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Severe, wide-reaching Israeli airstrikes against Iranian militias in Syria bear a message for Iran


Summary: Israeli airstrikes on January 13 struck hard at Iranian militias outposts and Assad’s forces in Deir Ezzor. This area constitutes Iran’s ‘strategic depth’ in Syria and Syria’s gateway to Iraq on the route from Tehran to Beirut. The airstrikes hit al-Bukamal, al-Mayadeen, and Deir Ezzor, bearing messages to Teheran in terms of their timing and intensity.

The Airstrikes

According to the Deir Ezzor 24 Network, on January 13, 2021, at around midnight, Israeli aircraft struck Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) associated militia outposts in the al-Thalathat area in al-Bukamal badiya, eastern Deir Ezzor, and at the IRGC and 47th Regiment militia outposts in the Beer al-Hammar and the al-Sayba area in al-Bukamal badiya.

The airstrikes also hit Zeynabiyun (Pakistani) militia’ outposts on the way to the al-Hamdan airbase, in the al-Hajanah street in al-Bukamal, and the Iraqi Shia militias’ (PMU) outposts 3 kilometers from the al-Bukamal border gate. Airstrikes also hit the Iraqi Hezbollah militia outposts on the perimeter of Ayisha hospital in al-Bukamal.

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, Israeli aircraft carried out 18 sorties, hitting IRGC-associated militia outposts in the al-Mazare’ area on the Deir Ezzor-al-Mayadeen highway, Fatemiyoun (Afghan) militia outposts near al-Makef and on the perimeter of the al-Rahba castle, and outposts in the city of Deir Ezzor.

The airstrikes hit Fatemiyoun militia weapons warehouses and other outposts in Deir Ezzor, including the Syrian Military Intelligence branch headquarters in the Ghazi Ayash neighborhood. The Fatemiyoun militia is responsible for distributing weapons to other Iran-linked militias in Syria. The Ayash warehouses are among the Iranian militias’ largest warehouses in Syria. The warehouses include tunnels and underground stores. Last year, the Fatemiyoun militia banned civilians from approaching the tunnels-warehouses, the construction of which was overseen by Iranian commanders.

Currently, an Iranian commander known as ‘Hajj Ibrahim’ is the commander at the warehouses. Heavy and light weapons, thermal missiles, and medium-range missiles are stored there. Most of the weapons are Russian and Iranian manufactured. The warehouses include a communication and command network and a drones base.

Sources informed the author that the militia did not store recent shipments of missiles in the tunnels, nor did it distribute the missiles to headquarters. The sources added that the airstrikes hit these missiles; however, the Iranian militias and Assad forces hid information of the casualties and targeted sites. The Assad regime’s SANA news agency reported that Israeli airstrikes hit Syria, adding no more details. The agency said the following: “At 1:10 a.m. of Today January 13. 2021, Israel aggressive airstrikes hit the city of Deir Ezzor and al-Bukamal area. Currently the results of the airstrikes are being checked”; however, local sources confirmed that the airstrikes killed 40 fighters, and the death toll is likely to rise.

This attack is the second since the start of 2021, and was among the most severe airstrikes against the Iranian presence in Syria. Two weeks ago, The Israel Defense Forces, which rarely comments on its airstrikes, published a report saying that it had targeted 50 targets in Syria in 2020; however, the IDF did not provide more details about the targets.

Messages and timing of airstrikes

Many observers consider that the timing of these airstrikes is directly related to President Trump’s imminent departure from office, and that they are a chance for Israel to strike Iran abroad before Biden (who is seen by some as likely to pursue a softer line re. Iran) takes office. However, a closer look at the facts reveals a number of other relevant issues.

Biden’s expected policy may be flexible, by contrast to Trump’s, regarding the Iranian Nuclear Agreement and the decision to lift sanctions on Iran. But this expected policy does not imply complacency regarding the Iranian presence abroad; hence, Biden is unlikely to neglect the issue of Iran’s military expansion in the region. Biden’s policy is expected to be more decisive regarding the Syrian issue and he is expected to promote the political process. An Israeli hidden condition for support of the political process in Syria appears to be the curbing of Iran.

Since the assassination of Major-General Qassem Suleimani in early 2020, the initial Iranian military response by shelling the Ayn al-Assad base, and the mobilization of Iran’s proxies in Iraq, toward actions against the US Embassy in Baghdad, Iran has been trying with all means to compensate for the loss of one of the most prominent Iranian commanders, who played a key role in creating Iran-affiliated hard power abroad.

Iranian diplomatic and military commanders delivered strong statements on the first anniversary of Suleimani’s assassination. Suleimani’s statues and images in Iran, Iraq, and Syria reflected the size of the vacuum his assassination has left. Field movements coincided with the statements. The movements included transport of weapons to the Ayash warehouses for the purpose of revenge operations. Israel was concerned at possible Iranian targeting of Israel at this time. It should be noted that the Iranian presence in Deir Ezzor has become Tehran's strategic depth, and Iran uses south east Syria as a site for storage of weapons, which Israel seeks to interdict.

Israel monitors Iran's’ activities in Syria through intelligence activities; the airstrikes are conducted according to the information obtained. The 18 sorties carried out on January 13th look like a wide reaching attempt to cripple Iran’s efforts and plans to ‘restore honor’ after Suleimani’s assassination. Israel publicly asserts that its strategy against Iran will remain the same regardless of who is in the White House. Israel through these actions intends to inform Iran that the chaos and transition stage in the US does not affect Israel, which will continue to deal Iran severe blows. Sources reported that Israel conducted the airstrikes with the help of US intelligence information. Russian complicity with Israel, at least at the level of de-confliction is also apparent in this episode.

The Israeli ‘messages’ to Iran, delivered by way of the January 13th raids, can be summarized as the following:

  • Israel will continue to strike Iran and its presence in Syria. The actions will be carried out on the basis of intelligence information, and the pace of Iranian transport of weapons. The recent pace and pattern of Iranian transport of weapons suggested possible military action against Israel. This is not connected to the US election and transition.

  • Iran’s media boasts and threats before, during, and after the first anniversary of Suleimani’s assassination have been met by Israel’s most severe actions to date against the Iranian presence in Syria.

  • Iran should not be excessively optimistic regarding the incoming Biden Administration. His projected more flexible policies are related only to the JCPOA and the possible lifting of some of the sanctions.

  • Israel has an accurate and comprehensive intelligence picture regarding Iran’s moves inside and outside Syria.

  • Russia will not respond to Israeli airstrikes.

  • Israel through these airstrikes also sends a message to the Gulf States, who held a summit in early 2021 to specifically focus on Iran’s threats. The message is that Israel is always ready to curb Iran in the appropriate setting, and this is a significant factor in the promotion of normalization with Arab countries.

2021 is just beginning. 2020 was a bad year for Iran - starting with the killing of its most prominent commander Qasem Suleimani, and continuing with the assassination of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh and with 50 attacks against Iranian outposts in Syria. So far, 2021 does not seem to represent a great improvement for Teheran.

The author is a Syrian expert who focuses on security and governance dynamics in northeast Syria. CEO @DeirEzzor24, which has a group of researchers inside the country.

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