Alleged Israeli strike reported at Iran-linked military site near Damascus
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Alleged Israeli strike reported at Iran-linked military site near Damascus

Damascus claims to knock down two Israeli missiles; attack on alleged arms depot comes hours after IDF reports 'abnormal' activities by Iranian forces, goes on high alert in Golan

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Syrian state media reported on Tuesday night that Israel conducted an airstrike south of Damascus, reportedly killing nine pro-Iranian fighters in an area previously identified as the site of a suspected Iranian military base.

Syria’s official SANA news outlet said that the country’s air defenses intercepted two Israeli missiles over the el-Kiswah area, south of Damascus. The report did not specify how many missiles were fired.

“Nine fighters belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps or pro-Iranian Shiite militias have been killed” Rami Abd el-Rahman, director of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.

As a rule, the Israeli military does not comment on airstrikes in Syria.

The alleged strike came hours after the Israeli military said it had identified “abnormal movements of Iranian forces in Syria” and called for local governments in the Golan Heights to open their bomb shelters.

Rahman said the strike targeted an “arms depot belonging to Hezbollah and the Iranians.”

Earlier on Tuesday night, US President Donald Trump announced that the United States was pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and imposing new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, in part due to Iran’s destabilizing activities in the Middle East.

The al-Mayadeen news outlet, which is seen as sympathetic to Hezbollah, reported that fires had broken out in the area following the blasts.

An official with the Iran-led axis of resistance told the Associated Press the strike targeted a Syrian army position and caused only material damage. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to give official statements.

Videos from the scene, which were posted on social media, showed the moment of the strike’s impact and its aftermath. Surveillance footage showed a blast of white light as the bombs hit, followed by what appeared to be secondary explosions, supporting the claim that the targets of the strike were missiles. Cellphone videos also showed trucks burning and fires raging in the direction of the alleged Iranian base.

Following the attack, Lebanese media reported that Israeli jets were flying sorties over the country’s southern coast.

In November 2017, Western intelligence officials told the BBC that Iran had established a permanent military base in el-Kiswah.

A month later, the alleged Iranian base was targeted by an airstrike, which was attributed to Israel.

A satellite image showing the results of an alleged Israeli airstrike on a reported Iranian base being set up outside Damascus, from November 16, 2017 and December 4, 2017. (ImageSat International ISI)

The army on Tuesday night did not instruct residents of the Golan Heights to enter bomb shelters, only for local authorities to open public ones in case of emergency.

A number of reservists were also called up, the army said. An IDF spokesperson would not elaborate on which units they came from, but media reports indicated they served in air defense, intelligence and Home Front Command units.

The Israel Defense Forces said it deployed missile defense batteries in northern Israel and “there is high preparedness of IDF troops for an attack.”

The military called on residents to listen to security instructions as needed.

Following Trump’s announcement, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman met with the heads of Israel’s armed services in the military’s Tel Aviv headquarters to discuss the security situation, his office said.

Earlier on Tuesday, the US Embassy in Israel also prohibited American government employees from visiting the Golan Heights without approval in light of the security situation on the border.

“The IDF is ready and prepared for a variety of scenarios and warns that any action against Israel will be answered with a fierce retaliation,” the army said.

Illustrative. An Iron Dome missile defense system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, is deployed in the Golan Heights near the Israel-Syria border, on March 17, 2017 (AFP / JALAA MAREY)

A video released by the IDF showed soldiers setting up the Iron Dome, Patriot, and Arrow missile defense systems.

The military does not generally reveal its deployment of air defenses. Its decision to do so on Tuesday night was likely an effort to both reassure residents of northern Israel and warn Iran that the IDF was prepared to counter a missile attack.

On Sunday night, Israeli defense officials warned that Iran was planning to retaliate for recent deadly airstrikes in Syria, which have been attributed to the Jewish state, by having its proxies fire missiles at military targets in northern Israel sometime in the near future.

Security forces were also preparing for the possibility of attempted infiltrations of military bases and communities in the north, Hadashot TV news reported on Monday.

Tehran vowed revenge after the T-4 army base in Syria was struck in an air raid on April 9, killing at least seven members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The strike was widely attributed to Israel, though Jerusalem refused to comment on it. (T-4 was the base from which Israel said Iran launched an attack drone into Israel in February.) Late last month, a second strike, allegedly conducted by Israel, against an Iranian-controlled base in northern Syria was said to have killed more than two dozen Iranian soldiers.

On Monday, Iran’s army chief of staff warned that the regime would respond to any Israeli aggression “at an appropriate time,” as the countries continued to trade threats amid spiraling tensions.

“If the enemy casts a covetous eye on our interests or conducts [even] a slight act of aggression, the Islamic Republic will give an appropriate response at an appropriate time,” Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri said according to regime-affiliated Press TV.

On Sunday, all of Israel’s nightly news broadcasts reported that the Israeli military and intelligence services had identified preliminary efforts by Iran in Syria to carry out its reprisal, using its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Hezbollah terrorist group and local Shiite militias to launch a barrage of precision-guided missiles, likely at Israeli military targets in the north.

Illustrative: A Fateh-110 ballistic missile, taken at an Iranian armed forces parade in 2012. (military.ir/Wikimedia Commons)

“Israel has recently identified with certainty Iranian preparations to fire at the north,” Channel 10 said. “We are not on the eve of war with Iran… but Iran is very determined to carry out an attack” to avenge the T-4 strike and the deaths of its military personnel, it said.

Israel Radio on Sunday night said the Iranian planning for an attack was at “an advanced stage.”

The understanding in the defense services is that Iran is looking to conduct its retaliation in such a way as to avoid full-fledged war with Israel, and would therefore likely not target civilian locations, according to the reports, which did not attribute the information to any specific source.

Israel was working to prevent or counter such an attack, but was also preparing for the possibility that the Iranians “succeed in hitting a base in the north with missiles,” Channel 10 reported. The Israel Defense Forces was threatening to hit all Iranian targets in Syria if Tehran launched an attack on Israeli territory, the TV report said.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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