At 01:10 on 13 January, according to the Syrian state Sana News Agency and Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), Israeli Air Force aircraft conducted several airstrikes in the Deir ez-Zur province of eastern Syria. The SOHR cited at least 18 airstrikes against weapons storage facilities and other positions near Deir ez-Zur city and the towns of al-Bukamal, al-Mayadin, and Ayyash. The airstrikes reportedly killed 23 security personnel including Syrian Army soldiers, and members of Iranian-backed militia groups affiliated with the predominantly Afghan Fatimid Brigade, Lebanese Hezbollah, and other units. Another 28 members were wounded. The SOHR later claimed at least 57 individuals were killed including 14 Syrian soldiers, 16 Iraqi militia members, and 11 Afghan militia members. This was considered by some to comprise the deadliest airstrikes in Syria since at least 2018.
Confident verification of casualty counts was predictably elusive, with far more conservative casualty figures more plausible. The Syrian government refused to confirm casualty figures, the Iranian government indirectly denied casualties amongst affiliated forces, and Iranian-backed groups in Iraq also denied casualty claims. However, on 13 January, the Popular Mobilization Committee announced the “martyrdom” of Abu Yatim al-Qatrani, the commander of the 4th Badr Organization PMF Brigade. The statement vaguely noted that al-Qatrani “died while returning from duty”, with no further details provided. Plausible reports from social media sources indicate al-Qatrani was amongst the militia members killed during the airstrikes in Syria. The official was reportedly actively involved in the Syrian conflict for several years.
According to The Associated Press, citing an unnamed senior US intelligence official, the US provided intelligence supporting the airstrike. Associated operations were discussed between US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Yossi Cohen, the head of Mossad, in Washington on 11 January. The same source described the targeted sites as storage facilities for Iranian weapons being trafficked across the region. The warehouses also purportedly stored components used to support Iran’s nuclear program. The US and Israeli governments refused to officially comment on the airstrikes in accordance with established patterns, but the purportedly leaked commentary delivered the desired message.
The 13 January airstrikes form the culmination of a recent spike in Israeli airstrikes against Syrian government forces and allied forces in different environments of Syria. Claims that Israeli airstrikes in Syria are intended to disrupt the transit of rockets, missiles, and other heavy weapons in the region are plausible to some extent. However, the increasing intensity of airstrikes highlighted previously noted concerns that the Israeli government and US defense apparatus are deliberately escalating the regional proxy war between the US, Iran, and their respective allies. The assessed desired end state involves precluding the possibility of a rapprochement between president-elect Joe Biden’s administration and the Iranian government once he takes office on 20 January.
For further discussion and analysis please see the full report.