Israel says it has destroyed 'nearly all' Iranian sites in Syria
Israeli forces destroyed almost all of Iran's military infrastructure in Syria, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman claimed on Thursday after what were described as heavy exchanges of fire during the night starting over the Golan Heights.
It is the first time since 1974 that there have been clashes over the Israeli-occupied Syrian territory as regional tensions increased following the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal.
Israel said its barrage on sites throughout Syria were a response to 20 missiles fired on Israeli forces in the occupied Golan Heights, which it blamed on Iran's Quds Force. Iran has denied any involvement.
"We hit nearly all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria," said Lieberman, in a prompt and rare Israeli acknowledgement of strikes in Syria, at a security conference near Tel Aviv. "They need to remember the saying that if it rains on us, it'll storm on them. I hope we've finished this episode and everyone understood."
Lebanese channel Al Manar quoted the vice president of Iran's National Security Committee saying: "Iran has no relation to the missiles that hit the enemy entity yesterday."
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov called on all sides to ease tensions, the TASS news agency reported.
Syria's Army Command said three people were killed and two injured in the strikes. A war monitor, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said the strikes killed at least 23 military personnel, including Syrians and non-Syrians.
The Syrian army said in a statement on Syrian TV: "A new Israeli aggression was confronted yesterday and our air defence system was successful in intercepting a major number of the Israeli missiles that targeted Syrian military positions. Three soldiers were killed during the Israeli attack."
Russia's defence ministry said in a statement on Thursday that Syria had shot down more than half of the missiles fired at it overnight by Israel, RIA news agency reported. It added that 28 Israeli fighter jets launched at least 60 missiles in Syria.
There were no casualties reported on the Israeli side.
Israel's military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said there were no Israeli injuries and most missiles were intercepted.
Syrian state television said the Israeli rockets targeted an arms depot and military bases.
Syria's foreign ministry said that Israel's latest move towards "direct confrontation... indicates the start of a new phase of aggression against" Damascus.
"This aggressive conduct by the Zionist entity... will lead to nothing but an increase in tensions in the region," state news agency SANA cited an official in the ministry as saying.
Surge in tensions
The scale of Israeli strikes appeared to be far greater than in previous incidents and Damascus residents described seeing explosions above the city from air defence systems.
The late-night incident followed a surge in tensions between Israel and Syria, where Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces are fighting alongside government forces in the country's seven-year civil war.
"The Syrian air defences are confronting a new wave of Israeli aggression rockets and downing them one after the other," state news agency SANA reported.Tensions have been heightened since Tuesday when US President Donald Trump announced he was quitting the Iranian nuclear deal, prompting Israel to go on high alert.
On Tuesday, shortly after Trump finished his speech announcing the pullout, the Israeli military said it had identified “irregular activity” by Iranian forces in Syria and instructed civil authorities in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to ready bomb shelters. It also deployed additional units and mobilised some reservist forces.
Israel has occasionally launched attacks against Syrian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces inside Syria. Iran blamed it for an air strike on 9 April that killed seven of its military personnel in Syria, and vowed revenge.
Israeli military and government officials have been bullish about how Israel will continue to respond to the purported Iranian threat in Syria.
“We will hold Syria accountable for attacks from its territory. We are not bluffing. We will counter Iran's terror anywhere, any time,” tweeted Gildan Erdan on Thursday morning.
Israel's government was a strong supporter of, and advocate for, Trump's decision to quit the Iran nuclear deal and has been readying itself for a possible regional flare-up.
In the run-up to Trump's decision, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised presentation last week that Israel had obtained tens of thousands of pages of what he described as Iran's "secret atomic archives" from what looked to be a dilapidated Tehran warehouse.
Syrian state media accused Israel of launching missiles at a target near Damascus shortly after Trump's announcement. Syrian air defences fired at two Israeli missiles, destroying both, according to Syrian state news agency SANA.
The world reacts
Russia is concerned about growing military tensions between Israel and Iran over Syria and called for them to de-escalate after the missile strikes, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said, according to the TASS news agency.
"This is all very alarming, it causes concern. There should be work to de-escalate the tensions," TASS quoted Bogdanov as saying.
Bahrain, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, Iran's arch foe in the Gulf region, said Israel had the right to defend itself from Iranian attacks.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmad said in a statement: "As long as Iran disturbs the status quo in the region and breaches (sovereignty) with its forces and missiles, any state in the region, including Israel, has the right to defend itself."
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox News that the clashes were "further demonstration that the Iranian regime cannot be trusted and another good reminder that the president made the right decision to get out of the Iran deal."
A spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday that "Britain condemns Iran's attacks on Israel and calls on Russia to use its influence in Syria to stop any further attacks."
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said that the attacks on the Golan Heights were "a provocation" and "Israel has the right to self-defence."
French President Emmanuel Macron called for a de-escalation of tensions in the Middle East on Thursday after Israel claimed Iran had launched an overnight rocket strike from Syria on an Israeli military base and that it had responded with its own missiles.
"The president has been kept regularly updated. He calls for a de-escalation in the situation," Macron's office said in a statement.
"We condemn Iran's attack on Israel. Israel has every right to defend itself," the spokesman told reporters.
"We call on Iran to refrain from any further attacks and for calm on all sides. We call on Russia to use its influence in Syria to prevent further Iranian attacks."