The Israeli military said its jets struck a series of Iranian military targets in Syria early Monday, an announcement that was a rare departure from Israel’s years-long policy of ambiguity regarding activities in neighboring war-torn Syria.
The military said the targets included munition storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp.
The strikes were in response to a surface-to-surface rocket that Iranian forces fired toward Israel on Sunday that was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system over a ski resort in the Golan Heights. That followed a rare Israeli daylight air raid near the Damascus International Airport.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday’s pre-dawn strikes lasted for nearly an hour and were the most intense Israeli attacks since May. It said 11 were killed in the strikes. The Russian military said four Syrian troops were among those killed in airstrikes that targeted three different locations and damaged unspecified infrastructure at Damascus airport. There were no further details on the casualties or their nationalities.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the Iranian missile attack that prompted the strong Israeli response was “premeditated.” Iranian forces in Syria fired the mid-range surface-to-surface missile toward Israel from the Damascus area — a missile he said had been smuggled into Syria specifically for that purpose. Conricus declined to further identify the type of missile but said it hadn’t been used in any of the internal fighting of the civil war and had “no business” being in Syria.
In Iran, the chief of Iran’s air force, Gen. Aziz Nassirzadeh, said his forces are “impatient and ready for a fight against the Zionist regime to wipe it off the Earth,” according to a news website affiliated with Iran’s state television, YJC.ir.
Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to annihilate Israel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “pounded” the Iranian sites in response to the missile attack and would not hesitate to respond again.
“We don’t allow such acts of aggression to go unanswered as Iran attempts to establish itself militarily in Syria and in the face of Iran’s explicit statements that it intends to destroy Israel,” he said at a ceremony dedicating a new airport in southern Israel.
“Whoever tries to harm us, we will harm them. Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility,” Netanyahu added.
Israel has only recently acknowledged carrying out hundreds of strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria in recent years. It previously typically offered only general warnings against allowing Iran to establish a military foothold in Syria and refrained from commenting directly for fear of triggering a reaction and being drawn into the deadly fighting.
Israeli political and military leaders have been far more verbose of late, and Monday’s announcement went a step further, reporting the strikes in real time and detailing the targets.
Conricus would not confirm whether the measures marked an official abandonment of the policy of ambiguity, merely saying that it was a “retaliatory strike against active aggression by Iran.”
He said Israel had sent warnings to Syria ahead of the attack to refrain from attacking Israeli warplanes, but that Syria ignored those warnings and fired anti-aircraft missiles. He said Israel responded by destroying Syrian anti-aircraft batteries. The Russian military said that the Syrian air defenses shot down over 30 Israeli cruise missiles, a claim that was doubted in Israel.
The military said the Mount Hermon ski site has been closed.
Israel holds Syria responsible for allowing the Iranian forces to use Syrian territory as a base of operations against Israel. “Syria yesterday paid the price for allowing Iran to conduct attacks and to plan attacks from its soil,” he said.
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the Iranian rocket attack provided “live testimony” to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria that could plunge the entire Mideast into war.
Speculation has abounded in Israel on what is driving the newfound overtness of its actions, with many suggesting domestic politics could be a factor ahead of Apr. 9 elections.
Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the military had no choice but to comment after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took credit publicly for the strikes. Yaalon said he supported the strikes but not the “chatter” around them and he accused Netanyahu of playing politics with the country’s security.
“Unfortunately … everything is connected to his political survival,” Yaalon told Israel’s Army Radio. “What does the publication give us? Can someone tell me what the benefit is, besides politics?”
However, Yaakov Amidror, a former Israel national security adviser, said that rather than pre-election rhetoric, the remarks meant to escalate words before escalating actions — and clarify that Israel was willing to take chances to stop Iran from building a war machine in Syria.
“If you want to … make clear to the other side that you are determined to prevent something, either you escalate the operation … or you say in public ‘I am doing it,’ meaning ‘I am ready to take the risk,'” he said. “When the Iranians didn’t understand it and fired a rocket into Israel, the reaction was immediate.”
Amidror said the ball was now in Iran’s court to see how far the latest conflagration would escalate.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.