A second night of Israeli airstrikes have hit targets inside Syria in a tit-for-tat exchange that included the launch of a medium-range missile from the outskirts of Damascus towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The sharp increase in tensions between Israel and Syria, and its key backer, Iran, comes at a time when the security situation in Syria is rapidly changing owing to the recently announced US troop drawdown and a jockeying for influence on all sides.
After loud explosions were heard again early on Monday morning, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 11 people were killed– including Iranians – while Syria’s ally Russia said four Syrian soldiers died.
Video posted on social media caught the surreal moment when skiers descending Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights saw an Israeli anti-missile battery intercept a missile.
Syrian state media, citing a military source, said the country had endured an intense attack through consecutive waves of guided missiles but had destroyed most “hostile targets”.
Although the threat of direct confrontation between Israel and Iran has long simmered in Syria – where the Iranian military built a presence early in the civil war to help Bashar al-Assad – the most recent flare-up has come at a potentially dangerous moment.
On the Israeli side the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long directed bellicose rhetoric towards Iran, is facing the threat of indictment – perhaps as early as February – over corruption allegations, as well as elections in April.
Israel has acknowledged a far more overt role in the war in Syria in recent weeks after years in which it has conducted thousands of largely unacknowledged raids.
This month the outgoing Israeli military chief of staff, Gadi Eisenkot, claimed Israel had carried out thousands of strikes against Iranian interests in Syria. These comments were followed by Netanyahu’s public disclosure two weeks ago of a strike near Damascus – a sharp departure from Israel’s policy of ambiguity.
Iran, meanwhile, has been moving to consolidate its presence in Syria even as the civil war has swung ever more decisively in the direction of Assad’s regime, not least as recent moves by the Trump administration are perceived as leaving a vacuum.
Continuing that trend, on Monday an Israeli military spokesman said the targets hit included a facility belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ al-Quds force, and the most recent strikes were in response to the launch of the surface-to-surface missile fired by al-Quds from Syria on Sunday.
We saw that as an unacceptable attack by the Iranian troops – not proxies, not Shia militias, not Syrian forces – Iranian troops firing an Iranian-made missile from the vicinity of Damascus towards sovereign Israel,” said the military spokesman, Jonathan Conricus.
Israel said targets included munitions stores, a site at Damascus international airport that was allegedly al-Quds’ main logistics hub in the country, an Iranian intelligence installation and an Iranian military training camp.
Netanyahu said on Sunday: “We have a permanent policy: to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us.”
While some have suggested that the uptick in strikes has been designed to burnish Netanyahu’s security credentials before the elections due on 9 April, others say it carries a strategic military purpose as well.
“If you want to make clear to the other side that you are determined to prevent something, either you escalate the operation – more targets, more sophisticated – or you say in public ‘I am doing it’, meaning ‘I am ready to take the risk’,” said the former Israeli national security adviser Yaakov Amidror. “Israel, instead of escalating, decided to make it public.”
However, Avi Issacharoff, an analyst, said in a column for the Times of Israel: “The Syrian rocket fire is probably better understood as an Iranian attempt to create a new balance of power on the Israeli-Syrian front, to generate the expectation that an Israeli attack in Syrian territory will result in fire on Israeli territory. In other words, it was a new effort to create deterrence against Israel.”
In a sign of the increasingly war-like rhetoric of recent days, Tehran’s air force chief, Brig Gen Aziz Nasirzadeh, said Iran was “fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the Earth”, according to the Young Journalists Club, a website supervised by Iranian state television.