This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows missiles flying into the sky near international airport, in Damascus, Syria, Monday, Jan. 21, 2019. In a very unusual move, the Israeli military has issued a statement saying it is attacking Iranian military targets in Syria. It is also warning Syrian authorities not to retaliate against Israel. (SANA via AP)

Israel says its jets struck Iranian military sites in Syria

January 21, 2019 - 8:22 am

JERUSALEM (AP) — The Israeli military said its jets struck Iranian military targets in Syria early Monday, an announcement that marked a rare departure from Israel's yearslong policy of ambiguity regarding activities in neighboring Syria.

The military said the targets included munition storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp.

The strikes were in response to a surface-to-surface rocket that Iranian forces fired toward Israel on Sunday that was intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defense system over a ski resort in the Golan Heights. That launch followed a rare Israeli daylight air raid near the Damascus International Airport.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday's pre-dawn strikes lasted for nearly an hour and were the most intense Israeli attacks since May. It said 11 were killed in the strikes. The Russian military said four Syrian troops were among those killed in airstrikes that targeted three different locations and damaged unspecified infrastructure at Damascus airport. There were no further details on the casualties or their nationalities.

Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the Iranian missile attack that prompted the Israeli response was "premeditated." Iranian forces in Syria fired the mid-range missile toward Israel from the Damascus area — a missile he said had been smuggled into Syria specifically for that purpose. Conricus declined to further identify the type of missile but said it hadn't been used in any of the internal fighting of the civil war and had "no business" being in Syria.

The chief of Iran's air force, Gen. Aziz Nassirzadeh, meanwhile said his forces are "impatient and ready for a fight against the Zionist regime to wipe it off the Earth," according to a news website affiliated with Iran's state television.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel "pounded" the Iranian sites in response to the missile attack and would not hesitate to respond again.

"We don't allow such acts of aggression to go unanswered as Iran attempts to establish itself militarily in Syria and in the face of Iran's explicit statements that it intends to destroy Israel," he said. "Whoever tries to harm us, we will harm them. Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility."

An official from the so-called "Axis of Resistance" — led by Iran and made up of Syria, Iraqi Shiite militias, Lebanon's Hezbollah and other groups — said no Hezbollah or Iranian fighters were killed or wounded in the Israeli attacks. He said Israel tipped off Russia ahead of the strike and Russia had informed the Syrians.

"We will be taking this Israeli response into consideration," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media. "The conditions are getting closer to war every day and a war might break out on several fronts."

Israel has only recently acknowledged carrying out hundreds of strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria in recent years. It previously refrained from commenting directly for fear of triggering a reaction and being drawn into Syria's civil war.

Israeli political and military leaders have been far more verbose of late, and Monday's announcement went a step further, reporting the strikes in real time and detailing the targets.

Conricus would not confirm whether the measures marked an official abandonment of the policy of ambiguity.

He said Israel had warned Syria ahead of the attack to refrain from attacking Israeli warplanes, but that Syria ignored those warnings and fired anti-aircraft missiles. He said Israel responded by destroying Syrian anti-aircraft batteries. The Russian military said Syrian air defenses shot down over 30 Israeli cruise missiles.

The Israeli military said the Mount Hermon ski site has been closed.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the Iranian rocket attack provided "live testimony" to Iran's entrenchment in Syria, warning it could plunge the entire region into war.

Speculation has abounded in Israel on what is driving the newfound overtness of its actions, with many suggesting domestic politics could be a factor ahead of Apr. 9 elections.

Former Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said the military had no choice but to comment after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took credit publicly for the strikes. Yaalon said he supported the strikes but not the "chatter" around them, and he accused Netanyahu of playing politics with the country's security.

"Unfortunately ... everything is connected to his political survival," Yaalon told Israel's Army Radio. "What does the publication give us? Can someone tell me what the benefit is, besides politics?"

However, Yaakov Amidror, a former Israeli national security adviser, said the public remarks were intended to escalate Israel's response without widening its military operations.

"If you want to ... make clear to the other side that you are determined to prevent something, either you escalate the operation ... or you say in public 'I am doing it,' meaning 'I am ready to take the risk,'" he said.

Amidror said the ball was now in Iran's court to see how far the latest conflagration would escalate.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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