Fourteen members of Iranian forces and Shia militias were reported killed in an air-strike attributed to Israel which took place on Monday night. The strike, which targeted a weapons research center in north-western Syria, is part of what seems to be an intensifying campaign over the past few weeks against Iran-related targets in Syria. Another strike took place that night near Aleppo but is not reported to have caused casualties.
While Syrian state media said that Israeli missiles were intercepted by the Assad regime’s air-defence batteries, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, reported that there had been at least fourteen casualties, probably members of Iran’s expeditionary Qods Force and the Shia Fetamiyoun militias which it directs in Syria. The buildings attacked in both strikes have been identified as belonging to the regime’s Scientific Studies and Research Centre, which in the past has been used for the development of chemical weapons and missiles.
While Israel has not acknowledged it was behind these attacks, or any other strike in Syria in recent weeks, it is part of a pattern which has seen Iranian assets and proxies attacked in Syria at least five other times in the past two weeks. The other attacks were on the Golan Heights and near the cities of Damascus, Homs and Palmyra. The latest strike, in the Deir Ezzor region, was the furthest from Israel’s borders in recent months but the area has been targeted in the past, including in the attack on a secret Syrian nuclear reactor in September 2007.
Israel has stopped taking responsibility for attacks in Syria since the Coronavirus pandemic began. Early on in the crisis there also seemed to be a reduction in the amount of attacks, partly because Iranian forces had lowered their tempo of activity in Syri, due to the mounting death-toll from Covid-19 back home in Iran. The renewed air-strike campaign could be in response to new Iranian attempts to ship advanced weapons to its proxies, particularly Hezbollah, and an effort by the new commander of the Qods Force, Esmail Qaani, who replaced Kassem Soleimani who was assassinated in January, to begin establishing himself in the region.
There has been increasing tension in recent weeks between the Syrian regime and its patrons Russia and Iran, both of which are anxious to realise dividends from its long campaign to keep President Bashar Assad in power, now that Syria is embarking on a period of rebuilding.
Iran, which has been hit drastically both by the pandemic and the nose-dive in oil prices, is now at a disadvantage. It will have less funds to spend on its strongholds inSyria and Lebanon, including on the programme to improve the accuracy of thousands of Hezbollah’s missiles with new guidance systems, but it is eager to prove to Israel that it is not retreating from region.