Israel Steps Up Pressure on Iran's Ally With Suspected Strike

  • Likely Israeli attack targets Hezbollah warehouse in Syria
  • U.S. has struck Syrian airfield and sanctioned regime staff

Explosions hit a warehouse and fuel tanks near Damascus airport, the latest in a series of suspected Israeli attacks on Hezbollah positions in Syria, where the Iranian-backed militant group is supporting President Bashar al-Assad in the six-year civil war.

Syria’s state-run television said there were no casualties from the attack, describing it as a a missile strike. It follows a barrage of U.S. missiles fired at an airbase controlled by Assad’s military and sanctions on government employees this month after the White House blamed the regime for using chemical weapons against civilians.

Hezbollah and Assad, Iran’s key allies in Syria, are coming under mounting pressure from the Trump administration and Israel in an attempt to weaken the Islamic Republic’s political influence in the Middle East. Trump personally intervened to inject tougher language into a State Department letter to Congress last week that found Iran was in compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, citing it as a state sponsor of terrorism, according to an administration official familiar with the matter.

Contain Iran

The U.S. escalation was welcome news to Israel and some Gulf Arab monarchies engaged in a proxy confrontation with Shiite-ruled Iran in Syria and Yemen. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said this month his country and the U.S. have common values and common dangers.

“We are in the first few weeks of seeing concrete steps that will begin to attempt to roll back Iranian regional influence in the Middle East region,” said Ayham Kamel, Middle East and North Africa director at Eurasia Group.

“Trump appears committed to implementing a strategy that re-adopts Iran containment as a key national security priority when it comes to the Middle East,” he said by phone.

Iran has been shoring up Assad against his mostly Sunni opponents with Shiite Lebanese, Iraqi and Afghan fighters as well as financial aide since the Syrian conflict began in March 2011.

Hezbollah’s Al-Manar television confirmed Thursday’s attack, though it said it was caused by an airstrike. Syrian television said several missiles were fired from inside Israel, hitting a military position southwest of Damascus, the capital.

Israel’s Minister of Intelligence and Transportation Israel Katz declined to say whether his country carried out the strike. In remarks to Army Radio, though, he said “the event in Syria is completely in line with Israel’s policy to act to prevent the smuggling of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon by Iran.”

Another Message

“Whenever we get intelligence information on an attempt to smuggle, that’s a red line for us, and we will act,” he said. An Israeli army spokeswoman, speaking anonymously according to regulations, declined to comment.

The strike is another message to the Syrians and the Iranians “that the Israelis are not going to let them have a free hand totally,” Ghanem Nuseibeh, founder of London-based consultants Cornerstone Global Associates, said by phone. “They’re very uncomfortable with Iran having a free hand in Syria.”

Hezbollah fought a monthlong war with Israel in 2006. It intervened in Syria’s civil war to support Assad and prevent Sunni Muslim groups from taking power. In the region nearest to Israel, Hezbollah and its government allies are fighting anti-Assad forces led by an al-Qaeda linked extremist group. Assad is also supported by Russia’s military.

The U.S. Treasury on Monday sanctioned 271 Syrian government employees who have expertise in chemistry and worked in support of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center chemical weapons program since at least 2012. U.S. warplanes struck a Syrian airfield earlier this month after Assad’s forces were blamed for using chemical weapons that killed dozens of people.

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