A Syrian security official blamed Israel and the US for an attack on a base belonging to a pro-Iranian Shiite militia in Syria near the border with Iraq on Monday.
The pre-dawn attack targeted a base known as the Imam Ali compound in the al-Bukamal region of eastern Syria, near the border with Iraq. A London-based observer said at least 18 people were killed, including Iranian and pro-Iranian fighters.
Israel reportedly believes the base was a key element in Tehran’s effort to develop a so-called “land bridge” that would allow the Islamic Republic to easily move weapons, fighters, and war materiel from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.
The base belonged to the Popular Mobilization Force, an umbrella group of Iraqi Shiite militias, which are funded in large part by Iran.
A Syria-based official for the Iraqi militia claimed that Israel was behind the attack, adding that four missiles fired by warplanes hit a post manned by Iranian gunmen and members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah group.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media, said there were no Iraqi casualties in the strike, which he said hit about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from the Iraqi border.
A Syrian security official cited by the government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said the Israeli planes targeted a military camp that was being set up by the Syrian army and its allies. It said the structure was deserted at the time and the strike did not cause any casualties, contrary to other reports.
The official claimed the planes used Jordanian airspace and were “aided” by American forces stationed at the Tanf garrison, near Syria’s eastern border with Jordan.
“We hold the Americans and Israelis responsible for these acts of aggression which cross the red lines,” said the official, who was not named.
Hezbollah military media also quoted the security source in Syria accusing Israel of launching the attack, although there was no official statement from Damascus.
Pro-Iranian news outlets also attributed the bombardment to the Israel Defense Forces.
Neither Israel nor the US-led coalition, which carries out air strikes in the area against jihadist sleeper cells, commented on the incident.
Israel, which has vowed to keep weakening Iran so long as it continues to develop weapons that threaten the Jewish state, has launched attacks against a variety of targets, and has reportedly stepped up its campaign against Iran-backed forces in Iraq in recent months.
Early Tuesday, fresh blasts were reported at storehouses used by the PMF near the Iraq city of Hit in Anbar Province, some 200 kilometers from Al-Bukamal.
The al-Bukamal compound was first publicly identified as an Iranian-controlled base earlier this month by Fox News, citing unnamed Western intelligence sources.
According to satellite images released by a private Israeli intelligence firm, at least eight storehouses in the compound were destroyed.
“If indeed it is an Iranian base, it is probable that the strike is part of the struggle with Tehran to prevent its effort of establishing the land corridor to its allies in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the Israeli satellite imagery analysis company ImageSat International wrote.
Shortly after the strike, members of a Shiite militia in Syria fired a number of rockets toward Mount Hermon on the Israeli Golan Heights from the outskirts of Damascus, according to the Israeli military.
The projectiles fell short of the border and landed inside Syrian territory.
The highly irregular reprisal attack by a pro-Iranian militia appeared to indicate that Tehran saw the strike as a serious blow to its efforts in the region.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the airstrikes began late Sunday and continued after midnight, killing 18 Iranian and pro-Iranian fighters and also causing extensive damage.
The Sound and Pictures, a local activist collective in eastern Syria, gave a higher death toll, saying 21 fighters were killed and 36 wounded. The collective said the strikes targeted positions belonging to Iranian militias and those of the PMF.
According to ImageSat, the eight storehouses that were destroyed in the strike appeared to be either newly built or still in the process of being built. Several other structures remained intact following the strike.
The Israeli intelligence firm said that the storehouses appeared to have been holding ammunition and weaponry when they were attacked.
Since mid-July, at least five arms depots and training camps in Iraq belonging to the Popular Mobilization Forces have been targeted in apparent attacks.
The PMF has blamed both Israel and the US for the recent string of blasts and drone sightings at its bases.
The Pentagon, which is mindful of not alienating Iraq’s leadership and jeopardizing its military presence in the country, has pointedly distanced itself from the mysterious explosions.
Anonymous US officials recently said the IDF was behind at least some strikes on Iran-linked sites outside of Baghdad.
According to the Fox News report, once completed, the al-Bukamal base could house thousands of soldiers and storage facilities for advanced weapons. The US cable network said the base’s construction is being overseen by Iran’s powerful Quds Force and its commander Qassem Soleimani.
Satellite photos of the base, released by ImageSat International last week, showed what appeared to be five recently constructed buildings that can store precision-guided missiles.
Israel views Iran as its greatest threat, and has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes in Syria in recent years aimed primarily at preventing the transfers of sophisticated weapons, including guided missiles, to the Iran-backed Hezbollah.
The PMF was established in 2014 from mostly Shiite paramilitary groups and volunteers to fight the Islamic State jihadist organization and is now formally part of Iraq’s armed forces.
But the US and Israel fear some units are an extension of Iran and have been equipped with precision-guided missiles that could reach Israel.
Times of Israel staff and Agencies contributed to this report.