Israel has sent a pointed signal to the Assad regime and Iran — and to the regime’s other essential ally Russia — with a missile strike on a military base near al-Qiswa, about 13 km (8 miles) southwest of Syria’s capital Damascus.
Unconfirmed claims said that Iranian and Iranian-led militiamen were among casualties of the strike, with assertions that five missiles were fired. Syrian state media said its air defenses intercepted at least two Israeli missiles fired at a government “military position” in Damascus province, but that the attack still caused damage.
Syrian State media SANA said “the army’s air defense at midnight confronted an Israeli attack with ground-to-ground missiles” but admitted “material damage to the site”.
The base drew attention in November with publication of satellite photographs indicating that it was being built up to accommodate up to 500 troops. Claims circulated that Iran, which has been developing property in the area, was planning to put its units and foreign militias in the complex.
The base lies on a corridor between the center of the regime in southern Damascus and the bases of the regime’s military southwest of the capital.
Top Israeli officials have repeatedly warned that they will not tolerate an Iranian military presence in Syria; however, Russia has rejected their requests to force the compliance of the Assad regime.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly conveyed a warning to Bashar Assad in recent days, via a third party, that the regime will itself be targeted if Iran is allowed a permanent presence.
Israel has regularly struck regime targets — including a “research center” devoted to missile development, bases, warehouses, and convoys — that are part of a weapons supply to the Lebanese organization Hezbollah.
In January 2015 an Iranian general and Hezbollah troops were killed by an airstrike in southwest Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, reportedly as they were planning to set up missile positions. The Israelis have made any movement of Hezbollah, Iranian units, or Iranian-led foreign militia into the area a “red line” that cannot be crossed, periodically hitting regime positions near the Golan to reinforce the message.
On Saturday night, Netanyahu’s office released a key passage from a message that he recorded on Thursday:
Let me reiterate Israel’s policy: We will not allow a regime hell-bent on the annihilation of the Jewish state to acquire nuclear weapons. We will not allow that regime to entrench itself militarily in Syria, as it seeks to do, for the express purpose of eradicating our state.
The Israel Defense Forces do not officially comment on their operations inside Syria.