Israel and Iran have long fought each other through proxies, but U.S. President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal earlier this week has emboldened Israel to make a direct attack.
In a statement, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “the Iranian regime’s deployment into Syria of offensive rocket and missile systems aimed at Israel is an unacceptable and highly dangerous development for the entire Middle East.”
Israel has carried out more than 100 airstrikes in neighbouring Syria since the civil war erupted in 2011, most believed to be aimed at suspected Iranian weapons shipments bound for the Hezbollah militant group.
But in the past few weeks, Israel has shifted to a more direct and public confrontation with Iran, striking at Iranian bases, weapons depots and rocket launchers across Syria, and killing Iranian troops. Israel accuses Tehran of seeking to establish a foothold on its doorstep, something it has vowed never to allow.
Reflecting the scope of the pre-dawn attack, Russia’s military said 28 Israeli jets were involved, striking Iranian and government sites in Syria with 70 missiles. It said half the missiles were shot down.
Speaking at the Herzliya Conference, an annual security gathering north of Tel Aviv, Lieberman said Israel would respond fiercely to any further Iranian actions.
“We will not let Iran turn Syria into a forward base against Israel,” the Israeli defence minister said. “If we get rain, they’ll get a flood. I hope that we ended this chapter and that everyone understood.”
In a statement issued as Israel’s security cabinet met, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the strike sent a “clear message” that “whoever attacks us — we will attack them sevenfold and whoever prepares to attack us — we will act against them first.”
Iranian state television announced the Israeli strikes, sourcing the information to Syria’s state-run SANA news agency, and described the Israeli attack as “unprecedented.”
Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 war and annexed it in 1981. In 1974, Israel and Syria reached a ceasefire and a disengagement deal that froze the conflict lines with the plateau in Israeli hands.
Damascus shook with sounds of explosions just before dawn, and firing by Syrian air defences over the city was heard for more than five hours.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Moscow sees Thursday’s strikes as a “very alarming development.”
He noted that in contacts with the leadership of both countries, including a meeting Wednesday between Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, “we underlined the necessity of avoiding any actions that might be mutually provocative.”
Russia sent forces to Syria to back President Bashar Assad in 2015. But Israel and Russia have maintained close communications to prevent their air forces from coming into conflict. The pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper reported Thursday that Russia and Israel were developing an agreement to keep Iran out of southern Syria and allow Syrian government forces to retake the region.
Israel said early Thursday that Iran’s Quds Force fired 20 rockets at Israeli front-line military positions in the Golan Heights. Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesperson, said four of the rockets were intercepted, while the others fell short of their targets. The incoming attack set off air raid sirens in the Golan.
Conricus said Israel was not looking to escalate the situation but that troops will continue to be on “very high alert.”
“Should there be another Iranian attack, we will be prepared for it,” he said.
In February, Israel shot down what it said was an armed Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace. Israel responded by attacking anti-aircraft positions in Syria, and an Israeli warplane was shot down during the battle.
Earlier this week, Syrian state media said Israel struck a military outpost near Damascus. The Observatory said the missiles targeted depots and rocket launchers that likely belonged to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard, killing at least 15 people, including eight Iranians.
Last month, an attack on Syria’s T4 airbase in the central Homs province killed seven Iranian military personnel.