By JOSEF FEDERMAN and NATALIYA VASILYEVA , Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — An Israeli security official on Wednesday confirmed responsibility for overnight airstrikes in Syria, saying the air force had hit a series of targets involved in Iranian arms transfers to the Hezbollah militant group.
Russia had criticized the airstrike, saying it endangered civilian flights. The comments highlighted the increasingly tense relations between Israel and Russia, which have grown strained since the September downing of a Russian plane by Syrian forces responding to another Israeli raid.
The Israeli official said the air force had attacked several Iranian targets in three main locations late Tuesday and early Wednesday. He said the targets were primarily storage and logistics facilities used by archenemy Iran to ship weapons to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese group that fought Israel in a 2006 war.
He said Israel also destroyed a Syrian anti-aircraft battery that fired at the Israeli planes, and claimed that Iranian forces are operating less than 80 kilometers (50 miles) from the Israeli border, contrary to Russian assurances.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity under standard Israeli security protocols. The military has not commented on the incident.
Earlier Wednesday, Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov said that six Israeli F-16 jets launched a “provocative” raid at the moment when two civilian airliners were preparing to land in Damascus and Beirut, creating a “direct threat” to the aircraft.
Lebanon’s acting Transport Minister Youssef Fenianos later on Wednesday confirmed Konashenkov’s account, saying the two airplanes in Lebanese airspace “narrowly” escaped Israeli warplanes, averting a “human catastrophe.”
Fenianos said the Lebanese government will present a complaint to the U.N. Security Council.
The Syrian military didn’t fully engage its air defense assets to avoid accidentally hitting the passenger jets, Konashenkov said. He added that Syrian air traffic controllers redirected the Damascus-bound plane to a Russian air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia.
Konashenkov said the Syrian air defense forces shot down 14 of the 16 precision-guided bombs dropped by the Israeli jets, while the remaining two hit a Syrian military depot 7 kilometers (about 4 miles) west of Damascus, injuring three Syrian soldiers.
But the Israeli official said all targets had been hit, in some cases causing secondary explosions. He said errant Syrian anti-aircraft fire had endangered the civilian flights.
In recent years, Israel has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes in neighboring Syria, most believed to have been aimed at suspected Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah. Iran and Hezbollah have sent forces to Syria to bolster President Bashar Assad, who appears close to victory after a devastating seven-year civil war.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said Israel will not allow Iran to establish a permanent military presence in postwar Syria.
That mission has been complicated by the Sept. 17 downing of the Russian reconnaissance aircraft by Syrian fire. Russia, which also backs Assad, has blamed Israel for the friendly-fire mishap and reportedly scaled back a hotline that allowed the two air forces to coordinate and avoid unintended clashes.
Russia also sent Syria sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles, though the Israeli official said an older system was fired at the Israeli planes in Wednesday’s incident.
Israeli officials have also expressed concern about U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria. The U.S. presence has given Israel an extra element of protection.
Speaking at a military ceremony Wednesday, Netanyahu said the U.S. withdrawal will not change his policy.
Although he did not directly mention the airstrikes, he said Israel’s air force has unmatched capabilities and can reach arenas “near and far, very far.”
“We are not prepared to accept the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, which is directed against us. We will act against it vigorously and continuously, including during the current period,” he told a graduation ceremony of new air force pilots.
Addressing the same ceremony, Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, praised the army’s “many important accomplishments,” including “thwarting the expansion of Iranian influence.”
The Syrian Foreign Ministry accused Israel of exacerbating the crisis in the country and standing in the way of the government’s war on terrorism.
In messages sent to the U.N. secretary-general and the president of the Security Council, the ministry said the Israeli airstrike wouldn’t have been launched if it wasn’t for what it called “unlimited” U.S. support for Israel.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, said Tuesday’s Israeli strike targeted three positions south of Damascus that are arms depots for Hezbollah and Iranian forces.
Vasilyeva reported from Moscow. Associated Press writers Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow and Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed to this report.