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What Is Behind Israel’s Increased Strikes in Syria?

FILE - Mourners in Tehran, Iran, attend the April 4, 2023, funeral procession for Revolutionary Guard members Milad Heidari and Meghdad Mahghani, who were killed by an Israel airstrike in Syria.

Israel has increased its air raids in Syria, targeting positions belonging to the Syrian government and Iranian forces. In recent days, suspected Israeli airstrikes hit such targets in four different occasions.

The most recent strike on Monday hit an area near the Syrian capital, Damascus, according to Syrian state media and an opposition war monitor.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, or SOHR, said the alleged Israeli strikes on Damascus targeted Syrian government and Iranian positions near the city’s airport and another area south of the capital. The Syrian government news agency reported that two people were killed in those attacks.

Monday’s strikes came a day after a suspected Iranian drone was reportedly shot down by Israeli forces after it infiltrated from Syrian territory. A day before that incident, an alleged Israeli air raid targeted an airbase in the Syrian province of Homs, wounding at least five Syrian government troops. Two days before that attack, another two Iranian military advisers were killed in an Israeli strike near Damascus, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps said.

Iran, a major backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, has built a significant military presence in Syria since the beginning of that country’s civil war in 2011.

Israel views Iran’s military presence in Syria as a threat to its national security and has carried out strikes against Iranian targets. However, it rarely acknowledges such operations.

The escalation of such strikes comes from Iran’s growing military activity in Syria in recent months, experts said.

Jonathan Spyer, a research fellow at the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia research institution, said that “the main reason for the uptick in airstrikes is the perception that Iran and its various local franchises are currently at a high level of confidence and a perceived need to re-establish deterrence against them.”

Spyer told VOA that this perception stems from an incident that occurred in March when an operative crossed from Lebanon into Israel carrying a large anti-personnel mine, before being killed by Israeli security forces.

Another basis for this viewpoint, Spyer noted, is a recent attack claimed by Iranian-backed groups on a U.S. base in Syria, which killed a U.S. contractor.

“The boldness and unusual nature of these attacks attest to a growing confidence and even recklessness on the part of Iran and its franchises,” he said. “So Israel desires to retaliate and remind the Iranians of the true balance of power.”

According to the SOHR, at least 10 air raids attributed to Israel inside Syria have been recorded in the last three months.

Ahmed Rahal, a former Syrian army general who works as a military analyst in Istanbul, Turkey, said there are two other reasons why Israel has been more decisive about increasingly striking Iranian positions inside Syrian territory.

“The first one is that Israel at this point wants to save what can be saved after Syria has become an advanced military base for Iran,” he told VOA.

FILE - People inspect the damage to a medieval citadel after an early-morning Israeli airstrike in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 19, 2023.
FILE - People inspect the damage to a medieval citadel after an early-morning Israeli airstrike in Damascus, Syria, Feb. 19, 2023.

The other reason, Rahal said, is that Iran has been exploiting humanitarian aid sent for the survivors of a February 6 earthquake that hit parts of Syria and Turkey and killed thousands of people in both countries.

“Under the disguise of humanitarian aid, Tehran has been sending more arms and weapons to Syria in different ways, whether it’s through civilian airplanes or even oil tankers,” he said, adding that, “such moves provoke an Israeli response through strikes.”

There has been no independent confirmation of such shipments, although in February Iranian television reported the country was considering sending air defense systems to Syria to help fend off Israeli attacks.

Analyst Spyer said Iranians' growing confidence to be more active in Syria emanates from their observation of “the internal chaos and disunity in Israel at present, and the strong sense of the U.S. being concentrated elsewhere and wishing to avoid confrontation [in Syria].”

This story originated in VOA’s Kurdish Service.