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story.lead_photo.caption Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the Economic Club of Washington in Washington on March 7, 2018.

JERUSALEM -- Israeli airstrikes near the Syrian capital overnight endangered two civilian flights attempting to land at the Damascus and Beirut airports, Russia's Defense Ministry said Wednesday.

The strikes, which an Israeli security official confirmed Wednesday, targeted an arms depot west of Damascus late Tuesday and injured three soldiers, Syrian state media reported. A Britain-based war monitor said that strikes also hit a weapons storage facility controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which has backed Syria's government in its efforts to retake territory from Syrian rebels.

The Syrian military "did not fully employ" its air defense system "in order to guide [the] civilian aircraft" out of danger, the Russian Defense Ministry said in a statement carried by the Interfax news agency. It said Syria's air defense batteries intercepted 14 of 16 Israeli guided missiles.

The statement is Russia's latest rebuke of Israel over its repeated air raids in Syria, after a Russian military plane was accidentally downed by Syrian anti-aircraft fire targeting Israeli fighter jets in September.

The Israeli security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity under standard Israeli security protocols, said the air force had attacked storage and logistics facilities used by Iran to ship weapons to Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese group that fought Israel in a 2006 war.

He said Israel also destroyed a Syrian anti-aircraft battery that fired at the Israeli planes, and claimed that Iranian forces are operating less than 50 miles from the Israeli border, contrary to Russian assurances.

"We are not prepared to accept the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria, which is directed against us," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday at a graduation ceremony for Israeli air force pilots. "We will act against it vigorously and continuously." He did not specifically mention the strikes.

The air raids come at a particularly tense time after President Donald Trump's surprise decision to withdraw all U.S. troops from Syria, where they are currently supporting Kurdish-led fighters battling the Islamic State militant group.

Israel worries that a U.S. pullout would remove an important check on growing Iranian influence in Syria, where Tehran now commands thousands of proxy forces, including Hezbollah. Its presence secures an important strategic foothold stretching from Iran to Lebanon, where Hezbollah has beefed up its own arsenal in anticipation of an Israeli attack.

"I have said that we will not be deterred from doing what is necessary," Netanyahu said. "President Trump's decision to withdraw the American soldiers from Syria will not change our policy. We stand firmly on our red lines in Syria and everywhere else."

Separately, Russia's Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that Moscow expects the Syrian government to take over the areas where the U.S. troops are currently deployed after their withdrawal.

Ministry spokesman Maria Zakharova emphasized that the territories in eastern Syria should be handed over to the Syrian government in line with international law. She said Moscow is unaware of any details of the planned U.S. withdrawal from Syria, but added that the move would help peaceful settlement in Syria if implemented.

"If the troop withdrawal happens, it would have a positive impact on the situation," Zakharova said at a briefing.

Asked about Turkey's plans to launch an attack on U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, Zakharova answered that Russia and Turkey have closely coordinated their actions in Syria, "including military counter-terrorist operations," but wouldn't elaborate further.

Information for this article was contributed by Ruth Eglash and Erin Cunningham of The Washington Post; and by Josef Federman, Nataliya Vasilyeva, Vladimir Isachenkov, Sarah El Deeb and staff members of The Associated Press.

A Section on 12/27/2018

Print Headline: Russia rips Israeli strikes on Syria


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