JERUSALEM/DAMASCUS (Reuters) – Israeli aircraft on Saturday struck Iranian forces near Damascus that had been planning to launch “killer drones” at targets in Israel, an Israeli military spokesman said.
“The strike targeted Iranian Quds Force operatives and Shiite militias which were preparing to advance attack plans targeting sites in Israel from within Syria over the last number of days,” the military said in a statement.
The elite Quds Force is the overseas arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). Israeli military spokesman Jonathan Conricus told reporters the forces on Thursday had been preparing to launch “killer drones” armed with explosives at northern Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military had thwarted the planned Iranian attack. “Iran has no immunity anywhere. Our forces operate in every sector against the Iranian aggression,” he said on Twitter.
Syrian state media said Syrian air defences intercepted “hostile targets” over Damascus, the capital, Saturday night.
Witnesses in Damascus said they heard and saw explosions in the sky.
“The aggression is ongoing and air defences are confronting hostile targets and are downing most of them in the southern region,” state media outlet SANA said, indicating areas south of Damascus.
The Syrian army said in a statement that “the majority of the Israeli missiles were destroyed before reaching their targets.” Conricus, however, said the impact of the Israeli strikes was “significant.”
Israel says it has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against Iranian targets trying to establish a permanent military presence there and against advanced weapon shipments to Tehran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah.
Iran and Hezbollah are helping President Bashar al-Assad in the eight-year Syria war. Russia, which is also aiding Assad, has largely turned a blind eye to the Israeli air strikes. Netanyahu spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday, the Israeli leader’s office said.
On Thursday, Netanyahu hinted of possible Israeli involvement in a series of blasts in the past few weeks that have hit weapon depots and bases belonging to paramilitary groups in Iraq, many of them backed by Iran.
On Wednesday, the PMF, the umbrella grouping of Iraq’s mostly Shi’ite Muslim paramilitary groups, said the United States had allowed four Israeli drones to enter the region accompanying U.S. forces and carry out missions on Iraqi territory.
The U.S.-led coalition, in Iraq to fight remnants of the Islamic State group, dismissed the statement and the Pentagon denied it.
Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Stephen Farrell, Kinda Makieh and Samar Hassan; Writing by Maayan Lubell and Lisa Barrington; Editing by David Gregorio and Leslie Adler