TEL AVIV: Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Friday urged Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to expel Iranian forces from his country, after Israeli air strikes hit alleged Iranian targets in Syria.
“I shall take advantage of this opportunity to send a message to Assad: throw the Iranians out,” a defence ministry statement quoted Lieberman as saying during a visit to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
“They are not helping you,” he said. “They only do harm and their presence brings only damage and problems.”
Israel claims it struck dozens of Iranian targets inside Syria early on Thursday in response to a salvo of rockets fired by Iranian forces into the occupied Golan Heights.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Iran had “crossed a red line” and that Israel’s bombardment against targets in Syria “was a consequence”.
Israel carried out the raids after it said Iran’s Al-Quds force fired 20 rockets, either Fajr or Grad type, at its forces in the Golan.
It has long warned it will not accept Iran entrenching itself militarily in neighbouring Syria, where the Islamic Republic backs Assad’s regime in the country’s seven-year civil war.
It has been blamed for a series of recent strikes inside Syria that have killed Iranians, though it has not acknowledged those raids.
The Jewish state says it has conducted dozens of operations in Syria to stop what it says are advanced arms deliveries to Iran-backed Hezbollah, another key foe of Israel.
Israel had been preparing itself for weeks for possible Iranian retaliation.
Meanwhile, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an immediate halt to “all hostile acts” to avoid “a new conflagration” in the Middle East after Israeli forces bombed Iranian targets inside Syria.
In Iran’s first official reaction to the attack, a Friday report in state-run IRNA quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi as saying the Israeli attack on Syria under “fabricated and baseless excuses” is a breach of the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria.
He added that Syria has the right to defend itself “against the aggressors.”
The Security Council, deeply divided over Syria, is highly unlikely to issue a statement and as of Friday morning no council member had asked for a meeting.
Israel and Iran have long fought each other through proxies, and with the new exchange each seemed to be sending a warning that a direct clash between them could swiftly escalate.