Israel Says Iran's Quds Force Team Arrived in Syria Months Ago to Prepare for Drone Attack

Israeli army chief says elite unit's commander personally oversaw attack planned in a Golan Heights base, which Israel said it thwarted in overnight strike

Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani, Tehran, September 18, 2016.
Office of the Iranian Supreme Le

The Israeli army said Sunday that for several months it has been following Iran's plan to carry out an attack against Israel from Syrian territory.

"The person behind this is [head of Iran's Quds Force] Qasem Soleimani," Israel Defense Forces' Spokesman Ronen Manelis told reporters.

According to Manelis, "the Iranians plan was to send several drones into Israel, armed with explosives, and kill Israelis. These are drones we see in action in Iraq, Syria and Yemen."

The chief of the Israeli army, Aviv Kochavi, said that Soleimani personally oversaw the operation and trained the Iranian activists who were meant to carry it out.

Several weeks ago, Manelis said, an Iranian plane landed in the Damascus airport, "carrying Iranian security advisers, Shi'ite militia members and equipment to use for the attack." The team then set up base in a compound run by the Quds Force, and according to the Israeli army, began planning the attack.

The Israeli army spokesman said that last Thursday, four members of the team arrive at a structure in the village of Erneh in the Golan Heights with their equipment. Israel, he said, thwarted that attack, but the cell retained possession of the drones.

Israeli Army Spokesperson Ronen Manelis, November 29, 2019.
Moti Milrod

This is an incident that must be made public, Manelis said, explaining why Israel took the extraordinary step of confirming the strike. He added that Israel is prepared "defensively and offensively" as this incident is not over yet "and there could be developments."

>> Read more: Iran wanted revenge over Iraq strike. Israel foiled it – for now | Analysis 

In a rare move, Israel confirmed it struck in Syria overnight Saturday to thwart a drone attack by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' elite Quds Force. Syrian opposition activists reported three deaths in the attack.

The Israeli army said the foiled attack entailed launching several drones at targets in northern Israel.

A senior Revolutionary Guards commander denied on Sunday that Iranian targets had been hit in Israeli air strikes in Syria, the semi-official ILNA news agency reported.

Lights over the sky near Aqraba, Syria, during the Israeli strike on August 24.
AFP

"This is a lie and not true. ..Israel and the United States do not have the power to attack Iran's various centers, and our [military] advisory centers have not been harmed," said Revolutionary Guards Major General Mohsen Rezaei, who is also the secretary of a powerful state body, ILNA reported.  

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition organization, said two Hezbollah operatives and an Iranian were killed in the attack.

Later overnight, Hezbollah claimed two Israeli drones crashed in Beirut.

In anticipation of possible retaliatory rocket fire, the Israel Defense Forces  deployed air defenses in northern Israel. Authorities, however, have not issued any special safety instructions for local residents. 

Earlier, Syrian state television reported explosions above Damascus and said air defenses had intercepted "hostile targets."

Following the IDF's confirmation of the strike, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: "I repeat: Iran has no immunity anywhere...I have given the instruction to prepare for any scenario. We will continue to act against Iran and its proxies with determination and responsibility on behalf of Israel's security."

The latest strike comes amid accusations of Israel conducting airstrikes against Iranian targets in Iraq in recent weeks. 

Over the past year, a number of strikes targeting the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah in Syria were attributed to Israel.

Most recently, Syrian state media reported that an Israeli missile had struck western Quneitra province in early August.

On Friday the New York Times published a report citing senior American intelligence officials who said that Israel was responsible for several strikes in Iraq. The report also quoted a senior Middle Eastern intelligence official who said that Israel was specifically responsible for a July 19 attack north of Baghdad on a base he told the Times was being used by Iran's Revolutionary Guards "to transfer weapons to Syria."