Israeli and US armed forces reportedly carried out separate airstrikes targeting Iranian-backed groups in Syria within hours of each other on Wednesday, killing a total of 12 fighters.
Syrian state media said Israeli air strikes hit military sites in southern Syria, causing material damage.
“At approximately 22:50 pm today, the Israeli enemy carried out an air attack from the direction of Baalbek in Lebanon, targeting some military points in the southern region, causing some material losses,” official news agency SANA said, quoting a military source.
The Israeli air strikes killed three pro-Iran fighters, as they hit sites belonging to the Hezbollah terror group near the Syrian capital Damascus, a war monitor said.
“Three non-Syrian, pro-Iran fighters were killed in Israeli strikes on farms and other sites belonging to Hezbollah near Akraba and Sayyida Zeinab,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) war monitor.
SOHR, run by a single person, has regularly been accused by Syrian war analysts of false reporting and inflating casualty numbers as well as inventing them wholesale.
Akraba houses a military airport, the monitor said, more than 10 kilometers from Damascus International Airport.
Israel also struck Syrian air defense sites in the country’s southern Sweida province, said the monitor with a network of sources inside Syria.
Tensions between Israel and Hezbollah have escalated to levels not seen since the 2006 Second Lebanon War, as the terror group flirts with opening a northern front against Israel following the war launched by the IDF to eliminate Hamas after the October 7 onslaught from Gaza that killed some 1,400 people, most of them civilians, and took more than 240 hostages in Gaza.
Hezbollah has conducted and overseen daily assaults on Israel’s northern border from Lebanon but has stopped short of launching a full-scale campaign.
Israel, too, has attempted to walk a fine line, responding with significant firepower to attacks and attempted attacks, while trying to avoid actions that would escalate the conflict as it seeks to keep its focus on Gaza.
The persistent skirmishes along the border have resulted in two civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of six IDF soldiers.
According to AFP, at least 81 people have been killed on the Lebanese side. The toll includes at least 60 Hezbollah members, eight Palestinian terrorists, a number of civilians and one Reuters journalist.
Israel has also struck Syria several times in the past month.
Last month, Israeli strikes put Syria’s two main airports in Damascus and Aleppo out of service several times in two weeks.
During more than a decade of civil war in Syria, Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes on its northern neighbor, primarily targeting Hezbollah fighters and other Iran-backed forces as well as Syrian army positions.
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes on Syria, but it has repeatedly said it won’t allow arch-foe Iran, which backs President Bashar Assad’s government, to expand its presence there.
US airstrikes in eastern Syria
The US carried out an airstrike on a weapons warehouse in eastern Syria used by Iranian-backed militias, in retaliation for what has been a growing number of attacks on bases housing US troops in the region for the past several weeks, the Pentagon said Wednesday night.
In the strike hours earlier, two US F-15 fighter jets dropped multiple bombs on a weapons storage facility near Maysulun in Deir el-Zour that was known to be used by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, US officials said.
SOHR said the Wednesday strike killed nine people affiliated with Iran-backed groups.
A military official told reporters in a call that people were seen at the warehouse during the day, as the US military watched the site for hours, but the number decreased to about “a couple” overnight when the strike occurred. The official said the strike triggered secondary explosions, indicating the presence of weapons, but the US believes that no civilians were killed and any people at the warehouse were tied to the Revolutionary Guard or militia groups.
The strike, said a senior defense official also on the call, was aimed at “disrupting and degrading the capabilities of groups directly responsible for attacking US forces in the region” by specifically targeting facilities associated with the Revolutionary Guard. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity to provide an assessment of the strike.
The precision strike, said the defense official, was deliberate and designed not to escalate the conflict in the region. The military official said a deconfliction phone line linking US military personnel to Russian forces in Syria was used to let them know about the attack.
The senior US defense official said the strike was being combined “with very clear messaging through multiple channels. And the message is, to Iranian senior leaders, ‘We want you to direct your proxies and militia groups to stop attacking us.'”
This is the second time in less than two weeks that the US has bombed facilities used by the militant groups, many operating under the umbrella of the Islamic Resistance in Iraq, which US officials say have carried out at least 40 such attacks since Oct. 17.
The latest US strike was designed to take out supplies, weapons and ammunition in an effort to erode the abilities of the Iranian-backed militants to attack Americans based in Iraq and Syria. And it reflects the Biden administration’s determination to maintain a delicate balance. The US wants to hit Iranian-backed groups suspected of targeting the US as strongly as possible to deter future aggression, possibly fueled by Israel’s war against Hamas, while also working to avoid further inflaming the region and provoking a wider conflict.
Similar US airstrikes on Oct. 27 also targeted facilities in Syria, and officials at the time said the two sites were affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. When asked why those locations in Syria were chosen — since many of the attacks have happened in Iraq — officials said the US went after storage sites for munitions that could be linked to the strikes on US personnel.
The US has often avoided bombing sites in Iraq in order to lessen the chances of killing Iraqis or angering Iraq’s leaders.
While officials have said the strikes are meant to deter further attacks, they have not had that effect. Rocket and drone attacks have occurred almost daily, although in nearly all cases they have resulted in little damage and few injuries.
Asked about that, the senior defense official acknowledged that the initial US strike in October did not convince Iran to direct its proxies to stop the attacks. But, the official said, the strikes show America’s willingness to use military force.
According to the Pentagon, a total of 45 personnel have been injured and all of those were in attacks on Oct. 17 and 18. Of those, 32 were at al-Tanf garrison in southeastern Syria, with a mix of minor injuries and traumatic brain injuries, and 13 were at al-Asad air base in western Iraq, with four cases of traumatic brain injury and nine of minor injury. One person was injured at Irbil air base in Iraq.
At the same time, the department has moved a number of air defense systems and other forces into the region to beef up protection for US forces. And on multiple occasions, the systems have intercepted incoming strikes.
According to a US official, the number of ships in the Middle East has more than doubled, the number of Patriot air defense missile systems has about tripled, a few more fighter jet squadrons have been added and hundreds of additional troops have been deployed to the region. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss force numbers not yet made public.
MQ-9 drone shot down
There are roughly 2,500 American troops in Iraq and some 900 in Syria as part of efforts to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group.
ISIS once held significant territory in both countries but were pushed back by local ground forces supported by international air strikes in a bloody multi-year conflict.
In another incident linked to the Israel-Hamas war, the Iran-backed Huthi rebels in Yemen said Wednesday that they shot down an American drone.
“Our air defenses were able to down an American MQ-9 while it was carrying out hostile surveillance and espionage activities in Yemeni territorial waters as part of American military support” for Israel, the rebels said in a statement.
Senior officials from the United States have confirmed that one of the country’s drones was downed.
The Houthis are opposed to government forces in Yemen and are also part of the “axis of resistance” of groups arrayed against Israel.
They have claimed responsibility for multiple drone and missile attacks against Israel during its war with Hamas, and the US Navy intercepted missiles fired by the rebels last month.
A series of MQ-9 drones — which can fly more than 1,100 miles (1,700 kilometers) at altitudes of up to 50,000 feet (15,000 meters) and can be used for both surveillance and strikes — have been lost or damaged in recent years, including one the United States assessed was downed by the Houthis in 2019.