Jerusalem (AFP) – Israel carried out widespread deadly raids against what it said were Iranian targets in Syria on Thursday after rocket fire towards its forces it blamed on Iran, drawing global calls to avoid any further escalation.
The exchange of fire came after weeks of rising tensions and followed US President Donald Trump’s decision Tuesday to withdraw from the landmark 2015 Iran nuclear deal, a move Israel had long advocated.
The bombardment led to immediate calls for restraint from Russia, France, Germany and Britain, while the United States put the blame squarely on Iran and stressed Israel’s right to “self-defence”.
Germany and Britain joined the United States in denouncing the rocket fire they also said came from Iran, while France reiterated its “unwavering support for Israel’s security”.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran had “crossed a red line” and that the resulting bombardment “was a consequence”.
Iran has made no comment about the rocket fire.
The raids, which a monitor said killed 23 fighters, were one of the largest Israeli military operations in recent years and the biggest such assault on Iranian targets, the Israeli military said.
“We hit nearly all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria,” said Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
“I hope we’ve finished this episode and everyone understood.”
Israel carried out the raids after it said 20 rockets, either Fajr or Grad type, were fired from Syria at its forces in the occupied Golan Heights at around midnight.
It blamed Iran’s Quds force, adding that Israel’s anti-missile system intercepted four while the rest did not land in its territory.
There were no Israeli casualties.
If confirmed, it would be the first time Iran has sought to directly attack Israeli-controlled territory aside from an alleged attempted drone assault in February.
“We know that comes from the Al-Quds force,” army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said, referring to the special forces unit affiliated with Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor reported that dozens of rockets were fired from Syria towards the Israeli-occupied Golan, without saying they were fired by Iranian forces.
It said the rockets followed a “first Israeli bombardment on the town of Baath” in Quneitra province.
A senior pro-regime military source in Syria confirmed the salvo of rockets, insisting Israel had fired first.
– ‘Not looking to escalate’ –
Later, in the early hours of the morning, explosions were heard in Damascus, while live images were broadcast on television showing projectiles above the capital and several missiles destroyed by anti-aircraft systems.
Syrian state media said Israeli missile strikes had hit military bases as well as an arms depot and a military radar installation, without specifying where.
The official SANA news agency said “dozens of missiles were shot down by anti-aircraft systems in Syrian airspace”, acknowledging a number had reached their targets.
Israel’s military later confirmed it had carried out the raids, saying some 70 targets had been struck and all of its aircraft had returned safely.
The army’s Conricus said intelligence, logistics and storage facilities as well as vehicles were targeted, in addition to the origin of the rockets.
Syrian air defences, which fired dozens of times on Israeli jets, were also targeted, he said.
Lieberman called the rocket fire “a new phase”.
“We don’t want an escalation, but won’t let anyone attack us or build an infrastructure to attack us in the future,” he said.
Russia said 28 Israeli F-15 and F-16 planes took part in the raids with a total of around 70 missiles fired.
Syria said it was the Israeli strikes that marked a “new phase” of direct involvement in the country’s seven-year conflict.
Its army said three people had been killed.
In a rare if not unprecedented move for an Arab country, Bahrain backed Israel’s right to “defend itself” after the strikes.
Bahrain is a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the two countries, whose foreign policies are often in lockstep, view Iran as the chief threat to the region.
– ‘Right to protect self’ –
Israel has long warned it will not accept Iran entrenching itself militarily in neighbouring Syria, where the Islamic republic is supporting President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in the civil war.
It has been blamed for a series of recent strikes inside Syria that have killed Iranians, though it has not acknowledged those raids.
The Jewish state says it has conducted dozens of raids in Syria to stop what it says are advanced arms deliveries to Iran-backed Hezbollah, another key foe of Israel.
Israel had been preparing itself for weeks for possible Iranian retaliation.
Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal has added to tensions and led to a new level of uncertainty over how Iran will respond.
On Wednesday, Netanyahu held talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose country has provided massive military and diplomatic backing to Assad’s regime.
“I told President Putin that it is the right of every state, certainly the right of Israel, to take the necessary steps in order to protect itself from this aggression,” Netanyahu said, referring to Iran’s presence in Syria.
Israel and Russia have established a hotline to avoid accidental clashes in the war-torn country.
Russia was informed in advance of Israel’s strikes on Thursday, Conricus said.