Israel is ramping up attacks against Iranian supply lines in Syria to block the flow of weapons to Hezbollah and other Tehran-backed militias, as it seeks to drive its foe away from its borders.
In June Israel targeted a far-flung compound near the Syria-Iraq border, according to a security official, after carrying out multiple strikes closer to home against suspected Iranian military assets in Syria, where Iran is a key backer of President Bashar al-Assad.
Israel, in accordance with its usual practice, didn’t confirm or deny it carried out the June airstrike. The U.S. denied responsibility, and a U.S. official confirmed that Israel was behind it.
The strike—carried out in the dead of night on June 17—targeted a villa in the town of al-Hari south of Abu Kamal, the security official told The Wall Street Journal. Iraqi Shiite militia were working there with Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to traffic Iranian weapons into Syria, the official said.
The aim of Israel’s attack hundreds of miles from its borders was to signal that it won’t tolerate Iranian attempts to establish a so-called land bridge running from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon, the official said. Israel has said it is specifically concerned with the spread of long-range missiles and antiaircraft defense systems.
Iran’s military and militias it backs have established bases across Iraq and Syria to help fight Islamic State and groups opposing Mr. Assad, and its ally Hezbollah is well entrenched in Lebanon. Israel fears Tehran’s increasing territorial control will allow the Islamic Republic to transfer military hardware and personnel by road from Iran all the way to Israel’s doorstep.
The Israeli strikes in Syria play into a broader conflict unfolding in the Middle East, where Islamic State’s collapse has ushered in a power struggle among regional and foreign actors.
The war in Syria is expected to be at the center of talks between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. Russia has emerged as a main arbiter of the Syrian conflict through its support, alongside Iran, of Mr. Assad’s regime.
Faced with a possible U.S. withdrawal, Washington’s regional allies worry they will be left without strong backing in a war that has morphed from a popular uprising to a game of nations involving several of the world’s strongest military powers.
Israel considers it paramount to roll back Iran’s territorial expansion before the U.S. draws down its forces. Israel’s June strike so far to the east indicated that urgency. In previous bombings of purported Iranian assets over the past few years, Israel has almost exclusively struck southern and central Syria.
Sheikh Abu Talib al-Saeedi, a member of Kata’ib Hezbollah’s political office, said the fighters were on Iraqi territory when they were targeted in the June strike. Iraqi Shiite militia operating inside Syria often deny these movements.
Iraq said the forces hit weren’t operating under its command. The Kata’ib Hezbollah militia officially answers to the Iraqi government but is in fact loyal to Iran.
Syria and Iran didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment on the June strike.
Creating a land corridor through Iraq and Syria is a key goal for Iran to bolster its defense against regional enemies, an IRGC official has told the Journal.
Iran usually transports weapons by air to its regional allies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, but those consignments are easier for its foes to monitor and target than road shipments passing through villages and towns along with regular goods. Iran already transports some military goods overland but a secure corridor would allow it to move materiel on a larger scale.
The Iranian route across Iraq passes through bases previously used by the U.S. or its allies, including the H3 airfield, Ar-Rutbah base and Speicher air base, according to an intelligence official and an analyst, as well as small Iraqi towns including Akashat and Sabaa al Bour. Officials said they have observed weapons convoys moving through Iranian border crossings then to Baghdad and beyond.
While such a land bridge has long been a concern of many Western and Israeli officials, some aren’t convinced of its importance.
“The land bridge may bring in threatening stuff, but it’s either headed for a military facility in Syria or bound for a key route into Lebanon,” one security analyst who watches Syria said. “Either way, the Israel Defense Forces can still target the nodes and pipeline Iran uses.”
The Israeli strikes on Iranian positions are part of a two-pronged approach from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also flexing political muscle to stymie Iran. Last week, ahead of Monday’s U.S.-Russia summit, he visited Mr. Putin in Moscow in a bid to enlist his help in pushing Iranian-backed forces further away from the Israel’s northern border.
Mr. Netanyahu also discussed Syria with Mr. Trump on Saturday, he said, adding that the president pledged U.S. support to protect Israel’s security interests.
Israeli leaders, however, know that a full withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria is unrealistic and that Russia’s leverage over Iran is limited, analysts say.
“Russia doesn’t have the inclination or the ability to get Iran out of Syria. It doesn’t want to put more boots on the ground and it needs Iranian forces on the ground to win the war,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, an independent think tank. “What is being discussed are the parameters of Iranian presence.”
Russia’s ministry of defense didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
After the meeting with Mr. Putin, Mr. Netanyahu told reporters Russia had pushed Iran-allied forces “tens of kilometers” away from the Israel-Syria border, according to Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.
Iran is diplomatically isolated after seven years of supporting Mr. Assad’s atrocities and amid the meltdown of the Iran nuclear accord after the U.S. pulled out of it, said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born analyst at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel.
“Nobody is stopping Israel. Nobody is coming to Iran’s help. Iran is very diplomatically vulnerable,” Mr. Javedanfar said. “You don’t see a single Arab country denouncing Israeli airstrikes.”
But Iranian leaders have repeatedly refused to heed to U.S. or Israeli threats, and maintain Iran is only in Syria and Iraq at the invitation of the respective governments.
“When they say they no longer need our military advisers, Iran will not hesitate to leave,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said Friday in Moscow after meeting Mr. Putin.