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Israeli involvement in the Syrian Civil War

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Israeli involvement in the Syrian Civil War
Part of Iran–Israel proxy conflict, Arab–Israeli conflict and foreign involvement in the Syrian Civil War
Date2012–present
LocationSyriaIsrael ceasefire line, Syrian territories
Result ongoing
Belligerents
 Israel  Iran
Hezbollah
 Syria
Commanders and leaders
Israel Benjamin Netanyahu
Israel Avigdor Lieberman
Israel Gadi Eizenkot
Iran Ali Khamenei
Iran Qasem Soleimani
Hassan Nasrallah
Syria Bashar Al-Assad

Israeli involvement in the Syrian Civil War, or Israel's role[1] in the Syrian Civil War refers to the political stance, military incidents and humanitarian help of Israel on the course of the Syrian Civil War. While the Israeli official position is neutrality in the conflict, Israel is opposed to Iran's involvement in the war.[2] Israel's military role in the war has been limited to missile strikes,[3][4] which until 2017 were not officially acknowledged.

Israel has provided humanitarian aid to Syrian war victims, an effort that was drastically geared up since June 2016 when the Operation Good Neighbour was launched by the Israeli military.

There are many different national interests playing a role in the war. One of them is Iran, which Israel is concerned could gain too much regional influence. Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah are suspected of carrying out attacks against Israeli positions on the borders to Syria and Lebanon, and Israel is suspected of carrying out air strikes against convoys transporting weapons to such organisations.

Background

Israel and Syria have never established diplomatic relations. Syria and Israel have technically been in a state of war since 1948.[5][6] Since the creation of both states in the mid-20th century, the countries fought three major wars: the 1948 Arab Israeli War, the Six-Day War in 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Both countries were later also involved in the Lebanese Civil War, including the 1982 Lebanon War.

Prior to the 1967 Six-Day War, there were intense hostilities centered on the Demilitarized Zones, water issues and both shelling and infiltration from the Golan Heights, which then were occupied[7] by Israel. The requirement of returning the territories occupied by Israel was enshrined in UN Security Council Resolution 242; but the situation was further cemented by Syria's largely unsuccessful 1973 Yom Kippur War, with the de facto border between the countries in 1974 reverting to the 1967 ceasefire line, which has largely been respected by both sides, though violated by Hezbollah.

A series of incidents had taken place on the Israeli–Syrian ceasefire line in the initial phase of the Syrian Civil War, straining the relations between Israel and Syrian Arab Republic. The incidents are considered repercussions of the Quneitra Governorate clashes since 2012 and later incidents between Syrian Army and the rebels ongoing on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan and the Golan Neutral Zone, and the Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Through the incidents, which began in late 2012, as of mid-2014, one Israeli civilian was allegedly killed[8] and at least 4 soldiers wounded;[9] on the Syrian-controlled side, it was estimated that at least two unidentified militants were killed, who attempted to penetrate into Israeli-controlled side of the Golan Heights.[10]

Israeli standpoint

Non-interference position

Israel's official position is neutrality in the Syrian conflict.[11][1] During the conflict, several Israeli Defense Ministers had made statements on Israel′s neutrality in the conflict.[12][13]

In early July 2017, Israel′s defence minister Avigdor Liberman said that while ″the rebels are not our friends, they are all versions of al-Qaida", Israel could not allow a man like Assad to remain in power: “Keeping Assad in power is not in our security interests. As long as he is in power, Iran and Hezbollah will be in Syria.”[14] He said that Israel had no interest in entering the Syrian civil war, but there were ″red lines″ Israel had set, such as the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah and Iran′s presence on its borders.[14] Later in July 2017, the Israeli government said it opposed the cease-fire agreement in southern Syria that the United States, Russia, and Jordan had reached a week prior that envisaged establishing de-escalation zones along Syria’s borders with both Jordan and Israel, as that would legalise Iran′s presence in Syria.[15][16][17]

