Iran said on Sunday that it would bring an end to what it called Israel’s practice of “hit and run” strikes in Syria as an unconfirmed report said that at least 14 pro-Iran fighters from Iraq and Afghanistan were killed in overnight airstrikes in eastern Syria.
Tehran made the threat following a major Israeli assault last week in response to what Jerusalem said was a failed Iranian explosives attack on the Golan Heights.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh told a press conference that “the Zionist regime is well aware that the era of hit and run is over and therefore they are very cautious.”
He also denied Israel’s longstanding claim that Tehran is establishing a permanent military presence in Syria, saying that Iran was in the country in an advisory capacity.
“Iran’s presence in Syria is advisory and naturally if anyone disrupts this advisory presence, our response will be a crushing one,” Khatibzadeh said, according to the Reuters news agency.
“I do not confirm the martyrdom of Iranian forces in Syria,” Khatibzadeh said.
Khatibzadeh also said the “crimes” committed by the United States against Iran do not prevent “carefully considered” exchanges from taking place between the two countries.
“The future of relations between Iran and the United States is not simple,” Khatibzadeh said as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s government started to make signs of apparent overtures to US president-elect Joe Biden.
“It is natural that [between two] members of the United Nations [like the US and Iran] there have always been, and there are, very carefully considered exchanges, in a known framework,” Khatibzadeh said, while noting that “does not mean that Iran is forgetting this list of crimes.”
Biden has promised a return to diplomacy with Iran after four hawkish years under Trump.
Khatibzadeh’s comments came as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said a number of strikes overnight in Deir Ezzor province, on the border with Iraq, were likely carried out by Israeli war planes.
More than 10 strikes hit positions of Iran-backed militias outside the border town of Albu Kamal, according to the war monitor.
The attack killed eight Iraqi and six Afghan fighters, it said. It also destroyed two bases as well as several military vehicles, the Observatory added.
There was no confirmation of the strike from official sources or other news accounts. Questioned have been raised in the past about the accuracy of reports from the UK-based monitor, which is closely linked to the Syrian opposition. The group has been accused of inflating casualty numbers and inventing incidents.
There was no comment from the Israel Defense Forces. The IDF generally maintains a policy of ambiguity regarding its activities against Iran and its proxies in Syria, refusing to publicly acknowledge its actions.
Iran-backed fighters are heavily deployed in a stretch of territory between the Syrian towns of Albu Kamal and Mayadeen, both former strongholds of the Islamic State group.
On Wednesday, the IDF made a rare announcement of strikes against Iranian forces in Syria.
The military said it bombed “warehouses, command posts and military complexes, as well as batteries of surface-to-air missiles” in early morning retaliatory strikes following the discovery of mines planted near the Israel-Syria frontier. The military did not specify the location of the three sites, but they appeared to be military positions on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
On Thursday morning, the IDF also released aerial before-and-after photographs of two sites bombed in the strikes: a military complex used by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ expeditionary Quds Force; and a command center of the Syrian military’s 7th Division, which Israel says cooperates widely with Iranian forces in Syria.
Syrian state media reported that three Syrian soldiers were killed in the strikes. All three appeared to serve in air defense batteries that were destroyed by the IDF after they fired on Israeli jets.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 people in total were killed in the Israeli strikes, some of them Iranian.
This could not be immediately confirmed and was not reported by other groups in Syria.
On Tuesday, IDF combat engineers disarmed three anti-personnel mines within Israeli territory, near the Syrian border, which the military believes were planted by Syrian nationals on behalf of Iran several weeks before.
Israel views a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria as an unacceptable threat, which it will take military action to prevent.
The IDF has launched hundreds of strikes in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011 against moves by Iran to establish a permanent military presence in the country and efforts to transport advanced, game-changing weapons to terrorist groups in the region, principally Hezbollah.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.