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Syrian air defence batteries respond to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus on Jan. 21, 2019.

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Israeli military said its jets struck a series of Iranian military targets in Syria early Monday, an announcement that was a rare departure from Israel’s years-long policy of ambiguity regarding activities in neighbouring war-torn Syria.

The military said the targets included munition storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp.

The strikes were in response to a surface-to-surface rocket that Iranian forces fired toward Israel on Sunday that was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system over a ski resort in the Golan Heights. That followed a rare Israeli daylight air raid near the Damascus International Airport.

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The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday’s predawn strikes lasted for nearly an hour and were the most intense Israeli attacks since May. It said 11 were killed in the strikes. The Russian military said four Syrian troops were among those killed in air strikes that targeted three different locations and damaged unspecified infrastructure at Damascus airport. There were no further details on the casualties or their nationalities.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the Iranian missile attack that prompted the strong Israeli response was “premeditated.” Iranian forces in Syria fired the mid-range surface-to-surface missile toward Israel from the Damascus area – a missile he said had been smuggled into Syria specifically for that purpose. Lt.-Col. Conricus declined to further identify the type of missile, but said it hadn’t been used in any of the internal fighting of the civil war and had “no business” being in Syria.

In Iran, the chief of Iran’s air force, General Aziz Nassirzadeh, said his forces are “impatient and ready for a fight against the Zionist regime to wipe it off the Earth,” according to a news website affiliated with Iran’s state television, YJC.ir.

Iranian officials have repeatedly threatened to annihilate Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel “pounded” the Iranian sites in response to the missile attack and would not hesitate to respond again.

“We don’t allow such acts of aggression to go unanswered as Iran attempts to establish itself militarily in Syria and in the face of Iran’s explicit statements that it intends to destroy Israel,” he said at a ceremony dedicating a new airport in southern Israel.

“Whoever tries to harm us, we will harm them. Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility,” Mr. Netanyahu added.

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Israel has only recently acknowledged carrying out hundreds of strikes against Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria in recent years. It previously typically offered only general warnings against allowing Iran to establish a military foothold in Syria and refrained from commenting directly for fear of triggering a reaction and being drawn into the deadly fighting.

Israeli political and military leaders have been far more verbose of late, and Monday’s announcement went a step further, reporting the strikes in real time and detailing the targets.

Lt.-Col. Conricus would not confirm whether the measures marked an official abandonment of the policy of ambiguity, merely saying that it was a “retaliatory strike against active aggression by Iran.”

He said Israel had sent warnings to Syria ahead of the attack to refrain from attacking Israeli warplanes, but that Syria ignored those warnings and fired anti-aircraft missiles. He said Israel responded by destroying Syrian anti-aircraft batteries. The Russian military said that the Syrian air defences shot down over 30 Israeli cruise missiles, a claim that was doubted in Israel.

The military said the Mount Hermon ski site has been closed.

Israel holds Syria responsible for allowing the Iranian forces to use Syrian territory as a base of operations against Israel. “Syria yesterday paid the price for allowing Iran to conduct attacks and to plan attacks from its soil,” he said.

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the Iranian rocket attack provided “live testimony” to Iran’s entrenchment in Syria that could plunge the entire Middle East into war.

Speculation has abounded in Israel on what is driving the new-found overtness of its actions, with many suggesting domestic politics could be a factor ahead of Apr. 9 elections.

Former defence minister Moshe Yaalon said the military had no choice but to comment after Mr. Netanyahu took credit publicly for the strikes. Mr. Yaalon said he supported the strikes but not the “chatter” around them and he accused Mr. Netanyahu of playing politics with the country’s security.

“Unfortunately … everything is connected to his political survival,” Mr. Yaalon told Israel’s Army Radio. “What does the publication give us? Can someone tell me what the benefit is, besides politics?”

However, Yaakov Amidror, a former Israel national security adviser, said that rather than pre-election rhetoric, the remarks meant to escalate words before escalating actions – and clarify that Israel was willing to take chances to stop Iran from building a war machine in Syria.

“If you want to … make clear to the other side that you are determined to prevent something, either you escalate the operation … or you say in public ‘I am doing it,’ meaning ‘I am ready to take the risk,’” he said. “When the Iranians didn’t understand it and fired a rocket into Israel, the reaction was immediate.”

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Mr. Amidror said the ball was now in Iran’s court to see how far the latest conflagration would escalate.

Areas of control and known Iranian positions in Syria

As of Jan. 21, 2019

Known Iranian

Revolutionary

Guard or proxy

position

Pro-government

forces (Syria, Iran,

Russia)

Opposition forces

Islamic State

Kurdish control

TURKEY

Raqqa

Aleppo

SYRIA

Homs

Mount

Hermon

ski site

IRAQ

Golan

Heights

0

100

ISRAEL

KM

JORDAN

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS; LIVEUAMAP

Areas of control and known Iranian positions in Syria

As of Jan. 21, 2019

Known Iranian Revolutionary

Guard or proxy position

Islamic State

Opposition forces

Pro-government forces

(Syria, Iran, Russia)

Kurdish control

TURKEY

Raqqa

Deir

al-Zour

Aleppo

Latakia

Hama

SYRIA

IRAQ

Homs

LEBANON

T-4 air base

Mt. Hermon

ski site

ISRAEL

JORDAN

0

100

KM

Golan Heights

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL

SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS; LIVEUAMAP

Areas of control and known Iranian positions in Syria

As of Jan. 21, 2019

Known Iranian Revolutionary

Guard or proxy position

Pro-government forces

(Syria, Iran, Russia)

Islamic State

Kurdish control

Opposition forces

TURKEY

Raqqa

Aleppo

Deir

al-Zour

Latakia

Hama

SYRIA

Homs

LEBANON

T-4 air base

Mt. Hermon

ski site

IRAQ

ISRAEL

0

100

Golan

Heights

KM

JORDAN

MURAT YÜKSELIR / THE GLOBE AND MAIL, SOURCE: GRAPHIC NEWS; LIVEUAMAP

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