In October 2017, defense minister Lieberman, speaking to an Israeli media outlet, conceded that Bashar al-Assad was winning the war and was now being courted by foreign powers, which he said was ″unprecedented″. The statement was said to have "marked a reversal for Israel, where top officials had from the outset of fighting in 2011 until mid-2015 regularly predicted Assad would lose control of his country and be toppled". He called for the U.S. to be more active ″in the Syrian arena and in the Middle East in general″ and noted that Israel was struggling to deal with the "Russians, Iranians, and also the Turks and Hezbollah."[18][19][20]

Israel's opposition to Iranian presence in Syria

On 9 July 2017, a new ceasefire agreement directly brokered by the United States and Russia for southwest Syria was announced.[21] United States and Russia have made multiple attempts in the past to reach an agreement for establishing a ceasefire in different parts of Syria. However, the earlier ceasefire attempts have either collapsed or failed to reduce violence for long. United States President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin reached the agreement during their meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on 7 July 2017. It affects towns, villages and borderlands in three regions close to Jordan and Israel. The deal includes establishing de-escalation zones, otherwise known as safe zones, along Syria’s borders with both Jordan and Israel.[22][23] The talks on the details of the agreement are still continuing.[24]

Israel opposed to the ceasefire agreement, as it claims that its security interests were not reflected in the draft ceasefire agreement being formulated.[25] "It doesn't take almost any of Israel's security interests and it creates a disturbing reality in southern Syria. The agreement doesn’t include a single explicit word about Iran, Hezbollah or the Shi’ite militias in Syria.”[22] Israel reportedly held secret talks with Russia and the United States over the ceasefire agreement. Israel stressed on the importance of removing Iranian "forces" from Syria. However, Israel was disappointed as the agreement "contradicted virtually all the positions Israel had presented to the Americans and Russians."[24]

Israel's main concern with regard to the ceasefire agreement is that of increasing Iranian influence in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Russian President Vladimir Putin in August 2017 to share Israel's concerns on the ceasefire agreement. "Mr. President, with joint efforts we are defeating Islamic State, and this is a very important thing. But the bad thing is, that where the defeated Islamic State group vanishes, Iran is stepping in," he told the Russian Prime Minister.[26] Russia has assured Israel that it will deter Iran or Hezbollah from opening a new front with Israel. “We take the Israeli interests in Syria into account,” Alexander Petrovich Shein, Russia’s ambassador to Israel, told its Channel One television on Tuesday. “Were it up to Russia, the foreign forces would not stay”, he added.[27] A delegation, led by Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, visited Washington for talks with senior White House and American defence officials. One of the main issues for the discussion was the ceasefire agreement in southern Syria and its ramifications. "A senior Israeli official said the delegation was expected to try to persuade senior administration officials that parts of the cease-fire agreement in southern Syria should be amended to include clearer statements about the need to remove Iranian forces, Hezbollah and Shi'ite militias out of Syria".[25] However, the high level delegation was unable to "secure a commitment from the Americans to ensure any agreement to end the war in Syria would include the evacuation of Iranian military forces from the country".[28]

Following the exchange of fire on 10 May 2018, Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Israel won't allow Iran to turn Syria into a "forward base" versus Israel.[2]

Incidents during the Syrian Civil War

Several incidents have taken place on the Israeli–Syrian ceasefire line during the Syrian Civil War, straining the relations between the countries. The incidents are considered a spillover of the Quneitra Governorate clashes since 2012 and later incidents between Syrian Army and the rebels, ongoing on the Syrian-controlled side of the Golan and the Golan Neutral Zone and the Hezbollah involvement in the Syrian Civil War. Through the incidents, which began in late 2012, as of mid-2014, one Israeli civilian was killed and at least 4 soldiers wounded; on the Syrian-controlled side, it is estimated that at least ten soldiers were killed, as well as two unidentified militants, who were identified near Ein Zivan on Golan Heights.[10]

By early December 2017, the Israeli air force had confirmed it had attacked arms convoys of the Syrian government and Lebanon’s Hezbollah nearly 100 times during within over six years of the conflict in Syria.[29]

