BEIRUT (AP) — Israeli forces unleashed a heavy bombardment against Iranian military installations in Syria on Thursday in what Israel called retaliation for an Iranian rocket barrage on its positions in the occupied Golan Heights, the most serious military confrontation between the two bitter enemies to date.
The two rivals have long fought each other through proxies, and with the new exchange each seemed to be sending a warning that a direct clash between them could swiftly escalate.
“If we get rain, they’ll get a flood,” Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned.
The scope of the attacks — which Israel called its largest in Syria since the 1973 Mideast war — raised the specter of a full-fledged war between Iran and Israel in Syria, a conflict that could potentially drag the militant Hezbollah and Lebanon into the mix with devastating effects, although both sides appeared to signal they wanted the confrontation to remain contained, at least for now.
Israel, however, has been emboldened by President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal earlier this week, and the latest escalation seemed to signal a potentially coordinated surge in military activity targeting Iran.
The Israeli military said Thursday it hit nearly all of Iran’s military installations in Syria in response to the overnight Iranian rocket barrage that targeted Israeli front-line military positions in the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. It was the first time Israel has directly accused Iran of firing toward Israeli territory.
Iranian media described the Israeli attack as “unprecedented,” but there was no official Iranian comment on Israel’s claims.
Iran has vowed to retaliate for repeated Israeli airstrikes targeting its forces in Syria. But it seemed to carefully calibrate its response by targeting the Golan Heights, which Israel annexed in 1981 in a move that is not internationally recognized, instead of striking Israel proper.
Tehran is wary of a wider military conflagration with Israel that could jeopardize its military achievements in Syria at a time when it is trying to salvage the international nuclear deal and may be limited in its ability to strike back.
The recent clashes reveal the difficulty both sides face in dealing with an unprecedented situation, said Jean-Pierre Filiu, a professor of Middle East studies at Sciences Po, Paris School of International Affairs.
The clashes will eventually likely lead not to further escalation, but to the “consolidation of new ‘red lines’ tacitly endorsed by Israel and Iran,” he said in an analysis written for the Carnegie Middle East Center.
The extent of the damage inflicted by the Israeli airstrikes was not immediately clear.
Israel said among the targets were weapons storage, logistics sites and intelligence centers used by elite Iranian forces in Syria. It also said it destroyed several Syrian air-defense systems after coming under heavy fire and that none of its warplanes were hit.
The Syrian military acknowledged that the strikes destroyed a radar station and an ammunition warehouse, and damaged a number of air defense units. It said three people were killed and two were wounded.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which closely monitors the civil war through sources inside Syria, said 23 fighters, including five Syrian soldiers, were killed. It was not immediately clear if any Iranians were among the dead.
The White House swiftly condemned Iran’s “provocative rocket attacks from Syria against Israeli citizens” and expressed strong support for “Israel’s right to act in self-defense,” while Russia said the Israeli strikes marked a dangerous escalation and urged both Israel and Iran to avoid provoking each other.
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 over 100 airstrikes in neighboring 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.