Why Did Israel Attack Iranian Targets in Syria?

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In overnight missile strikes launched between November 19 and November 20, Israel struck Syrian government targets, killing two civilians and wounding many others. Some of the targets that Israel attacked belong to Iranian forces based in Syria. 

Israel’s military has said that its attacks on Iranian targets are its response to rockets that an Iranian unit fired into Israel’s Golan Heights on November 19. That morning, the Israeli military announced that it had intercepted four Syrian rockets headed toward northern Israel and prevented these rockets from reaching the ground. In retaliation, the Israeli military dispatched fighter jets to attack the Syrian military and Syrian-based targets belonging to Iran’s Quds Force. Among the targets that Israel attacked were weapons warehouses, military bases, and surface-to-air missiles.

Just like Israel’s military, the Syrian government claims that its defenses intercepted most of the missiles headed within its borders overnight. State media agency Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) also said that the two reported civilian deaths occurred in a house located in the town of Sasa, southwest of the Syrian capital of Damascus. In the early hours of November 20, an Israeli missile directly impacted the house, destroying it and killing the two civilians inside. SANA also stated that three other civilians were wounded by shrapnel and were receiving treatment in nearby Syrian hospitals. Sources other than the Syrian government have cited death tolls higher than the current official count of two civilians. 

Israel has insisted that it won’t hesitate to attack Syria again if doing so is deemed necessary. The Israeli military has said that it plans to keep attacking Iranian targets in Syria until the Iranian presence in Syria is slim to none. It has further justified these attacks by claiming that its raids on Syria are blocking the delivery of advanced weapons to Hezbollah, a prominent anti-Israel Lebanese political party and militant group. Nevertheless, for Israel to directly target Syrian military operations is rare and could profoundly change the state of relations between Israel and its neighbors, with many of whom it already has a history of warfare

The violence between Israel and its Syrian and Iranian foes is not happening in a vacuum. Russia has weighed in, given Vladimir Putin’s prominent support of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The country claimed that Israel’s overnight attacks violate international law. Additionally, Russian deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said that Russia had contacted its allies to discuss the attacks.

Some have suggested that the overnight attacks were highly politicized. Traditionally, the Israeli government pauses before admitting its involvement in attacks similar to those carried out on Syria. However, in this case, the Israeli military quickly announced the rocket strikes. This quick announcement could be a political maneuver by current Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to hold his office following two close-call parliamentary elections earlier this year. A leading Israeli military official credits the quick announcement to something else entirely: The country wants to show that it plans to “change the rules” and retaliate to any Syrian strikes with even more aggressive action.

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