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Israel Strikes Iranian Targets in Syria as Tensions Escalate

JERUSALEM — Israeli fighter jets struck dozens of Iranian targets in Syria overnight, Israeli officials said, following soon after what the Israeli military described as an unsuccessful Iranian rocket attack against its forces in the Golan Heights.

The response — which Israeli officials claimed struck a severe blow to Iran’s military capacity in the area — came amid drastically ramped up tensions in the Middle East after President Trump’s move this week to pull the United States from a multinational nuclear deal with Tehran. Israel had railed against the agreement, and Mr. Trump had campaigned on the promise of withdrawing from it, but European countries and many analysts had seen it as a crucial element holding Iran and Israel, implacable foes, from all-out conflict.

In the aftermath of the president’s decision, the rhetoric between the two sides has heightened sharply. And while Israel and Iran have been conducting a shadow war in Syria for months under the cover of the civil war there, the conflict has now burst into the open.

Overnight, Iranian forces fired around 20 rockets at the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, targeting forward positions of the Israeli military, according to an Israeli military spokesman. The rockets were all either intercepted or fell short of their mark in Syrian territory, the spokesman said, but were nevertheless a significant escalation in Iran’s maneuvers in the Middle East. Though Israel has hit Iranian forces in Syria with a number of deadly airstrikes, Tehran has been restrained in hitting back, until now.

Hours later, Israel responded. By Thursday morning, the country’s air force had destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria, according to Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

“If there is rain on our side, there will be a flood on their side,” Mr. Lieberman said in remarks broadcast from a policy conference in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. He added, “I hope we have finished with this round and that everybody understood.”

In all, at least 23 people were killed in the strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group. Iran’s semiofficial Fars news agency said the Syrian Army had responded by firing 68 missiles at Israel.

In a sign of international concern that the conflict could escalate, Britain, France, Germany and Russia were quick to call for calm. Moscow — which enjoys warm ties with Israel and has had ever-closer relations with Iran in recent years — in particular called for “restraint from all parties,” Mikhail Bogdanov, a Russian deputy foreign minister, was quoted as saying by the Russian news agency Interfax.

Iran has taken advantage of the chaos in Syria to build a substantial military infrastructure there. It has built and trained large militias with thousands of fighters and sent advisers from its Revolutionary Guards Corps to Syrian military bases.

Israel’s political and security establishment has been unified and vocal in vowing to thwart Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily across Israel’s northern frontier and to build what Israeli and American officials refer to as a land corridor from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon.

The tensions between Iran and Israel have been complicated further by Mr. Trump’s pulling out of the nuclear agreement. The same day he did so, Israel put its troops on “high alert,” called up reservists, set up Iron Dome batteries and instructed the authorities in the Golan Heights to prepare public bomb shelters after detecting what it said was irregular activity by Iranian forces.

Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal could rekindle the appetite of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel to carry out military strikes against Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Israel’s strikes overnight were one of the country’s largest aerial operations in decades across the Syrian frontier, and by far its broadest direct attack yet on Iranian assets.

“This was an operation we prepared for, and were not surprised by,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a spokesman for the Israeli military.

In a statement, the military said the targets included what it described as Iranian intelligence sites; a logistics headquarters belonging to the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards; military compounds; munition storage warehouses of the Quds Force at Damascus International Airport; intelligence systems associated with those forces; and military posts and munition in the buffer zone between the Syrian Golan Heights and the Israeli-occupied portion of the strategic plateau.

There was no immediate information about casualties in Syria. Israel reported none on its side. Colonel Conricus said the barrage of approximately 20 Grad and Fajr-5 rockets fired from Syria and aimed at Israeli positions after midnight was launched under the command of the Quds Force and utilized Iranian weapons.

Four of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system, and the rest fell short of the Israeli-controlled territory, the military said. Indeed, by Thursday morning, Israeli life returned to routine in the Golan Heights, with children going to school.

The barrage came after an apparent Israeli missile strike against a village in the Syrian Golan Heights late Wednesday.

Mr. Netanyahu said this week that the Revolutionary Guards had moved advanced weapons to Syria, including ground-to-ground missiles, weaponized drones and Iranian antiaircraft batteries that he said would threaten Israel’s military jets.

While appearing to almost goad the Iranians to strike, Israel had warned Tehran that it would respond to any attack. Israel also broadcast warnings to Syria, saying that allowing Iranian entrenchment in its territory put Mr. Assad’s government at risk.

Israel said Russia, whose forces have been supporting Mr. Assad, had been informed before the overnight attack. On Wednesday, Mr. Netanyahu spent about 10 hours in Moscow with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

In recent years, Israel has carried out scores of strikes against what it says are advanced weapons and convoys destined for Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed force in Lebanon. But since February, when Israel intercepted what it later called an armed Iranian drone that had penetrated its airspace from Syria, setting off a day of heated cross-border exchanges, Israel’s efforts appear to have been more focused on Iranian assets in Syria.

Follow Isabel Kershner on Twitter: @IKershner.

Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow; Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.

Source: NYT > World

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