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Israel presses shadow campaign in Syria

11-06-2024

DAMASCUS/ JERUSALEM: Israel has intensified covert strikes in Syria against weapons sites, supply routes and Iranian-linked commanders, seven regional officials and diplomats said, ahead of a threatened full-scale assault on Tehran’s key ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

A June 2 air raid that killed 18 people, including an adviser with Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, targeted a clandestine, fortified weapons site near Aleppo, three of the sources said. In May, an air strike hit a convoy of trucks headed to Lebanon carrying missile parts and another raid killed Hezbollah operatives, four said.

Israel has for years struck militant groups backed by arch-foe Iran in Syria and elsewhere, in a low-level campaign that burst into open confrontation after Israel and Palestinian group Hamas – another Iranian ally went to war in Gaza on Oct. 7.

Israel has since killed dozens of Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Hezbollah officers in Syria, from just two last year before the Oct. 7 attack, according to a tally by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.

The battle hit fever pitch in April when Israel bombed the Iranian consulate in Damascus, killing the top IRGC commander for operations in the Levant. In retaliation, Iran fired some 300 missiles and drones at Israel, almost all of which were shot down. Israel then attacked Iranian territory with drones.

This direct confrontation, a first for the two countries, stopped there. Israel also briefly reduced the number of strikes it was carrying out against Iranian proxies, said Selin Uysal, a French diplomat seconded to the Washington Institute, citing the tally, which counted publicly-known attacks in the weeks immediately before and after.

“There was a slowdown” after the face-off in April, she said.

“But they are picking up again because of suspected Iranian weapons transfers to Lebanon. There is a kinetic effort in Syria and Lebanon to disrupt the supply chain between Iran and Hezbollah.”

Media interviewed three Syrian officials, an Israeli government official and three Western diplomats about Israel’s Syria campaign. The officials asked not to be named to talk freely about sensitive matters.

The Syrian officials gave previously unreported details of the targets of Israeli strikes around the cities of Aleppo and Homs in recent months, including the June 2 attack.

All those interviewed said Israel’s moves suggested it was gearing up for a full-scale war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which borders Syria that could begin when Israel dials down its campaign in Gaza.

“The statements of our leaders have been clear that escalation could be imminent in Lebanon,” the Israeli government official said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that his country was prepared for “very strong action” at its frontier with Lebanon, where it has been fighting a so-far limited battle with Hezbollah since Oct. 8.

War in Lebanon is not inevitable. Israel has also indicated openness to diplomatic efforts being brokered by Washington and France. The Israeli government official said the campaign in Syria was also aimed at weakening Hezbollah and thus discouraging it from a war with Israel.

The Israeli government and military did not respond to questions for this article. Israel rarely publicly acknowledges targeted killings overseas and has not commented on the recent strikes in Syria. A senior Israeli official said last year Israel was determined to prevent Syria becoming part of a new front. (Int’l News Desk)

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