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What’s Behind the Uptick in Israeli Strikes on Syria?

Israel has stepped up its strikes on Syria with four raids on government-held areas in less than a week, targeting positions of Syrian government forces and pro-Iran groups.

While Israel rarely comments on the strikes it carries out on Syria, it has repeatedly said it will not allow its arch-foe Iran to extend its footprint in the war-torn country.

AFP looks at what is happening and what could be behind the escalation.

What Has Happened?

Israel carried out missile strikes near Damascus on Thursday that wounded two soldiers, Syria’s defense ministry said, while the following day it carried out more strikes near the capital that Iran said killed two members of its Revolutionary Guards.

On Sunday, two Iran-affiliated fighters were killed in Israeli strikes near the city of Homs, while five Syrian soldiers were wounded, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Later Sunday, the Israeli army said it shot down a drone that infiltrated its airspace from Syria.

On Tuesday, Israeli strikes targeting sites in southern Syria and near Damascus killed two Syrian civilians and “one non-Syrian Iran-backed fighter”, according to the Observatory.

While Israel has not claimed the raids, it has launched hundreds of air strikes on Syria during more than a decade of civil war, primarily targeting Iran-backed forces and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters as well as Syrian army positions.

Lebanon Link?

The Observatory said such frequent Israeli strikes were unusual, while analysts pointed to several possible reasons for the uptick.

Fabrice Balanche, a lecturer at the University Lumiere Lyon 2, said a security incident in Israel last month had “triggered Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah bases in Syria.”

The Israeli army in mid-March said security forces had “neutralized a terrorist armed with an explosive belt and multiple weapons in a vehicle” in northern Israel after a blast wounded a civilian.

The army had said it was probing the possible involvement of Hezbollah after an initial inquiry suggested the suspect had crossed from Lebanon.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has refused to say whether the group was connected to the incident.

Israel has avoided striking Lebanon in retaliation because “it does not want an escalation on this side of the border,” Balanche said.

After Sunday’s raids killed the Revolutionary Guards, “Iran sent a drone towards Israel in reprisal, which prompted the new Israeli strikes,” he added.

Israel’s Judicial Overhaul?

Israel is sending “a message” with the strikes, said Carmit Valensi, a senior researcher at the Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and director of its Syria research program.

Israel is showing that “it is determined to safeguard its frontiers, security and the security of its citizens even in the wake of the internal crisis and legal overhaul taking place.”

Israel has seen weeks of protests against a controversial judicial overhaul now frozen by the government.

Both Iran and Syria have accused Israel of trying to distract from its own domestic turmoil.

But Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, said it was “hard to tell” if the strikes were “related to Netanyahu’s domestic troubles.”

“They could simply have been a target of opportunity,” he said.

Iranian Foothold?

Iran-backed paramilitary groups have bolstered the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since his country’s civil war broke out in 2011.

Iran, a key ally of Assad, says it only deploys military advisers in the conflict-ravaged country.

“Israel has kept up a steady drum beat of strikes on the Syrian military and Iran’s efforts to build up local capabilities,” Landis added.

Thousands of pro-Iran proxy fighters from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are believed to be deployed in the country.

“Israel does not want to allow Iran to have a high-capability foothold in Syria,” said Riad Kahwaji, founder and CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.

“Iran can help the regime,” he said.

But building up its arsenal in Syria “in a way that impacts Israel’s… ability to launch attacks when it wants — that’s something Israel will not allow.”

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