Eric Zuniga, Campus Carrier staff writer
At least five people have been killed and 15 injured in an Israeli missile strike on the Syrian capital of Damascus on Feb. 19, according to a report by the Associated Press. The strikes targeted a residential area of the city that is also home to numerous intelligence operations, including some operated by Iran. According to Kelsey Rice, assistant professor of history, there is high likelihood of civilian casualties given the area targeted by the strikes.
“Considering where they hit, yes, one would guess that some civilians were hit, but of course, neither Israel nor the Syrian government tend to be super forthcoming with information about these sorts of actions,” Rice said.
Although the strikes landed in Syria, Israel was most likely targeting Iranian intelligence operations located in Damascus, according to John Hickman, professor of international affairs.
“There were probably Iranian agents, together with their Syrian colleagues, working in cooperation in this area of downtown Damascus,” Hickman said. “The target was probably to kill them and also damage their operations and keep the fight going.”
According to Rice, these strikes are part of a long-standing conflict between Iran and Israel.
“They are physically striking Syria but it’s part of a proxy conflict with Iran. The targets are Iranian, and so this is very standard Israeli-Iranian proxy conflict,” Rice said.
The broader context of these strikes includes hostility between Israel and many of its neighboring states as well as a protracted civil war within Syria. Iran and Israel have had hostile relations since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, in which an Islamist theocracy took power. According to Hickman, while Iran seeks greater control over its region, it also perceives Israel as a threat to its security.
“[Iran] seeks influence through asymmetric warfare—supplying rebel movements and the like,” Hickman said. “The other thing is that Israel seeks to dominate its near neighbors—Lebanon and Jordan and Syria. Israel wants, among other things, territory. It clearly wants its own clients.”
Syria has been the site of a civil war since 2011. While Syria’s ruling Assad family is Shia Muslim and is supported by a number of religious and ethnic minorities, the majority of the country is Sunni Muslim. According to Rice, when the Sunni majority sought to overthrow the Assad government, Iran, a majority Shia country, intervened to maintain Shia power in the Middle East.
“Syria is majority Sunni Muslim, but the ruling clan, the Assads, their family, they are Alawites. The Alawites are a unique branch of Shia Islam,” Rice said. “When the Syrian Civil War broke, in which the majority Sunni Muslim population wanted to overthrow the Alawite ruling regime, Iran intervened on behalf of the Assads, because Iran’s interest is in propping up what they kind of call a Shia triangle of power, so Iran, Iraq, Syria.”
Rice added that the ongoing civil war has allowed Iran to use Syria as a base for operations against Israel since the two countries border each other.
“Now Iran is using Syria as a site to surveil, harass and strike Israel, so now it is evolving more into an Israeli-Iranian proxy conflict,” Rice said. “It is this not quite international but definitely trans-regional Shia network that is located in Syria, because from Syria, it’s pretty easy to launch attacks at Israel.”
Foreign governments outside of the Middle East have intervened in this conflict as well. According to Hickman, Russia has given support to both Iran and Syria, while the United States as part of its long-standing alliance has supported Israel.
“Russia backs Syria along with Iran,” Hickman said. “We’re the patron for Israel. We give it a lot of foreign aid every year. A lot of the weapons it uses are really just our weapons, sometimes modified, so we back Israel.”
Rice said that United States policy in the Middle East has also contributed to the conflict.
“It’s not even an indirect route to where the U.S. has partial responsibility,” Rice said. “This is a result of decades of failed U.S. policy in the Middle East, and the result of the brutal Assad regime, which the U.S. is not directly responsible for.”
Damascus, located in southern Syria, was not particularly affected by the recent earthquake that killed more than 5,000 in northern Syria. The broader conflict between Iran and Israel and the ongoing civil war, however, has worsened the situation for the parts of Syria devastated by the earthquake. According to Rice, northern Syria is currently controlled by anti-Assad rebels. This along with U.S. sanctions has made it especially difficult to deliver aid to the region.
“If the U.S. has sanctions, then nobody is willing to do business because the U.S. has so much financial markets and institutions. Between U.S. sanctions and the Syrian government not actually controlling that territory, it’s been incredibly difficult to get aid there,” Rice said.
There are concerns that the current conflict between Israel and Iran could escalate out of control. Hickman said that a severe escalation could raise the possibility of nuclear conflict, because of U.S. and Russian involvement in the region as well as Israel’s possession of nuclear weapons.
“If conflict gets out of hand in the Middle East, it could result in a great power conflict, a systemic war, that includes nuclear war. The United States and Russia have enough nuclear weapons to kill everybody in the northern hemisphere,” Hickman said. “Israel, if it feels threatened enough, could use nuclear weapons against Iran.”
Rice said that increasing tensions in the region along with worsening climate change could create a serious refugee crisis.
“This connects with so very many issues, including climate,” Rice said. “This is a very hot and dry part of the world that is incredibly conflict-prone, so that’s producing refugees, and then drought is going to produce refugees.”
Unfortunately for Syrians, war and internal conflict have been long-standing realities. Rice said that there is no simple path forward for Syria.
“Between the civil war and decades of intermittent conflict with Israel, this is everyday reality for a Syrian person,” Rice said. “In terms of rebuilding Syria, there’s no easy solution there.”