Israel’s deadly airstrikes on what it says are Iranian military positions near Damascus have shed further light on the extent to which Tehran has leveraged the Syrian conflict to deepen its influence in areas near the Israeli border.
Israel says it targeted positions belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force, including a munition storage area, a military zone at Damascus International Airport, Iranian intelligence headquarters and an Iranian training camp south of Damascus.
The announcement demonstrated the extent of Iran's military infrastructure in an area just 50 kilometres from Israel’s northern border.
Lt Col Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said “Iranian troops – not proxies, not Shiite militias, not Syrian forces – Iranian troops” are operating in the area, in comments that contradict Tehran's claims that it only plays an advisory role in Syria and has not deployed troops to the country.
Mr Conricus said areas south of Damascus were used on Sunday to launch an Iranian-made missile towards northern Israel.
Sunday’s incident prompted Monday’s Israeli missile attack, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said served as a warning that Israel would not allow Iranian acts of aggression to go unanswered.
The chain of events deepened fears of a catastrophic war between rival forces, while also underscoring the extent to which Syria’s south-western front has become the main frontline in the battle between Israel and Iran, including its proxy Hezbollah.
Since 2013, the vast majority of Israeli-Iranian confrontations have centred around the south-western parts of Syria, replacing the Lebanese frontier as the main flashpoint in the standoff between the rival forces.
The geographical shift follows Hezbollah and Iranian entrenchment in southern Damascus as well as in the Quneitra region in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights– an Israel-occupied area bordering Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
Israel has sought to keep Iranian and Iranian-linked forces away from the Golan, in an attempt to prevent a broader escalation.
The US negotiated a de-escalation agreement in 2017 that prevents Iranian and Iranian-backed forces from approaching Syria's southwestern frontier.
However, Monday’s strikes threaten to upend the agreement and also fuell speculation that the next war between Israel and Iran might circle back to decades-old hostilities and a territorial dispute between Syria and Israel over the Golan Heights.
The disputed territory was first occupied by Israel during the Arab-Israeli war in 1967. Since then, the two countries have fought over the land, with occasional exchanges of fire, but rarely escalating into war. The last conflict dates back to the summer of 2006, when a Hezbollah cross-border raid sparked a one-month war between the Iranian-linked militia and the Israeli forces on the border with Lebanon.
On Sunday, missile trails lingered over the Golan’s snow-capped mountains in a stark reminder that the wider confrontation between Tel Aviv and Tehran is not divorced from the feud over this disputed region.
Israel is currently launching a push to cement its claim on the region. Mr Netanyahu told American National Security Advisor John Bolton this month that Israel wants the US to recognise its sovereign claim over the Golan Heights.
The UN Security Council has maintained the illegality of measures taken by Israel “to impose its laws, jurisdiction and administration on the occupied Syrian Golan,” adding that “acquisition of territory by force is inadmissible under international law.”
Iran and Syria both maintain that the Golan Heights is occupied and have vowed to wrestle the area back from their respective rival.