(AFP) — The Israeli army said Thursday morning that it set back Iranian military capabilities in Syria by “many months” with overnight strikes on “dozens” of targets affiliated with the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps’ al-Quds Force following an attempted large-scale rocket attack on Israeli territory.
The Israel Defense Forces said that it suffered no casualties, either on the ground or in the air, and that no rockets fired from Syria made impact in Israeli territory
“All of our planes returned home safely,” the army said.
IDF spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus stressed that Israel was not seeking an escalation of hostilities with Tehran, after some 20 rockets were fired at Israeli military bases by Iranian forces from southern Syria just after midnight, prompting extensive Israeli retaliatory raids.
Four of the 20 projectiles launched by Iranian troops were intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system and the rest fell in Syria, Conricus said. The rockets included both Grad and Fajr-5 models, according to the military.
The IDF said the initial missile barrage was launched by members of the IRGC’s al-Quds Force. It appeared to be the first time Israel attributed an attack directly to Iran, which generally operates through proxies.
The overnight exchange was the largest-ever direct clash between the Iranian and Israeli militaries, and appeared to be the largest exchange involving Israel in Syria since the two countries reached by the two countries in 1974 following the the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Conricus confirmed that Israel’s strike throughout Syria were coordinated in advance with Russian forces in the country.
Overnight, IDF fighter jets struck dozens of military targets belonging to the Iranian Quds forces in Syrian territory pic.twitter.com/LwBJTMkxYR
— IDF (@IDFSpokesperson) May 10, 2018
In all, the army said it carried out approximately 50 raids against IRGC targets, including intelligence centers, weapons depots, storage facilities, observation posts, and logistics centers in Syria, as well as the rocket launcher that carried out the initial attack.
It was the “largest such operation [by Israel] against Iranian targets,” Conricus said.
“All of the targets that we engaged were effectively destroyed,” he added, causing “significant damage” to the Iranians.
An illustrative map released by the military showed the general distribution of Israel’s strikes in Syria.
The IDF spokesperson said the Iranians still retained military infrastructure to attack Israel, which was being monitored, but that the Israeli strikes set them back by “many months.” He said Israel was not seeking additional confrontation but would respond to any attempts to challenge its sovereignty.
“The IDF will not tolerate this Iranian presence on the Golan and in Syria,” Conricus said.
“The Iranian attack on Israel last night is further clear proof of the intentions behind the Iranian forces’ establishment in Syria and the danger they pose to Israel and regional stability,” the military said.
The army initially said military equipment sustained “limited” damage from the Iranian barrage, but after further investigation the military said it determined that “no damage was caused and no missile impacts were found in our territory.”
The military said it also targeted a number of Syrian air defense systems — SA-5, SA-2, SA-22 and SA-17 batteries — that had fired at Israeli planes, despite the military’s Arabic-language spokesperson explicitly warning that “any Syrian involvement will be met with the utmost severity.”
In a statement, the IDF said it “considers the Syrian regime responsible for what transpires in its territory.”
Arabic media reports confirmed that the IDF struck numerous targets across Syria, including weapons depots and Assad regime radar and air defense systems.
Syria’s state news agency, after initially reporting that the country’s air defenses were intercepting dozens of “hostile Israeli missiles,” later said Israeli jets hit military bases, as well as an arms depot and military radar, without specifying the locations.
Syrian rebels said the strikes targeted three airfields: the Shayrat air base, which was targeted by the United States last year for its role in an alleged chemical attack in the Syrian town of Khan Shaykhun; the Tha’lah air base, in southwest Syria, which has been tied to Hezbollah; and the Mezzeh military air field outside Damascus, which is reportedly home to Assad’s elite republican guard.
A large Israeli bombing raid was also reported near the northwestern Syrian town of Qusayr near the Lebanese border, a known Hezbollah stronghold.
In the days and weeks before the Iranian barrage, defense officials repeatedly warned that Israel would respond aggressively to any attack from Syrian territory.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladmir Putin in Moscow about Iran’s “explicit goal of attacking the State of Israel as part of their strategy to destroy the State of Israel,” he said. Netanyahu told reporters after the meeting that Putin was receptive to Israel’s demand that it be allowed to operate freely in Syria’s skies in order to defend itself.
