Israel and Iran, Newly Emboldened, Exchange Blows in Syria Face-Off
JERUSALEM — The tense shadow war between Iran and Israel burst into the open early Thursday as Israeli warplanes struck dozens of Iranian military targets inside Syria. It was a furious response to what Israel called an Iranian rocket attack launched from Syrian territory just hours earlier.
The cross-border exchanges — the most serious assaults from each side in their face-off over Iran’s presence in Syria — took place a little more than a day after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement.
Israel’s defense minister said that Israeli warplanes had destroyed “nearly all” of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria after Iran launched 20 rockets at Israeli-held territory, none reaching their targets.
Iran struck shortly after President Trump pulled out of the nuclear agreement, raising speculation that it no longer felt constrained by the possibility that the Americans might scrap the deal if Iran attacked Israel.
Israel appeared newly emboldened as well, partly because of what seemed like extraordinary latitude from Russia, Syria’s most important ally, allowing the Israelis to act against Iran’s military assets in Syria.
Moscow did not condemn Israel’s strikes, as it had in the past, instead calling on Israel and Iran to resolve their differences diplomatically.
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And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who spent 10 hours with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia on Wednesday, told his cabinet on Thursday that he had persuaded the Russians to delay the sale of advanced weapons to Syria.
Russia and Iran have been allies in the Syrian war, defending President Bashar al-Assad. But as the war appears to be winding down, some analysts say the aims of Russia and Iran are diverging: Moscow prefers a strong secular central government in Syria, while Tehran prefers a weaker government that would allow Iran-backed militias free rein.
Israel has conducted scores of strikes on Iran and its allies inside Syria, rarely acknowledging them publicly. But before Thursday, Iran had not retaliated, seemingly handcuffed while it awaited Mr. Trump’s decision on the nuclear accord.
Even so, the Iranians have plenty to lose if the conflict continues to grow. They still seem determined to preserve the nuclear accord despite renewed American sanctions. The accord also includes Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the European Union.
“We see now that Netanyahu feels that Iran’s capacities in Syria are vulnerable, that he can target them, that Iran’s capacities to strike back are weakened — he took out some of these capacities, probably less than he claims — and that Iran has no significant way to react without risking itself,” said Ofer Zalzberg, an analyst at the International Crisis Group.
Israel made it clear on Thursday that its planning for the airstrikes had been known internally as “Chess,” and it looked in the aftermath as though Iran might have been baited into a trap on the Syrian game board.
Iran’s rocket attack against Israel came after what appeared to have been an Israeli missile strike against a village in the Syrian Golan Heights late on Wednesday.
Early on Thursday, Iranian forces fired about 20 Grad and Fajr-5 rockets at the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, targeting forward positions of the Israeli military, according to an Israeli military spokesman. The barrage was launched under the command of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and used Iranian weapons, said the Israeli spokesman, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus.
Four of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome antimissile defense system, and the rest fell short of the Israeli-controlled territory, the military said. Indeed, by Thursday morning, Israeli life returned to routine in the Golan Heights, with children going to school.
Still, the rocket attack was a significant escalation in Iran’s maneuvers in the Middle East. Though Israel has hit Iranian forces in Syria with a number of deadly airstrikes, Tehran had been restrained in hitting back, until now.
“Iran had to make a point: that it can respond, even if it’s a weak response,” said Joshua M. Landis, a Syria expert and director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. “But it also revealed a weakness: Those rockets don’t have any brains.”
After the Iranian rocket assault, Israel hit back much harder.
Israel said its response struck a severe blow to Iran’s military capacity in Syria. In a statement, the military said the targets included what it described as Iranian intelligence sites; a logistics headquarters belonging to the Quds Force; military compounds; munition storage warehouses of the Quds Force at Damascus International Airport; intelligence systems associated with those forces; and military posts and munitions in the buffer zone between the Syrian Golan Heights and the Israeli-occupied portion.
