Israel air strikes step up campaign on Iran targets in Syria

Israeli warplanes have carried out what is thought to be the biggest bombing raid in years on Iran-linked military sites in Syria, reportedly killing dozens of Syrian soldiers and foreign militiamen in a barrage of strikes early on Wednesday.

The bombing follows US secretary of state Mike Pompeo calling Iran “the world’s largest sponsor of state terrorism,” and comes as Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s staunch ally Donald Trump is set to leave office. US president-elect Joe Biden is expected to try to resume talks with Iran on the nuclear deal that the US abandoned in 2018 and which Israel opposes.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported 57 Syrian soldiers and foreign fighters from Iran-backed militias including Lebanese Hizbollah, were killed in more than a dozen air strikes, saying it was the largest number of casualties it had recorded from an Israeli bombardment in Syria.

Syrian state media said the “Israeli enemy carried out an air aggression” in areas close to its southeastern border with Iraq, where there are militia bases, but did not give details on casualties.

Israel has long said it is threatened by Iranian-backed militias, chiefly Lebanon’s Hizbollah group, who have thrown their weight behind President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s decade-long civil war. Iranian soldiers have also been deployed in support of Tehran’s ally Damascus.

With Syria sharing a border with Israel, Tel Aviv has warned that the war-torn country risks becoming an Iranian military outpost that could pose grave risks to Israel. In an end of year report, Israel’s defence forces said they had conducted 50 air strikes in Syria during 2020. There were local reports of Israeli air strikes in Syria as recently as early January.

Mr Trump’s support of Mr Netanyahu, while tightening sanctions on Iran in the so-called “maximum pressure” campaign, has emboldened the Israeli premier and many in the region have been braced for hostilities in the final days of Mr Trump’s presidency.

Mr Pompeo on Tuesday claimed that Sunni jihadist terrorist group “al-Qaida has a new home base: it is the Islamic Republic of Iran”, without substantiating the allegation. Iran’s theocracy is run by Shia Muslim clerics. Tehran denied the allegations.

He claimed Iran had agreed to expand support to the militants in 2015, the same year Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief. The US has since abandoned the deal and analysts believe the Trump administration wants to scupper Mr Biden’s chances of negotiating an agreement with Iran that would lead to the US rejoining the deal.

The Jewish state rarely comments on individual actions and did not comment on Wednesday’s strikes.

Wednesday’s reported attack is unusually large and comes after the Associated Press reported a meeting between the US secretary of state and an Israeli intelligence chief in a public café in Washington on Tuesday. AP quoted a “senior US intelligence official” as saying the US had provided intelligence that assisted in the air strikes on Syria.

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