Counterstrike destroyed Iran's 'main storage hub,' army says

IDF: Iranian troops fired missile at Israel as a warning against future attacks

Army says Iran’s attack on the Golan Sunday was planned long in advance, was meant to deter Israel from striking its forces in Syria; Israeli troops on high alert as tensions rise

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

Israeli army Merkava tanks take positions on the Golan Heights, on January 20, 2019. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)
Israeli army Merkava tanks take positions on the Golan Heights, on January 20, 2019. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

The Israel Defense Forces on Monday said the missile that was intercepted over the Hermon ski resort the previous day was launched by Iran in a “premeditated” attack aimed at deterring Israel from conducting airstrikes against the Islamic Republic’s troops and proxies in Syria.

According to the Israeli military, the missile was an Iranian-made medium-range model that was fired from the outskirts of Damascus at approximately three in the afternoon. Conflicting reports emerged about the intended target of the missile, with some politicians claiming it was the Hermon ski resort and the IDF saying it could have been heading to either a civilian or a military area.

The attack came shortly after the IDF allegedly conducted a number of rare daylight airstrikes nearby.

In response to the missile attack from Syria, which was intercepted before it breached Israeli airspace, the Israeli military launched three waves of airstrikes that targeted first Iranian sites in and around Damascus, and then Syrian air defense batteries, which had fired on the Israeli fighter jets that had attacked earlier, the IDF said.

Israeli troops on Monday remained on high alert in the north. The Hermon ski resort was closed to visitors, but no other special safety instructions were given to residents of the area.

Trails left by the Iron Dome air defense system intercepting a Syrian projectile over Mount Hermon in the Golan Heights, on January 20, 2019. (Israel Defense Forces)

Military spokesperson Jonathan Conricus said the three response sorties destroyed a number of Iranian intelligence sites, training bases and weapons caches, including one of the Islamic Republic’s largest depots near the Damascus International Airport, which triggered secondary explosions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor reported that 11 pro-regime fighters were killed in the Israeli raids. Of those, according to Russia, at least four were Syrian military personnel, apparently killed in the strikes on the country’s air defenses.

On Monday morning, the IDF released video footage of its airstrikes on Syrian air defenses, including on social media.

According to Conricus, the Iranian retaliatory strike aimed at the northern Golan was “not a spur-of-the-moment” response, but had been planned months in advance, based on intelligence collected by the IDF.

“We understand that the Iranians are trying to change the context and deter us from our policy and our strategy of fighting Iranian troops in Syria,” Conricus said. “They thought they could change the rules of engagement. Our response was a rather clear one, with a message to Iran and Syria that our policies have not changed.”

He acknowledged that while the military believed it was planned in advance, the trigger for Sunday’s attack was likely the airstrikes reported moments before.

Israeli defense analysts attributed both Sunday’s alleged daylight airstrike and the large magnitude of the overnight bombings to an attempt by incoming IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi, whose tenure began last week, to demonstrate his willingness to use force against Iran in Syria.

For years, Israel has maintained a policy of actively opposing Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, as well as attempts by the Islamic Republic to supply terrorist groups like Hezbollah with advanced weaponry. As a result, the IDF has conducted hundreds of airstrikes in Syria — generally late at night — in order to prevent violations of its “red lines.”

Initially, Israel refused to acknowledge those raids, but politicians and defense officials have been increasingly vocal about the activity in recent months.

Typically, such Israeli airstrikes pass without a retaliation by Iran, with the exception of a rocket barrage in May 2018 and an attempted drone attack in February 2018. Syria regularly fires anti-aircraft missiles at the attacking Israeli fighter jets, including in February, when it successfully shot down an F-16 aircraft.

Conricus refused to identify the specific type of missile used in the attack from Syria on the Golan on Sunday. The Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported it carried a nearly half-ton warhead. Israel’s Hadashot TV news said late Monday that the missile carried a 200 kilo warhead, and had a range of 250 kilometers (155 miles).

The spokesman said Iran was directly responsible for the launch, and disputed reports that the projectile had been fired by pro-Iranian militias or by the Syrian regime.

According to the spokesman, the mid-range missile, which traveled dozens of kilometers before being shot down by an Iron Dome missile defense battery, was launched “by Iranian troops, not by proxies, not by Shiite militias, not by Syrian troops, but Iranian troops with an Iranian missile.”

Conricus said the location from which the missile was fired was “an area that we have been promised that the Iranians would not be in.”

That assurance appeared to have been made by Russia — Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s prime ally in the civil war — but Conricus said he “won’t go into who made the promise.”

Israel has reached a number of understandings with Russia about the permitted location of Iranian troops in Syria, mostly about their deployment along the Golan border with Syria.

The IDF spokesperson said the military ultimately holds Syria responsible for the attack and warned that the country would “pay the price” for allowing Iran to establish a permanent military presence in its territory. Iran officially denies having troops in Syria beyond a small number of advisers — a claim that is widely disregarded among Western intelligence officials.

An explosion, reportedly during Israeli airstrikes near Damascus, Syria, on January 21, 2019. (screen capture: YouTube)

According to Conricus, the three Israeli Air Force response sorties targeted sites connected to the Quds Force, the expeditionary arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

The IDF refused to designate the specific number of locations bombed in the strikes.

According to Conricus, one of the targets of the raids was “the main storage hub for Quds Force.”

He said Iran had been bringing weapons into that facility near the airport over the past two weeks in order to distribute them to the Hezbollah terrorist army and other pro-Iranian Shiite militias in Syria.

Sunday’s alleged daytime strike came hours after a Syrian cargo plane touched down in the Damascus International Airport from Tehran, according to publicly available flight data.

Israeli and American defense officials have said ostensibly civilian planes are often used to transport advanced weaponry from Tehran to pro-Iranian militias fighting in Syria, including Hezbollah.

Another flight from Iran, flown by Tehran’s Mahan Air carrier, was en route to Syria on Sunday afternoon, but turned back following the reported Israeli strikes, according to flight data. Mahan Air has been identified by defense officials as one of the cargo carriers suspected of ferrying war materiel from Iran to Syria. As a result, it is subject to sanctions by the US Treasury Department.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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