Israeli defense officials have told their American and Russian counterparts that if Iranian-backed forces attack Israel from inside Syria, Jerusalem will not hold back from retaliating with direct strikes against Tehran or other targets in Iran.
The officials delivered the message ahead of a national security statement expected Monday from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in response to Iranian threats to hit Israel after recent strikes on Tehran-backed assets in Syria, according to a report by Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper.
The developments come amid growing concern in Washington that Israel and Iran are on the verge of a clash that could spill dangerously beyond Syria, where there were reports Monday that missile strikes had killed more than two-dozen mostly Iranian forces supporting the Syrian government of Bashar Assad.
While no outside power claimed responsibility for the strikes, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said they were likely carried out by Israel. “Given the nature of the target, it is likely to have been an Israeli strike,” Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based monitoring organization, told Agence France-Presse.
But the news agency reported that Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told a radio broadcast Monday that he was “not aware” of the missile strikes.
However, Mr. Katz also asserted that “all the violence and instability in Syria is the result of Iran’s attempts to establish a military presence there. Israel will not allow the opening of a northern front in Syria.”
Mr. Netanyahu, meanwhile, is expected to make a statement after an emergency security cabinet meeting in Israel on Monday.
Haaretz cited unnamed officials as saying Israel, which enjoys robust support from Washington, is prepared to attack Iran broadly, both on Iranian soil, but also in Syria. The main target, the paper reported, would be bases where Iranian forces have been located since the Syrian civil war began — bases that serve as conduits to transfer weapons and gear up for further Iranian establishment in Syria.
Israel has been sporadically bombing Hezbollah positions in Syria for the past three years. But the tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran reached new heights in February after what Israeli officials claimed was an Iranian armed stealth drone was intercepted and downed over Israel. An Israeli F-16 fighter jet was in turn shot down by anti-aircraft fire from inside Syria during an apparent retaliatory airstrike claimed by Iranian sources.
Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement — Tehran’s most potent military proxy in the region — are seen to be emboldened by their success in working with Russian forces during recent years to uphold the Assad government in Syria while Washington has backed opposition forces against it.
At the same time, Israel is seen to be growing more and more wary of being attacked by missiles not just from Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon but also from inside Syria.