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Fourth Israeli airstrike reported in Syria in two weeks

What happened: Last night the Israel Air Force reportedly attacked 18 military targets in the area between Deir ez-Zor and Abu Kamal, near the Syria-Iraq border.

  • According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, seven Syrian soldiers and 16 foreign fighters were killed in the attack. The area is used by Iran as the main route to deliver weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon and pro-Iranian militias in Syria.
  • According to reports, the airstrikes were carried out with US intelligence. One intelligence official said the targets included warehouses that were being used to store Iranian weapons as well as components that supports Iran’s nuclear programme.
  • Yesterday on the Lebanese border IDF troops apprehended a suspicious shepherd who intentionally crossed into Israeli territory. The suspect was transferred to security forces for further questioning.  There is concern he is affiliated with Hezbollah.
  • US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned yesterday that Iran is the new “home base” for al-Qaeda and said it was time “for America and all free nations to crush the Iran-al-Qaeda axis”.
  • Pompeo, who is due to leave his post in the State Department next week, added: “Indeed, since 2015, Tehran has allowed al-Qaeda figures in the country to freely communicate with other al-Qaeda members and perform many functions that were previously directed from Afghanistan and Pakistan, including authorisation for attacks, propaganda, and fundraising.”
  • Mossad Chief Yossi Cohen was reportedly seen meeting with Secretary of State Pompeo on Monday, according to Politico‘s White House Correspondent Meredith McGraw.
  • The meeting could be behind Pompeo also publicly confirming for the first time that al-Qaeda’s Abu Muhammad al-Masri, accused of helping to mastermind the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa, was assassination in Iran in August last year. Israeli operatives were suspected of being behind al-Masri’s death.

Context: Israel has been conducting its own offensive against Iranian expansion in Syria over the past several years. Last night’s attack was the fourth in less than two weeks.

  • Last week a strike attributed to Israel was reported in southern Syria with unofficial reports claiming at least three people were killed near Damascus as missiles struck the city, as well as targets on the Syrian Golan Heights. A week before that, the Syrian news agency said another strike was carried out by Israel in the area of Masyaf in the north of the country.
  • Israel rarely acknowledges individual strikes but in December IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi said his forces had struck over 50 targets in Syria in 2020.
  • The rise of airstrikes in Syria over the past few weeks comes as the IDF has increased its state of alert over a possible revenge attack by Iran for the death of Prof. Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, head of Iran’s nuclear programme, in November.
  • Israel is also concerned about the rise in US-Iranian tensions since Joe Biden’s victory in the Presidential elections in November. Amos Harel writes in Haaretz that whilst Israeli defence officials believe the US has no intention of assaulting Iran in the remaining few days of Trump’s term, the main concern in Israel is “over the potential for a series of mutual misunderstandings that would lead to a conflagration, mainly due to Iran’s fear of an unexpected step on Trump’s part”.
  • Pompeo’s speech is part of the Trump administration’s last-minute efforts against Tehran before handing over to the incoming Biden administration.
  • Sima Shine, head of the Iran programme at the Institute for National Security Studies, believes that Pompeo’s statement will place a “new burden” on Iran and force the Biden administration “to think about what it is doing with Iran. After all, in the US, Al-Qaeda is a red flag,” she told Haaretz.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is concerned that the incoming Biden administration will re-enter the JCPOA nuclear agreement, which he believes provides Iran with a legal path toward building  nuclear weapons and could start a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
  • Outgoing US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman told the Knesset on Monday that Israel should not seek an immediate confrontation with President-elect Joe Biden over Iran, but should instead ask the Biden administration to start a dialogue with Israel, the UAE and other Arab countries before deciding to return the nuclear deal.

Looking ahead: Israel is preparing for the possibility of Iranian-led attacks that include missiles, rockets or drones by its proxies in either Syria, Iraq, Yemen or Lebanon.

  • There remains concern Iran could retaliate for the US killing of Iranian commander Qassem Soleimani last year before Trump leaves office.
  • The IDF recently deployed an aerial defence battery of Patriot missiles in Eilat to counter any missile attack from Iranian proxies in Yemen.

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