Fears of war as Israel strikes back at Iran
Israel and Iran lurched closer to all-out war yesterday after the Israeli military claimed it struck "almost all" of Iran's bases in Syria in response to what it said was an Iranian rocket barrage fired at the Golan Heights.
The exchange of fire was the most direct confrontation between the two Middle East rivals after years of stand-off in Syria and came one day after Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear agreement and reimposed sanctions on the regime.
Israel carried out its largest wave of air strikes in Syria since the 1973 war, hitting around 70 Iranian military bases, supply depots, and intelligence sites, as well as Syrian regime air defence batteries, its military said.
"We... struck almost all the Iranian infrastructure in Syria, and they need to remember this arrogance of theirs," said Avigdor Lieberman, the Israeli defence minister. "If we get rain, they'll get a flood."
The attacks were in response to a barrage of 20 rockets that Israel said were fired by Iran's Revolutionary Guard towards the Golan, a mountainous region that Israel annexed from Syria after capturing it in 1967.
There were no casualties on the Israeli side. The country's military said its Iron Dome missile defence system intercepted four of the rockets just after midnight yesterday, while the other 16 fell harmlessly in Syrian territory.
At least 23 people were killed by the Israeli strikes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It was not clear how many of the dead were Iranians. Iran has neither confirmed nor denied that it was responsible for launching the attacks.
Israel has said repeatedly it will not allow Iran to build up a permanent military presence in Syria and is prepared to go to war to stop it.
"Whoever hurts us, we will hurt him sevenfold. Whoever tries to hurt us, we will act to hurt him beforehand," said Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister.
Tensions between the two sides have risen sharply since April 9, when a suspected Israeli strike on the T4 airbase in central Syria killed at least seven Iranians. Iran vowed revenge and Israel has been warning for weeks that it was expecting an Iranian attack.
Earlier this week, Syrian state media said Israel struck a military outpost near Damascus. The Observatory said the missiles targeted depots and rocket launchers that likely belonged to Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard, killing at least 15 people, including eight Iranians.
Britain and the US were quick to issue messages of support for Israel and condemnation of Iran. "The United Kingdom condemns in the strongest terms the Iranian rocket attacks against Israeli forces," said UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. "We strongly support Israel's right to defend itself."
Meanwhile, Theresa May spoke to Mr Netanyahu by phone to express her support and to condemn the Iranian attacks, while reiterating the UK's support for the Iran deal.
Both the UK and US called on Russia to do more to rein in Iran's presence in Syria and avoid a further escalation. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also condemned the attack in a call to Hassan Rouhani, the Iranian president.
The Israeli attacks are likely to strain the relationship between Iran and Russia, which are fighting on the same side in Syria on behalf of the Assad regime.
Israel warned Russia of its intention to launch strikes but Russian forces in Syria appear to have done nothing to shield their Iranian allies. Hours before the attack, Vladimir Putin hosted Mr Netanyahu as an honoured guest at a military parade in Moscow.
While Israel has scored tactical military victories over Iran in Syria, it has struggled with a broader diplomatic campaign to convince world powers to clamp down on Tehran. Mr Netanyahu travels regularly to Moscow but his diplomatic efforts have so far yielded few visible results.
Israel is also likely to have been emboldened by the arrival in the Trump administration of John Bolton, the new national security adviser, and Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, who take a much more hawkish approach to Iran than their predecessors.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described yesterday's strikes as a "very alarming development."
He noted that in contacts with the leadership of both countries, including a meeting on Wednesday between Mr Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, "we underlined the necessity of avoiding any actions that might be mutually provocative."
Meanwhile, Bahrain voiced support for Israel's strikes, in an unusual example of an Arab state publicly applauding Israel for dropping bombs on the territory of a fellow Arab state. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations share many of Israel's fears about Iran.