- Airstrikes in northwest Syria are believed to have killed more than a dozen Iranian personnel.
- The perpetrator of the strikes has not been confirmed, but they appear to have been carried out by Israel.
- The death toll makes an Iranian response, and potential escalation, more likely, according to a former Israeli army intelligence chief.
Strikes in northwest Syria on Sunday night could bring retaliation from Tehran if Iranian personnel were killed, former Israeli Defence Force intelligence chief Amos Yadlin said on Monday.
Yadlin, a retired army general, said the intensity of the blasts at military bases near Hama and Aleppo – so big they caused what felt like a minor earthquake – indicated they were likely not carried out by Syrian rebels, who are under attack by the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad and its partner forces.
“Either the United States augmented the attack it led about two weeks ago, and if it wasn’t the United States, that leaves one possibility that I can’t confirm,” Yadlin told Israeli Army radio.
The Syrian army confirmed the strikes, with a military source telling official news agency SANA that “some military sites in the countryside of Hama and Aleppo provinces were exposed at 10:30 pm to a new aggression with hostile rockets.”
Syrian media outlets said the strikes hit the Syrian army’s 47th Brigade base in northwestern Hama and a facility north of the Aleppo international airport. An opposition source said the army base was a well-known recruitment center for the Iranian-backed Shiite militias that fight alongside Assad’s forces.
Reports of the number of casualties varied, but Yadlin said the nationality of those killed will shape what comes next.
“If the casualties were Syrians, they would simply be another addition to the half-million people already killed in the civil war to this day,” he said. “If they are Iranians, it will be added to the unfinished business they have with us, and then the month of May will be very volatile.”
Escalating a quiet conflict
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said the attack hit a warehouse for rockets and killed 26 people, most of whom were Iranians and Iraqis. Sky News Arabia, citing regime media,reported more than 18 killed and another 60 wounded.
An official from the alliance that includes Iran, Syria, and Iranian-backed militia group Hezbollah said the strikes killed 16 people – including 11 Iranians – and destroyed 200 missiles. Media outlets affiliated with the Syrian opposition said 38 Syrian government soldiers were killed and 57 wounded in the strike in Hama.
While the perpetrator of Sunday’s strikes is not confirmed, the attacks come a few weeks after what appears to have been an Israeli strike on the T4 military base that coordinates Iranian-backed militias in Syria. (That came after a gas attack allegedly carried out by the Assad regime but did not appear to be in response to that attack.)
That strike reportedly killed seven Iranians, including an officer in the country’s drone program. An Iranian drone entering Israeli airspace in February previously prompted an Israeli strike on the T4 base earlier this year, which led to Syrian air defences shooting down an Israeli F-16.
The high death toll in Sunday’s strikes would mark a considerable escalation in a quiet conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria. Israeli officials worry that as Assad gains an advantage in Syria’s civil war, Iran is shifting focus to enhancing its military capacities in the country. Israel has bombed targets it says are part of that effort several times.
Israel is also concerned Iran is using the Syrian civil war to strengthen its partners in the region and has attacked what it believes are convoys of arms headed to Hezbollah.
A friendly meeting with the new US secretary of state
Sunday’s strikes came a few hours after what appears to have been a friendly meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and newly installed US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Netanyahu called Pompeo “a true friend of Israel” and “a true friend of the Jewish people.” Pompeo said Israel had a “special place in his heart.”
Pompeo also offered tough talk on Iran, saying President Donald Trump would withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal “if we can’t fix it” and assuring Netanyahu that the US is “deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats to Israel and the region, and Iran’s ambition to dominate the Middle East.”
“The United States is with Israel in this fight, and we strongly support Israel’s sovereign right to defend itself,” Pompeo added.
Iran offered tough talk of its own. “The time of attacking us and fleeing has ended,” Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly said Sunday night. “Your strikes will be met with strikes.”
Iran also promised to respond to the previous strike on the T4 military base. “It’s no secret that the Iranians have unfinished business with us,” Yadlin told Army radio on Monday. “In their view, we are responsible for the previous attack, and now before they were even able to respond – there was another attack.”
Iran’s semiofficial ISNA news agency had originally said 18 of 40 people killed in Sunday’s strikes were Iranians, but that report was taken down and Iranian officials denied any Iranian personnel were killed. Yadlin told reporters that denial may have been issued so Tehran would not be compelled to act.
But, he added, he believes a response is coming, even if it is not clear when or where. “The Iranian retaliation is on its way,” he said.
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