A projectile that was intercepted over the Golan Heights on Sunday was a surface-to-surface missile deliberately fired from Syria at Israel, according to Hebrew media. It was apparently a highly unusual retaliatory attack in response to an airstrike earlier in the day, which was widely attributed to Israel.
It was not the first time that Israel has intercepted Syrian missiles, but in the past, most incoming projectiles following Israeli airstrikes were believed to be errant anti-aircraft missiles, rather than intentionally fired offensive surface-to-surface attacks, as was the case on Sunday, army officials said in a closed briefing with a number of news outlets.
The previous surface-to-surface rocket attack from Syria was conducted in May 2018 by Iranian troops, according to the Israeli military. It was not immediately clear who was responsible for Sunday’s attack, the Syrian army or a pro-Iranian militia.
The rocket was shot down by the Israeli military’s Iron Dome missile defense system before it breached Israeli airspace, causing no damage.
The interception of the incoming Syrian projectile was seen over Mount Hermon, Israel’s tallest peak, which was full of visiting skiers, following a stormy period that dusted the mountain with snow.
— החדשות (@NewsChannelIL) January 20, 2019
The ski resort area was not shut down following the exchange, nor were residents of the area given additional security instructions, the army said.
It was not immediately clear how the IDF, and its new commander, Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, would respond to the Syrian attack. Kohavi began his tenure last week and was visiting the IDF Northern Command at the time of the rocket attack.
Chanel 13 news military analyst Alon Ben-David said the missile attack from Syria “crossed a line.”
“It is will be difficult for Israel to absorb this without a response,” he said.
The projectile was fired shortly after Syrian state media said Israel conducted a rare daylight missile attack in and around Damascus.
The Russian military, which is allied with Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, backed the Syrian claims, saying the incoming attack had been blocked by the country’s air defenses.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Chad, appeared to confirm that Israel was behind the 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.
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.
The Syrian regime mouthpiece SANA said the military’s air defense systems had “effectively addressed” the incoming Israeli attack and “prevented it from achieving any of its objectives.” Defense analysts generally dismiss the Syrian military’s routine claims of successful interceptions as overstated or outright false statements.
The Russia military supported the official Syrian claim that the alleged Israel attack had not damaged the airport.
According to the the Kremlin-backed Sputnik news site, Syrian-operated Pantsir and Buk air defense systems destroyed seven incoming Israeli missiles launched from four F-16 fighter jets from over the Mediterranean Sea.
“The airport’s infrastructure was not damaged. There are no victims, and no damage,” a Russian military spokesman tells the news site.
It was not immediately clear what accounted for the conflicting reports on the number of missiles fired by the Israeli jets.
A short while ago, a rocket was fired at the northern Golan Heights and was intercepted by the Iron Dome Aerial Defense System. pic.twitter.com/RXM7OvdeyJ
— Israel Defense Forces (@IDF) January 20, 2019
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 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 Israel Defense Forces 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 Sunday cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin 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.