Army soldiers moving near the entrance of a Palestinian refugee camp. (Photographer: Wael Ladki/Bloomberg News)

Russia Says Israel Carried Out Missile Attack on Syrian Base

(Bloomberg) -- Israeli aircraft carried out an attack on an airbase in Syria early Monday, the Russian Defense Ministry said, shifting suspicion away from the U.S. after President Donald Trump had vowed retaliation for a reported chemical weapons attack.

The Russian announcement was rare, given that Israel has targeted arms convoys in Syria dozens of times without Moscow publicly assigning blame. Israel itself had no comment, as is its custom. While Israel has maintained a policy of largely staying out of the Syrian civil war that’s been raging on its northern frontier, it has repeatedly vowed to take action against activities by Iran and its proxies that it deems threatening to its security.

“Russia had to publicly identify Israel this time to make it clear this was not an American attack, because an American attack would have forced them to be more vocal in condemning this,” said Yossi Kuperwasser, former director-general of Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry and now a senior fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. “By saying it was Israel, they make it clear this is just routine and that it doesn’t diminish Russia’s stature in the world.”

Russia’s military is backing the Syrian government and helped turn the tide of war in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor. Iran and its proxy, the Lebanese militant Hezbollah group, are also fighting alongside Syrian government troops.

Russia said two Israeli planes attacked the Al Tiyas, or T-4, military base from Lebanese airspace before dawn. Three missiles hit their targets and five others were shot down by Syrian forces, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement. Israel informed the U.S. of its plan to attack sites in Syria beforehand, NBC News reported, citing two U.S. officials it didn’t identify.

Syria’s official Sana news agency reported casualties, without elaborating. Sky News Arabia, citing the opposition-aligned Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said at least 14 people, including Iranians, were killed.

Syria had initially accused the U.S. of carrying out the missile strike, which took place a day after reports emerged of a suspected gas attack on rebel-held territory outside the capital, Damascus. Rescuers and activists said more than 40 people were killed in that assault.

Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron agreed to “coordinate a strong, joint response,” but both the Pentagon and the French military said they did not strike on Monday.

In April 2017, the U.S. hit a Syrian government airfield with missiles after a panel of experts concluded Assad’s forces were responsible for a sarin nerve agent attack on the rebel-held village of Khan Sheikhoun that killed at least 83 people and sickened close to 300.

Weapons Shipments

The T-4 base targeted in Monday’s missile strike is the same facility the Israeli military said Iran used on Feb. 10 to launch a drone that penetrated Israeli air space. At that time, Israel said Iran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ elite Quds Force “for some time have been operating the T-4 Air Base in Syria next to Palmyra, with support from the Syrian military and with permission from the Syrian regime,” the Times of Israel website reported.

Israel has frequently warned it won’t let Syria become an Iranian base and will intercept weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah.

“We won’t allow Syria to transfer weapons to Lebanon, we won’t allow Iran to build military bases in Syria and we won’t allow the opening of a new front in the Golan Heights,” Yoav Gallant, security cabinet member and minister, told Israeli radio, without directly commenting on the strike on the base.

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