Arms shipments, bases hit; some Iran forces abandoned posts

IDF says it has bombed over 200 Iranian targets in Syria since 2017

Military warns US ending support for UNRWA could further destabilize Gaza, as ceasefire talks with Hamas appear precarious

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Illustrative. An explosion reportedly caused by an Israeli strike is seen at the Mazzeh military base near Damascus, Syria, on September 2, 2018. (Screen capture: Twitter)
Illustrative. An explosion reportedly caused by an Israeli strike is seen at the Mazzeh military base near Damascus, Syria, on September 2, 2018. (Screen capture: Twitter)

The Israeli military on Tuesday acknowledged that it has conducted airstrikes against over 200 Iranian targets in Syria since 2017, shedding light on its largely unacknowledged activities across the border to prevent Tehran from establishing a permanent military presence in the war-torn country.

In a wide-ranging briefing to reporters ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday, senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces also warned of the potentially dire consequences of the American government’s decision to cut off all funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which assists Palestinians, saying the move would worsen the humanitarian conditions in the Gaza Strip.

The military warned that this development, along with internal Palestinian conflicts, are threatening the efforts to reach a long-term ceasefire with the Gaza-ruling Hamas terrorist group and are increasing the likelihood of another war in the coastal enclave.

In Syria, Israel has for years been concerned that Iran was using opportunities presented by the Syrian civil war to entrench itself militarily in the country in order to further threaten the Jewish state — alongside the threat already posed by Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, in Lebanon.

Israel has vowed to prevent such a military presence, but officially remains mum on most of the military’s efforts to do so.

However, it acknowledged that the air force had conducted strikes against 202 targets in Syria, using some 800 bombs and missiles to do so.

The 202 targets hit in the Israeli airstrikes since 2017 were mostly shipments of advanced weaponry, as well as military bases and infrastructure, which the IDF officials said drove Iranian forces to abandon some posts.

Israel does not acknowledge individual strikes in Syria, though Syrian officials, eyewitnesses and others regularly report on Israeli bombings on facilities in the country connected to the regime’s coalition. On Tuesday, Israel was accused of carrying out fresh strikes in the Hama area, two days after reports of an IDF attack on a base near Damascus.

The officers in the briefing did not elaborate on the nature of the strikes or how many of these had been previously acknowledged by Israel, specifically in its Operation House of Cards, an effort to destroy Iranian weapons sites earlier this year.

The IDF also noted its significant assistance in the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group in the Middle East. The radical Islamist organization, which once controlled large swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq, has all but been defeated in the field, the officers said, but warned that the group’s dangerous ideology remains a threat.

The current portion of the Syrian civil war appears to be reaching its end as Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s forces retake the remaining areas under rebel control.

This summer, the regime defeated the opposition groups in the regions closest to the border with Israel, forcing them to either surrender or to fall back to the rebel-held city of Idlib, which is preparing now for a renewed offensive by Assad’s military.

According to the Israeli military, Assad’s military — assisted by Russia — now fully controls 70 percent of the southwest region, which borders Israel, after its intense campaign to force out the rebels. Iranian forces, which also took part in Assad’s offensive, are being kept back 80 kilometers from the border.

Syrian military divisions, which abandoned their posts on the Syrian Golan Heights at the start of the civil war, have begun returning to the area, joined by Russian military police units, which are monitoring the area to ensure that ceasefire agreements are being upheld, according to the IDF.

In light of these developments, the Israeli military has formally ended its Operation Good Neighbor, a program that saw thousands of Syrians enter the Jewish state for medical treatment and thousands of tons of food, fuel, and basic necessities enter Syria from Israel.

The Gaza problem

Since March, Israel and Hamas have seen a significant increase in the level of violence along the Gaza border, with weekly protests and several flare-ups in which Palestinian terrorist groups launched mortar shells and rockets at southern Israel and the IDF retaliated with airstrikes against Hamas infrastructure throughout the Strip.

In recent weeks, the situation has begun to calm along the border, with both sides’ militaries slowly returning to normal under a de facto ceasefire.

Israel and Hamas are also negotiating a longer-term armistice, which is meant to prevent or, at least, postpone additional clashes between the two sides.

Generally, the Islamist terrorist group, which rules Gaza, would maintain quiet along the border and in exchange Israel would offer a series of economic incentives to the Strip, notably greater access to sea routes.

The military officials spoke out against Israel conditioning talks with Gaza’s Hamas rulers on the return of two Israeli civilians and two fallen IDF soldiers, which the IDF officers said are believed to be held by the terror group in the Strip.

Despite public pressure to secure the release of the civilians — Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed — and the soldiers — Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin — the military officials said they believe that now is not the right time to demand their release, but rather that such talks should be held later.

Shaul’s and Goldin’s remains have been held by Hamas since their bodies were captured by the terrorist group during the 2014 Gaza war.

Mengistu and al-Sayed each entered the Gaza Strip willingly — in 2014 and 2015, respectively — though their families say that they both suffered from mental health issues.

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