By Dov Lieber and Dion Nissenbaum – WSJ May 10, 2018
Israel’s military carried out strikes against Iranian targets in Syria after it said Iranian forces based there fired rockets at its soldiers in the Golan Heights, raising the risk of a wider regional war just a day after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the international nuclear deal with Tehran.
Iran’s attack in the Golan appears to be the first time Iran has opened fire from Syria on Israeli targets.
In a separate incident, Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fired a barrage of missiles into Saudi Arabia on Wednesday. The pair of attacks were an early indication that Iran and its allies are flexing their muscles in the Middle East after Washington’s move.
The strikes heightened tensions in a region already on edge and underlined the risk of direct confrontation between Iran and Israel following the U.S. exit from the nuclear agreement. Iran, until now, had held back from any retaliatory response to recent Israeli strikes on its assets in Syria.
The escalating clashes come as the Trump administration works to rally allies to join the U.S. in confronting Iran and its backers across the Middle East.
One of Mr. Trump’s biggest criticisms of the 2015 nuclear- containment deal with Iran was that it didn’t do anything to halt Tehran’s support for destabilizing militant groups stretching from Lebanon to Yemen.
But Pentagon officials have been reluctant to turn their military focus in Syria from Islamic State toward Iranian forces and their proxies. Military leaders worry that confronting Iran in Syria could risk dangerous blowback to thousands of U.S. forces working in Iraq and Syria.
When he withdrew from the Iran deal, Mr. Trump directed the U.S. military to draw up new plans “to meet, swiftly and decisively, all possible modes of Iranian aggression against the United States, our allies, and our partners.” U.S. officials couldn’t say on Wednesday how that would play out for U.S. forces in the days and weeks ahead.
For now, the Trump administration has offered unequivocal support for Israel’s escalatory strikes inside Syria. Israel has grown increasingly alarmed by Iran’s presence in Syria, where it has used its support for President Bashar al-Assad to build up its military strength.
Israel has said that it will not allow Iran to put down deep roots in Syria, and its military has hit a series of Iranian targets in recent weeks. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Trump have established a close working relationship. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly conferred with Mr. Trump about Iran’s military activities in the Middle East and Israel’s plans to strike Iranian targets.
In rejecting the Iran deal on Tuesday, Mr. Trump cited the Israeli leader’s recent presentation on Iran’s covert nuclear-weapons program as a central example of why Tehran couldn’t be trusted. Mr. Trump also laid out a new list of demands that Tehran must meet, including ending its “quest to destroy Israel” and cutting off its support for Mr. Assad in Syria.
Some critics of Mr. Trump said the president’s decision to scrap the Iran deal was already increasing the risk of an expanding confrontation between Israel and Iran.
Iran’s barrage in the Golan Heights—which caused no injuries and only limited damage to property, the Israeli army said—came after suspected Israeli missiles targeted an Iran-linked army base south of Syria’s capital, Damascus, on Tuesday, shortly after Mr. Trump said the U.S. would withdraw from the international nuclear deal with Iran.
The Israeli military’s official Arabic-language spokesman, Avichay Adraee, said Israel was carrying out retaliatory strikes against Iranian targets in Syria and warned that Syrian involvement against it would “be met with great severity.”
Syrian air defenses had “confronted” Israeli missiles and reported Israeli shelling in the Syrian city of Baath, near Israel’s northern border, according to the Syrian state news agency. Later, the agency said a fresh wave of Israeli missiles was intercepted in the vicinity of Damascus, the capital. On social media, activists reported loud explosions to the south and northeast of the city.
Israel is targeting some air-defense systems and radar, the agency reported, publishing pictures and videos of Syrian air defenses intercepting what it said were Israeli missiles.
Israel has been bracing for Iranian retaliation to an attack last month when presumed Israeli missiles hit an Iranian-controlled base deep in Syria. The U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said as many as 18 Iranians were killed in that attack, though Iran denied there were any casualties.
Israeli military spokesman for English media Jonathan Cornricus said the Israeli military was sure the Iranian Quds Force, an arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, was behind the attack Wednesday night. He declined to explain how Israel knew the Quds Force was behind the attack.
A few of the rockets fired at Israeli forces were shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome rocket-defense system, Mr. Cornricus said. The projectiles were fired at several Israeli military bases on the front line with Syria, he said.
“The Israel Defense Forces view this event with great severity and remain prepared for a wide variety of scenarios,” the Israeli military said in a statement.
An Iranian official at the country’s United Nations mission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
As Mr. Trump weighed whether to pull the U.S. out of the nuclear deal, Tehran refrained from responding to recent Israeli strikes on Syrian bases that local media and a watchdog group said killed Iranian forces.