TEL AVIV / DAMASCUS – Israel said Thursday it hit “almost all” of Iran’s infrastructure sites during dozens of airstrikes overnight in Syria.
It is the the worst direct violence in years between arch-rivals Iran and Israel, raising fears that a wider conflict could erupt in the region.
“We have hit almost all of the Iranian infrastructure in Syria. They must remember that if it rains here (in Israel) it will pour there,” Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said.
Israel said the strikes were in response to Iranian forces firing 20 rockets at Israeli positions in the Golan Heights.
“Iranian missiles did not reach Israeli territory, they either fell in Syria or was intercepted by Iron Dome [missile defence system]” Lieberman said at a security conference in Herzliya, north of Tel Aviv.
Iranian officials have yet to comment on the Israeli claims.
The Israeli strikes hit targets in different parts of Syria, killing at least 23 pro-government fighters, a monitoring group reported.
The dead include five Syrian soldiers and 18 non-Syrian allies, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The targeted positions are believed to be manned by Iranians, their allied Lebanese Hezbollah and government forces, the Britain-based watchdog said.
The Syrian army command said in a statement carried by the official news agency SANA that three soldiers were killed. A radar station and an ammunition depot were destroyed, while a number of air defence facilities were damaged, it added.
Thursday’s exchange was the most severe flare-up so far between Israel and Tehran over Iran’s military presence in Syria during the country’s seven-year civil war.
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were the among the world leaders to discuss the sharp escalation in tensions and to urge restraint.
A German Foreign Ministry statement on Twitter also condemned Iran’s role. “These attacks are a serious provocation that we condemn in the harshest way possible. Israel has, as we have stated several times, a right to self-defence.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May struck the same note against Iran, saying in a statement that Israel has “every right to defend itself.”
Israel has said it will not tolerate Iran seeking to establish permanent military bases in Syria as the war there winds down.
In a statement the Israeli army said the “wide-scale [was] attack against the Iranian establishment in Syria.” A map of the strikes published by the army showed around 10 strikes near Damascus and dozens more throughout south and south-west Syria.
Israeli jets came under fire from Syrian aerial defences, the army said, but no Israeli injuries were reported.
The army informed Russia, which has a large say over Syrian airspace, before the attack, army spokesman Jonathan Conricus told reporters.
Russia’s Defence Ministry said Israel fired about 70 missiles into Syria and that more than half were shot down by Syrian military forces.
Lebanese broadcaster al-Mayadeen, which has close links with the Syrian government and Iran, said any further Israeli attacks on Syria would be met with larger attacks on Israel itself.
Syrian and Iranian military facilities in the war-torn country have been hit several times since April. Iran has vowed retaliation for an earlier alleged Israeli strike that killed a number of Iranian personnel. -DPA