Engineer’s death offers clues to Israeli air strikes on Syria

Khaled Yacoub Oweis

The National  /  April 16, 2023

Israel’s quest for a tougher stance on Iran tells much about its intensified attacks.

Syrian army colonel Amjad Ali lectured students in front of a blackboard in a red-carpeted auditorium. Photos of those talks show a man with a moustache and receding hairline, some of the last images of him before his death in an Israeli air strike near Damascus two months ago.

President Bashar al-Assad’s loyalists put up copies of his death notice on social media, as well as undated photos him. One of his friends writes that he and Ali studied for a master’s degree in engineering together.

“He was a scientific asset,” his friend says in a Facebook post.

These accounts, combined with Syrian opposition reconnaissance of an Iran-linked site near Damascus, suggest that Ali was a previously unknown player in a confrontation between Israel and Iran, increasingly superimposed on the theatre of the Syrian civil war.

War of attrition

The confrontation has transformed into a war of attrition since Israel intensified attacks on targets in Syria in February, part of an air campaign against Iranian arms transfers to militias in the country, which has been ongoing since 2012 but has escalated to hundreds of strikes in recent years.

Recent air strikes were reportedly due to a suspicion that Iran has been transporting military hardware to its militia allies on board aid flights to Syria, as well as through overground routes from Iraq, in the aftermath of the earthquake earlier this year.

Syrian opposition sources based in Amman say Ali was killed when two Israeli rockets hit a site containing a weapons depot and a military hardware workshop at about midnight on February 19. He was reportedly in charge of the compound in the Barda area, 5km south of Damascus.

Another Syrian soldier was killed at the site where personnel from Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah — created and funded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — also worked, the sources say.

An opposition member who has been gathering intelligence on the compound says part of Ali’s duties appear to have been liaising with Hezbollah operatives, who used to leave the site by nightfall, leaving Syrian military personnel behind.

He says the rest of the Syrian soldiers “didn’t know much about what the Hezbollah elements were doing”.

Relying on Hezbollah and other militias sponsored by Tehran, including a number of groups from Iraq, Iran has been using Syria to settle scores with Israel and the United States, or to provoke the two allies.

Among the strategic assets in the Iranian zone of influence in the country is a supply route running through Syria, from the Iraqi border to Lebanon, and areas near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, south-west of Damascus.

Using Syria as a launch pad — including for rocket attacks this month on the Golan Heights — has minimised prospects of retaliation on Iran’s own territory.

But a European diplomat says while the Israeli attacks have mainly been aimed at containing Iran in Syria, they could be a dress rehearsal for an eventual Israeli strike on Iran to diminish Tehran’s nuclear capabilities.

“Israel feels it is being encircled by an almost-nuclear power,” he says. “It is telling Iran that ‘we will hit you with all what we can’.”

Nuclear deal tensions

Israel has launched hundreds of strikes on targets in Syria since the Iran nuclear deal all but collapsed in 2018. This month pro-government media in Tehran reported that two members of the IRGC were killed in Israeli attacks near Damascus.

The IRGC is in charge of external relations with Iran’s proxies and military allies in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Syrian researcher Wael Alwan says that airports, arms depots, air defence batteries, drones, guidance systems, radar and communications centres have been attacked by Israel.

Israel has also targeted bases belonging to Shiite militia supervised by the IRGC, says Mr Alwan, head of information at the Jusoor information centre in Istanbul.

Among them is the mainly Pakistani Zainabiyoun and the mostly Afghan Fatimiyoun Shiite militias, as well as Al-Baqir near Aleppo, some of whose Syrian members underwent conversion from Sunnism to Shiism.

The Fatimiyoun and Zainabiyoun operate around the agricultural town of Albu Kamal on the Euphrates, near the border with Iraq, regarded widely as a main entry point of Iranian-supplied weapons into Syria.

“The Israeli strikes have become more frequent and more dense, as Iran has been sending more qualitative weapons to its allies,” says Mr Alwan.

Albu Kamal is also situated within a wider geopolitical struggle in the region. To the east, Russian forces and the US army have coexisted since 2015, partly because they had set up “de-confliction” channels to avoid clashes between the two militaries.

When attacking Syrian troops, Mr Alwan says Israel has been careful to avoid units closely linked with Russia, focusing on formations that have acted as proxies for Tehran.

Among them are the First Corps, south of Damascus, the 90th Brigade and the Fourth Division, the most well-equipped unit in the Syrian military, headed by Maher Al Assad, the president’s only living brother.

‘Twisting the ear of the regime’

After rockets were fired into Israel by pro-Iranian militias in Syria and Lebanon this month, the Israeli military said it attacked a Fourth Division compound and radars systems and artillery units linked to the Syrian military.

Veteran political commentator Ayman Abdel Nour says that the targets also included the perimeter of a villa belonging to Maher al-Assad west of Damascus.

He described that attack as twisting the ear of the regime.

“Even where there is a Syrian flag, Iran operates,” says Mr Abdel Nour.

Ali’s death notice listed his hometown as Sheikh Badr, in the Alawite Mountains overlooking the Mediterranean coast. Like most members of the Syrian military, he was a member of the minority sect that has dominated Syria since a 1963 coup.

His death is unlikely to be avenged. Amid the ideologically diverse Iranian allies in Syria, Tehran has regarded regime elements as dispensable.

Khaled Yacoub Oweis – Jordan correspondent