BEIRUT — Israeli warplanes struck a military position near the Mediterranean coast in western Syria Thursday, killing two soldiers, the Syrian army said, in a stronghold of President Bashar Assad that is also heavily protected by the Russians and Iranians.
The airstrike targeted a facility near the town of Masyaf, in Hama province, described by some as a missile producing factory, amid Israeli outrage over Iran’s growing influence in the war-torn country.
Other reports suggested the facility was tied to Syria’s chemical weapons program.
In a statement, the Syrian army said the Israeli warplanes fired several missiles from Lebanese air space, and warned of the “dangerous repercussions of such hostile acts on the security and stability of the region.”
“We will do everything to prevent the existence of a Shiite corridor from Iran to Damascus,” said Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who declined commenting directly on the strike in an interview with Israel’s 100FM Radio Thursday. He said Israel isn’t “looking for adventures, and we don’t want to be dragged into this fight or another.”
“We are determined to prevent our enemies from harming or even creating the possibility of harming the security of Israeli citizens.”
Israel has carried out several airstrikes against suspected arms shipments it believed to be bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group, which is fighting alongside President Bashar Assad’s forces, over the course of Syria’s civil war, now in its seventh year. Israel has also struck several Syrian military facilities since the conflict began, mostly near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Assad, not wanting to draw Israel into his country’s war, has never retaliated.
The airstrike comes amid heightened tensions over Iran’s growing reach in Syria. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claimed recently that Iran is building sites in Syria and Lebanon for the manufacture of “precision-guided missiles” with the aim of deploying them against Israel.
Thursday’s air raid was seen as a message to both Russia and Iran that Israel can strike anywhere in Syria. It was also a rare instance of Israel striking a Syrian government facility rather than an arms shipment and harked back to an Israeli airstrike that destroyed a suspected, partially constructed nuclear reactor in the eastern city of Deir el-Zour exactly 10 years ago.
This week, Israel is conducting a massive drill along its border with Lebanon simulating war with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah.
It was not immediately clear if the facility struck Thursday was used for the production or storage of chemical arms. Syria denies having or using such weapons.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said two facilities were hit in Thursday’s airstrike, a scientific research centre and a nearby military base where short-range surface-to-surface missiles are stored.
“Many explosions were heard in the area after the air raid,” said Abdurrahman, whose group relies on a network of activists across the country.
He said Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian military officials often visit the site, adding that those killed and wounded were Syrians.
A local opposition media activist said the facility that was struck is a factory that produces missiles under the supervision of Iranian experts. He said those killed and wounded were Syrian soldiers guarding the facility. The activist spoke on condition of anonymity out of security concerns.
Days after the April 4 chemical attack on the town of Khan Sheikhoun, the U.S. Treasury sanctioned 271 employees of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center. Washington said the agency is responsible for developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.
The airstrike is the furthest north since Russia joined the war in September 2015 with a major air campaign to aid Assad’s forces.
In October 2016, Russia deployed a battery of S-300 air defence missile systems to protect a Russian navy facility in the Syrian port of Tartus and Russian navy ships in the area. Moscow also has long-range S-400 missile defence systems and an array of other surface-to-air missiles at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, about 70 kilometres (43 miles) from Thursday’s strike location.
Israel and Russia maintain open communication lines and a “mechanism” to prevent their air forces from coming into conflict with one another. It was not clear whether Thursday’s strike was co-ordinated with Moscow, and there was no immediate comment from the Russians.
Yaakov Amidror, Israel’s former national security adviser and a former general, said the strike targeted a weapons development and manufacturing site that was producing arms for Hezbollah.
Former Israeli military intelligence chief Amos Yadlin wrote on Twitter that the facility produces precision missiles, chemical weapons and barrel bombs.
Thursday’s strike comes a day after a U.N. probe found the Syrian government responsible for a chemical attack in April in northern Syria that killed more than 80 people.
Meanwhile on Thursday, a convoy of 40 trucks carrying 1,000 tons of humanitarian aid arrived in Deir el-Zour after troops secured a corridor to the eastern city. The land convoy is the first since Syrian government forces and allied militiamen breached a nearly three-year-old siege by the Islamic State group on government-held parts of the city on Tuesday.
The Syrian official news agency SANA said the convoy reached a garrison known as Brigade 137 on the southwestern edge of the city, carrying thousands of food baskets, fruits and vegetables, medicine, and school books and stationary.
The aid convoys arrived at the city by way of a military road that links the recently liberated military garrison to the town. They were greeted by jubilant civilians, who gathered around the trucks.
“No more hunger after today,” proclaimed Mohamed Ibrahim Samra, the governor of Deir el-Zour before the cameras.
Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.