Syria reported a series of Israeli airstrikes on Feb. 28 targeting Iranian assets near Damascus. The strikes were likely a retaliatory measure following an explosion last week that hit an Israeli-owned cargo ship in the Gulf of Oman, which Israeli officials believe Iran executed. Although no one was injured in the attack, the vessel was damaged and forced to head towards the nearest port.
Israeli news sources reported the strikes in Syria targeted Iranian linked assets. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based organization, announced that the airstrikes targeted sites in an area close to Damascus that Iran’s Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) controlled. This air assault followed closely behind a series of strikes the U.S. launched in Syria on Feb. 15 that were also described as a retaliatory measure following a rocket attack in Iraq that killed an American civilian contractor.
The Israeli Defense Forces has launched dozens of assaults on Iranian-linked targets in Syria in recent years to prevent Tehran from gaining a stable foothold in the country. Many of the IDF attacks are retaliatory and preventative. In 2017, a military site in Syria filled with chemical weapons and Iranian bombs were destroyed by Israeli airstrikes. In 2019, Israel launched airstrikes in Syria in retaliation to a surface-to-surface missile that endangered civilian areas in the Golan Heights area. In 2020, IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Aviv Kochavi reported that Israel “had struck more than 500 targets during 2020 on all fronts, including clandestine missions.”
In recent months, tensions between Iran and the West have escalated sharply. Tehran has been building up its nuclear program in breach of the 2015 nuclear agreement as it tries to gain leverage in expected upcoming negotiations with the Biden administration. IRGC-linked proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria and Yemen have increased attacks against the United States and its allies across the region. Incessant rocket attacks perpetuated by Iranian-backed militias have rattled Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, home to the U.S. embassy and diplomatic sites, intensifying domestic turmoil in Iraq. In Yemen, the Iranian-linked Houthi rebels consistently carry out terrorist attacks targeting civilians on the ground and in Saudi Arabia. Hezbollah, Iran’s largest export which functions in Lebanon, has targeted Israel’s Golan Heights region. In fact, the explosive devices the proxy placed near the Israeli-Syrian border were discovered by the IDF in August and November.
Although Iranian officials have vehemently denied involvement with the Feb. 26 assault on the Israeli-owned cargo ship MV Helios Ray, similar attacks have been linked to Tehran in the past. In 2019, Iran was accused of carrying out a series of attacks on oil vessels owned by U.S. allies outside the Strait of Hormuz. The U.S. Energy Information Administration asserts that nearly a fifth of the globe’s oil consumption passes through this critical and strategic waterway. Tehran continually targets this body of water to demonstrate its capability of disrupting the world’s oil supply.
As nuclear negotiations between the United States and Iran approach on the horizon, the Middle East is likely to see an uptick in cross-country attacks at the hands of Tehran’s proxies. The Biden administration should collaborate with Israel and its Gulf allies to ensure that Iran is deterred and confronted.
Maya Carlin is an analyst at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. She is also an M.A. candidate in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at IDC Herzliya’s Lauder School of Government in Israel.