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Why is Israel bombing Syria and its main international airport?

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Israel has launched at least 400 airstrikes against military targets in Syria, and even destroyed this month much of the international airport of the capital, Damascus. Israel and Syria have been technically in a state of war since 1948, when Israel was founded and a coalition of Arab countries invaded the territory as a response. The creation of Israel was a very violent process, with the forced expulsion of around 750,000 Palestinians and massacres against the local Arab population to be able to establish a Jewish-majority state.

After the Six-Days and Yom Kippur wars in 1967 and 1973 respectively, which Israel again won against a coalition of Arab countries in both cases, a ceasefire agreement was signed with Syria to define common borders, creating with this a 'permanent tense calm' that lasted several decades.

But when the civil war started in Syria in 2011, Israel became much more active in its military operations against targets that could pose a threat to its national security. This, because Iran, that has declared officially that its aim is to "destroy Israel'', is using Syria to deploy soldiers there and to deliver weapons to Hezbollah (Party of God in Arabic), a Shia anti-semitic Islamic group that is part of the government in Lebanon, a neighbouring country, and that has waged many wars against Israel since it was founded in 1985.

The civil war erupted amid general protests in the Arab world because of food prices going up and bad management of authoritarian governments that were also relatively secular among very religious societies: Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Syria. In the case of Syria, the situation got worse because of the extremely geopolitical importance of the country in the Middle East and the huge ethnic, religious and political divide that existed there. The country was ruled by the minority Alawite/Shia Muslims (10% of population) against the majority of Sunni Muslims (75%), whereas Kurds and Christians made up the rest of the population. The territory is located also in the middle of the big regional powers: Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Israel and the Gulf states.

The armed conflict in Syria started with the objective of overthrowing completely the secular government and involved mainly the following actors: on one side, the groups loyal to the authoritarian and pan-Arabic, socialist, President Bashar al-Assad; Russia, Iraq and Iran. On the other side, moderate and extremist Sunni rebels, ISIS, Turkey, United States, France, UK, Gulf states and Israel. It has provoked more than 500,000 deaths, 15 million refugees and long-lasting effects on the international relations system.

Israel armed and funded a dozen rebel groups in Southern Syria. It provided also humanitarian help to the local population via a program called "Good Neighbour Operation" to prevent Iran-backed groups from establishing themselves close to the Israeli border and winning the alliance of the local population. When the troops of Bashar al-Assad and Iran eventually defeated those rebel groups, Israel began to strike deeper inside the territory of Syria and directly into the military bases that Iran has/had in the country. It is estimated also that around 3,000 elite Iranian soldiers have been killed by these Israeli airstrikes in Syria.

The government of Israel has denounced that Iran is "turning Syria into a base of military entrenchment, and as a war front against its declared goal to eradicate the Jewish state". Iran, which is a Shia Muslim regional power, sees indeed the victory of Bashar al-Assad as crucial because Syria has been its only consistent ally since the 1979 Islamic revolution, and provides an important territorial connection to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

When Russia got directly involved into the war to help Bashar al-Assad in 2015, Israel reached an agreement with Putin by which Russia will not hinder the Israeli Air Force to bomb Iranian targets. In exchange, Israel would allow pro-government forces that were trapped close to its border to move freely towards safer areas. Thanks to Russian support, the war will probably end with the victory of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This has provoked its military forces to feel more capable of attacking Israel with rockets and stray fire, thus escalating the conflict even more.

Israel usually attacks military targets that are connected to Iran and casualties are mostly limited to soldiers and not Syrian civilians, although some children have even died in some of those strikes. In the case of the bombing of the international airport of Damascus this month, it was done at 4 a.m without any civilians inside it. However, this caused flights to be cancelled for several days and the main building to be completely destroyed. Israel claims that Iran has been using the airport facilities to deliver sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah and other anti-Israel groups through airplane connections.

It is expected that Israel will continue its intensive military operations in Syria using the fact that the world and regional powers are still dealing with the issue of reaching an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and because of Russia’s war in Ukraine. In the meantime, the civilian population in Syria continues to suffer the effects of one of the deadliest and longest wars in the Middle East so far.


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