The American defense secretary gave his full-throated backing on Sunday to Israel’s actions in the aerial exchange of fire over the weekend with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria.
“Israel has an absolute right to defend itself, and I think that’s what happened yesterday,” Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis told reporters as he boarded a plane to Europe on Sunday.
Mattis’s comments come after an Iranian drone infiltrated Israel’s airspace on Saturday, then was shot down by Israel, which launched a widespread retaliatory offensive in Syria. The IDF said it hit four Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, causing significant damage.
Israel also said it destroyed the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker in its most devastating assault there in decades. A number of anti-aircraft batteries were also targeted after an Israeli F-16 crashed, apparently after being shot down by Syrian-fired Russian-made anti-aircraft fire.
In his comments Sunday, Mattis railed against Iranian actions in Syria and around the region. “Everywhere we find trouble in the Middle East, you find the same thing behind it. Whether it be in Yemen or Beirut, or in Syria, in Iraq, you always find Iran engaged.”
“I think you’re all aware of when the [Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s] Quds Force leadership is in Iraq or in Syria. So when Syria, which has made no — has not hidden at all, made no excuse for what they’re doing alongside Iran, when they are providing throughput for Iran to give weapons, including more sophisticated weapons, to the Lebanese Hezbollah, Israel has an absolute right to defend themselves. They don’t have to wait until their citizens are dying under attack before they actually address that issue,” Mattis insisted.
Mattis appeared to address Iranian leaders’ claims of a US-Israeli conspiracy in the region to make Iran appear to be the aggressor.
If Iran only interfered “in two places, I can say, well, it just happened to fall out that way. In three places, it’s starting to look like there’s something to it. And I think the further you are from there, the easier it is to dismiss this as some sort of, you know, Washington, DC, chicanery or something. [But] if you live in the region, there’s no doubt what Iran is doing. If you’re in Bahrain, and the police there have captured explosives and that sort of thing, clearly from Iran; if you’re picking up debris in Saudi Arabia of Iranian missiles; or you’ve got explosive boats, remote-controlled boats, out in the Red Sea, you can see where Iran is — is either producing the wherewithal for the fight or actually leading the fight, in some case.”
Israel has been warning for weeks that it would not tolerate what it said were Iranian plans to establish a foothold on Israel’s northern border for eventual use in attacks against the Jewish state.
“If Iran continues to threaten and carry out offensive operations against Israel from Syria, Israel will teach Iran a lesson it will never forget,” Intelligence Minister Israel Katz told the London-based Arabic-language outlet Elaph on Sunday.
Katz, a member of the high-level security cabinet, said Iran was “crossing red lines” and “playing with fire,” endangering not just its own soldiers, but Syria’s as well.
“The Syrian army will find itself under fire if it continues to cooperate and allow Iran to position itself on Syrian soil,” Katz said.
Earlier on Sunday, Katz told Army Radio it would take the Iranians time to “digest” the Israeli airstrikes.
“They, and we, know what we hit and it will take them some time to digest, understand, and ask how Israel knew how to hit those sites,” he said. “These were concealed sites and we have intelligence agencies and the ability to know everything that is going on there and yesterday we proved that.”
Sunday saw the border area mostly return to calm after the day of hostilities, though Israeli officials continued to make clear they would not hesitate to deploy forces again.
Israel fears Iran could use Syrian territory to stage attacks or create a land corridor from Iran to Lebanon that could allow it to transfer weapons more easily to the Lebanese Hezbollah — an Iranian-backed Shiite terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction. Hezbollah’s fighters are also fighting on the Assad regime’s side in the Syrian civil war.
Though Israel has largely stayed out of the Syrian conflict, it has reportedly struck weapons convoys destined for Hezbollah dozens of times since 2012.