JERUSALEM—After weeks of escalating verbal warnings and occasional skirmishes, Israel’s air force attacked Iranian military positions in Syria overnight, dealing its installations a significant blow.
Israel said it acted in response to a barrage of 20 rockets launched by Iran’s Quds Force from Syrian territory onto forward positions of the Israeli army on the Golan Heights. In an early morning assessment, the Israeli army said remnants of four projectiles had fallen in Israeli territory, with the remaining 16 failing to cross the border.
Israel reported no casualties, but residential communities throughout the region were awakened by air raid sirens just after midnight, sending families into shelters for about two hours.
At a moment when the Trump administration is already ratcheting up pressure on Tehran, the United States condemned Iran’s “provocative rocket attacks from Syria against Israeli citizens.” In a statement, the White House added that “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.”
Following a conversation with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stressed “the need for avoiding any mutually provoking moves.” Then added with a certain note of irony, “Both Iran and Israel have assured us that there are no such intentions. It is particularly alarming that such incidents take place against the backdrop of statements emphasizing respect for Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Russia has been the dominant military force in Syria since 2015, when it intervened to save President Bashar al-Assad, a longtime ally whose regime was in mortal danger. But Russia took no measures against the Israeli offensive in the early hours of Thursday. The Russian Defense Ministry said 28 Israeli jets took part in the strike, firing more than 70 missiles and reported Syria shot down over half of the Israeli missiles.
The Israeli army said its jets destroyed “dozens of targets belonging to the Iranian Quds forces in Syrian territory,” including a munitions storehouse, logistics centers, and intelligence sites.
The Quds Force is the expeditionary arm of the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, openly responsible for training sympathetic militias, sometimes engaging directly in combat, and often alleged to be involved with terrorist activities. The Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani, is seen by Iran’s adversaries as a major villain, and by many in his home country as something of a hero. A sympathetic Syrian newspaper claimed the objective of the Israeli attacks was, at least in part, to kill him, and that U.S. President Donald Trump gave the “assassination” a “green light.”
On Thursday, Israeli army spokesman Lt. Jonathan Conricus claimed the Quds Force commander was in charge of the attack on Israel. “It was ordered and commanded by Qassem Soleimani and it has not achieved its purpose,” he said in a briefing.
Israeli fighter planes operated amid heavy resistance from Syrian air defense systems “fired despite an Israeli warning,” the army said. In response, Israel destroyed five Russian-built Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) quoted a Syrian foreign ministry source saying that “the entry of the Zionist entity and its supporters in a direct confrontation… points to a new phase of the aggression on Syria.”
It was unclear which supporters of Israel the source referred to. No other countries or groups are known to have taken part in the fighting. The reference may have been to the U.S., an obvious backer of Israel, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has made it clear he wants to contain and roll back Iran’s expanding influence in the region. But neither country played a role in the airstrikes.
“This aggressive behavior by the Zionist entity,” the Syrian source said, will “only lead to an increase in tensions in the area,” forming “a serious threat to international peace and security.”
The strike was the most extensive Israeli air force operation since the 1973 (Yom Kippur) war.
Syria reported the loss of three fighters in the bombardment. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group, said 23 pro-Assad fighters were killed, including 18 members of foreign militias supporting the regime.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his ministers on Thursday afternoon, “Iran crossed a red line. Our reaction was proportional.” During the past week Israel warned its citizens to expect Iranian retaliation for an airstrike last month against a Syrian airbase housing Iranian rocket launchers in which seven members of Iran’s élite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) were killed.
Israelis expressed surprise and relief the Iranian assault, when it came, failed to cause any real damage.
Military analyst Amos Harel, who writes for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, described the Iranian salvo against Israel as “strange.” In an interview, he speculated that Israeli air strikes against Iranian bases in Syria since last February may have crippled Iran’s ability to wreak greater damage.
