They form part of a wider Iranian-supported presence near Aleppo and have reportedly suffered casualties in previous airstrikes.
The Syrian military Wednesday night that Israel struck the Sheikh Najjar industrial zone in the northern city of Aleppo, causing damage only to materials. Opposition sources such as SOHR claimed that the attack also targeted Iranian ammunition stores and the Nayrab (Nairab) military airport used by Tehran on the outskirts of the city - the second such strike on the installation in less than a year. “The Israeli aggression targeted some positions in Sheikh Najjar industrial zone and a number of enemy missiles were brought down," Syria’s SANA news agency quoted an army statement as saying.
The blasts also caused an electrical blackout in Aleppo, the country's second-largest city.
While the Israeli military has not commented on the strikes, Israel's acting Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz was quoted by Haaretz on Thursday morning as saying that "as far as Iran knows, it's Israel" who carried out the strikes. Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are redlines for the Jewish state.
With the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah forces, Israel’s northern front has become the IDF’s number one priority, with former chief of staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Gadi Eisenkot admitting that Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes against Iranian targets in Syria.
Eisenkot said that Israel “operated under a certain threshold until two-and-a-half years ago,” when he got “unanimous consent” from the government to change the rules of the game, leading to the dropping of some 2,000 missiles against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in 2018 alone.
In January, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel has a set policy of preventing Iran's entrenchment in Syria, and that it would be enforced whether he is in Israel or abroad.
“We have a permanent policy to harm Iran’s establishment in Syria and to harm anyone who tries to harm us...This policy is permanent.”
Iran meanwhile has warned Israel that it would respond if the Jewish state continued attacking them and their militias in Syria. Iranians have been reported killed in Aleppo and adjoining regions in prior airstrikes last April and July. In the latter, nine Iranians were reported killed at Nayrab Air Base. Similarly, reports by an Iranian opposition group claimed that Iranians were present in Sheikh Najjar. The National Council of Resistance of Iran tweeted that Iranian-linked Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba were present in December 2016. In January 2017, social media supporters of the Syrian rebellion claimed that some of the Iranians and Iranian-linked groups in Sheikh Najjar had been killed either due to shelling or airstrikes.
These reports appear to connect the dots regarding Iranian presence in Aleppo going back several years, including Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp-supported local militias. Nayrab airbase has been a conduit for Iranian support for the Syrian regime, and a barracks with militias in Sheikh Najjar has played a role in the regime’s war against the rebels. However, now that much of the fighting in the Syrian civil war is winding down, those Iranian assets and the groups linked to them are entrenching in Syria -something that both the US and Israel have warned about.
There have been discussions about foreign forces leaving Syria when the fighting is finished. However, the conflict is not over. There are tensions in Idlib province between the Syrian regime, it’s allies and jihadist groups. In September, Turkey and Russia signed an agreement that ended threats of a regime offensive in return for opposition and extremist groups in Idlib removing their heavy weapons from a buffer area. Since then, the group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was previously linked to Al-Qaeda, has solidified its control, angering Damascus which is concerned that Idlib will become even more extremist, as opposed to the group's role being reduced.
Russia and Israel discussed Syria in February when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The details of those and subsequent discussions are not public, but reports indicated that Israel has continued to demand the Iranian presence in Syria be reduced, saying that it will continue its freedom of action in Syria in response to any threats.