Israel attacked dozens of Iranian targets in Syria in what the military said was the most extensive strike in the neighboring country in decades, Haaretz reports. The strike was carried out in response to a barrage of 20 rockets that were fired from Syria at Israeli military outposts. Russia is reported to have been informed in advance of the Israeli attack.
The army said in a statement that its fighter jets had targeted Iranian intelligence and logistics sites around Damascus, as well as munition warehouses, observation and military posts. The attacks followed a wave of overnight missile strikes directed at Israeli territory — all of them apparently intercepted — that Israel blamed on Iran. But Iranian media downplayed Tehran’s role in the violence, depicting the clashes instead as between Israel and Syria.
The Israeli military accused the Revolutionary Guards’ Al Quds force and its commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, of launching the attack at the Israeli Golan Heights. This is the first time Iranian forces have ever fired directly on Israeli troops.
Four of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system and the rest of the rockets exploded on Syrian territory, the military said. Israel said there were no casualties in the attack. Israel said its targets included weapons storage, logistics sites and intelligence centers used by elite Iranian forces in Syria. It also said it destroyed five Syrian air-defense systems after coming under heavy fire. It said none of its warplanes were hit.
Tehran’s strong support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has allowed it to deepen its foothold across Syria. Although Israel has been escalating its attacks on Iranian forces in Syria for months, the hours-long assault early Thursday was the most intensive to date, The Washington Post adds. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said that casualties were expected, although it did not provide a number.
Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said the strikes targeted “almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria.” Lieberman said that Israel does not seek escalation, but added that it won’t allow Iran to turn Syria into a “forward base” against Israel. The army spokesman Brig. Gen. Ronen Menalis also said that Israel could still do plenty more if it was so inclined.
“What we did tonight is only the tip of the iceberg of the Israeli Army’s capability,” he said Thursday morning on Israel Army Radio.
Among the targets that were hit were Iranian intelligence sites, a logistics headquarters belonging to the Quds Force, military logistics compound in Al-Kiswah, an Iranian military compound in Syria, north of Damascus, munition storage warehouses of the Quds Force at the Damascus International Airport, intelligence systems and posts associated with Quds Force, observation and military posts and munition in the buffer zone, the Israeli army said. Al-Ikhbariya TV said Israel also targeted military posts in southern Suweida province, including an air base, and struck near Homs in central Syria. The state TV station said the attacks were foiled.
A source in the Israeli security establishment said this attack was the largest carried out by Israel since it signed a disengagement agreement with Syria in May 1974. The Israeli military warned Syria not to respond to its attack.
In recent months, Israel has warned that it will not accept a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, USA Today reminds. Iran has accused Israel of carrying out a series of deadly strikes on Iranian military positions in Syria in recent weeks, and had vowed retaliation. Iran has sent thousands of troops to back Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Israel fears that as the fighting nears an end, Iran and tens of thousands of Shiite militiamen will turn their focus to Israel.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said Israel was not looking to escalate the situation. But he said troops will continue to be on “very high alert.”
“Should there be another Iranian attack, we will be prepared for it,” he said.
Iran’s ability to hit back could be limited. Its resources in Syria pale in comparison to the high-tech Israeli military. Iran also could be wary of military entanglement at a time when it is trying to salvage the international nuclear deal.
The strikes come at an uneasy time across the region as President Trump’s decision to withdraw from a landmark nuclear deal with Iran has sharpened tensions between Tehran-linked forces and those who oppose them. While Trump was in Washington announcing the withdrawal, Golan residents were being told Tuesday to open up their bomb shelters — the first time the army has instructed them to do so during seven years of civil war in nearby Syria.
A U.S. State Department official responded to the escalation on Wednesday, telling Haaretz that U.S. wishes to reiterate Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s statement from last week in which he stressed the U.S. support of Israel against the Iranian threat.
“We stand with Israel in the fight against Iran’s malign activities and we strongly support Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself. If true [evidence provided by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu regarding Iran’s nuclear activity in recent years], this only bolsters our decision to terminate the JCPOA. Iran will have showed the world its true intentions. Let there be no doubt.”