An increase in attacks on Iranian targets in Syria attributed to Israel, together with the coronavirus pandemic and the targeted killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a U.S. strike in January, have prompted Iran to start pulling up stakes in Syria, Israeli defense officials believe.

At a meeting at Israel Defense Forces headquarters in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, defense officials revealed that “Tehran is cutting back its forces in Syria and removing military bases for the first time since it [Iran] entered Syria as part of the Syrian civil war.”

The officials said that Iran’s presence was becoming a burden, rather than an asset, to Syria.

“Damascus is paying an increasingly high price for Iran’s presence in its territory, for a war that isn’t its own,” sources in the defense establishment said, adding that Israel would “step up pressure on Iran until it leaves Syria.”

The meeting took place hours after a major strike in Syrian territory overnight Monday, which was attributed to Israel. This strike, the sixth such attack reported in the past month, is said to have targeted a military-industrial site near Aleppo in northeastern Syria designed to manufacture advanced weaponry and missiles, and to upgrade existing missiles and rockets with precision guidance systems.

Some foreign reports on the strike claimed that Iranian officials were killed, although no official confirmation has been forthcoming from Tehran. The U.K.-based observer group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported on Tuesday morning that the 14 members of pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias were killed in the strike.

Experts in Israel believe that Iran’s presence in Syria is costing Damascus too much, in terms of both casualties and resources. The strikes are generally carried out deep inside Syrian territory, targeting Iranian infrastructure and command centers, in addition to thwarting weapons-smuggling convoys.

Israel has also identified in the past six months a significant drop in the number of cargo flights used to smuggle weapons from Iran into Syria. Iran has evacuated some of its bases in Syria and cut back on the number of members of its elite Quds Force who are deployed there. At the height of the Syrian war five years ago, Tehran sent thousands of combatants and advisers to Syria to help Syrian President Bashar Assad fight the Islamic State and the Syrian rebels. But as the war waned, the Iranians remained in Syria, setting up thousands of rocket launchers and other weaponry that they trained on Israel.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett, who is slated to hand the reins over to Blue and White Party leader Benny Gantz next week, warned on Tuesday that “Iranian soldiers who enter Syria and are active there will pay for it with their lives.”

Meanwhile, Reuters on Tuesday quoted a “regional intelligence official” who claimed that Israel had increased its activity in Syria while the world was focused on dealing with the corona pandemic. The official claimed that the stepped-up Israeli strikes were part of a shadow war being waged with U.S. backing.

In a related development, Israel’s ImageSat International has published a satellite photo of a building in the Syrian city of Homs that was attacked on May 1. Foreign reports attributed the airstrike to the Israel Air Force. The structure, which was used to store vehicles, was completely obliterated.

This article was originally published in Israel Hayom.

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