Syria claims Israel targeted an army base outside Damascus

Syria claims Israel targeted an army base outside Damascus

Country’s opposition media says strikes hit a weapons depot in al-Qutayfah, northeast of the capital; Israeli security cabinet holds high-level talks on Iranian entrenchment

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Illustrative photo of an Israeli F-15 fighter jet. (Tsahi Ben-Ami/Flash90)
Illustrative photo of an Israeli F-15 fighter jet. (Tsahi Ben-Ami/Flash90)

The Syrian military said that Israel conducted airstrikes on a military base in the city of al-Qutayfah, outside Damascus, early Tuesday morning, reportedly on a weapons depot containing long-range missiles.

“Our air defenses responded to three Israeli missile attacks on military positions in the al-Qutayfah countryside,” official Syrian state media quoted military officials as saying.

The Israeli military did not comment on the reports, as is its wont.

The pro-regime al-Mayadeen news outlet reported that the strike occurred over the course of several hours — at 2:40 a.m., 3:04 a.m. and 4:15 a.m. — and was carried out by both aircraft and surface-to-surface missiles.

Syrian military officials told al-Mayadeen that its air defenses intercepted three of the missiles fired and hit one of the Israeli aircraft. The claim could not be immediately confirmed.

The target of the strike in al-Qutayfah was said to be a base used by the Syrian military’s 155th Artillery Regiment. Syrian opposition media reported that the base was used to store weapons, specifically long-range missiles.

According to Ronen Solomon, an Israeli freelance intelligence analyst who tracks Syria’s weapons development programs, the 155th Artillery Regiment operates Scud missile launchers and “has been known since 2010 as the regiment that hosts Hezbollah’s advanced Scud missile base.”

Loud explosions could be heard throughout the area following the alleged strike, according to local media. Ahead of the strike, Lebanese media reported that Israeli jets were seen flying over the country.

The alleged airstrike came as senior Israeli ministers and defense officials have reportedly been holding high-level talks about the situation in Syria and Lebanon, specifically regarding Iranian entrenchment in the region.

“The Middle East is raging around us, and what concerns us the most are Iranian efforts to establish military bases in Syria,” Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio Monday after being asked about reports that the high-level security cabinet has been holding a series of “extremely significant” meetings on the threats from the northern border.

“The prime minister is leading a multifaceted campaign to stop this entrenchment,” Steinitz said, declining to comment specifically on the content of the meetings.

Last month, Israel allegedly fired missiles at a suspected Iranian base in Syria, reportedly killing 12 Iranian military personnel and destroying several buildings.

A satellite image showing the results of an alleged Israeli airstrike on a reported Iranian base being set up outside Damascus, from December 4, 2017. (ImageSat International ISI)

Israeli officials have repeatedly said that the Jewish state opposes Iranian presence in southern Syria and Lebanon.

In a separate interview Monday morning, Steinitz said that while “it’s no secret” that Israel is concerned by Iranian military presence in Syria, Netanyahu’s government is “carrying out diplomatic, intelligence and security operations” to prevent the war-torn country from “becoming an Iranian military base.”

“It’s a process that will take a few years, but we are determined to prevent it,” he told the Ynet news site.

Israel has been negotiating with the United States and Russia, the main brokers in Syria, to keep Iran-backed Shiite militias and the Hezbollah terrorist group away from the border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and others have all said that Israel’s policy is to target shipments of advanced weaponry, including accurate long-range missiles, that are heading to or in the possession of Hezbollah.

On Sunday, Channel 10 news reported on the security cabinet meetings regarding Iran in Syria, but said the IDF military censor had blocked the majority of its report from publication.

A tour guided by the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah terror group shows one of the group’s fighters standing next to an artillery gun in a mountainous area around the Syrian town of Flita near the border with Lebanon, August 2, 2017. (AFP PHOTO / LOUAI BESHARA)

The report said the meetings were convened to discuss the activities of the Iran-backed Hezbollah in Syria and Lebanon, the regime’s renewed control of most of the country and the future of a post-war Syria.

In a tweet, diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid said that although he was unable to give more details of the meetings, he referred to remarks made by Liberman in October.

“Syria and Lebanon have become one military entity. Israel must prepare for a new challenge… on the northern front,” Liberman said at that time. “Any developments will be due to Hezbollah, Assad’s regime and all those collaborating with Assad’s regime, along with the Lebanese army. Unfortunately, this is the reality,” Ravid quoted the minister as saying.

Channel 10 also reported on recent phone conversations in which Netanyahu sought to warn world leaders of the volatile situation created by Iran setting up army bases in those two countries through Hezbollah and other Shiite militias.

An Israeli flag flutters above the wreckage of a tank on a hill in the Golan Heights overlooking the border with Syria on October 18, 2017. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

In late December, Assad’s troops, accompanied by Iranian-backed fighters, recaptured the Syrian Golan from rebels, allowing President Bashar Assad to reassert control over a small portion of the area adjacent to the Israeli border. Still, much of the area along the border, around the city of Quneitra, remains under rebel control.

Last week, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot said the most serious immediate threat to Israel was posed by Hezbollah, followed by other jihadist groups supported by Tehran positioned on the Syrian border.

Describing Iran as a “multidimensional threat,” the army chief said the most worrying aspect is the Islamic Republic’s desire to obtain nuclear capabilities, followed by its efforts to achieve hegemony in the region.

IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot speaks at a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya on January 2, 2018. (Adi Cohen Zedek)

He noted the over $1 billion that the country invests in its proxies in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and — increasingly — Palestinian terrorist groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

According to Eisenkot, each year Iran sends between $700 million and $1 billion to Hezbollah each year, $100 million each to Shiite militias in Syria, Shiite militias in Iraq, rebels in Yemen and to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas terrorist groups.

The army chief did not provide the source for those figures.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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