Unclaimed airstrikes in eastern Syria have killed 18 Iranian and pro-Iran fighters, according to a war monitoring group, as tensions around Tehran’s military presence in the region intensify.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strikes in and around the town of Abu Kamal began late on Sunday and continued after midnight, targeting bases, arms depots and vehicles.
Suspicion is likely to fall on Israel, which has conducted hundreds of bombing raids in the country, often against Iranian military assets and personnel. It accuses Tehran of using Syria, which neighbours Israel, as a base to attack it.
The Israel Defence Forces did not comment on whether it was behind the attack. Later on Monday the Israeli military said an Iranian-backed Shia militia on the outskirts of the Syrian capital, Damascus, had fired “a number of rockets” towards Israel. All failed to hit Israeli territory, it said. It was not clear if the attempted rocket attacks against Israel were a response to the bombing raid.
Separately, Iran’s main proxy force in Lebanon, Hezbollah, claimed it had shot down an Israeli drone that crossed the border, a week after the bitter enemies traded fire for the first time in years.
The unmanned aircraft was flying near the southern Lebanese town of Ramyah, the Iranian-backed group said, adding that it fighters had removed the wreckage.
Asked about the downed drone in Lebanon, Israel’s military confirmed it had lost a drone but said it “fell inside Lebanon territory during a routine mission”. An army spokesperson did not say what had caused the crash, adding that the drone was “standard size, nothing too big … There is no concern information could be taken from it.”
Hezbollah and the Israeli army exchanged brief but intense fire on 1 September, the fiercest bout since the 2006 war. It began when a Hezbollah squad fired anti-tank missiles at an Israeli military vehicle at the frontier, to which Israel immediately responded with heavy shelling and helicopter strikes on the area.
That flare-up was also sparked by claims of Israeli drone use in Lebanon. Days earlier, Hezbollah had accused Israel of attempting to attack it with two drones in its stronghold of southern Beirut. Those drones, about which Israel would not comment, were suspected of targeting equipment for making precision guidance missiles.
Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, blamed Israel for the alleged drone attack and promised to retaliate. He also vowed his fighters would target Israeli drones that entered Lebanon’s airspace in the future.
The two adversaries fought a deadly month-long conflict in 2006 that killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and roughly 160 in Israel. Since then incidents of hostile action have been rare but the renewed violence has raised fears of the potential for another conflict.
Israel says it has intelligence that Iranhas been helping Hezbollah build guided missiles in Lebanon, which it said it would not tolerate.
It has targeted Hezbollah in Syria, whose forces entered the civil war in support of President Bashar al-Assad, but has largely refrained from attacks on Lebanese soil, fearing it may lead to reprisal strikes.
Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said last month that Iran had “no immunity, anywhere”. He added: “We will act, and currently are acting, against them, wherever it is necessary.”
A crisis between Iran and the US over a collapsing nuclear deal, hefty sanctions imposed by Washington, and Iran’s support for Shia militia in Iraq have raised fears of an escalating conflict in the Middle East.