Missiles hit an air base in Syria early Monday in a strike that Russia blamed on Israel, an assault that comes on the heels of an alleged chemical-weapons attack on a Damascus suburb that killed dozens of civilians and spurred calls for international action.
At least 14 military personnel were killed in the strike, including three Syrian commanders, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Four Iranians died in the attack, according to Iran’s semiofficial Fars News Agency, which published their names and pictures.
The attack comes a day after world leaders condemned an alleged chemical-weapons attack late Saturday on civilians in a rebel-held town in Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus. President Donald Trump said Syria would pay “a big price” for the alleged attack and vowed Sunday a “strong, joint response” with his French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron.
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Footage released by Douma Revolution show patients being treated at a hospital in Syria after an alleged chemical weapons attack. Viewer discretion is advised. PHOTO: SYRIA CIVIL DEFENCE/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES
It wasn’t clear whether Monday’s strikes were a direct response to the chemical attack. But the T-4 air base, also known as Tiyas, isn’t a chemical weapons facility and Israel has accused the Syrian regime of allowing Iran to set up a base there to supply the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia with weapons.
That suggests that the Israelis used the opportunity to strike amid global outrage over the Syrian regime’s chemical attack on civilians, analysts say. The Israeli army declined to comment, in line with its policy of neither confirming nor denying airstrikes in Syria.
“We have one clear and simple rule and we seek to express it constantly: If someone tries to attack you—rise up and attack him,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday at a ceremony near the Gaza Strip, without explicitly referencing the Syrian strikes. “Security in the present is a necessary condition for security in the future.”
The Russian Defense Ministry said two Israeli F-15 fighter jets had carried out the strike with eight guided missiles from Lebanese air space, state news agency RIA Novosti reported, while pro-regime Syrian media said some 20 missiles were fired. Pro-regime Syrian media said the direction of the strikes indicated Israel might be behind the attack.
The Kremlin said it was concerned about the strike and was in touch with the Israeli government about it.
An official at Iran’s United Nations mission didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about Iran’s presence at the base or possible Iranian casualties. Iran has denied trying to set up military bases in Syria but also has said it would remain in the country as long as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad requires an Iranian presence.
Israel for years largely stayed neutral in the Syrian war, launching airstrikes only against weapons convoys bound from Iran to Hezbollah. But backed by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, Mr. Assad is emerging victorious in his country’s civil war and Israel fears Tehran will establish weapons factories and military sites in Syria to attack Israeli territory.
Mr. Netanyahu’s posture has shifted in recent months and his air force has repeatedly hit sites in Syria, raising the prospects of a wider regional war.
Current and former Israeli officials didn’t acknowledge responsibility for the strike but many publicly supported the move, with some calling for Mr. Assad’s removal.
“We have clear interests in Syria and we set red lines,” Yoav Galant, construction minister and a member of Israel’s security cabinet, told the national broadcaster Kann. “We will not allow weapons to be transferred from Syria to Lebanon and we will not allow an Iranian entrenchment.”
“It’s pretty clear who attacked,” Retired Maj. Gen. Amiram Levin, former head of the Israeli military’s northern command, told Army Radio. “We must make one hand [with the U.S.], perhaps also the Europeans, and remove Assad from power in Syria.”
Israeli officials had earlier reacted negatively to the chemical attack in Syria. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday warned that Israel would have to act alone in the Middle East, given the signs in recent weeks that Mr. Trump aimed to pull U.S. troops from the Syrian conflict.
Syrian media said loud explosions were heard in Homs after jets entered Syria from Lebanon. Footage on social media early Monday appeared to show planes crossing loudly through the airspace of Lebanon. Lebanese officials weren’t immediately available for comment.
Amos Yadlin, former head of Israeli military intelligence and an air force general, said he couldn’t confirm the Syrian strike was conducted by Israel. But, if it was, he said the strike would have achieved two goals.
“On the one hand you cope with the Iranian activity in Syria,” Mr. Yadlin said in an interview. “And it’s a very important message against using chemical weapons.”
Mr. Yadlin, who is now executive director at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said the T-4 base wasn’t a chemical weapons facility or a site used to mount chemical weapons attacks. But it was definitely an Iranian-related base, he said.
Some missiles hit the maintenance section of the base, damaging a number of drones, Syrian pro-regime media reported.
Israel in February said the site targeted Monday was an air base operated by Iran and its proxies, after the Israeli army shot down an Iranian drone that it said had originated at the base.
It then launched major airstrikes on targets in Syria, drawing antiaircraft fire from Syrian batteries that in turn shot down an Israeli fighter jet.
The downed jet was the first time in more than 30 years that Israel has lost a fighter aircraft, and heightened concerns that the Israeli military would be drawn into Syria’s protracted conflict.
Israel in September also targeted a facility in Syria that was believed to be a factory where the regime produced chemical weapons, according to former Israeli officials.
The U.S. blacklisted 271 employees of that facility, the Scientific Studies and Research Center located near Masyaf, after a sarin gas attack in April last year that killed nearly 100 people, many of them women and children.
— Nour Al Akraa, Dov Lieber, Asa Fitch, James Marson and Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
It wasn’t clear whether Monday’s strikes were a direct response to the chemical attack. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the strikes were on Sunday. (April 9)
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