In February, Israel’s air force destroyed three Syrian anti-aircraft batteries after an Iranian drone, later revealed to have been armed, entered Israeli airspace. Israel attacked the drone’s launch site and control center, and Syria fired anti-aircraft missiles at the Israeli planes, shooting down one F-16 on its return to Israel.
Still, the midnight volley was the first direct Iranian military attack launched against Israel.
On Monday night, following President Donald Trump’s announcement withdrawing the United States from the international agreement curbing Iran’s nuclear development, the Israeli air force hit another Iranian missile and drone launch site, resulting in over 20 casualties, eight of them members of the IRCG.
Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Thursday that Israel had “hit almost the entire Iranian infrastructure in Syria.”
In a previously scheduled speech delivered at an Israeli policy conference, Lieberman said, “Iran is the one constantly trying to expand and create new proxies and fronts. They must understand that if it rains here, it will pour there.”
He said Israel had informed both Russia and the United States of its planned operation.
Lt. Conricus said he did “not yet know” if the barrage was the retaliation Israel has been expecting or an attack provoked by Trump’s announcement on the Iran deal.
In a veiled critique aimed at Russia and European countries opposing Trump’s decision, the United States called “on all nations to make clear that the Iranian regime’s actions pose a severe threat to international peace and stability,” in a White House statement.
Only Israel, Saudi Arabia, and other Persian Gulf states support Trump’s move pulling out of the nuclear deal. The United Kingdom, France, and Germany, European cosigners to the nuclear agreement, have said they will try to save the deal by protecting provisions opening up Iran’s economy in exchange for the suspension of its uranium enrichment.
On Thursday, the official Iranian news agency Fars reported Brig. Gen. Hossein Salami rejecting the possibility: Europe “cannot act independently over the nuclear deal,” he said.
Salami appeared to want to calm fears of war—while simultaneously threatening ongoing attacks. “Iran’s enemies” do not seek military confrontation, he said, “they want to pressure our country by economic isolation... Resistance is the only way to confront these enemies, not diplomacy.”
Bahrain’s Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa, representing one of Iran’s Persian Gulf rivals, albeit one without diplomatic ties to Israel, tweeted on Thursday that “as long as Iran violates the regional status and uses its forces and missiles to transform states into wastelands, every country in the area including Israel has the right to defend itself and destroy the sources of danger.”
The Israeli government has long sought America’s abandonment of the 2015 Iran deal, President Barack Obama’s signal foreign policy achievement, which Netanyahu opposed from the start.
But regional volatility and realignments were evident as Netanyahu boarded a dawn flight to Moscow on Wednesday for a tête-à-tête with Russian President Vladimir Putin, only hours after congratulating Trump.
Whatever the jubilation in Jerusalem, the lighting-quick visit—the eighth meeting between Netanyahu and Putin in two years—served to underscore the absence of an American influence on the brutal Syrian war, that began in 2011.
The summit’s stated purpose was to maintain “continued coordination” in Syria.
In a statement after the meeting, Netanyahu said he highlighted “Israel’s obligation and right to defend itself against Iranian aggression, from Syrian territory.”
“The Iranians declare their intention to attack us,” he said, repeating what he said he told Putin. “They are trying to transfer forces and deadly weapons there with the explicit goal of attacking the State of Israel as part of their strategy to destroy the State of Israel.”
The Putin-Netanyahu encounter was held on May 9, the day Moscow marks its WWII victory over Nazi forces with a spectacular military parade. The coincidence led to the strange sight of Netanyahu marching in the same procession as Russian S-400 missiles headed for Syria, weapons he has spent months defining as a “red line” Israel will not permit on its northern border.
Praising the “moving ceremony,” Netanyahu told Putin, “We in Israel do not forget for a moment the great sacrifice of the Russian people and the Red Army in the victory over the Nazi monster. Neither do we forget the great lesson of the need to stand against a murderous ideology in time. It is unbelievable, but 73 years after the Holocaust, there is a country in the Middle East, Iran, that is calling for the destruction of another 6 million Jews.”