(CNSNews.com) – In a weekend of mounting tensions in the Levant, Israel carried out airstrikes in Syria to avert what it said was a planned large-scale attack in northern Israel by Iran and its Hezbollah proxies.
And Hezbollah’s leader threatened to retaliate for what he described as an Israeli drone attack in southern Beirut.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed support for Israel’s right to carry out preemptive strikes to prevent planned Iranian attacks.
The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) said the Saturday airstrikes on a facility near Damascus thwarted an imminent attack by multiple Iranian “killer drones,” which it attributed to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-Quds Force and Shi’ite militia allies.
“[Quds Force chief Maj. Gen. Qassem] Soleimani commanded an attack of killer drones on Israel,” the IDF tweeted. “Iranian Quds operatives flew to the Damascus Intl. Airport with drones & explosives, and continued to an Iranian base in Syria to prepare for an attack on Israel. An attack that never happened. We attacked their base.”
Providing further details, the IDF said the Iranian drones, capable of dropping several kilograms of explosives, were also used by the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an independent monitoring group, said the airstrikes near the Syrian capital had killed two Hezbollah fighters, an Iranian operative, and two other unidentified fighters. The IDF released names and photos of what it said were the two Hezbollah terrorists.
In Tehran, former IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai disputed that an Iranian position in Syria had been hit. Rezai, a suspected international terrorist, is secretary of the regime’s Expediency Council, a body that advises supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
The Assad regime – which receives vital military backing from Iran and Hezbollah – played down the airstrikes, claiming that its air defenses had neutralized “most” of the Israeli projectiles “before they could reach their targets.”
Israel rarely confirms airstrikes in Syria, but on this occasion both the IDF and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu commented on the incident.
Netanyahu said Israel had thwarted a Quds Force plot to kill Israelis using “explosives-laden UAVs.”
“I would like to emphasize: This was an initiative of Iran, under the command of Iran, at the behest of Iran,” he said.
“I would like to stress that we will not tolerate aggression against Israel from any country in the region,” he said. “Any country that allows its territory to be used for aggression against Israel will face the consequences, and I repeat: The country will face the consequences.”
Netanyahu spoke by phone to Pompeo, who said on Twitter afterwards he had expressed “support for Israel’s right to defend itself from threats posed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps & to take action to prevent imminent attacks against Israeli assets.”
Pompeo said they had spoken about how the Iranian regime “is leveraging its foothold in Syria to threaten Israel and its neighbors,” and noted that Netanyahu had stated “that Israel would strike IRGC targets threatening Israel, wherever they are located.”
(In Iraq, several bases of Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias have been attacked in recent weeks, in strikes attributed to Israel.)
Meanwhile in Beirut, the Lebanese Army reported that two Israeli drones had violated Lebanese airspace on Sunday, one crashing and the other exploding in midair above the southern suburbs of the capital.
Hezbollah, whose stronghold is in that Shi’ite-dominated part of the city, reported that the drone which exploded had caused damage to its media center.
Both Hezbollah and Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri are blaming Israel, however.
Hezbollah leader Hasan Nasrallah warned Israel in a speech to supporters that his terrorist group would retaliate in its own time and place, saying Israeli troops near the border of Lebanon should await its response. He also vowed to shoot down any Israeli drones seen over Lebanon.
For his part Hariri accused Israel of violating Lebanese sovereignty and U.N. Security Council resolution 1701.
Hezbollah’s very existence as an armed militia violates that same resolution, adopted in 2006, which called for “the disarmament of all armed groups in Lebanon, so that … there will be no weapons or authority in Lebanon other than that of the Lebanese state.”
But the weak Lebanese state, whose President Michel Aoun and powerful parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri are both allies of Hezbollah, is disinclined to confront the terrorist group, which also operates as a political party and has long had members in the Lebanese cabinet.
Pompeo also spoke by phone to Hariri on Sunday. According to Hariri’s office, the secretary of state had “stressed the need to avoid any escalation and to work with all parties concerned to prevent any form of deterioration.”
Just ten days ago Pompeo hosted Hariri in Washington, assured him of continued U.S. support for “credible state institutions inside of Lebanon,” and stressed that the country was threatened by Iran’s “proxy Hezbollah.”
“We welcome the prime minister’s courageous commitment to keep taking full responsibility for Lebanon’s defense,” he said then.
During a visit to Lebanon last March, Pompeo spoke repeatedly against Hezbollah and its sponsor Iran, but his Lebanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil – also a Hezbollah ally – disputed that it was a terrorist group.