Iranian forces are pulling out of Syria and closing military bases there, Israeli defense officials said Tuesday, amid increasing reports of Israeli airstrikes on Iran-linked militias in the country in recent months, including two such incidents late Monday night in which 14 Iran-linked fighters were reported killed.
The Israeli officials refused to comment on these reported attacks, maintaining Israel’s policy of ambiguity, under which it generally acknowledges taking action against Iran in Syria without specifically confirming individual strikes, under the assumption that public confirmation increases the likelihood of retaliation.
Though Israel’s fight against Iran in Syria has been ongoing for nearly a decade, after Tehran began sending its troops and its proxies into Syria at the outbreak of the country’s civil war in 2011, recent months have seen an increase in the number of strikes against Iran-linked sites in the country, targeting locations across the country with the highest concentration around Syria’s capital Damascus.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that this effort appears to be bearing fruit as Iranian forces have begun leaving the country, evacuating a small number of military bases previously under their control in the process. Independently, there has also been a drop in the number of Shiite militias operating in Syria, though this decrease is because of the natural progression of the civil war and not because of Israel’s actions.
The officials said that while Israel does not believe the Iranians will accept these setbacks without responding in some way, an imminent retaliation does not appear to be in the offing.
“We are determined, more determined [than Iran], and I can tell you why — for Iran, Syria is an adventure happening 1,000 kilometers away from home. For us, it’s our lives,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said Tuesday.
“Iranian soldiers who come to Syria and operate there, their lives are in their hands. They are putting their lives at risk, they are paying that price and will continue to do so. We will not give up and we will not allow the establishment of an Iranian forward operating base in Syria,” Bennett said.
The number of transport flights from Iran to Syria, bringing advanced munitions into the country, have also dropped dramatically in the past half-year, apparently the result of Israeli strikes on the airports in Syria where these flights would land.
Alongside the uptick in the number of strikes on Iran-backed forces in Syria, Israel has also reportedly targeted a larger number of Syrian military air defense systems.
“Syria is paying a growing price for the Iranian presence in its territory, for a war that isn’t [Syria’s]. Iran has turned from an asset to Syria into a burden,” the defense officials told reporters.
They added that Israel plans to keep up its pressure on Iran until its military leaves Syria for good.
Though the officials boasted of Iran’s departure from Syria as a recent development, the Israel Defense Forces has been saying since at least 2018 that its operations against Iran have forced Tehran to radically change and scale back its plans for Syria.
Jerusalem has long maintained that Iran was working to establish a permanent military presence in Syria in order to use it as a springboard for attacks against Israel — similar to what Tehran accomplished by supporting its proxy Hezbollah. That organization began as a small terrorist group in southern Lebanon carrying out deadly but minor attacks on IDF troops, but has gone on to become one of the most powerful military forces in the region, with capabilities exceeding those of many sovereign nations.
In recent years, Israel has also warned that Iran was helping Hezbollah convert its massive arsenal of simple rockets into far more lethal precision-guided missiles, a project that the IDF has designated as the second-most significant threat to the country after Tehran’s nuclear program.
Indeed, one of the strikes attributed to Israel on Monday night targeted a Syrian military research center, which was reportedly involved in this precision project.
The defense officials partially credited the successes against Iran in Syria to the US strike on the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s expeditionary Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, earlier this year, which left Tehran without one of its most skilled generals.
For Israel, either path Iran decides to take in Syria — remain there or fully leave — is potentially beneficial. If Iran leaves, Israel will have successfully prevented the opening of another front against it. If Iran stays in Syria, where Israel maintains intelligence and aerial superiority, the IDF would be able to continue striking Iranian forces, exacting a heavy price from Tehran, while being able to defend against and thwart Iranian attacks.