JERUSALEM — Israel attacked targets near the Syrian capital of Damascus late Saturday in what it said was a successful operation to thwart an imminent drone strike by Iran.
The late-night airstrikes, which triggered Syrian anti-aircraft fire, appeared to be one of the most intense attacks by Israeli forces in several years of hits on Iranian targets in Syria.
The Iranian Al Quds Force — an elite wing of the Revolutionary Guard — and allied Shiite militias within Syria had been planning an attack against Israel in recent days that would involve a number of armed drones, the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) said.
“We were able to thwart this attack with fighter jets,” said Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, a military spokesman. He added that the Iranian attack was believed to be “very imminent.”
Syrian state media confirmed there were airstrikes within its borders, reporting that the country’s air defenses responded to “hostile” targets over the capital Damascus, shooting down incoming missiles.
The war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday that two members of Lebanon’s militant group Hezbollah and one Iranian were killed in the airstrikes.
But Iran denied the claims.
The semi-official ILNA news agency quoted Gen. Mohsen Rezaei as calling the Israeli statements about an imminent Iranian drone attack a “lie.” Rezaei, a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guard, also said the strikes in Syria did not cause any damage or casualties among Iranian forces there.
Iran’s network of proxies across the Middle East include thousands of Shiite militia in Syria which have shored up the regime of Bashar al-Assad during the country’s eight-year civil war.
Tensions between Iran and Israel have been mounting.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned Tehran on Twitter Saturday, saying: “Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression.”
He added that Israel was ready to defend itself from any action by Iran or its proxies.
'If someone rises up to kill you, kill him first.' I have directed that our forces be prepared for any scenario. We will continue to take determined and responsible action against Iran and its proxies for the security of Israel.
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) August 24, 2019
Meanwhile, Hezbollah in Lebanon said two Israeli drones also crashed in Beirut early Sunday. One of the drones fell on the roof of a building housing Hezbollah’s media office, spokesperson Mohammed Afif said, while another exploded in the air.
“We did not shoot down or explode any of the drones,” Afif told the Associated Press.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri also condemned Israel’s use of the drones on Sunday, calling it a violation and “aggression” against his country’s sovereignty.
The incident constitutes a threat to regional stability and an attempt to push the situation toward more escalation, Hariri said.
It is unclear whether the incidents in Lebanon and Syria were related. Israel has not responded to Hezbollah’s or Hariri’s comments.
Hezbollah is a pro-Palestinian militant group and political party that dominates Lebanese politics and is sponsored by Iran.
Israel frequently carries out airstrikes and missile attacks inside war-torn Syria but rarely confirms them. Israel has said it mostly targets Iranian force bases and Hezbollah fighters in the country.
The last such attack occurred on Aug. 1, when Syria said Israel carried out a missile attack in the country’s south, causing material damage.