In light of the exchanges of fire, numerous cities and towns in northern Israel decided to open their public bomb shelters, though the army did not require all of them to do so. In one case, residents of the northern Israeli town of Metula, along the Lebanese border, were instructed to take shelter after a loud explosion was heard in the area. They were later cleared to leave as no signs of impact were found.
On Wednesday morning, the army called for residents of northern Israel to go about their daily routines. Schools were opened and farmers were allowed in their fields, the army said.
Shortly before 3 a.m., a loud blast was also heard in the northern city of Safed, prompting its mayor to release a statement to residents reassuring them that the explosion was “not a missile strike or anything else, but rather an IDF launch from our area.”
Residents of central Israel reported hearing fighter jets flying overhead.
Tehran has repeatedly vowed revenge after the T-4 army base in Syria was struck in an air raid — widely attributed to Israel — on April 9, killing at least seven members of the IRGC, including a senior officer responsible for the group’s drone program.
It apparently attempted to exact that revenge at 12:10 a.m. on Thursday, with its bombardment on Israeli military bases on the Golan Heights.
Sirens blared across the Golan Heights throughout the exchange, sending residents into bomb shelters. The IDF Home Front Command called on residents to adhere to security instructions as needed. Residents of the Golan Heights were told they could leave the bomb shelters around 2 a.m., but were instructed to remain near the fortified areas until further notice.
The pro-Syrian government Al-Mayadeen TV said more than 50 missiles — not 20, as the IDF said — had been fired from Syria toward Israeli forces on the Golan Heights. A Syrian parliamentarian claimed on Twitter that Damascus, not Tehran, had launched the attack.
Immediately following the barrage, Syrian state media reported that Israeli artillery fire targeted a military post near the city of Baath in the Quneitra border region, where Syrian regime forces were stationed.
In the hours that followed, the Israeli retaliation expanded to include more artillery strikes and aerial bombings, according to Syrian reports.
A video shared on social media shortly after midnight on Thursday appeared to show the barrage of missiles apparently being fired by a multiple launch rocket system, or MLRS, from Syria toward Israel.
Residents of both the Israeli and Syrian Golan Heights reported hearing repeated loud explosions.
The attack came a day after the military called on local governments on the Golan Heights to open bomb shelters, in light of “abnormal” activities by Iranian forces in Syria. The barrage also followed US President Donald Trump’s announcement on Tuesday night that he was pulling the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal and reimposing sanctions on Tehran.
On Tuesday, eight Iranians were among 15 foreign pro-regime fighters killed in a suspected Israeli strike in Syria on a weapons depot of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, a monitor said. The raid struck the area of Kisweh south of Damascus late Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said on Wednesday.
Syria’s official news agency SANA said on Tuesday that the army had intercepted two Israeli missiles fired toward Kisweh, with state television broadcasting images of fires in the nearby area.
Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, Israel has repeatedly targeted positions of the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah terror group backing it inside the country.
On April 29, missile strikes — “probably Israeli” — fired on regime military positions near the cities of Hama and Aleppo in northern Syria killed at least 26 mostly Iranian fighters, according to the Observatory.
On April 9, missiles targeted the T-4 air base in the central province of Homs, killing up to 14 fighters, including seven Iranians, two days after an alleged chemical attack carried out by the Syrian regime. Russia, Iran and Syria accused Israel of carrying out the strike.
In light of both the general tension and specific intelligence, the IDF went on high alert this week, deploying additional missile defense batteries in northern Israel. “There is high preparedness of IDF troops for an attack,” the army said on Tuesday.
A number of army reservists were called upon Tuesday night, the army said. An IDF spokesperson would not elaborate on which units they came from, but media reports indicated they served in air defense, intelligence and Home Front Command units.
On Sunday night, Israeli defense officials warned that Iran was planning to retaliate for recent airstrikes attributed to Israel in Syria, by having its proxies fire missiles at military targets in northern Israel. Security forces were also preparing for the possibility of attempted infiltrations of military bases and communities in the north, Hadashot TV news reported on Monday.