Foreign Minister Israel Katz appeared to threaten top Iranian general Qassem Soleimani on Sunday, saying Israel was working to “uproot” the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, who Jerusalem claimed is the mastermind of the foiled drone attacks from Syria.
“Israel is acting to strike the head of the Iranian snake and uproot its teeth,” Katz said in a Ynet news site interview. “Iran is the head of the snake and Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, is the snake’s teeth.”
Katz said Israel’s airstrikes to thwart the drone attack “conveyed a clear message to Iran and all its supporters that they are not immune from attack, no matter where they are.”
Late Saturday night, the Israel Defense Forces made a rare announcement admitting it had carried out the attack in Syria against Iranian forces and Shiite militia members who had been working on a plan to fly explosives-laden drones into Israel.
On Sunday, the IDF said the attack drones that Iran intended to use against Israel were flown into Syria from Tehran several weeks ago, along with Iranian military officials to act as advisers. The plan was personally overseen by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force commander Soleimani, the IDF chief of staff said.
Defending Israel’s decision to speak openly about the air raid shortly after it was conducted on Saturday night, the foreign minister argued that the planned Iranian operation “posed a direct threat of attack against Israel.”
Katz said Iran had planned to have at this stage some 100,000 Shiite militia forces entrenched in southern Syria with the capability of readily targeting Israel. “All of these things are things we prevented,” the foreign minister said.
“There is no 100 percent prevention, but when there is information [of further Iranian entrenchment in Syria] we act,” Katz said.
The foreign minister went on to say that “moderate Arab states” in the Gulf have come to realize that Israel is leading the front against Iranian aggression in the region and are seeking to improve relations with Jerusalem.
The late-night Israeli airstrike, which triggered Syrian anti-aircraft fire, appeared to be one of the most intense attacks by Israeli forces on Iranian targets in Syria.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said an Iranian combatant and two fighters for the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah were among the fatalities in the strike, along with at least two others whose identities are not yet known.
According to IDF spokesman Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, four members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’s Quds Force were sent to Syria to form a team that would fly explosive-laden kamikaze drones into targets in northern Israel.
Conricus said the military had been monitoring the Iranian plot for “a number of weeks.”
When the IDF spotted the Iran-led team — made up of the four IRGC advisers and Shiite militiamen — moving to launch the drones on Saturday night, the Israeli Air Force took action and bombed their base.
A satellite image distributed by Israeli private intelligence firm ImageSat International showed that the compound had been completely destroyed.
Conricus said forces had been put on high alert near the Syrian frontier after the attack.
The ambiguity is part of a strategy seen as helping give Tehran and Damascus cover from needing to strike back to save face. Israel has appeared to apply the same strategy in Iraq, where the IDF has been reported to have carried out a number of strikes on Iran-backed militia positions near Baghdad.
There have been few direct clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria. In May 2018, Israel said Iranian forces fired some 20 rockets at Israel, with most being shot down or failing to reach Israeli territory. In response, Israel carried out extensive airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria.
While Israel has acknowledged carrying out thousands of airstrikes inside Syria against weapons transfers to Iran-backed fighters and to keep Iran from gaining a foothold there, it rarely acknowledges individual strikes.
Also Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned neighboring countries that they would be held accountable for any attacks against the Jewish state emanating from their territory, hours after Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria to foil an Iranian drone attack.
“We won’t tolerate attacks on Israel from any country in the area. Any country that allows its territory to be used for attacks against Israel will bear the consequences. I stress: The state will bear the consequences,” Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, said during a tour of the Golan Heights with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi.
Judah Ari Gross and agencies contributed to this report.