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Air strikes hit Iranian forces and militias in Eastern Syria

What happened: On Sunday evening, air strikes targeting the eastern Syrian town of al Bukamal near the Iraqi border killed 21 Iranian and Shia militia personnel.

  • Sky News Arabia reported that sites belonging to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Popular Mobilisation Force – an Iraqi Shiite militia group – were targeted. The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said aircraft hit the site with eight strikes targeting bases, arms depots, and vehicles belonging to Iranian-backed fighters.
  • Al Bukamal is situated in the Deir Ezzor province, which was once a stronghold of the Islamic State’s caliphate.
  • The region is currently divided between pro-Iranian forces and allied militias backed by the Syrian regime and US-backed Kurdish fighters.
  • A Syrian security official claimed Israel and the United States were behind the attack saying: “We hold the Americans and Israelis responsible for these acts of aggression which cross the red lines.”

Context: News of the strikes near the Iraqi border comes as Israel has openly admitted to carrying out attacks on Iranian-backed militias in Iraq.

  • Israel has sought to prevent Iran’s military build-up in Syria by carrying out attacks on Iranian targets and preventing the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Since 2017 it has carried out hundreds of attacks.
  • Israeli intelligence believe that Iran has recently turned Iraq into a central front in its missile program: either as a transit point for the transfer of such systems overland into Syria or as a launch pad (via Iranian-allied Shia militias) to target Israel.
  • Last week, Fox News reported that Iran had established new military bases in Al Bukamal with plans to house thousands of troops and precision missiles
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirmed Israel hit Iranian assets in Iraq in late August.
  • Israeli officials have warned that Iranian attempts to produce precision guided missiles across the Middle East are now ranked as the second most serious strategic threat to Israel, only behind the Iranian nuclear threat. BICOM published a detailed paper examining the technology Iran has developed to upgrade non-guided missiles into precision guided missiles.

Looking ahead: Iran and its proxies are likely to respond very quickly to the latest attack. On Sunday night missiles were launched from the outskirts of Damascus towards the Israeli Golan Heights but they fell short and landed inside Syria. According to the Times of Israel: “The highly irregular reprisal attack by a pro-Iranian militia appeared to indicate that Iran saw the strike as a serious blow to its efforts in the region.”