Israel launches massive strike Dozens of Iran-linked targets hit in response to rocket fire on troops in Golan Heights
MOUNT BENTAL, GOLAN HEIGHTS
» The Israeli military said it had struck dozens of Iran-linked military targets in Syria on Thurs- day in response to rocket fire, marking a significant escalation in regional hostilities a little more than a day after theU.S. withdrew fromthe Iran nuclear deal.
Israel said the attacks followed a volley of rockets directed at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights, which caused no casualties.
The Israeli military blamed the attack on Iran’s Quds Force, a special forces unit affiliated with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, and said this marked
the first time that Iranian forces have fired directly on Israeli troops.
Syrian and Iranian news outlets accused Israel of firing the first shot, saying it was Syria that had responded after Israel targeted the Syrian town of Quneitra with artillery fire and missiles. There was no official response from the Iranian government.
The rocket fire was followed by Israel’s largest intervention in neighboring Syria in decades. Jets headed for Syria screamed over northern Israel for more than four hours, and about 70 previously identified targets were hit, according to the Israeli military.
“This was by far the largest strike we have done, but it was focused on Iranian sites,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman. Syrian anti-aircraft batteries were also targeted after they fired on Israeli planes, he added.
In a statement carried by Syria’s state news agency, an unidentified Syrian Foreign Ministry official de- scribed Israel’s overnight attacks as a “new phase of aggression.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group based in Britain, said at least 23 people were killed in Thursday’s Israeli strikes across Syria. The group said five Syrian soldiers and 18 allied militiamen died, without specifying whether any of the militiamen were Iranian. The Syrian army, however, said only three people died in the strikes and claimed thatmost of the Israeli missiles were intercepted.
For residents of Damascus, it was a sleepless night.
“The intensity of the blasts and their repetition was stressful,” said one resident, who declined to be named for security reasons. He said he was not fearful, but many of those close to him were. “They said that a war with Israel would be much scarier than a war with other proxies,” he said.
While the fighting raised concerns of further escalation, it remained relatively contained. Rockets fired from Syria were aimed only at targets in the occupied Golan Heights and not inside Israel’s internationally recognized borders. Schools and shops in the area were open as normal on Thursday, while some tourists appeared unconcerned. Nor did the altercation spread to Lebanon, where Israel has fought repeated battles in recent years.
Israel and Iran have been on a collision course in Syria in recent months, as Israel has vowed not to let Iran build a expanded military presence there and has escalated attacks against Iranian targets across the border. Iran threatened retaliation after seven of its soldiers were killed by an Israeli airstrike in April.
From a viewing point on Mount Bental on the Golan Heights, Conricus pointed out where he said an Iranian rocket salvo was fired toward Israel just after midnight. Four of the 20 rockets were on target, he said, but were then intercepted, while the rest fell short.
“We saw it was very clear what the Iranians were doing, attacking Israel from Syrian soil,” he said.
Israeli officials have downplayed a link between the U. S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the immediate escalation in tensions, though Israelis on the Golan Heights were ordered to open their bomb shelters at the very moment Trump made his announcement.
Before the United States made its decision about the nuclear accord, Iran faced a “strategic uncertainty” over what would happen and did not want to take the risk of striking back, said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at Le Beck International, a Middle East-based geopolitical and security consultancy. “That encouraged Tehran to be careful.”
Israel, meanwhile, was looking for a chance to press its efforts at rolling back the Iranian presence in Syria, he said. “Israel was searching for an opportunity to really escalate its efforts.”
In Washington, White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders condemned Iran’s “provocative rocket attacks from Syria against Israeli citizens” and supported Israel’s “right to act in self- defense.”
“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,” Sanders said in a statement. “Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) bears full responsibility for the consequences of its reckless actions.”
The statement called on Iran and its proxies “to take no further provocative steps.”
An image released on Thursday by the governmentaffiliated “Central War Media” in Syria purportedly shows Syrian air defense systems intercepting Israeli missiles over Damascus’ airspace.
Israeli Merkava tanks are seen in a deployment area near the Syrian border in the Israelannexed Golan Heights on Thursdday. Israel’s army said it had carried out widespread raids against Iranian targets in Syria overnight.