IDF: Hamas member responsible for rockets from Syria slain

Syrian intel sources say Israeli strikes deadlier, more frequent since October 7

Multiple sources in country say recent strikes on Hezbollah, Iranian commanders have seen stepped-up intensity; one says: ‘They bomb everyone directly. They bomb to kill’

Smoke billows above buildings after an alleged Israeli strike on the outskirts of Damascus on November 22, 2023. (AFP)
Smoke billows above buildings after an alleged Israeli strike on the outskirts of Damascus on November 22, 2023. (AFP)

BEIRUT/AMMAN — Israel is carrying out an unprecedented wave of deadly strikes in Syria targeting cargo trucks, infrastructure, and people involved in Iran’s weapons lifeline to its proxies in the region, six sources with direct knowledge of the matter have told Reuters.

The sources, including a Syrian military intelligence officer and a commander in the regional alliance backing Damascus, said Israel had shifted strategies following Hamas’s October 7 massacres, when some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip, killing around 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages — mostly civilians, and Israel’s subsequent military campaign aimed at destroying the Palestinian terror group.

Although Israel has struck Iran-linked targets in Syria for years, including areas where Lebanese terror group Hezbollah has been active, it is now unleashing deadlier, more frequent air raids against Iranian arms transfers and air defense systems in Syria, the sources said.

The commander in the regional alliance and two additional sources familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking said Israel had abandoned the unspoken “rules of the game” that previously characterized its strikes in Syria, and seemed “no longer cautious” about inflicting heavy casualties on Hezbollah there.

“They used to fire warning shots — they’d hit near the truck, our guys would get out of the truck, and then they’d hit the truck,” the commander said, describing Israeli raids on arms transfers handled by Hezbollah before October 7.

“Now that’s over. Israel is now unleashing deadlier, more frequent air raids against Iranian arms transfers and air defense systems in Syria. They bomb everyone directly. They bomb to kill.”

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid the war there.

Smoke rises during an exchange of fire between the IDF and Hezbollah on the border between Israel and Lebanon, December 26, 2023. (Ayal Margolin/Flash90)

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in four civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of nine IDF soldiers. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

As of Sunday, Hezbollah had named 153 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 19 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and at least 19 civilians, three of whom were journalists, have been killed.

The Israel Defense Forces did not respond to questions from Reuters about its escalating campaign. A senior Israeli official, briefing journalists on condition of anonymity, said Hezbollah had initiated this round of fighting with attacks on October 8, and that Israel’s strategy was one of retaliation.

Supporters of the Hezbollah terror group watch chief Hassan Nasrallah deliver a televised address on a large screen at a venue in Beirut on November 11, 2023 (ANWAR AMRO / AFP)

Israel has warned it will no longer tolerate the presence of the terror group along the frontier, where it could attempt to carry out an attack similar to the massacres committed by Hamas on October 7.

Asked last month about a reported Israeli strike in Syria, Israel’s military chief said Israeli forces work throughout the region and take “whatever action necessary” to show the country’s determination to defend itself.

Meanwhile, on Monday, the IDF said it eliminated a Hamas official in Syria who was responsible for launching rockets at northern Israel in recent weeks.

In a statement, the IDF said Hassan Akasha was killed in the southern Syrian town of Beit Jinn. It did not elaborate on how he was killed, though media reports suggested he was hit in a drone strike.

Iranian forces killed

Israel began striking Iran-linked targets in Syria years ago, but sources familiar with the strikes said it had appeared to avoid killing Hezbollah members if it could.

A regional intelligence officer said Israel feared a high casualty figure would prompt retaliation from Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israeli villages just across the border.

But with exchanges of fire now taking place on a daily basis following the October 7 attack, Israel is willing to be “less cautious and less restrained in killing Lebanese Hezbollah in Syria,” the officer added.

In a televised address on January 5, Hezbollah head Hassan Nasrallah said the group had lost “a number of fighters in Israeli shelling in Syria in several places in the last three months.”

“We had a formula before the [October 7] Aqsa Deluge operation — if they killed any of our brothers in Syria, we would respond on the Lebanon front — which was calm. Practically, this formula’s conditions have changed — why? Because the whole front is lit up now,” he said.

An image grab from Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV taken on January 5, 2024, shows the head of the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group Hassan Nasrallah delivering a televised speech, with a picture of killed Hamas’s deputy chief Saleh al-Aruri to his left. (Al-Manar / AFP)

An alleged Israeli drone strike on December 8 killed three Hezbollah fighters planning possible operations in northern Israel, and another strike on Quneitra in southern Syria targeted two Hezbollah fighters responsible for weapons transfers, the commander in the pro-Syrian alliance said.

Four more were killed in late December in a strike on buildings and trucks being used by Iran-aligned militia groups along Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.

The strikes have also hit Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria. One in early December killed two Guards members, and another on December 25 killed a senior adviser to the Guards who was overseeing military coordination between Syria and Iran.

“He would never have been killed before the new reality that came into force after October 7,” said one source familiar with Hezbollah’s thinking and operations in Syria.

Threat to Assad

Others have hit infrastructure in southern Syria: one air defense base was struck on December 28 after an anti-aircraft defense system was also hit.

The Syrian intelligence officer said the strikes were hitting defensive equipment even before troops could install it. The airports in Syria’s capital Damascus and northern Aleppo, which Iran has used to transfer arms, have been rendered almost continually out of service by strikes.

Mourners attend the funeral of Razi Mousavi, a senior commander in the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who was killed on December 25 in an alleged Israeli strike in Syria, in Tehran, on December 28, 2023. (ATTA KENARE / AFP)

“Israel is telling [Syrian President Bashar] Assad: you are allowing Iranians and Hezbollah to transfer weapons and entrench themselves — so we will disrupt your lifeline and you will find yourself in a tight spot,” the regional intelligence source said.

Israel has repeatedly said it does not seek a second war front in Lebanon or Syria.

Despite the intensification, the Syrian military — which leaned heavily on both Hezbollah and Iran while fighting rebels during its civil war — has not opened its own front.

“We don’t want to put ourselves in a state of confrontation or open war with Israel,” the Syrian intelligence officer said.

Assad himself was discouraged from taking any action in support of Hamas after he received threats by Israel, three sources with direct knowledge of the threat told Reuters.

Two of the sources said the threats of retaliation by Israel were delivered by the United Arab Emirates. A UAE official said such assertions were “baseless and unfounded.” There was no response from Syria’s information ministry to a request from Reuters for comment on the allegations.

The third source said the message resonated with Hezbollah.

“Hezbollah took that threat seriously, as it would have cost them everything they had built in Syria in recent years,” he said.

Emanuel Fabian and Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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