Israel carried out a series of airstrikes on targets in Syria over the weekend, killing at least 19 Iran-backed fighters according to monitors. The strikes come amid rising tensions between Israel and militant groups backed by Iran, raising fears of a wider regional conflict.
Israeli Strikes Target Iran-Linked Groups in Syria
On Saturday December 30, Israel bombed multiple targets near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo 1. The strikes targeted sites affiliated with Iran-backed militant groups, including warehouses containing Iranian weapons 2. Syrian air defenses were activated to intercept the attack, state media reported 3.
Earlier on Friday night, Israel also bombed targets near the Syria-Iraq border, killing 4 members of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah 4. In total, at least 23 fighters affiliated with Iran-backed militias were killed in the Israeli strikes 5.
The attacks were in response to rocket fire from Syria targeting Israel’s Mount Hermon ski resort on Friday. Israel holds Iran and its proxies responsible for any attacks emanating from Syrian territory 6.
Israel Warns of Escalation with Iran and Proxy Groups
The Israeli strikes come as tensions between Israel and militant groups backed by Iran have been rising over recent months. Israel has vowed to prevent Iran from establishing a permanent military presence in Syria and views Iranian entrenchment near its northern border as a red line.
In November, Israel carried out a major operation dubbed “Breaking Dawn” against Palestinian militants in Gaza in response to rocket fire. The 3-day conflict saw over 1000 rockets launched at Israel from Gaza and Israeli airstrikes left 46 Palestinians dead 7. Israel accused Iran of arming Islamic Jihad, the militant group behind much of the rocket attacks.
More recently on December 25, Israeli jets bombed arms depots and military positions belonging to Iranian-backed militias in central Syria, killing 15 fighters according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights 8.
Israel has sent warnings through US channels that it is prepared to take stronger action against Iran and its proxies. At a security cabinet meeting last week, Israeli leaders said they would not hesitate to mobilize ground forces against Hezbollah in Lebanon if needed 9. Prime Minister Netanyahu also recently included an aerial photo of a bombed weapons convoy in Syria in an Instagram post with the caption: “To our enemies: We know everything about you and we can strike you whenever we want” 10.
Syria and Allies Warn of Consequences for Israeli Strikes
The Syrian regime and its allies Iran and Russia have warned Israel it will face consequences for its strikes inside Syria.
After the latest Israeli attack, the Syrian foreign ministry said Israel would face “repercussions for these systematic crimes” 11. Syrian air defenses were activated during the strikes and reportedly intercepted some missiles according to state media reports 12.
Iran also condemned the strikes, vowing to stand beside Syria and other allies against acts of aggression 13. The commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani visited Damascus last week and met with Syrian President Assad and leaders of Iran-backed militias. The statement of condemnation signals Iran’s support for retaliation.
Russia, another key ally of Syria, said the Israeli attacks destabilize the region and undermine efforts to consolidate ceasefires in Syria. While Russia has defense ties with Syria, it is seen as wanting to avoid a direct confrontation with Israel in the region. But increased Israeli strikes in Syria will put pressure on Russia diplomatically 14.
Concerns Grow of Wider Escalation
There are increasing concerns by analysts that the current tensions could spiral into a more serious conflict. While recent strikes have targeted Iran-linked groups in Syria and not the Syrian regime directly, continued Israeli attacks could provoke a response from Syria, dragging more regional actors into a confrontation.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently warned that escalation between Palestinian militant groups and Israel could spread to Lebanon and Syria, saying they would not hesitate to use capabilities including drones and missiles 15. A major conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, which occurred in 2006, could be even more devastating today given expanded arsenals on both sides.
Additionally, some critics argue Israeli strikes that repeatedly violate Syrian sovereignty could push Syria further into reliance on Russia and Iran for military support 16. This would give Iran more freedom to transport advanced weapons into Syria threatening Israel’s security.
While neither Israel or Syria want an all-out war, an unintended escalation of violence triggered by miscalculation remains a danger given the increased tempo of strikes and rhetoric of retaliation on both sides. World powers urging deescalation have had little success so far in easing simmering tensions rooted in a complex regional shadow war.
The coming days and weeks will prove crucial as observers watch for signs of how both sides will respond after the latest potentially significant turning point represented by Israel’s weekend strikes in Syria.
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