A missile strike on an air base in central Syria was carried out by Israeli warplanes in the early hours of Monday morning causing multiple casualties, according to the Syrian and Russian governments, amid fears of renewed regional confrontation.
Israeli officials did not immediately comment on the reports. The raid on the T4 airfield in Homs province comes as tensions rise over possible U.S. military action in Syria in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on a Damascus suburb late Saturday.
U.S. officials to say they were weighing options to strike Syrian government targets and the Syria’s state news agency initially blamed Monday’s strike on the United States. It backtracked following Pentagon denials.
“At this time, the Department of Defense is not conducting airstrikes in Syria,” the Pentagon said in a statement.
President Donald Trump had said Sunday that there would be a “big price to pay” for the attack that killed dozens of people in Douma outside Damascus, according to local medical personnel. Both Syria and Russia have denied the Syrian government’s involvement in that attack.
A Syrian military source and the Russian Defense Ministry said Israeli fighter jets carried out Monday’s strike from Lebanese airspace.
According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, most of the 14 killed were either Iranian forces or Iran-backed proxies supporting the Syrian government.
Iran is a staunch ally of the Syrian government, and has deployed forces and assets inside Syria, including a network of pro-government fighters it uses as shock troops in battles with Syrian rebels.
Israel has grown increasingly alarmed as Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, extend their military reach and influence in the region, including an expanded presence near Israel’s northern border.
In February, Israel confirmed that it had targeted the same airfield in Homs, after an Iranian drone entered Israeli airspace. Eight warplanes were used in that attack, Israel’s military said, including one F-16 fighter jet that was downed by Syrian antiaircraft fire.
“The timing of the strike isn’t coincidental,” said Michael Horowitz, a senior analyst at Le Beck International, a Middle East-based geopolitical and security consultancy.
“By striking [Syrian President Bashar Assad] and his Iranian allies just a day after Trump warned them of the price they would pay … Israel mitigates the risk of an Iranian response,” he said. “Israel has been trying to convince Washington to adopt a more pro-active, anti-Iran strategy in Syria, and certainly sees Trump’s rhetoric in the wake of the chemical attack as an opportunity.”
Monday’s strike also comes amid a reported deal to evacuate rebel fighters from Douma following Saturday’s alleged chemical attack. The militants from Jaish al-Islam had been negotiating their exit with Russian representatives.
Russia’s Tass news agency reported Sunday that 8,000 fighters would be allowed to leave Douma for other opposition-held areas in northern Syria.
Douma is one of the opposition’s last strongholds near the capital, and had come under heavy bombardment by Syrian government and allied forces in recent weeks. According to the United Nations, more than 1,700 people have been killed since February in the Eastern Ghouta area.
On Saturday, Syrian doctors and rescue workers in Douma said that at least 40 people were killed in the apparent chemical attack.
More than 500 people “were brought to local medical centers with symptoms indicative of exposure to a chemical agent,” according to the Syrian American Medical Society, a Washington-based nonprofit group that supports health facilities in the area.
Footage from the area showed bodies strewn across the floor of an air raid shelter. Among them was a young man who appeared to have died foaming at the mouth and clutching his child. Other images showed piles of bodies inside homes or slumped in concrete stairwells, foam visible on their noses and mouths.
“We tried to send people to the area to rescue the injured, but even the rescue workers began suffocating,” said Mohamed Samer, a medical worker in Douma.
The images recalled earlier chemical weapons attacks on civilians in Syria, including those involving the nerve agent sarin. A year ago, nearly 100 people were killed in a strike on the northern town of Khan Sheikhoun that the United Nations has blamed on the Syrian air force.
In 2013, also in Eastern Ghouta, a sarin attack killed more than 1,000 people – an event that prompted then president Barack Obama to threaten military action against the Syrian government.
(c) 2018, The Washington Post · Erin Cunningham, Ruth Eglash