The outgoing IDF chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot on Friday said that Israel has carried out “thousands” of airstrikes against Iranian military targets in Syria in recent years.
In an interview to the New York Times ahead of his retirement next week, Eisenkot for the first time confirmed the scale of Israel’s ongoing military campaign to thwart Iranian entrenchment in Syria.
“We struck thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit,” he said.
Eisenkot said Israel in the last two years shifted its focus to Iran, its primary enemy, to prevent the IDF from getting bogged down in fighting secondary enemies like Hamas in Gaza.
“When you fight for many years against a weak enemy,” he said, “it also weakens you.”
At first, Eisenkot said Israeli operations in Syria operated under a “certain threshold,” referring to the IDF restricting strikes to weapons shipments bound for Iran’s Lebanon-based proxy group Hezbollah during the first few years of the civil war that broke out in 2011.
But in the years that followed, Eisenkot said Iran made a “significant change” in its Syria strategy, and began importing manpower from around the Muslim world in a bid to solidify its hold in the country.
“Their vision was to have significant influence in Syria by building a force of up to 100,000 Shiite fighters from Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iraq,” he said. “They built intelligence bases and an air force base within each Syrian air base. And they brought civilians in order to indoctrinate them.”
By 2016, Eisenkot said the Commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, had mobilized 3,000 of his men in Syria, along with 8,000 Hezbollah fighters and another 11,000 foreign Shiite troops.
By January 2017, Eisenkot said he received unanimous permission from the security cabinet to step up strikes in Syria to near daily occurrences. In 2018 alone, he said Israel dropped 2,000 bombs on Iranian targets.
Soleimani attempted to retaliate to the ramped up Israeli campaign by launching 30 rockets at northern Israel last May, but Eisenkot said that not a single one reached its target.
The outgoing IDF chief said the Israeli strikes have been successful in preventing Iran from entrenching itself in Syria like it has in Yemen, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. Soleimani, he said, made a strategic mistake by underestimating Israel’s resolve to act against Iranian interests in the region.
“His error was choosing a playground where he is relatively weak,” Eisenkot said. “We have complete intelligence superiority in this area. We enjoy complete aerial superiority. We have strong deterrence and we have the justification to act.”
“The force we faced over the last two years was a determined force,” he added, “but not very impressive in its capabilities.”
As a result of the Israeli strikes, Eisenkot said the Iranians were moving troops out of Syria and “transferring their efforts” to Iraq.
Eisenkot’s interview was published hours after Syrian media reported that air defenses shot down Israeli missiles near Damascus late Friday night.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said the warplanes targeted two areas “hosting military positions of Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.”
Israeli officials made no statement on Friday’s reports, though it seldom comments on its operations in Syria.