On several occasions, Israel reportedly carried out or supported attacks on Hezbollah and Iranian targets within Syrian territories or Lebanon. One of the first reliably reported incident of this kind took place on 30 January 2013, when Israeli aircraft struck a Syrian convoy allegedly transporting Iranian weapons to Hezbollah.[30] Habitually, Israel refused to comment on the incident, a stance that is believed to seek to ensure that the Syrian government did not feel obliged to retaliate.[30]

More incidents were attributed to IAF on May 2013, December 2014, April 2015. Some of those reports were confirmed by the Syrian Arab Republic, whereas others denied. Israel systematically refused to comment on alleged targeting of Hezbollah and Ba'athist Syrian targets in Syrian territory. In 2015, suspected Hezbollah militants launched a retaliatory attack on Israeli forces in Shebaa farms. In March 2017, Syria launched anti-aircraft missiles towards Israeli-controlled part of the Golan Heights, allegedly targeting Israeli IAF aircraft, which Syria claimed were on their way to attack targets in Palmyra (Syria). After the incident, the State of Israel has stated it was targeting weapons shipments headed toward anti-Israeli forces, specifically Hezbollah, located in Lebanon. Israel denied Syria's claim that one jet fighter was shot down and another damaged. Israel has not reported any pilots or aircraft missing in Syria, or anywhere else in the Middle East following the incident. According to some sources, the incident was the first time Israeli officials clearly confirmed an Israeli strike on a Hezbollah convoy during the Syrian Civil War.[31] As of September 2017, this was the only time such confirmation was issued.

October 2017 incident

On morning 16 October 2017, according to the Israeli military, Israeli jets attacked a Syrian government anti-aircraft missile launcher after it fired on Israeli aircraft flying in Lebanon′s air space, close to the Syrian border, for reconnaissance mission; an Israeli military spokesman said it was the first time Israeli aircraft had been targeted by Syrian forces while flying over Lebanon since the Syrian war began.[32]

December 2017 incident

On early morning 2 December 2017, a military site near Al-Kiswah south of Damascus was attacked by missiles reputedly from the Israeli military; two of the surface-to-surface missiles launched were intercepted by Syrian air defense, according to Syrian media reports.[29][33][34] The incident was three days after followed by a report by Syria that claimed that Syrian air defense units had shot down three Israeli missiles that were targeting a military post near Damascus; there was no Israeli comment on the incident.[35] Another attack was reported on 7 December.[36]

February 2018 incident

On 7 February 2018, Syrian state media said that Israeli warplanes attacked a military position in the Damascus countryside from Lebanese airspace, with Syrian air defenses destroying most of the missiles. Other reports stated that the target was the Scientific Research Center in Jamraya, west of Damascus, and that the same position had been targeted by Israel twice before. Some activists claim that the position contains arms depots used by Hezbollah.[37]

March 2018 incident

On 17 March 2018, the Israeli Air Force struck a target in Syria. In response the Syrian Army fired several S-200 missiles at Israeli jets above Golan Heights. Israel reported that one Syrian missile had been shot down by an Arrow 2 missile, while none of its aircraft had been damaged.[38] Israel stated it was targeting weapon shipments headed toward anti-Israeli forces, specifically Hezbollah, in Lebanon, while the Syrian Army claimed that a military site near Palmyra had been struck.[38]

April 2018 incidents

9 April

Russia and Syria accused Israel of carrying out an airstrike on 9 April 2018, against Tiyas air base, also known as the T-4 air base, outside Palmyra in central Syria. The Russian defense ministry said the Israeli aircraft launched eight missiles at the base from Lebanese airspace, five of which were intercepted by Syrian air defense systems. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor, at least 14 people were killed and more were wounded.[39] Among the dead were seven Iranian soldiers.[40] On 16 April, an unnamed Israeli military official confirmed to the New York Times his country conducted the airstrikes.[3]

