JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel on Monday claimed responsibility for a series of airstrikes on Iranian military targets in Syria, drifting further away from its longstanding policy of playing down or covering up its military activities in the war-torn country.
For years, Israel has remained largely silent about its attacks against Iran and its Shiite proxies operating in neighboring Syria. But in recent weeks, military and political leaders have become increasingly outspoken about these activities.
This policy appears to be aimed at sending a message to key players in Syria, including President Bashar Assad and Russia, that Iran's continued presence there risks triggering even tougher and potentially destabilizing Israeli action.
"Whoever tries to harm us, we will harm them. Whoever threatens to destroy us will bear the full responsibility," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday.
But it also risks heating up the atmosphere between the bitter enemies. Iran's air force chief, for instance, said his forces are "ready for a fight."
Israel considers Iran to be its greatest enemy, and as Syria's civil war winds down, it has repeatedly warned that it will not allow Iranian troops — who have been fighting alongside Assad's forces — to maintain a permanent presence in postwar Syria.
While Israel has largely stayed out of the fighting in Syria, it has carried out scores of airstrikes on suspected Iranian arms shipments to the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is also fighting alongside Assad's troops. With few exceptions, Israel has maintained a policy of ambiguity, neither confirming nor denying the airstrikes.
That changed earlier this month when Israel's outgoing military chief, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, told the New York Times that Israel had struck "thousands of targets without claiming responsibility or asking for credit" as part of his showdown with Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran's elite Quds Force. Days later, Netanyahu acknowledged striking "hundreds" of Iranian and Hezbollah targets.
In the latest violence, the Israeli military announced Monday that it had struck a series of Iranian targets, including munition storage facilities, an intelligence site and a military training camp, in response to an Iranian missile attack a day earlier.
Israel said the missile, fired by Iranian forces in Syria, was intercepted over a ski resort on the Golan Heights and that there were no injuries. The Iranian launch followed a rare Israeli daylight air raid near the Damascus International Airport.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday's pre-dawn strikes lasted for nearly an hour and were the most intense Israeli attacks since May. It said 11 were killed. The Russian military said four Syrian troops were among those killed. There were no further details on the casualties or their nationalities.
Speaking to reporters, Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said the Israeli use of ambiguity hadn't changed. He said that the Iranian missile strike, aimed at Israeli civilian areas, was a special case that required a public and powerful response, and that Israel had reacted similarly to previous Iranian provocations in February and May.
He also said that Israel had sent warnings to Syria ahead of the attack to refrain from attacking Israeli warplanes, but that Syria ignored those warnings and fired anti-aircraft missiles. He said Israel responded by destroying Syrian anti-aircraft batteries.
Others, however, said the shift in Israeli policy is clear.
Moshe Yaalon, a former military chief and defense minister, said the military had no choice but to comment after Netanyahu took credit publicly for the strikes. He accused Netanyahu, who is running for re-election while facing the threat of indictment in a series of corruption scandals, of playing politics with the country's security.
"Unfortunately ... everything is connected to his political survival," Yaalon told Israel's Army Radio. "What does the publication give us? Can someone tell me what the benefit is, besides politics?"
But military analyst Yoel Guzansky said Israel has bigger concerns.
He said Israel hopes to "stir a debate" in Iran and perhaps turn public opinion against the leadership's "adventures" in Syria at a time of economic hardship. He said Israel also wants its foes to know that the promised withdrawal from Syria by American forces will have no effect on its policies.
"The Iranians are persistent. We have to be persistent too," said Guzansky, a senior fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank.
Israel also may be sending a message to Russia, which has supported Assad and is poised to take a prominent role in postwar Syria, that its tolerance of Iran could threaten those interests. Israel's relations with Russia have been tense since Syrian anti-aircraft fire aimed at Israeli warplanes accidentally shot down a Russian plane in September.
Israeli Cabinet Minister Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Netanyahu, warned that Assad himself could be at risk if he continues to allow the Iranians to attack.
"Sir, if you allow the Iranians to attack Israel from Syria, if there is a war or the outbreak of conflict one way or the other on the border with Israel, you, too, will be targeted," he told Israel Radio.
In New York, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission on the Golan Heights spoke to the Israeli military and Syrian authorities "to de-escalate the situation."
But the Israeli threats and attacks drew angry responses from Iran and its allies.
The chief of Iran's air force, Gen. Aziz Nassirzadeh, said his forces are "impatient and ready for a fight against the Zionist regime to wipe it off the Earth," according to a news website affiliated with Iran's state television.
"The conditions are getting closer to war every day and a war might break out on several fronts," added an official from the Iranian-led "Axis of Resistance" — made up of Syria, Lebanon's Hezbollah and other armed groups in the region. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
In Syria, lawmaker Najdat Anzour said the Israeli airstrikes were meant to keep up the pressure on Syria and to save the Israeli leader from his domestic troubles.
"Netanyahu is under pressure at home and trying to find himself an outlet," he said.
Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow, Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Albert Aji in Damascus contributed.