Iranian forces in Syria launched a rocket attack on Israeli army bases in the Golan Heights early on Thursday, Israel said, prompting one of the heaviest Israeli barrages against Syria since the conflict there began in 2011.
The attack on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, just past midnight, marked the first time Iranian forces have hit Israel from Syria, where they have deployed along with Iran-backed Shi’ite militias and Russian troops to support President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s civil war.
"we focussed less on personnel and more on capabilities and hardware"
Dozens of Israeli missiles hit a radar station, Syrian air defence positions and an ammunition dump, Syrian state media said, underscoring the risks of a wider escalation involving Iran and its regional allies.
Israel said 20 Iranian Grad and Fajr rockets were shot down by its Iron Dome air defence system or fell short of the Golan targets. The Quds Force, an external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, carried out the launch, Israel said.
“It was commanded and ordered by (Quds Force chief General) Qassem Soleimani and it has not achieved its purpose,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.
Israel struck back by destroying dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, Conricus said, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft units that tried unsuccessfully to shoot down Israeli planes.
“We do not know yet the (Iranian) casualty count,” he said.
“But I can say that in terms of our purpose, we focussed less on personnel and more on capabilities and hardware ...to inflict long-term damage on the Iranian military establishment in Syria. We assess it will take substantial time to replenish.”
Israeli schools in the Golan Heights opened as usual on Thursday morning, after sirens had sent residents to shelters during the night.
“I do not reside on the border of New Zealand-Australia. We are located here facing Syria and Lebanon and this is the reality which we will overcome together, especially with the IDF (Israel Defence Forces),” said Alex Gudish, a Golan settler.
The Israelis fear that Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are turning Syria into a new front against them. Israel says its occasional strikes in Syria aim to foil that.
Iran vowed retaliation after a suspected Israeli air strike last month killed seven of its military personnel in a Syrian airbase.
Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has repeatedly targeted Iranian forces and allied militia in Syria.
Expectations of a regional flare-up were stoked by U.S. President Donald Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal. Hours later, Israeli rocket rockets targeted a military base in Kisweh, a commander in the pro-Syrian government regional alliance said.
That attack killed 15 people, including eight Iranians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, though the commander said there were no casualties. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.
The Trump administration cast its hard line against the Iranian nuclear deal as a response, in part, to Tehran’s military interventions in the region.
The Golan flare-up with Israel “is just further demonstration that the Iranian regime cannot be trusted and another good reminder that the president made the right decision to get out of the Iran deal,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox News.
The tensions worry Russia, which wants to stabilise Syria.
Thursday’s flare-up came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from a visit to Moscow, where he discussed Syria concerns with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Conricus said Israel forewarned Russia of its strikes on Thursday, which Syrian state media first reported hit Baath City in Quneitra, near the border. Further waves of missiles followed. Syrian state media said Israeli missiles had been brought down over Damascus, Homs and Sueida.
“Air defences confronted tens of Israeli rockets and some of them reached their target and destroyed one of the radar sites,” Syrian state news agency SANA reported, citing a military source. Another rocket hit an ammunition warehouse, it said.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of its air defences firing and playing patriotic songs. Damascus residents described explosions in the sky from air defence systems.
Lebanon’s National News Agency reported Israeli jets circling over Lebanese territory early on Thursday before exiting.