“If there is rain on our side, there will be a flood on their side,” Israel’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said Thursday morning in remarks broadcast from a policy conference in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. “I hope we have finished with this round and that everybody understood.”
In all, at least 23 people were killed in the strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group. The Syrian Army, by contrast, said that three people had died. Israel reported no casualties on its side.
Israel said it had no intention of further escalation, and analysts looking for clues to Iran’s potential response noted that its news media was largely ignoring the overnight hostilities, focusing instead on the nuclear deal. The English-language report on the airstrikes from Iran’s Fars news agency made no mention of Iranian involvement.
In a sign of international concern that the conflict could escalate, however, Britain, France, Germany and Russia were quick to call for calm. “We proceed from the fact that all issues should be solved through dialogue,” the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, said at a news conference.
The White House condemned the missile attack on Israel, saying in a statement that it strongly supported “Israel’s right to act in self-defense” and called on Iran “to take no further provocative steps.”
It also inflicted new financial pain on Iran on Thursday. The Treasury Department said it had teamed with the United Arab Emirates to disrupt an Iranian currency exchange network that transferred millions of dollars, in coordination with Iran’s central bank, to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. “We are intent on cutting off I.R.G.C. revenue streams wherever their source and whatever their destination,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
Iran has taken advantage of the chaos in Syria to build a substantial military infrastructure there. It has built and trained large militias with thousands of fighters and sent advisers from its Revolutionary Guards Corps to Syrian military bases.
Mr. Netanyahu said this week that the Revolutionary Guards had moved advanced weapons to Syria, including ground-to-ground missiles, weaponized drones and Iranian antiaircraft batteries that he said would threaten Israel’s military jets.
Israel’s political and security establishment has been unified and vocal in vowing to thwart Iran’s efforts to entrench itself militarily across Israel’s northern frontier and to build what Israeli and American officials refer to as a land corridor from Iran, through Iraq and Syria, to Lebanon.
Israel had warned Tehran that it would respond to any attack. Israel also broadcast warnings to Syria, saying that allowing Iranian entrenchment in its territory put Mr. Assad’s government at risk.
The tensions between Iran and Israel have been complicated further by Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear agreement on Tuesday.
Israel had railed against the agreement, and Mr. Trump had campaigned on the promise of withdrawing from it, but European countries and many analysts had seen it as a crucial element holding back Iran and Israel, implacable foes, from all-out conflict.
As Mr. Trump announced his decision, Israel put its troops on “high alert,” called up reservists, set up Iron Dome batteries and instructed the authorities in the Golan Heights to prepare public bomb shelters after detecting what it said was irregular activity by Iranian forces.
Israel’s strikes early Thursday were some of the country’s largest aerial operations in decades across the Syrian frontier, and by far the broadest direct attack yet on Iranian assets. “This was an operation we prepared for, and were not surprised by,” Colonel Conricus said.
Israel said Russia had been informed before the overnight attack.
In recent years, Iran has helped Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed force in Lebanon, amass a huge arsenal of rockets it can use against Israel as a deterrent against Israeli strikes on Iran’s nuclear program.
Israel has carried out scores of strikes against what it says are advanced weapons and convoys destined for Hezbollah. But since February, when Israel intercepted what it later called an armed Iranian drone that had penetrated its airspace from Syria, setting off a day of heated cross-border exchanges, Israel’s efforts appear to have been more focused on Iranian assets in Syria.
“Israel doesn’t want another Hezbollah inside Syria, it doesn’t want another Lebanon,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The Israelis think they can surgically strike and not create a wider conflict. They think that Assad, working with the Russians, will have an incentive not to respond.”
Follow Isabel Kershner and David M. Halbfinger on Twitter: @IKershner @halbfinger
Reporting was contributed by Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow; Thomas Erdbrink from Tehran; Hwaida Saad from Beirut, Lebanon; Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin; Rick Gladstone from New York; and Alan Rappeport from Washington.