Syrian government troops have regained control of a strategic hill overlooking the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, state-media and rebels said on Monday.
Troops loyal to President Bashar al-Assad took control of the al-Haara hill on the second day of an offensive aimed at retaking the remaining pockets of opposition in Quneitra province along the border with Israel.
The hilltop, which is the highest ground in Deraa province, fell into rebel hands in October 2014, was heavily bombed by Russian and Syrian army air raids over the past two days.
The violence is taking place a few kilometres away from the line marking the start of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force zone, an area monitored by a UN force since 1974 in the wake of the Arab-Israeli War.
Israel has warned of a “harsh response” should Syrian government forces be deployed in the area and perceives the presence of Iranian and Hezbollah troops – key backers of President Assad – a threat to its security interests in the region.
Putin met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a day earlier on Sunday in the Russian capital Moscow to address Israel’s security concerns regarding the presence of Iranian troops in the war-torn country.
While both Russia and Iran have deployed forces to Syria, their interests are said not to be the same, with Russia maintaining close ties with Israel. Tehran for its part views Syria as a crucial lifeline connecting it to the Lebanese Hezbollah group.
A senior Israel official said Netanyahu was not interested in toppling President Assad but was rather looking to tame Tehran’s influence in the country.
Israel signalled it would not impede the Syrian army offensive in Quenitra as long as it steered away from the demilitarised zone, even as it struck Syrian army posts near the frontier and elsewhere in Syria where it suspects Iranian backed forces are stationed.
Syria accused Israel on Sunday of attacking the Nairab airbase in Aleppo where a Western intelligence source said the Iranian military had a presence. There were reports that several officers, including Iranians, had been killed, the source said without elaborating.
Pro-government troops, backed by Russian air support, have edged ever closer to the border area with Israel since recapturing much of the territory from rebel hands in the southern province of Deraa.
The latest Syrian army offensive aims at completing its control of the strategic area known as the “Triangle of Death”, which connects southern Damascus countryside with Deraa and Quneitra provinces.