Israel Targeted Sites of Iranian-backed Forces in Syria Attack, Reports Say

Syrian outlets say Israel targeted Iran and Hezbollah-backed militia sites storing weapons. The Israeli army has not responded to reports

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Israeli soldiers at the Quneitra border crossing in the Golan Heights, March 23, 2019.
Israeli soldiers at the Quneitra border crossing in the Golan Heights, March 23, 2019. Credit: JACK GUEZ / AFP

Syrian state television and the official news agency of the Assad regime are blaming Israel for an airstrike on Wednesday near the town of al-Harra in the Daraa region, saying attack targeted Syrian army positions and sites of militias in the Syrian Golan Heights that are subordinate to Hezbollah and Iran.

The Israel Defense Forces has not commented on the foreign reports regarding the events in Syria. It seems that the defense establishment is trying to maintain the advantage of ambiguity as much as possible during an election season, when the prime minister is liable to dispel that ambiguity in his speeches.

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Even without taking responsibility for the attacks, Israel is determined to make it clear to Syria that there will be no concessions on the disengagement agreement the two countries signed in 1974, and that it will not accept a different reality in the region. Israel is well aware that the Syrian Golan Heights has become a preferred objective of Iran and Hezbollah for opening another front against it. According to foreign reports, Israel is acting to prevent this by targeting central operatives and weapons stores and by blocking arms that Hezbollah and Iran are trying to bring into the area.

Last month defense officials said Tehran might initiate a provocation along one of Israel’s borders to exacerbate its conflict with the United States and Britain and force U.S. President Donald Trump to either negotiate a new nuclear agreement or renew support for the previous one. The assessments pointed to an attempt by Iran and Hezbollah to use proxy forces to provoke Israel in the Golan region and also warned of possible attacks on IDF positions or forces close to the border.

Alleged Israeli strikes in Syria, May-July 2019.

Syrian President Bashar Assad resumed control over the Syrian Golan a year ago and has brought two divisions and commando forces into the region. Israel has no problem with the Syrian army’s return, but is aware that in recent months, Hezbollah and Iranian Shi’ite militias have been trying to entrench themselves in the area. These militias, which foreign reports said were the target of Wednesday’s attack, are comprised of residents of Syria’s Golan Heights who are being paid by Iran.

The defense establishment understands that Hezbollah is now in places where it has never been before, with Israeli lookouts spotting them across from Mount Bental. Syria, as payment for Hezbollah’s efforts on Assad’s behalf, is allowing Hezbollah fighters to embed themselves among the Syrian soldiers. As a result, when there are reports about attacks on Syrian army positions, it is possible that whoever sought to attack them was actually targeting Hezbollah operatives making logistical use of those outposts while wearing Syrian army uniforms.

Wednesday’s attack reportedly also hit weaponry and weapons storage sites. In addition to the Syrian tanks that have started to come back to the Golan as part of Assad’s return, Hezbollah has also started to bring in armaments in preparation for a time it will be required to act against Israel. According to security assessments, Hezbollah has brought rockets into the Golan. The number of rockets is not great and they not the most advanced ones, but they could keep the IDF busy during a confrontation. The militia fighters are equipped with guns and antitank missiles, and a suspicion recently arose that rocket-launching trucks have entered the area.

In his speech last month at the annual memorial ceremony for the soldiers who fell during the first Lebanon war, President Reuven Rivlin said, “We warn Hezbollah not to subject Lebanon to an Iranian agenda, and we warn Lebanon not to serve as a base for attacks on Israel. We are not eager to fight, but the IDF is alert and ready to respond to any threat and any scenario.”

At the annual Herzliya Conference, Mossad head Yossi Cohen also addressed the situation in the north. “We have no interest in a confrontation with Syria, but we will not agree to an Iranian entrenchment against us in Syria or for Syria to be a logistical base for transferring weapons to Lebanon,” he said.