Israeli defense leaders held a high-level middle of the night meeting early Sunday as the military girded for a possible response to its strikes in Syria against Iran-backed fighters plotting to attack the Jewish state with armed drones.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also defense minister, made a midnight trip to the Israel Defense Forces’ headquarters in Tel Aviv, where he met with IDF chief Aviv Kohavi and Mossad head Yossi Cohen, as well as other senior defense officials.
The meeting came hours after a rare announcement by the Israel Defense Forces that it had carried out an attack in Syria against Iranian forces and Shiite militia members who been working on a plan to fly explosives-laden drones into Israel.
The late-night airstrike, which triggered Syrian anti-aircraft fire, appeared to be one of the most intense attacks by Israeli forces on Iranian targets in Syria.
Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman, said forces had been put on high alert near the Syrian frontier after the attack.
Additional air defense batteries were also deployed to northern Israel to shield from possible reprisal rocket attacks.
“The IDF is prepared to continue defending the State of Israel against any attempts to harm it and holds Iran and the Syrian regime directly responsible for the thwarted attack,” the IDF said in a statement.
In a statement issued just minutes after the Israeli army announced its attack, Netanyahu hailed the military’s “major operational effort” in thwarting the attack planned by “the Iranian Quds force and Shiite militias.”
“Iran has no immunity anywhere,” Netanyahu said. “Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.”
“I have directed that our forces be prepared for any scenario. We will continue to take determined and responsible action against Iran and its proxies for the security of Israel,” he added.
There was no immediate response from Iran following the Israeli attack. Syrian state media said it had shot down most of the Israeli missiles.
There have been few direct clashes between Israel and Iran in Syria. In May 2018, Israel said Iranian forces fired some 20 rockets at Israel, with most being shot down or failing to reach Israeli territory. In response, Israel carried out extensive airstrikes on Iranian positions in Syria.
Speaking to reporters early Sunday shortly after the air sorties, Conricus said Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Al Quds force, working with allied Shiite militias, had been planning to send a number of “killer drones” into Israel.
Conricus said Israel had monitored the plot for several months and on Thursday prevented Iran from making an “advanced attempt” to execute the same plan. Then, Iran tried again late Saturday to carry out the same attack, he said.
“We were able to thwart this attack with fighter jets,” he said, saying the Iranian attack was believed to be “very imminent.”
“This was a significant plan with significant capabilities that had been planned for a few months,” Conricus said. “It was not something done on a low level, but rather top down from the Quds Force.”
Conricus said Israel held both Iran and the Syrian regime responsible for the planned drone attack, noting that forces in northern Israel were on “elevated readiness to respond to any development.”
He also noted that while Iranian forces had launched rockets and missiles at Israel from Syria three times during 2018, the use of “kamikaze” drones set to explode on their targets was a new and “different tactic.”
While Israel has acknowledged carrying out thousands of airstrikes inside Syria against weapons transfers to Iranian backed fighters and to keep Iran from gaining a foothold there, it rarely acknowledges individual strikes.
The ambiguity is part of a strategy seen as helping give Tehran and Damascus cover from needing to strike back to save face. Israel has appeared to apply the same strategy in Iraq, where the IDF has been reported to have carried out a number of strikes on Iran-backed militia positions near Baghdad.
In a speech to the UN last year Netanyahu appeared to acknowledge carrying out strikes in Iraq, but has since only hinted at Israeli involvement. Asked about strikes in Iraq, Netanyahu has only said that Iranian forces are not safe anywhere.
A Western diplomatic source reportedly told a Saudi-owned newspaper Wednesday that Israel has conducted several strikes on Iranian-controlled bases in Syria and Iraq with permission from the US and Russia.
Moscow and Washington agreed that Israel could conduct these attacks on Iranian targets in order to “ensure Israel’s security,” the source told the London-based Arabic-language Asharq Al-Awsat.
As part of the reported agreement, Israel would not publicly acknowledge carrying out the strikes.