An Israeli tank is seen near the Israeli side of the border with Syria, in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, on May 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS
An Israeli tank is seen near the Israeli side of the border with Syria, in the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, on May 9 2018. Picture: REUTERS

Jerusalem/Beirut — Iranian forces in Syria launched a rocket attack on Israeli army bases in the Golan Heights early on Thursday, Israel said, prompting one of the heaviest Israeli barrages in Syria since the conflict there began in 2011.

The attack on the Israel-occupied Golan Heights, just past midnight, marked the first time Iranian forces have hit Israel from Syria, where they have deployed along with Iran-backed Shiite militias and Russian troops to support President Bashar al-Assad in the civil war.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov, called for “restraint on all sides” and said Moscow was “concerned” by the escalation.

“We have established contacts with all parties and we call for restraint from all parties,” Bogdanov said.

French President Emmanuel Macron said a “de-escalation” of the conflict was needed, while Germany accused Iran of “provocation”.

“These attacks are a serious provocation that we strongly condemn. As we have always emphasised, Israel has a right to self-defence,” said a German foreign ministry spokeswoman said in a statement, adding however that it is “crucial that there is no further escalation”.

Britain also condemned the Iranian attack and called on Russia to use its influence in Syria to stop any further attacks.

“Israel has every right to defend itself,” a spokesman for Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday.

“We call on Iran to refrain from any further attacks and for calm on all sides. We call on Russia to use its influence in Syria to prevent further Iranian attacks.”

Nuclear destabilisation

US President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Iranian nuclear deal had stoked fear of a flare-up of regional tensions.

A powerful Iranian military leader said on Thursday that European countries were powerless to salvage the deal following Trump's move, after Britain, France and Germany said they remained committed to the deal.

The deputy head of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Brig-Gen Hossein Salami, was quoted by the semi-official Fars news agency as saying: “Europe cannot act independently over the nuclear deal.

“Iran’s enemies are not seeking military confrontation. They want to pressure our country by economic isolation…. Resistance is the only way to confront these enemies, not diplomacy,” Salami was quoted as saying.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said Tehran will remain in the 2015 agreement, though Europe has only a “limited opportunity” to preserve it.

Russia on Thursday reiterated its commitment to its relationship with Iran. Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said Russia was firmly committed to continuing to deepen ties with Iran despite the US withdrawal from the nuclear deal.

Exchange of fire

Russia’s defence ministry said on Thursday that Syria had shot down more than half of the missiles fired at it overnight by Israel, RIA news agency reported.

The ministry said in a statement, quoted by Interfax news agency, that “28 Israeli F-15 and F-16 aircraft were used in the attack, which released around 60 air-to-ground missiles over various parts of Syria. Israel also fired more than 10 tactical ground-to-ground missiles.”

Syrian state media had said earlier that dozens of Israeli missiles hit a radar station, Syrian air defence positions and an ammunitions dump, underscoring the risks of a wider escalation involving Iran and its regional allies.

Israel said 20 Iranian Grad and Fajr rockets were shot down by its Iron Dome air defence system or fell short of the Golan targets. The Quds Force, an external arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, carried out the launch, Israel said.

“It was commanded and ordered by (Quds Force chief General) Qassem Soleimani and it has not achieved its purpose,” military spokesman Lt-Col Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Israel struck back by destroying dozens of Iranian military sites in Syria, Conricus said, as well as Syrian anti-aircraft units that tried unsuccessfully to shoot down Israeli planes.

“We do not know yet the (Iranian) casualty count,” he said.

“But I can say that in terms of our purpose, we focused less on personnel and more on capabilities and hardware … to inflict long-term damage on the Iranian military establishment in Syria. We assess it will take substantial time to replenish.”

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the overnight raids hit “nearly all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria”.

Lieberman told a security conference: “They need to remember the saying that if it rains on us, it’ll storm on them. I hope we’ve finished this episode and everyone understood.”

Lieberman called the rocket fire “a new phase”.

“We don’t want an escalation, but won’t let anyone attack us or build an infrastructure to attack us in the future,” he said.

“We’re facing a new reality. The Iranian attempt to bring anti-aircraft systems to our borders and close our skies is intolerable and unacceptable.”

‘Right decision’

Israel fears Iran and its Lebanese guerrilla ally Hezbollah are turning Syria into a new front against it. It says its occasional strikes in Syria aim to foil that.

Iran vowed retaliation after a suspected Israeli air strike last month killed seven of its military personnel in a Syrian air base.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat, and has repeatedly targeted Iranian forces and allied militia in Syria.

Expectations of a regional flare-up were stoked by US President Donald Trump’s announcement on Tuesday that he was withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal.

Hours later, Israeli rockets targeted a military base in Kisweh, a commander in the pro-Syrian government regional alliance said.

That attack killed 15 people, including eight Iranians, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, though the commander said there were no casualties.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility.

The Trump administration cast its hard tack against the Iranian nuclear deal as a response, in part, to Tehran’s military interventions in the region.

The Golan flare-up with Israel “is just further demonstration that the Iranian regime cannot be trusted and another good reminder that the president made the right decision to get out of the Iran deal,” White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told Fox News.

Russia warned

Thursday’s flare-up came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu returned from a visit to Moscow, where he discussed concerns over Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Conricus said Israel had forewarned Russia of its strikes on Thursday, which Syrian state media first reported hit Baath City in Quneitra, near the border.

Further waves of missiles followed. Syrian state media said Israeli missiles had been brought down over Damascus, Homs and Sueida.

“Air defences confronted tens of Israeli rockets and some of them reached their target and destroyed one of the radar sites,” Syrian state news agency SANA reported, citing a military source. Another rocket hit an ammunition warehouse, it said.

Syrian state television was broadcasting footage of its air defences firing, and playing patriotic songs. Damascus residents described explosions in the sky from air defence systems.

Israeli media said residents of Metulla, on the Lebanese border, had been instructed to go to bomb shelters. There was no official confirmation.

Lebanon’s National News Agency reported Israeli jets circling over Lebanese territory early on Thursday before exiting.

Reuters, with AFP