Israel Struck Near Damascus, Syria Says, as Israel Air Force Begins 'Surprise Exercise'

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Haaretz
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A missile in the skies above Damascus, January 2019.
A missile in the skies above Damascus, January 2019.Credit: SANA / AP
Reuters
Haaretz

Syria's army said overnight Sunday that the country's air defenses intercepted an "Israeli aggression" over the capital, Damascus, while an opposition war-monitoring group said the strikes killed six Iran-backed fighters.

State media did not give details of what was hit. Missiles were fired from the Golan Heights and the Galilee to hit targets on the edge of the capital, an army statement said, without mentioning casualties but adding air defenses downed most of the missiles. 

SANA footageCredit: SANA

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"Our air defenses are continuing to repel the Israeli missile attacks over the skies of the capital," the Syrian army said in a statement.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition war monitor with a network of activists on the ground, said the strikes hit positions of the Syrian army's Fourth Division in the mountains near the highway that links Damascus with the Lebanese capital of Beirut. It said another strike hit Syrian army positions in Kisweh, just south of Damascus.

The Observatory said that of the six Iran-backed fighters killed, four were near the Damascus-Beirut highway and two in Kisweh. Weapons depots were also struck in both areas, it added.

A Syrian military defector said the bombing raids hit a major army division in the town of Kiswa, almost 14 km (8.7 miles) south of the capital, in a sprawling area where Iranian-backed militias have a dominant presence.

Witnesses heard large explosions on the southern edge of Damascus, an area where Iranian-backed militias are entrenched, residents said.

Israel's military did not immediately comment on the latest strike, but its senior military officials have acknowledged the escalating attacks inside Syria aimed to end Tehran's entrenched military presence in Syria.

Meanwhile, Israel's air force began a "surprise exercise" to improve combat readiness along the country's northern border, the military said on Monday.

The military said that during the drill, which will last until Wednesday, there would be an increase of air traffic throughout the country and that explosions could be heard in northern Israel.

It said the "exercise simulates combat scenarios in the northern front, and will test all components in the [air force's] core missions, including maintaining aerial superiority, protecting the country's skies, as well as attacking and gathering intelligence."

Israel says it has carried out hundreds of strikes in Syria against Iranian targets trying to establish a permanent military presence there, and against advanced weapons shipments to Tehran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said at the end of last year that his country's missile strikes had "slowed down Iran's entrenchment in Syria," hitting more than 500 targets in 2020.

Western intelligence sources say Iran's military influence has expanded in Syria in recent years, prompting Israel to escalate its campaign to prevent its arch rival from establishing a major military foothold along its border.

Iran's proxy militias, led by Lebanon's Hezbollah, now hold sway over vast areas in eastern, southern and northwestern Syria, as well as several suburbs around Damascus. They also control Lebanese-Syrian border areas.

Israel, which in the last two months staged some of its biggest strikes yet inside Syria, has concentrated on Albukamal, the Syrian city that controls the border checkpoint on the main Baghdad-Damascus highway.

The widening military campaign was part of a so-called "campaign within wars", which, according to Israeli generals and regional intelligence sources, have been tacitly approved by the United States.

Overnight Thursday, Syrian state media reported that an explosion was heard in Syria's Quneitra province in the south, near the border with Israel. Earlier on Thursday, the U.S.-based Arabic-language news network Alhurra had reported that a military drone had attacked a military convoy at the Syrian-Iraqi border, near the Iraqi city of al-Qa'am, as it entered Syria from Iraqi territory, citing an unidentified security source.

Last month, Syrian media reported strikes in the east of the country, which it also attributed to Israel, near the cities of Albukamal and Deir a-Zor which border Iraq — the fourth round of alleged Israeli attacks on Iranian-backed sites throughout Syria within a two week period. According to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 57 people were killed in the strikes which targeted 18 sites of pro-Iranian militias.

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