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Israeli Airstrikes Target Iran’s Presence, Drone Program in Syria

avatar by Steven Emerson

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Hezbollah terrorists on parade. Photo: File.

In recent months, tensions between Israel and Iran have evolved from covert and proxy battles to direct confrontation. Early Monday, Israel targeted the Syrian regime’s T-4 military air base in Homs, killing at least seven Iranian personnel. One of the fatalities was a colonel with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC), responsible for overseeing Iran’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) unit. The IRGC ordered Iranian state-affiliated media outlets to retract articles describing the incident.

Iran’s drone program is a growing threat to Israeli national security. The Islamic Republic is assisting its terrorist proxies — mainly Hezbollah and Hamas — in acquiring and developing sophisticated drones to challenge Israel.

Drones have been used to test Israel’s air defenses and conduct surveillance over sensitive sites. In 2014, Hezbollah reportedly was the first terrorist group to utilize an attack drone to kill rival militants in Syria and continues to incorporate aerial capabilities in its offensive operations.

Now, bypassing its proxies, Iran is directly challenging Israel through its UAV program. In early February, Israel shot down an Iranian drone that infiltrated Israel’s airspace. Israeli jets subsequently bombed several military targets in Syria, including some under Iranian control. In the process, Syrian air defenses downed an Israeli jet — the first time that an Israeli military aircraft had been taken out by enemy fire since the 1980s.

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That escalation marks the first direct confrontation between Israeli and Iranian forces. Iran may have been provoking an Israeli response, demonstrating a growing willingness to use Syria as a base to challenge Israel directly.

Israel has set red lines throughout the Syrian civil war, focused on preventing “game-changing” weapons from landing in Hezbollah’s hands and the creation of a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria. In late February, reports emerged proving that Iran constructed another military base in Syria with the ability to host missiles that can strike any part of the Jewish state.

Iran already oversees a military compound near the Damascus airport and other high-profile airbases and permanent military sites across the country.

In 2015, Israeli airstrikes in the Syrian Golan killed 11 members of the Hezbollah-Iranian axis, including senior Hezbollah leaders and an Iranian general who were attempting to set up a base of terrorist operations to target Israel.

Israel’s airstrike on Monday came amid another Syrian regime chemical weapons attack targeting civilian neighbourhoods in Douma — a Damascus suburb. The timing of Israel’s airstrike suggests that Israel is partially holding the Assad regime accountable for such a gruesome attack. However, Israel is primarily signaling to the Iranian regime that its neighboring drone program and permanent foothold in Syria is unacceptable.

Steven Emerson is considered one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing, and operations. He serves as the Executive Director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, a non-profit organization that serves one of the world’s largest storehouses of archival data and intelligence on Islamic and Middle Eastern terrorist groups. 

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