After strikes in Syria, Netanyahu threatens to hit Iranian targets even harder

PM says Damascus airport attack shows how determined Israel is to keep Iran from establishing a military foothold on Syrian territory

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours northern Israel on January 13, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours northern Israel on January 13, 2019. (Haim Zach/GPO)

After confirming that Israel bombed an Iranian weapons depot in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Sunday that the Jewish state will strike even harder if it proves necessary to prevent Iran from gaining a military foothold in Syria.

Netanyahu made the remarks as he toured areas in the Upper Galilee to review the end of an Israel Defense Forces operation aimed at locating and destroying tunnels dug under the border from Lebanon. Israel says the Iran-backed Hezbollah terror group intended to use the tunnels for a massive assault on the country.

During the tour, the prime minister repeated his open admission, made earlier in the day at a cabinet meeting, that Israel was behind the attack on a weapons depot at Damascus International Airport on Friday night.

“This reflects our consistent policy and firm determination to prevent Iran’s military build-up in Syria, and if necessary we will also intensify these attacks,” Netanyahu said. “We will continue to monitor all the activities of Hezbollah and Iran and its proxies, and we will do what is necessary to ensure Israel’s security.”

Israel typically refrains from commenting on individual airstrikes in Syria, but does generally acknowledge that it carries out raids against Iranian- and Hezbollah-linked targets in the country.

Several members of the security cabinet were reportedly frustrated with Netanyahu’s decision to publicly announce that Israel was responsible for the airstrike targeting Syria.

Anonymous officials told the Kan public broadcaster that Netanyahu’s decision to break with traditional Israeli policy of not publicly discussing such strikes was “dangerous” and could unnecessarily provoke both Russia and Syria.

Israeli troops search for attack tunnels dug into Israel from southern Lebanon that the Israeli military believes Hezbollah planned to use in future wars, in January 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Commenting on the end of IDF Operation Northern Shield, which the army says uncovered and destroyed six attack tunnels dug by Hezbollah, Netanyahu thanked the military for preventing what could have been a major Hezbollah incursion into Israeli territory.

“I think everyone understands that a serious threat has been removed,” he said. “Hezbollah’s operational plan was to use the tunnel weapon, to infiltrate many fighters, between 1,000 and 2,000 terrorists into the Galilee, to occupy communities here.”

“Everyone understands how this war would have looked with Hezbollah battalions inside the Galilee, and with an Iranian army opposite the Golan Heights. We have prevented this — and we will continue to prevent this,” said the prime minister, who also serves as defense minister.

Earlier in the day, at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said Israel was behind the Syria airstrike, a rare acknowledgement of such a raid.

“The Israel Defense Forces has attacked hundreds of Iranian and Hezbollah targets,” he said. “Just in the past 36 hours, the air force attacked Iranian depots full of Iranian weapons in the Damascus International Airport.”

On Friday, the official news agency SANA reported that Syrian air defense batteries opened fire on “hostile Israel missiles” and intercepted “most” of them, a common claim of the Syrian military, which many defense analysts believe to be false or overstated.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor said that “two areas hosting military positions of Iranian forces and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement have been targeted.”

The sites were near the airport and around the Kisweh area south of Damascus, the observatory said.

A Syrian military source on Friday said that a “ministry of transport warehouse at Damascus International Airport” was targeted in the air raid. Another official told SANA that traffic at the airport had not been disrupted.

Israel in recent years has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran, which alongside its proxies and Russia is fighting on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The previous reported airstrike occurred on Christmas Day. On that occasion, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile flew into Israeli airspace, and was destroyed by Israeli air defenses.

Israel has accused Iran of seeking to establish a military presence in Syria that could threaten Israeli security and attempting to transfer advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.

AFP contributed to this report.

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