JERUSALEM – Israeli warplanes struck Iran-linked targets in Syria overnight after troops uncovered roadside bombs along the frontier in the Golan Heights, the Israeli military said Wednesday. Syrian state media said the strikes killed three Syrian soldiers.
A Syrian war monitoring group said the strikes killed 10, including the three Syrian soldiers and at least five Iranians. The report could not be independently verified, and an Iranian official denied any Iranians were killed in the strikes.
Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran-linked military targets in Syria over the years but rarely acknowledges or discusses such operations. This time, officials appeared keen to publicize the discovery of the bombs and the retaliatory strikes as a message to Iran and Syria.
“I, once again, remind our enemies: Israel will not tolerate any violation of its sovereignty on any front,” Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a statement. "The Syrian regime is accountable for what happens on its territory or out of its territory.”
Israel's shadow war against Iran and its allies has escalated in recent months, with cyberattacks and exchanges of fire with militants in Syria and Lebanon. U.S. officials recently confirmed that Israel and the U.S. worked together to kill a senior al-Qaeda operative in Iran earlier this year.
Israelis are meanwhile concerned that President-elect Joe Biden will adopt a more conciliatory approach toward Iran. Biden has said he hopes to return the U.S. to Iran’s 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers, to which Israel was staunchly opposed.
The Israeli military said the anti-personnel mines had been placed near one of its positions in the Golan Heights by a “Syrian squad led by Iranian forces." It said a similar incident happened in the same area in August, which also prompted retaliatory strikes on Syria.
Israel said the latest strikes targeted sites belonging to Iran's elite Quds Force and the Syrian military, including “storage facilities, headquarters and military compounds,” as well as Syrian anti-aircraft missile batteries.
“It is apparent that the message that we wanted to convey last time wasn’t clear enough, not to the Iranians and not to the Syrian regime,” Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said. “We hope now that the message is clear.”
Conricus said the strikes targeted the Iranian military headquarters in Syria at the Damascus airport, a secret facility that hosts visiting Iranian military officers and the Syrian army’s 7th Division, which oversees the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. He added that Iran’s Quds Force is embedded with the 7th Division.
Syrian state media quoted an unnamed military official as saying the strikes killed three soldiers, wounded a fourth and caused material damage. The report added that Syrian air defenses shot down some of the Israeli missiles before they hit their targets.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes hit an air defense center, posts and ammunition warehouses for Iran-allied militias in and around the Damascus airport, as well as other targets to the south of the capital.
The Observatory said a total of 10 people were killed, including at least five Iranians believed to be affiliated with the Quds Force.
A military advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the Israeli strikes were a violation of Syria's sovereignty.
“We have no organized presence in Iraq or Syria," Gen. Hossein Dehghan told The Associated Press. "How can they say we hit a base belonging to Iran or Iran affiliates?”
He denied any Iranians were killed, saying only Syrians were present at the targeted sites. The Quds Force is the expeditionary wing of Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard, which answers directly to the supreme leader.
Israel views Iran as its greatest threat and says it will not tolerate the establishment of a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, especially near its borders. Iran is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country's civil war and has dispatched military advisers and allied militias to aid his forces.
Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 war and later annexed it in a move that is not internationally recognized.
On Oct. 21, Syrian state media reported a suspected Israeli rocket attack in the southern Quneitra province. The Observatory said three people were killed in the strike that targeted a school used by the Lebanese Hezbollah militant group and Iranian groups. There was no comment from Israel.
Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.