N’DJAMENA, Chad — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested Israel was behind an attack Sunday in Syria, hours after the Syrian regime and its ally Russia said the Israeli military carried out the rare daylight strike.
“We have a permanent policy to hurt the Iranian entrenchment in Syria, and everyone who is trying to hurt us,” Netanyahu told reporters in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena before returning to Israel.
“This policy doesn’t change, whether I am in Israel or on a historic visit in Chad. It’s permanent,” he said.
While Israel had in the past refused to comment on strikes in Syria, it has recently acknowledged carrying out hundreds of sorties and Netanyahu’s comments, along with the daylight nature of the raid, appear to suggest the efforts are now becoming even more open.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "We have a permanent policy: To strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us. This policy does not change whether I am in Israel or on an historic visit to Chad. This policy is permanent." pic.twitter.com/JVm3GCqGEd
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) January 20, 2019
Repeating Syrian claims, the Russian military said the incoming attack had been blocked by the country’s air defenses.
During the exchange, the Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted an incoming projectile from Syria, which was heading toward the northern Golan Heights, the Israel Defense Forces said.
An army spokesperson said it was not immediately clear if the incoming projectile was a retaliatory attack or a Syrian air defense missile that was heading toward a populated area, as has occurred several times in the past, including on Christmas Day.
Local Syrian media said the targets of strike were in Damascus International Airport and in the town of al-Kiswah, south of the capital, both of which have been hit by Israeli attacks in the past. Last year, the Israeli military said bases near al-Kiswah were used by pro-Iranian militias. An Iranian weapons depot at the airport was targeted in an airstrike a week and a half ago, Israel said.
According to Syrian opposition media, approximately 10 missiles were fired at targets near the airport and in al-Kiswah.
“Warehouses containing weapons for Syrian regime ally Hezbollah and Iranian fighters are located in that area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
For years, Israel has conducted airstrikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria, which it considers threats to national security. However, those attacks typically take place under the cover of darkness.
The alleged Israeli strike appeared to be the first major attack carried out by the Israel Defense Forces since Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi took over as chief of staff last week. Kohavi was visiting the IDF Northern Command at the time of the alleged Israeli strike.
The alleged strike came hours after a Syrian cargo plane touched down in the Damascus International Airport from Tehran, according to publicly available flight data. Israel and American defense officials have said these types of ostensibly civilian cargo planes are often used to transport advanced weaponry from Tehran to pro-Iranian militias, fighting in Syria, including the Hezbollah terror group.
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.
The Israeli Air Force also carried out a similar strike following an apparent cargo drop earlier this month, bombing an Iranian weapons depot at Damascus International Airport. At last week’s cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Netanyahu said Israel was behind the strike two days before, a rare acknowledgement of such a raid.
“The Israel Defense Forces has attacked hundreds of Iranian and Hezbollah targets,” he said. “Just in the past 36 hours, the air force attacked Iranian depots full of Iranian weapons in the Damascus International Airport.”
Israel typically refrains from commenting on individual airstrikes in Syria, but does generally acknowledge that it carries out raids against Iranian- and Hezbollah-linked targets in the country.
Israel in recent years has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against targets linked to Iran, which alongside its proxies and Russia is fighting on behalf of the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The previous reported airstrike occurred on Christmas Day. On that occasion, a Syrian anti-aircraft missile flew into Israeli airspace, and was destroyed by Israeli air defenses.
Israel has accused Iran of seeking to establish a military presence in Syria that could threaten Israeli security and attempting to transfer advanced weaponry to the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon.
Michael Bachner, Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.