Israel’s military conducted a series of airstrikes on Syrian army positions in the Homs province early Tuesday morning, killing at least 5 people according to Syrian state media reports. The strikes come amid heightening tensions between the longtime adversaries and Syria’s allies Iran and Hezbollah.
Fatal Strikes Hit Army Outposts
The predawn strikes targeted at least three Syrian arm bases near the towns of Palmyra and Al-Qaryatayn, and were reportedly carried out by Israeli fighter jets. Syria’s state news agency SANA reported that 3 civilians were among the 5 killed, with several others wounded. An unnamed Israeli military official confirmed to local media that Israel was behind the rare daytime operation, saying it was in response to an attempted attack a day prior.
While Israel routinely conducts strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, direct hits on Syrian army positions are less common. Tuesday’s attack was one of the deadliest Israeli operations against Syrian government forces in over 2 years. The strikes come as tensions spike between the longtime foes following the election of hardline right-wing governments in both countries. Israel’s new National Unity coalition has vowed to ramp up military action in Syria against Iran-backed forces.
Escalating Military Action and Rhetoric
The strikes are just the latest in a series of hostile actions between the adversaries over the past week:
|Alleged Israeli airstrikes kill several Iranian military advisers near Damascus
|Syria fires rockets into Israeli territory, activating warning sirens
|Powerful explosions heard around Damascus, targets unclear
|Israeli jets reportedly strike army outposts in Homs province
Following the Homs strikes, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad slammed Israel’s “reckless military adventurism” and said Syria “reserves the right to respond.” Meanwhile, Israeli leaders used the recent rocket fire to justify further action. “We have a zero tolerance policy for any attack on Israeli territory,” warned newly appointed Defense Minister Bezalel Smotrich, signaling that more Israeli strikes could follow.
With leaders on both sides adopting aggressive postures, there are concerns the longtime enemies could stumble into a wider confrontation. Any miscalculation risks sparking a dangerous escalation cycle and jeopardizing the relative calm along the Israel-Syria frontier that has held for years.
Proxy Conflict with Iran Looms Large
While tensions between Israel and Syria are decades old, at the core of the recent flare up is Israel’s widening shadow war with Iran and its allies. Much of Israel’s military action in Syria over the past decade has targeted suspected Iranian weapons shipments and military advisers that Israel believes are part of Iran’s efforts to establish a permanent military presence across the border.
Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) are active throughout Syria providing critical support to shore up the Assad government against rebel groups. Israel views Iran’s presence on its doorstep as an intolerable threat, and has vowed to continue strikes until all Iranian forces withdraw. Hardliners in Israel are ramping up the pressure: Smotrich has urged an expanded “war between wars” campaign against Iran in Syria, while other officials suggest strikes should now directly target Syrian assets facilitating the Iranian presence.
Assad, meanwhile, allows Iranian forces to operate on Syrian soil in return for critical military and economic aid. This arrangement risks further destabilizing Israeli-Syrian relations by effectively making Syria party to Israel’s struggle with the IRGC. As one analyst noted, “for Israel, Iran’s presence in Syria has essentially turned the Syrian army into an extension of Iranian power projection.” This risks pulling Syria further into future Israel-Iran escalations.
The recent exchanges of fire suggest this dynamic is already in play, with Israeli strikes on regime targets prompting Syrian threats of retaliation. Unless Iran withdraws, Syria looks set to bear further blows aimed at its Iranian patrons.
Calm Before Another Storm?
News of civilian casualties from the Homs strikes prompted condemnations from Russia, Turkey, and other regional capitals. But few expect the harsh rhetoric from Damascus and Jerusalem to translate into direct confrontation anytime soon. Syria’s weakened army is in no shape to challenge Israeli air superiority, while Israel remains wary of moves that could drag it into Syria’s civil war.
However, some warn the long term risks are growing. Hardliners on both sides appear committed to policies that could spark skirmishes and raise tensions. Israeli officials meanwhile show no signs of easing their “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran’s presence in Syria. And with power consolidated domestically, hawkish leaders in Jerusalem may also feel more emboldened to flex Israeli military muscle abroad.
Most worryingly, Hezbollah lurks in the background. Any future escalation risks drawing in the powerful Lebanese militia and its estimated 130,000 rockets pointed at Israel. Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah recently vowed to respond to any Israeli strikes that kill Syrians or Lebanese. After this week, such an incident may be only one misfired missile away.
While the rivals are unlikely to deliberately instigate war now, the risky strategic landscape raises the chances of one happening by mistake. As a Hezbollah commander ominously warned last month, “Even if war breaks out by error, it will no longer be possible to stop it.”
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