IDF girds for response after attacking dozens of Iranian, Assad targets in Syria
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IDF girds for response after attacking dozens of Iranian, Assad targets in Syria

Army says strikes in retaliation for rocket fire, were coordinated with Russia; ‘You’re not immune,’ defense minister warns Iran leaders; 11 said killed in Syria, 7 likely Iranian

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

A picture taken on July 20, 2018, in the Golan Heights shows an Israeli Merkava tank taking position on the border between Israel and Syria. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)
A picture taken on July 20, 2018, in the Golan Heights shows an Israeli Merkava tank taking position on the border between Israel and Syria. (AFP Photo/Jalaa Marey)

The Israel Defense Forces on Wednesday morning said it was girding for several possible Iranian responses to its overnight airstrikes on the Islamic Republic’s Quds Force in Syria, from total calm to a full-scale attack.

“We are preparing for defense and attack, and we will respond to any attempt to retaliate,” IDF Spokesperson Hidai Zilberman told reporters first thing Wednesday morning.

“We are ready for three scenarios: no response, a minor response, and a more significant response,” he said.

Save for minor air defense reinforcements, there were no significant changes to the IDF’s deployments in northern Israel on Wednesday morning. The IDF Home Front Command also did not put in place any safety restrictions on residents of the north.

In the predawn hours of Wednesday morning, the Israeli Air Force launched a large reprisal airstrike operation, targeting dozens of Iranian and Syrian military sites in Syria in response to a rocket attack on northern Israel the day before.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said that at least 11 people were killed, including seven “foreigners” who were likely Iranian, and that others were injured during the overnight strikes.

Video footage from Syria appeared to show a Syrian air defense missile crashing to the ground in a heavily populated area shortly after launching, which may account for some of the casualties.

“In the morning, we’ll get a better picture of their casualties,” Zilberman said.

A senior defense official told reporters Israel believes it killed and injured a number of Iranians in the strike.

“We struck a building staffed by Iranians at the Damascus airport. We assess that there are Iranians killed and injured,” the official said, on condition of anonymity.

The official said that Israel destroyed six Syrian air defense batteries, as well as multiple buildings on Syrian military bases that are controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force.

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, a damaged building targeted by Israeli missile strikes is seen in Qudsaya suburb, western the capital Damascus, Syria, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (SANA via AP)

“The attack was carried out in response to the launching of the rockets by the Iranian Quds Force from Syrian territory,” the army said in a statement.

Israel has repeatedly said that it will not accept Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and that it will retaliate for any attack on the Jewish state from Syria.

Zilberman said the military targeted both “the host, Syria, and the guest, Iran.”

A large explosion is seen over the Damascus skyline in footage purportedly taken on the night of November 19-20, 2019 (video screenshot)

Israel has repeatedly warned Syrian dictator Bashar Assad to not intervene during IDF strikes on Iranian targets in his country or else his military will also be targeted, as was the case Wednesday.

The Syrian targets of the strike included modern air defense systems, which were put into operation in the past 10 years, as well as command centers and weapons caches, the IDF spokesman said.

The IAF did not target Syria’s Russian-made advanced S-300 anti-aircraft batteries due to the presence of Russian troops in their vicinity. It was not clear whether S-300s had fired on the Israeli aircraft.

The IAF bombed an Iranian command center at the Damascus International Airport and logistics sites used by Iran to transport weapons through the country.

The IDF said it coordinated its aerial campaign with Moscow through the deconfliction mechanism the two countries established in light of Russia’s significant military presence in Syria.

Zilberman said the targets of its strikes were all located within 80 kilometers of Israel’s border and were focused around Damascus and the Syrian Golan Heights.

“Our message to the leaders of Iranian is simple: You are not immune anymore. Wherever you send your octopus arms — we will hack them off,” said newly installed Defense Minister Naftali Bennett.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said of the strike: “I have made clear that any who attack us, we will attack them. That is what we did tonight toward military targets of the Iranian Quds Force and Syrian military targets.”

Footage circulated on social media and Syrian state television showed nighttime explosions along the Damascus skyline and apparent Syrian attempts to intercept the incoming Israeli missiles.

The official Syrian news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying: “At 1:20 a.m. on Wednesday, Israeli warplanes… targeted the vicinity of the city of Damascus with a number of missiles. Our air defense confronted the heavy attack and intercepted the hostile missiles, and was able to destroy most of them before reaching their targets.”

Syrian authorities regularly claims to destroy most missiles in such attacks, though the veracity of such assertions is questionable. The Israeli military acknowledged being targeted by Syrian air defenses during the assault and said it destroyed several anti-aircraft missile batteries in response.

SANA added that the attack was carried out from “Lebanese and Palestinian territories.” Israel sometimes launches its strikes on Syria from planes flying over neighboring Lebanon.

The Quds Force is a part of the Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for extraterritorial operations, and is a key actor in Syria — both against rebels and in Tehran’s efforts to entrench itself along Israel’s border and threaten the Jewish state from there.

Early Tuesday morning Israel’s anti-missile defense system intercepted four rockets fired from Syria toward the Golan Heights.

Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani. (YouTube screenshot)

Shortly afterwards blasts were heard near Damascus International Airport, the official SANA news agency reported. The agency gave no further details, but its statement came shortly after the Israeli army announced that it had intercepted the rockets fired from Syria.

Some Syrian outlets speculated that the blasts were an Israeli airstrike, while others said it may have been the sound of the rockets being launched at Israel.

The rockets triggered sirens in the northern Golan Heights and Galilee region at 4:52 a.m., sending residents rushing to bomb shelters.

Last week Syrian state media reported that an Israeli strike hit the home of a senior Palestinian Islamic Jihad terrorist in Damascus, Akram al-Ajouri, killing his son and another person. Islamic Jihad accused Israel of being behind the strike in Damascus. The Israeli army refused to comment.

On the same day, an Israeli airstrike killed Islamic Jihad military commander Baha Abu Al-Ata, whom Israel blamed for recent rocket fire into its territory, in a strike on his home in Gaza City. Around 450 rockets were fired into Israel from the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the military operation against Abu Al-Ata, according to the Israeli army, as the military struck back at Islamic Jihad targets. A ceasefire between Israel and Islamic Jihad was reached after 50 hours of clashes, but the deal remains precarious.

Screen capture from video showing the delivery of Russian S-300 air defense missiles to Syria. (YouTube)

Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in Syria against Iranian targets over the last several years, but does not generally comment on specific attacks. Iran has forces based in Syria, Israel’s northern neighbor, and supports Hezbollah and Gaza terrorists.

In August, in a rare announcement, the IDF said it had targeted sites in the town of Aqrabah, southeast of Damascus, near the city’s airport to foil what it said was an imminent armed drone attack on Israel by Iran-backed fighters.

In January Israel was said to have conducted a daylight missile attack on Iranian targets at the airport. Iran responded by firing a surface-to-surface missile at the northern Golan Heights, which was intercepted by the Iron Dome missile defense system over the Mount Hermon ski resort, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Times of Israel staff and AFP contributed to this report.

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