29 April

At least 26 pro-regime fighters were killed by missile strikes on 29 April in the Hama Province of central Syria. According to Iran's state media, 18 of them were Iranians.[41] The strikes also hit an airbase in the nearby Aleppo Province storing surface-to-surface missiles. "Given the nature of the target, it is likely to have been an Israeli strike", according to SOHR.[42]

May 2018 incidents

Arab media reported that on 6 May 2018 eight members of the Syrian Air Force's 150th Air Defense Division were killed in a mysterious explosion in the morning on the Damascus-Suwayda road. Engineers and soldiers from the battalion that was responsible for the operation of the anti-aircraft system S-200 and had carried out the downing of the Israeli F-16 two months prior, took a transport vehicle and suddenly the explosion took place. According to Syrian sources, eight were killed and Israel was blamed for assassinating them.[43]

According to Syrian media, on 8 May 2018, Israeli warplanes struck several military bases in Syria where there is significant Iranian presence. The Syrian government claimed that two Israeli missiles that were targeting a weapons convoy at a base were downed near the al-Kiswah industrial zones close to Damascus.[44]

On 10 May, Iranian elite forces on the Syrian-held side of the Golan Heights were accused by IDF of having fired around 20 projectiles towards Israeli army positions causing no damage or injuries.[45] Israel responded with the "most extended strike in Syria in decades".[46] According to Russia's Defense Ministry, this involved 28 planes and the fire of 70 missiles .[46] However, The Syrian Arab Army claimed responsibility for the attack on Israeli army positions.[47] And Fares Shehabi, member of the Syrian parliament for Aleppo, also confirmed that it was the Syrians and not the Iranians that struck Israeli targets in retaliation to Israeli bombardment of Syria.[48][49]

On 18 May, massive explosions hit the Hama Military Airport. Sky News Arabia reported that it was caused by targeted strikes against an Iranian Bavar 373 long-range missile defense system that was put into service in March 2017.[50] The Baghdad Post reported that Israeli jets targeted the IRGC positions at the airport and that the shelling came shortly after hitting positions of the Iraqi militias who gathered there.[51] Debkafile reported dozens of Syrian and Iranians killed in the blasts.[52]

On 24 May, warplanes flying from Lebanese airspace conducted a strike near an airport in Homs, following earlier reports of Israeli aircraft being seen above Lebanon.[53][54][55] According to the Syrian Al-Marsad organization for human rights, the attack was aimed at a Hezbollah base.[56] Twenty one people were reportedly killed in the strike, including nine Iranians.[57]

June 2018 incidents

According to Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Jarida, Israel struck Iraqi Shiite militants in Syria with the approval of both Russia and the United States on 18 June 2018, killing 52.[58] Syrian official news agency SANA reported that two Israeli missiles struck near Damascus International Airport on June 26.[59] Local activists claimed that Israeli warplanes targeted an Iranian cargo plane that was being unloaded at the airport.[60] UK-Based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the Israeli missiles hit arms depots for Hezbollah near the airport and Syrian air defense systems failed to prevent the Israeli strikes.[61]

July 2018 incidents

According to the Syrian opposition, an Israeli airstrike destroyed ammunition warehouses belonging to the Assad regime and pro-Assad militias in the Deraa district of southern Syria on July 3.[62] Syrian State TV reported on July 8 that Israeli aircraft targeted the T-4 air base near Homs, and Syrian air defense systems shot down a number of incoming missiles. While Syrian state media did not report any casualties, the Syrian opposition stated nine people were killed in the strikes. Citing Arab media sources, Al Jazeera claimed between four to six rockets hit the base and its surroundings.[63] On July 11, 2018, after an Israeli Patriot missile intercepted a Syrian reconnaissance drone which infiltrated into northern Israel, Israel attacked three Syrian military posts in the Quneitra area.[64] Syrian media reported that on July 15 Israel attacked the Nayrab military airport outside Aleppo. In the past Al-Nayrab has been linked to Iranian forces.[65] On July 22, Syrian state television reported that an Israeli airstrike hit a military site in the city of Misyaf in the Hama province, causing only material damage. An intelligence source assessed that a military research center for chemical arms production was located near the city.[66] On 24 July, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) intercepted a Syrian Sukhoi fighter jet that they said had crossed about one mile into Israeli airspace. The IDF shot the aircraft down using two Patriot missiles.[67]

