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Israel Launches Strikes Against Iranian Targets In Syria


Israel's army has launched what it calls a large-scale attack in Syria. That's after an Israeli jet attacking targets in Syria came under fire. It's the latest in cross-border attacks there. NPR's Middle East correspondent Ruth Sherlock joins us. Ruth, thanks for being with us.


SIMON: And from what you can tell, what's happened?

SHERLOCK: Well, the Israeli army says that this all started when an Iranian-made drone crossed from Syria into Israeli territory. Israel shot down that drone, and then in retaliation sent eight fighter jets to bomb a Syrian military base - the T4 base near Palmyra - where they said the drone had been operated out of.

But the Israeli military then said that the Syrians responded with substantial anti-aircraft fire. In the middle of that, two Israeli pilots ejected from an F-16 jet, which then crashed in Israel. That prompted the Israelis to then launch a counterattack, which they called a large-scale attack, hitting 12 military sites. Eight of them are thought to be Syrian, the other four Iranian. So it says it hit air defense batteries and military possessions belonging to the Syrian regime, as well.

SIMON: The Israeli military has struck targets in Assad's areas before, but is this an escalation?

SHERLOCK: That's right. Israel has carried out airstrikes in Syria against targets - towards its enemy Iran. The difference here though is that the Israelis had not previously publicly acknowledged these strikes. They usually refuse to comment, whereas today they were briefing journalists. And an Israeli military spokesman also warned that Iran is playing with fire by infiltrating Israeli airspace.

This time, Syria has also signaled an aggressive response. I mean, responding with anti-aircraft batteries and...


SHERLOCK: Excuse me - responding with anti-aircraft batteries. And they've warned that there could be a tough and serious response.

So both the Syrians and the Iranians deny that this drone had anything to do with an attack on Israel or that - they just said it was carrying out routine intelligence on ISIS targets in Syria.

SIMON: What can you foresee as the likely consequences of this today?

SHERLOCK: So the bigger picture here is that Israel has been alarmed about Iran's involvement in the Syrian war for a long time. Iran supports the Syrian regime - Bashar al-Assad - and Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria to try to contain Iranian influence. But the regime is getting stronger. It's winning territory back. And as it gains the upper hand there, Iranian influence is growing.

And Israel is also worried about the strengthening of Hezbollah. That's the Iranian proxy on its border in Lebanon that has been known to receive weapons funneled through Syria. So this is all unacceptable to Israel, and it also seems to be the first time in decades that an Israeli jet was downed under enemy fire. So this is a serious escalation. But people are calling for calm. Russia is seriously concerned about this. It's previously had troops on the base - one of the bases that was struck today, and it called it unacceptable.

Everybody knows that war would be incredibly costly here, but the - for all sides. You know, both Israel and Syria know it would be a very damaging war. And the Israelis signaled that they don't want to take this beyond what happened today. But the fact that it happened at all is a sign of the kind of growing tensions here about - that's born from the reality of the politics.

SIMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thanks so much.

SHERLOCK: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ruth Sherlock is an International Correspondent with National Public Radio. She's based in Beirut and reports on Syria and other countries around the Middle East. She was previously the United States Editor for the Daily Telegraph, covering the 2016 US election. Before moving to the US in the spring of 2015, she was the Telegraph's Middle East correspondent.