Israel conducted widespread strikes overnight against Iranian targets in Syrian territory, their largest military action yet against their regional foe and a dramatic escalation along the tenuous border with Syria.
Here’s what we know about what was hit, how the world Thursday reacted, and what could happen next.
– Iran outposts hit –
Early on Thursday, Israel bombed what it said were dozens of Iranian-manned positions in Syria, including intelligence and logistics posts, depots and vehicles.
In a rare confirmation of military action in Syria, Israeli officials called it their largest such assault on Iranian targets.
Russia, a close ally of the Syrian regime, said 28 Israeli planes fired 60 air-to-ground missiles, on top of 10 tactical ground-to-ground missiles.
Syria’s army activated its air defences, which it said intercepted a large number of the missiles.
The military in Damascus said the raids ultimately destroyed a radar station and an ammunition depot and that they damaged several Syrian air defence posts, but made no mention of Iranian positions.
It said three people were killed and two wounded, without specifying their nationalities.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the Israeli strikes hit pro-regime positions near Damascus, close to the central city of Homs and in southwest Syria.
It put the death toll at 23, including five Syrian regime troops and 18 allied forces, making it one of the deadliest Israeli military actions on Syria yet.
– Who started the clash? –
Opposing sides have traded accusations over how the incident started.
Israel reported suspicious Iranian activity along the border with the occupied Golan Heights on Wednesday night, then said Iran’s Quds force launched 20 rockets onto the occupied Golan Heights just after midnight.
If confirmed, the incident would be the first such rocket fire by Iranian forces in Syria towards Israel.
But Syrian state media reported shelling from the occupied Golan Heights was actually the first to hit the town of Baath in Syrian territory overnight.
A senior pro-regime military source in Syria and the Observatory also said Israel had fired first.
– International reaction –
World powers were quick to call for calm.
French President Emmanuel Macron said the two sides should “de-escalate”, and Britain said it would not serve anyone’s interests to see further conflict.
Germany’s foreign ministry condemned the Iranian rockets as a “provocation”, but said it was “crucial” the incident did not spin out into further conflict.
“The escalation of the last hours shows us that it’s really about war and peace,” warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The US, which backs Israel, condemned Iran and said Israel had the right to self-defence, as did Bahrain, a close ally of Saudi Arabia, although it has no relations with the Jewish state.
Russia, which like Iran is a steadfast ally of Assad, also urged “restraint on all sides”, with its Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying the dispute could be “solved through dialogue”.
Analysts say Moscow could be uniquely positioned to tamp down tensions between Israel and Iran because of its ties to both.
“This is not a sustainable situation,” said Heiko Wimmen of the International Crisis Group.
“You need some mediation, and the best player to do that is Russia.”
– What to watch –
Thursday’s attacks came after months of warnings from Israel that it would react strongly to Tehran entrenching itself militarily in neighbouring Syria.
They followed US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from a key 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and a day after alleged Israeli strikes on Syria that the Observatory said killed 15 foreign pro-regime fighters, including eight Iranians.
All eyes are on the volatile border area to see whether Iran will retaliate, either directly or through Hezbollah, its powerful Lebanese ally that is also fighting in Syria.
There were no notable military movements on Thursday along the border, but regime troops, Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters in Syria were all on high alert, the Observatory said.
There has been no official comment from Iran, but Israel’s army has said it is not looking to escalate the incident any further.