September 2018 incidents

Large explosions were reported at a Syrian military air base near Damascus on 2 September 2018 in a strike attributed by some to Israeli warplanes. However, Syria denied an attack had taken place, saying the blasts were caused by an explosion at an ammunitions dump provoked by electrical malfunctions.[68] Israel didn't issue any statement in regard to the incident.

Syrian state media reported that Israeli aircraft attacked Iranian positions in the city of Hama on 4 September 2018, killing at least one person and injuring twelve others. According to a military source, Syrian air defenses intercepted several missiles over the nearby town of Wadi al-Uyun. Additional strikes were reported in Baniyas as well.[69] Israel revealed that its forces have carried out more than 200 airstrikes against Iranian targets in Syria and fired over 800 missiles and mortar shells over the past year and a half, causing an interrumption of Iran's arms smuggling and the evacuation of several Iranian bases in Syria.[70] Israel allegedly targeted Damascus airport on September 15, destroying a weapons depot with newly-arrived arms for Hezbollah or the Iranian military. Syrian state media claimed Israeli missiles were intercepted.[71]

On 17 September, the Israeli Air Force conducted missile strikes on a weapons facility near Latakia. The IDF acknowledged the airstrikes the following day.[72] SANA news agency reported ten people had been injured.[73] According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 113 Iranian soldiers were killed during the past month as a result of Israeli strikes in Syria.[74] During or within 40 minutes after the strikes, an Il-20 ELINT reconnaissance plane, with 15 Russian servicemen on board, which was coming in to land at the Russian Khmeimim Air Base, was shot down in a friendly fire incident by Syrian air defense systems that sought to target the Israeli aircraft.[75][76][77][78] Russia′s defence minister Sergey Shoygu blamed Israel′s military for the accident because, according to the ministry, the Russian military had only received one minute’s warning from Israel about the impending missile strikes and the four Israeli F-16 jets that conducted the strikes deliberately used the Russian plane as cover to allow them to approach their targets on the ground without being hit by Syrian fire.[75][79] On September 20 in Moscow an Israeli delegation led by commander of the Israeli Air Force Amikam Norkin presented to Russia Air Force command Israel's inquiry on the bombing of an Iranian-Hezbollah advanced weapons transfer site and the related loss of the IL-20. The IDF stated that their planes were already landing in Israel when Syrian antiaircraft missiles shot down the Russian IL-20.[80][81]

Israeli humanitarian aid to Syrians

In June 2016, from the territory of the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel since 1967 and annexed in 1981, the Israeli military began Operation Good Neighbor, which was later presented by them as a multi-faceted humanitarian relief operation to prevent starvation of Syrians who live along the border and provide basic or advanced medical treatment.[82]

The aid consists of medical care, water, electricity, education or food and is given to Syrians near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, often escorted across by Israeli soldiers. Over 200,000 Syrians have received such aid, and more than 4,000 of them have been treated in Israeli hospitals since 2013.[83][84][85] Many of the treated victims are civilian, often children.[86] Allegations have been made that some are rebel fighters from the Free Syrian Army. This theory is supported by the fact that Israel has a strategic interest in aiding the rebels; they fight against both ISIS and Iranian-allied forces.[87]

In 2016, Israeli professor Anthony Luder said: “Some Syrians, before they go back to Syria, tell us: 'We will come back and slaughter you all'.[88] In 2017, an Israeli documentary film, dubbed "The wounded Syrian", was released. The film's director, Racheli Schwartz, claimed in an interview that "few hate-filled people who, even after saving their lives, curse and act violently until the nurses need the protection of security personnel".

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