Russia: Israel behind Syria strikes, threatens regional stability

Russian Foreign Ministry says 6 Israeli fighter jets carried out Monday’s predawn raid, reportedly against Iranian weapons caches

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/POOL/AFP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (R) speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow on April 4, 2019. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/POOL/AFP)

Russia on Tuesday said Israel was behind a series of airstrikes on targets in Syria on Monday morning, adding that those attacks threatened to destabilize the region.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova said six Israeli fighter jets operating inside Lebanese airspace conducted the predawn raid, which reportedly targeted Iranian and pro-Iranian positions in the country, specifically those tied to the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah and other Shiite terror groups in the region.

Israel has refused to comment on the attack, which came less than a week after a trilateral summit with Russia and the United States concerning Tehran’s activities and military presence in the region.

The airstrikes reportedly targeted at least a dozen sites in Syria, outside the cities of Damascus and Homs, in the largest attack of its kind since last May, when Israel squared off against Syria and Iran in a massive nighttime battle in response to a rocket attack by Iranian troops on Israeli military positions on the Golan Heights.

Explosions seen near Damascus on July 1, 2019. Syria says Israeli jets hit targets in Damascus and Homs (Screencapture/Twitter)

Sixteen people were reportedly killed during Monday’s strikes, including six civilians, though Syrian media said it was not clear if they were killed by the incoming Israeli missiles, attempts by the Syrian military to intercept them or some kind of secondary blast. The other 10 fatalities were members of pro-Iranian groups, most of them non-Syrians.

“We are concerned about this alarming development of the situation,” Zakharova said in a press briefing.

“Force actions that grossly violate the sovereignty of Syria, not only do not contribute to the normalization of the situation in this country, but also carry a threat of regional destabilization,” she said, in response to a question about the strikes.

On Monday evening, a private Israeli intelligence firm, ImageSat International, identified one of the sites in Syria targeted in an alleged Israeli airstrike earlier in the day as a hangar likely storing advanced weaponry or other military equipment.

The firm released a photograph of the hangar, located at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) in Jamraya, outside Damascus.

Satellite photo of one of the sites hit in an alleged Israeli airstrike on Iranian sites in Syria on July 1, 2019. (ImageSat International)

A photograph of the same site from June 4 showed a 12-meter (39-foot) by 30-meter (98-foot) hangar in Jamraya, which lies approximately 10 kilometers (seven miles) northwest of Damascus. The image from Monday showed the structure completely destroyed.

According to ImageSat, the building was “probably used for storage of advanced weapon systems or another sensitive element.”

The Hezbollah terror group and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp have been said to maintain a presence at the Jamraya facility.

The US has repeatedly imposed sanctions on the SSRC for its alleged role in chemical weapons production. France has also imposed sanctions on the agency.

Israeli airstrikes reportedly hit the facility in May 2013 and again in February 2018.

The monitor said that at some sites, large blasts were caused by exploding ammunition depots and noted many ambulances had headed to the sites.

The Israeli military has acknowledged carrying out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria in recent years, on targets linked to Iran, which is backing President Bashar Assad’s regime in the Syrian civil war. But generally Israel does not comment on specific airstrikes, unless they are in response to attacks from Syria.

Yossi Cohen, the head of the Mossad intelligence service, said Monday that Israel “can’t agree to Syria becoming a staging ground for Iranian forces or forces operated by it against us. We can’t agree to Syria becoming a logistics base for transferring weapons to Hezbollah and Lebanon.”

Cohen did not refer specifically to the strikes earlier that day, but acknowledged that Israel often conducted military activities in Syria.

“Israel has taken action in the past four years, overtly and covertly, about which only a small amount has been published, in order to block the entrenchment and the production lines of precision-guided munitions,” he said.

Satellite photos released by ImageSat International appear to show all four missile launchers of the S-300 air defense system in the raised position in the northwestern Syrian city of Masyaf on June 30, 2019. (ImageSat International)

The reported strikes came just hours after an Israeli satellite imagery analysis company said Syria’s entire S-300 air defense system appeared to be operational, indicating a greater threat to Israel’s ability to conduct airstrikes against Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in the country.

Israel has threatened to destroy the S-300 system if it is used against its fighter jets, regardless of the potential blowback from Russia.

The system was not used in response to Monday’s strikes, though Syria fired large numbers of older and less effective interceptor missiles. One of those flew over civilian flight paths and exploded in Turkey-occupied northern Cyprus, where it started a fire.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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