Israel strikes in Syria in increasingly open assault on Iran's presence

Israel launches strikes into Syria early on Monday as part of its increasingly open assault on Iran's presence there.
Syrian air defence batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus on Jan 21, 2019.
Syrian air defence batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus on Jan 21, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (REUTERS, AFP) - Israel struck in Syria early on Monday (Jan 20) as part of its increasingly open assault on Iran's presence there, shaking the night sky over Damascus with an hour of loud explosions in a second consecutive night of military action.

Damascus did not say what damage or casualties resulted from the strikes, but a war monitor said 11 were killed and Syria's ally Russia said four Syrian soldiers died.

The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military built a presence early in the civil war to help President Bashar al-Assad fight Sunni Muslim rebels seeking to oust him.

Israel, regarding Iran as its biggest threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including Lebanon's Hezbollah without claiming responsibility for the attacks.

But with an election approaching, and with the US vowing more action on Iran, Israel's government has lifted the lid on strikes that it once preferred to keep quiet, and has also taken a tougher stance towards Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon.

It said a rocket attack on Sunday was Iran's work.

In Teheran, airforce chief Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh said Iran was "fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the earth", according to the Young Journalist Club, a website supervised by state television.

Mr Assad has said Iranian forces are welcome to stay in Syria after years of military victories that have brought most of the country back under his control, though two large enclaves are still held by other forces.

His other main ally Russia, worried about the consequences of Israeli strikes for the wider pursuit of a war that is now entering its ninth year, has provided Syria with air defence systems.

 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is hoping to win a fifth term in the April 9 election, last week told his cabinet Israel has carried out "hundreds" of attacks over recent years to curtail Iran and Hezbollah.

"We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us," he said on Sunday.

He said on Monday: "Yesterday evening, the air force struck a strong blow against Iranian targets in Syria after Iran fired a missile from there toward Israel."

Mr Netanyahu said at an inauguration ceremony for a new airport in southern Israel: "We do not allow such acts of aggression to pass by. We are acting against Iran and against the Syrian forces who are tools of Iranian aggression."

In a highly publicised operation last month, the Israeli military uncovered and destroyed cross-border tunnels from Lebanon that it said were dug by Hezbollah to launch attacks during any future war between them.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has vowed to expel"every last Iranian boot" from Syria and a senior US official in Lebanon last week criticised Hezbollah over the tunnels.

Israel last fought a war with Hezbollah, on Lebanese soil, in 2006. It fears Hezbollah has used its own role fighting alongside Iran and Mr Assad in Syria to bolster its military capabilities, including an arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel.

Tensions have also risen with Israel's construction of a frontier barrier that Lebanon says passes through its territory along the contested border.