AnalysisThe rules of the game have changed

No longer afraid of sparking war, Israel takes gloves off against IRGC in Syria

Since Oct. 7, the IDF has upped the pace of attacks and hit senior Iranian officers, seeing little to lose in countering Tehran’s entrenchment. It seems to be working, experts say

Gianluca Pacchiani

Gianluca Pacchiani is the Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A man checks the damage in an apartment in a residential buildling that was reportedly targeted by Israeli air strikes in the Kafr Sousa district of the Syrian capital Damascus on February 21, 2024. (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)
A man checks the damage in an apartment in a residential buildling that was reportedly targeted by Israeli air strikes in the Kafr Sousa district of the Syrian capital Damascus on February 21, 2024. (LOUAI BESHARA / AFP)

Israel’s years-long air campaign against Iran-linked groups and weapons in Syria appears to have shifted into high gear in recent months, with strikes on high-value targets at a pace that is “changing the rules of the game,” according to experts.

Although Israeli attacks on Iran-sponsored weapons transfers and Tehran-backed militias, including Hezbollah, go back to at least 2013, the air force is now unleashing more frequent operations that include assassinations of Iranian officials. Those on the ground have taken notice.

In just the last few days, Israeli jets hit two members of the Hezbollah terror group traveling in a truck near the Syrian-Lebanon border Sunday morning, and bombed a residential building in an upscale neighborhood of the Syrian capital Damascus frequented by leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, killing two people, according to local news sources. Tehran’s media sources claimed that no citizens of the Islamic Republic were killed.

“[Israeli airstrikes in Syria] are no longer just about attacking weapons transfer or attacking Damascus international airport,” said Carmit Valensi, a senior researcher on Syria and head of the northern arena program at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies (INSS).

The uptick in attacks seemingly started sometime shortly after October 7, as Israel found itself fighting in Gaza and fending off attacks from Iran-backed groups from Lebanon, Syria and beyond.

Since December, more than half a dozen IRGC officers have been killed in suspected Israeli strikes on Syria, including Iranian Brig. Gen. Seyed Razi Mousavi, a longtime Guards adviser in Syria slain in an Israeli airstrike on a suburb of Damascus.

People clean debris after an alleged Israeli strike on an apartment in Kfar Sousseh district, in Damascus, Syria, February 21, 2024. (AP Photo/Omar Sanadiki)

“It seems that Israel is taking advantage of the war momentum to increase its activity against Iran in Syria,” said Valensi.

Israel has not claimed responsibility for the assassinations, but it has admitted to conducting strikes against arms shipments believed to be bound for Iran-backed groups in Syria, chief among them Hezbollah.

Valensi noted that before fighting began in Gaza, killing members of the Quds Force — the IRGC’s expeditionary unit — or Hezbollah operatives, would have been considered a red line, liable to spark a war.

That all changed on October 7, when Hamas-led terrorists stormed into southern Israel, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping 253 others.

In the days and weeks after the massive terror attack, other war fronts were opened by Iran-backed paramilitary groups against Israel, including from Lebanon and to a much smaller extent Syria to the north, and from Yemen to the south.

Dr. Carmit Valensi, head of the northern arena program at the Tel Aviv Institute for national security studies (INSS), 2023. (courtesy)

With the region already plunged into conflict, Israel no longer needs to pull punches to the same degree.

“In wartime, we have a different set of rules, by which Israel has more freedom of operation. Iran and Hezbollah have very limited ability to respond when it comes to the Syria theater,” Valensi said.

According to experts, Iranian military personnel on the ground in Syria number only in the dozens. The bulk of the forces controlled by the Islamic Republic in Syria, aside from Lebanese Hezbollah, are made up of foreign Shiite militias, imported mainly from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Iran doesn’t like when Iranian Persian-speaking people are killed,” said former intelligence officer Col. (Res). Miri Eisin.

In recent years, according to Eisin, these foreign fighters had been deployed to the Syrian Golan, replacing the residents of towns emptied out by years of civil war. Many moved with their families.

Honor guards carry the coffin of Razi Moussavi, a senior commander in the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), killed on December 25 in an alleged Israeli strike in Syria, during his funeral procession at the Imam Ali shrine in Iraq’s holy city of Najaf, on December 27, 2023.(Qassem al-Kaabi / AFP)

“The whole demographics of the Syrian Golan has been changed,” said Eisin.

While the Iranian military presence in Syria was initially justified to support the Assad regime against rebels groups, the Shiite fighters in the Golan were imported with the explicit goal to “free Jerusalem,” that is, attack Israel, Eisin explained. Their training was carried out by Hezbollah, considered the closest of Iran’s proxies.

The reinvigorated Israeli campaign, however, has put many of them on the defensive, with many of the forces being redeployed away from the Syrian Golan to other areas of the country. They can still theoretically launch missiles at Israel, but a ground attack on the border is no longer feasible.

Emergency services work at a building hit by an airstrike in Damascus, Syria, Saturday, Jan. 20, 2024. Syrian and Iranian state media outlets say an Israeli strike on t Damascus killed five Iranian advisers. (AP/Omar Sanadiki)

“The intense attacks that Israel has been conducting lately are a positive development for Israel because they do influence the Iran modus operandi in Syria,” Valensi said.

She said the Iranian pullback had begun in 2020, to minimize exposure to airstrikes. “That has gained momentum in the past four months,” she added.

“After the war broke against Hamas out, there were claims that Iran was increasing its presence in the south, preparing itself for opening another front with Israel,” Valensi said. “But after Israel launched a very intense aerial campaign in Syria, they were deterred.”

A truck in flames following an alleged Israeli airstrike near the Syrian town of Qusayr, February 25, 2024. (X screengrab: used in accordance with Clause 27a of the Copyright Law)

The real Israeli innovation, though, is the decision to systematically target IRGC officials, the experts say. Israel has liquidated a number of Iranian officials in Syria in the past, including at least one general in 2015, killed together with senior Hezbollah figure Jihad Mughniye, but strikes against IRGC figures had not been carried out in such a methodical and brazen way as they are now, the experts said.

“It’s like taking a list [of top IRGC leaders] and crossing off the names one by one, Eisin said. “And on top of that, in the heart of Damascus, a few miles away from where Bashar Assad is.”

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