had two members of Lebanese Hezbollah aboard. North Press cited a source at Aleppo Airport as the basis for this account. 

Reuters, meanwhile, cited a “commander in an Iran-backed regional alliance” as claiming that the raid took place just prior to the arrival of a plane from Iran. This latter account would seem to dovetail with a statement from Ram Ben-Barak, chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and a former senior intelligence officer, according to which: “The attack meant that certain planes would not be able to land, and that a message was relayed to Assad: If planes whose purpose is to encourage terrorism land, Syria’s transport capacity will be harmed.” 

A WORKER fixes damage to a building from an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on November 20, 2019. Israel said it struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria in response to rocket fire the prior day in the Golan Heights. (credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)A WORKER fixes damage to a building from an Israeli airstrike in Damascus on November 20, 2019. Israel said it struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria in response to rocket fire the prior day in the Golan Heights. (credit: REUTERS/OMAR SANADIKI)

A series of attacks in Syria

Regardless of the precise nature of the operation, it followed a series of attacks attributed to Israel to have hit Syrian targets in recent weeks. On August 25, several military sites in the western Hama countryside were hit by missiles. 

On August 27, a statement from the Russian airbase at Khmeimim claimed success for the Russian Pantsir-S1 and S-75 systems operated by Syrian armed forces in downing some missiles aimed at the Scientific Studies and Research Center in Masyaf, a frequent target for Israeli air power.

On August 15, airstrikes targeted Syrian military posts in Tartus and Damascus Governorates, with three reported fatalities. On August 12, two people were wounded in shelling of a village north of Quneitra, close to the Israel-Syrian border. 

These are the statistics for the last month. North Press estimates that 24 Israeli air operations have taken place against targets in Syria since the beginning of the year. The clear majority of these were conducted against Iranian targets. If this figure is accurate, then six such operations in the last month represent a clear increase in tempo.

Why are the attacks on Syria happening now?

SO THE question is: why is this happening now? A number of factors are worthy of attention.

The specific targeting of Aleppo Airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its “air bridge” to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land. 

In this regard, it is noteworthy that Cham Wings, Syria’s largest private airline, announced that all flights would be diverted to Damascus International Airport following the strikes. Cham Wings has been sanctioned by the US Treasury since 2016 for “providing material support to entities sanctioned for proliferation and terrorism activities.” The company is widely believed to play an active part in the funneling of weapons and militia fighters between Iran and Syria.

But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Tehran. Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension. There are a number of contributory factors to this emergent picture. 

Russia's pullback from Syria

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria. This requires an immediate caveat. There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal. The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets that will be maintained. 

The maintaining of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow. But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once. The Israeli company ImageSat International revealed evidence in late August that the S-300 air defense system deployed in the Masyaf area has been dismantled and returned to Russia. 

Evidence is currently emerging that the Russian government-linked defense company Wagner has in recent months been actively recruiting among pro-regime Syrians. Syrian volunteers are then sent to help the Russian effort in Ukraine. It is a curious, and significant, reversal of roles. 

Greater freedom for Iran in Syria

RUSSIAN ABSENCE means greater importance and greater freedom for the Iranian role in Syria. The two countries have pursued notably separate and occasionally opposed projects in Syria in recent years. But the Russian drawback also reduces a complicating factor for Israel. Iran may increase activities as the Russians drawdown, but Tehran’s vulnerability and Israeli freedom of action will also increase. 

Secondly, assuming that some last-minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action is not imminent. In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely.

In this regard, the recent bellicose statements made by Hassan Nasrallah, leader of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp’s Lebanese Hezbollah franchise, are worthy of particular note.

The common interpretation emerging from the security echelon in Israel has been that these statements were related to an attempt by the Hezbollah leader to claw back some of his movement’s lost public legitimacy, as he poses as the defender of Lebanon’s natural resources. 

It is just as likely, however, that the Hezbollah leader’s sudden increased defiance reflects the opening of a more general mood among Iranian proxies and franchise organizations – proclaiming a greater readiness for the risk of clashes with Israel in the period now opening up.

It is worth noting that Iran is set this week to achieve full membership of the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization, at a summit of that organization in the Uzbek city of Samarkand. Chinese oil purchases enabled the Iranians to ride out the Trump administration’s strategy of “maximum pressure.” 

A failure by the current US administration to succeed in nuclear diplomacy where Trump’s policy of coercion also failed will deepen Tehran in its conviction that the US is a departing power in the Middle East. Iran is moving toward closer relations with the alliance that perceives itself as the rival to the fading US hegemon.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone. Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture regarding the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. 

This new, more comprehensive approach, was reflected this week by Mossad head David Barnea in his speech to the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism conference in Herzliya. Barnea told his audience that “the Iranian leadership must understand that attacks against Israel or Israelis, directly or indirectly by proxies, will be met with a painful response against those responsible, on Iranian soil. We will not pursue the proxies, but the ones who armed them and gave the orders, and this will happen in Iran.”

As nuclear diplomacy reaches its final round, the mood in the rival camps in the Middle East appears to be toward a greater willingness for confrontation. The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflect this changing season.