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Under Cover of COVID-19, Israel Seems to Intensify Its Attacks Against Iran in Syria

With Tehran still reeling from Soleimani's assassination, harsher U.S. sanctions and an economic crisis, the coronavirus outbreak may have dictated a change in Israel's regional strategy

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
The Scientific Studies and Research Center near Aleppo, Syria, where Israel reportedly struck on May 4, 2020 overnight.
The Scientific Studies and Research Center near Aleppo, Syria, where Israel reportedly struck on May 4, 2020 overnight.Credit: Screenshot/Google Earth
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

>> UPDATE: Iranians, Iraqis killed in overnight strike, report says

An airstrike attributed to Israel on Monday night in the Aleppo area, in northern Syria, appears to be significant, looking at its scope, its relatively distant location and the target itself – a Syrian agency said to be a vital component of Iran's efforts to arm Hezbollah.

According to reports in Arab media outlets, the site that was targeted belongs to Syria's Scientific Studies and Research Center, the country's most important defense industry agency, responsible for developing weaponry, including chemical and biological weapons.

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These days, the reports from Syria arrive several times a week. According to the Syrian media, the Israeli Air Force is constantly attacking various military targets in large swaths of the country: arms storehouses, weapons plants, surface-to-air missile batteries, observation posts along the Israeli border. Every member of the Shi’ite axis led by Iran – the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, foreign Shi’ite militias, Hezbollah and units of the Syrian army – is in the line of fire.

>> READ MORE:Iran significantly reducing forces in Syria, Israeli defense official says

This isn't the first time an Israeli strike on the Syrian research center's facilities has been reported. Western intelligence sources have described the agency as having a major part in Tehran's backing of Lebanon-based Hezbollah, and particularly in improving the precision of the Shi'ite group's rockets.

Contrary to its custom in recent years, Israel seems to have lowered the media profile of its attacks a little. Air Force strikes in Syria began in 2012, early on in the country’s civil war, but greatly intensified in the second half of that decade.

A sign featuring Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Lebanon, April 2020.
A sign featuring Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Lebanon, April 2020. Credit: Gil Eliyahu

At first, the strikes mainly targeted convoys smuggling Iranian arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria. Then, starting in late 2017, attacks on bases serving the Revolutionary Guards and Shi’ite militias began, as part of the effort to prevent Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.

The attacks were initially deliberately shrouded in an effort to keep the Syrian regime from tightening its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah while not embroiling Israel in Syria’s civil war. But over the last two years, Israel began scattering broad hints.

The coronavirus apparently dictated a change in strategy. In March, almost no attacks were reported. But in April, the Syrian media reported attacks once or twice a week in eastern, central and southern Syria.

This time, Israel hasn’t said much about these reports. In any case, neither the Israeli nor the foreign media are paying much attention to events in Syria; the coronavirus dominates their agenda. From Israel’s point of view, that may actually be a plus.

These attacks have caught the Iranian axis at a moment of relative weakness. Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and its aid to Hezbollah were the flagship project of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force. In recent years, the greater Soleimani’s influence around the Middle East became, the more his efforts to smuggle arms to Hezbollah and build bases in Syria increased. Soleimani evidently insisted on continuing this despite Israel’s airstrikes.

Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) and Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, April 2020.
Iran's Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (L) and Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, April 2020. Credit: AP

But in early January, the Americans assassinated Soleimani shortly after his plane landed in Baghdad. His replacement, Gen. Esmail Ghaani, discovered that his predecessor’s shoes were a bit too big for him. Ghaani doesn’t share Soleimani’s superstar status. He’s having trouble imbuing the ranks with a fighting spirit, even if we take into account the pressure Iran and Hezbollah have been under lately.

This pressure is well known. Iran hasn’t yet recovered from Soleimani’s assassination and what happened both before and after it – the intensified U.S. sanctions, the erosion of public trust in the regime after it emerged that it tried to cover up its accidental downing of a passenger plane over Tehran, the harsh blow the coronavirus has dealt Iran, and the decline in oil prices as the global economy contracts.

Iran’s financial aid to Hezbollah has started to shrink due to these problems. At the same time, Lebanon is embroiled in a steadily worsening economic crisis that has also weakened the Shi’ite group.

And in the background is the tense relationship between Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Iranian guests. Assad seems to think the mitzvah of welcoming guests has gone far enough. Iran admittedly made a significant contribution to his regime’s survival during the murderous civil war, but now his regime is suffering from Iran’s insistence on staying. According to media reports, many recent attacks have been accompanied by strikes on Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.

Under cover of the coronavirus, the Netanyahu government seems to have given Israel’s military chief, Aviv Kochavi, a blank check to continue the airstrikes and even intensify them. Given the geographic dispersion of the reported attacks, this war is being waged in every theater – both at the front, i.e. the Syrian-Israeli border in the Golan Heights, where outposts Hezbollah set up via its local partners are being bombed, and at bases deep inside Syria, far from the Israeli border.

Israel is walking on the brink and waiting to see how the enemy will respond. Will Assad hint to Tehran that it’s time to fold, or will the Iranians themselves search for an honorable exit and reduce their presence in Syria due to the increasing military pressure? Or will there be retaliation against Israel?

One limited retaliatory action occurred in mid-April. Two days after a Hezbollah vehicle was attacked, allegedly by Israel, just over the Syrian side of the Syrian-Lebanese border, someone cut through the  fence between Israel and Lebanon in three places. Though the border wasn’t crossed, this seemed like a signal to Israel by Hezbollah that the Lebanese group also has red lines.

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