Three Syrian soldiers killed in Israeli airstrike near Damascus

DAMASCUS (AFP): Three Syrian soldiers were killed Thursday in an Israeli airstrike near the capital Damascus, according to Syria’s state media.

It was the fourth reported time this month Israel has launched strikes inside Syria, keeping up a campaign against pro-Iranian forces supporting the Damascus government in the more than decade-old civil war.

“The Israeli enemy carried out an air assault with several missiles,” state news agency SANA reported, adding three soldiers were killed.

It said Syrian air defences intercepted most of the missiles in the attack, which occurred at around 1:10 am (2310 GMT Wednesday).

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), which has an extensive network of sources across the country, reported that explosions were heard in Damascus and its suburbs “after the interception of Israeli missiles by the Syrian regime’s anti-aircraft defence”.

It follows strikes in recent days on a town near the Golan Heights, a Syrian military post on February 17, and an assault against anti-aircraft batteries at the start of the month.

Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes inside the country, targeting government positions as well as allied Iran-backed forces and fighters of the Shiite militant movement Hezbollah.

– Shadow war –

While Israel rarely comments on individual strikes in Syria, it has acknowledged mounting hundreds since 2011.

According to a report by the Israeli army, it hit around 50 targets inside its northern neighbour’s territory in 2020.

Last year, Israel targeted Syria roughly 30 times, killing 130 people including five civilians and 125 loyalist fighters, according to SOHR figures.

In December 2021, it carried out a strike targeting an Iranian arms shipment in Latakia — in the heartland of President Bashar al-Assad’s minority Alawite community — its first on the port since the start of the civil war.

The Israeli military has defended the strikes as a necessary measure to prevent its arch-foe Iran from gaining a foothold on its doorstep.

Israel’s head of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Haliva, has accused Iran of “continuing to promote subversion and terror” in the Middle East.

In a shadow war, Israel has targeted suspected Iranian military facilities in Syria and mounted a sabotage campaign against Iran’s nuclear programme.

Iran has been a key supporter of the Syrian government in the decade-old conflict.

It finances, arms and commands a number of Syrian and foreign militia groups fighting alongside the regular armed forces, chief among them Hezbollah.

The conflict in Syria has killed nearly 500,000 people since it started in 2011 with the brutal repression of peaceful demonstrations.