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Israel strikes Iranian forces in Syria after Iran 'shells Golan Heights'

Menahem Kahana, AFP | Israeli army positions on the Golan Heights following the strikes it attributed to Iran.

The Israeli army hit dozens of Iranian military targets in Syria overnight Thursday in response to what it said was an attack on its territory in the Golan Heights.

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Israel said it targeted nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria on Thursday after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time. Israel's military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said Israel was retaliating for an attack on its outposts in the strategic Golan Heights plateau.

Conricus told reporters the Iranian attack was "commanded and ordered" by the head of Iran's Quds Force, General Major General Qassem Suleimani. The Quds Force is the external arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guards and has been battling Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

Reporting from the Golan Heights, FRANCE 24’s Irris Makler said Israeli officials described a barrage of 20 rockets raining down on the border territory but there were no reports of casualties or damage reported inside Israel. Israel responded with a “massive series of air strikes”.

“Iran attacked Israel by firing 20 rockets onto Israel. Four of them were intercepted by our defence systems – the Iron Dome – and 16 fell short,” spokesman Conricus told FRANCE 24.

He continued: “Our response was, indeed, a massive one. We targeted Iranian Quds Force facilities ... inside Syria.”

Iran has not confirmed that it was behind the strikes on the Golan Heights, while France, Germany, Britain and Russia called for restraint on all sides. Berlin accused Iran of launching a "provocation".

It was the heaviest Israeli barrage in Syria since the 2011 start of the Syrian civil war, in which Iranians, allied Shiite militias and Russian soldiers have deployed in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Russian defence ministry, whose country has forces in Syria supporting the regime, said 28 Israeli warplanes took part in the raids and around 70 missiles were fired.

Irris Makler reports from the Golan Heights

Syrian sources say 20 people were killed in the strikes, five of them Syrians and the rest “foreigners”, likely Iranians and other members of Shiite militias.

Syria's foreign ministry said the "direct" Israeli strikes on its territory signaled a shift in the country's seven-year conflict. In a statement carried by state news agency SANA, it said Israel's "direct confrontation ... signals the start of a new phase of the war on Syria".

Israel's "aggressive behaviour ... will not lead to anything but an increase in tension in the region", the ministry said.

The Israeli military provided a list of its targets, Makler said, an unusual move likely designed to send the message to Iran that it knows where it has positioned its forces – including the rocket launcher that sent the missiles.

“Israel is sending the message that they don’t want an expansion of an Iranian military presence, but they say they do not want an escalation in this conflict,” Makler said.

In the early hours of the morning, explosions were heard in Damascus, while live images were broadcast on television showing projectiles above the Syrian capital and several missiles destroyed by Syrian anti-aircraft systems.

Syrian state media reported that Israeli missile strikes had hit military bases as well as an arms depot and a military radar installation, without specifying their locations.

Reza Sayah reports from Beirut

Spillover

Tensions between Israel and Iran have long threatened to spill over in Syria, where the Iranian military, allied Shiite militias and Lebanese Hezbollah forces are supporting Syrian President Assad in his war against rebels seeking to oust him.

Israel sees Iran as an existential threat and Hezbollah as posing the biggest threat on its borders.

Fearing that Iran and Hezbollah are setting up a joint Lebanese-Syrian front against it, Israel has occasionally targeted their forces. Iran blamed Israel for an April 9 air strike that killed seven of its military personnel in Syria and vowed revenge.

Nadia Massih discusses the strikes in Syria

Expectations of a regional flare-up were excacerbated 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, according to a commander in the pro-Syrian government regional alliance.

The strike killed 15 people including eight Iranians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Israel has neither confirmed nor denied responsibility for that strike.

A closer look at Iran's al Quds brigade

(FRANCE 24 with REUTERS, AFP)

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