AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian army said on Tuesday Israeli jets attacked the main T4 air base in Homs province, saying its air defences downed several missiles in strikes that caused only material damage.
An army spokesman told state media that four Israeli missiles did reach the base, but said air defences intercepted several others.
State television earlier did not say who was behind the attack on the major air base, which Israel accuses of hosting an Iranian military presence and has attacked several times in recent years.
“The Israeli airforce conducted new aerial aggression and immediately our air defences confronted the enemy missiles,” an army statement said.
The Syrian army statement said the Israeli war jets flew from Tanf, to the southeast, where the United States has set up a base near the Iraqi-Jordanian border.
Tanf lies on the strategic Damascus-Baghdad highway, a major supply route for Iranian weapons into Syria. This makes the base a bulwark against Iran and part of a larger U.S. campaign against Iranian influence in Iraq and Syria.
Israel has repeatedly bombed Iranian backed militia targets in Syria, saying its goal was to end Tehran’s military presence which Western intelligence sources say has expanded in recent years in the war-torn country.
The Israel Defence Force did not immediately comment on the attack.
Tuesday’s strikes are the first which Syria accused Israel of undertaking since the United States killed Iran’s most powerful military commander in a drone strike on Jan. 3, sparking one of the biggest escalations between Tehran and Washington since 1979.
Iran’s proxy militias led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah now hold sway in vast areas in eastern and southern Syria and northwest as well as several suburbs around the capital.
They have also entrenched themselves in the strategically located border town of AlbuKamal on the Euphrates river in Deir Zor district in eastern Syria near the border with Iraq where Iraqi Shi’ite paramilitary groups have a strong foothold.
Western intelligence sources say Israel has been behind several strikes against Iranian assets in the border area in recent weeks.
The Iraqi side of the border had seen the deployment in large numbers of Iran-allied Iraqi Shi’ite militias who now de facto control large stretches of the frontier, with posts not far from military bases housing U.S. troops.
The U.S. military struck Iran-backed Kataib Hezbollah militia group in areas in Iraq and Syria along the border area at the end of last month in what U.S. officials said was a response to escalating provocations from Iran.
Israel in the past has said Iran uses the T4 base to transfer weapons to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shi’ite militia group with which it fought a deadly month-long war in 2006. Western intelligence sources say it has also been used as a base for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Israel, which previously has rarely acknowledged strikes in Syria, has become more vocal in pledging it will do what is needed to thwart the entrenchment of Iranian forces or arms transfers to Hezbollah.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Chris Reese, Bill Berkrot and Lincoln Feast.