Syria’s army said on Monday the country’s air defences intercepted “Israeli aggression” over the capital, Damascus, in the latest stepped-up bombing of alleged Iranian targets inside the country over the last two months.
Israeli missile strikes against several targets killed at least nine pro-government fighters, a Britain-based war monitor said.
“Nine Iran-backed militia fighters were killed” in attacks on arms depots around Damascus, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
The Observatory – with a network of sources inside Syria – said all the fighters killed were non-Arab “pro-government” forces, but it did not elaborate.
The Israeli military, which just began a surprise air force combat drill along the country’s northern border, said “it did not comment on foreign reports”, according to a spokeswoman.
State media did not give details of what was hit by the Israeli air force.
Israeli military planes flew over the Golan Heights to hit targets on the edge of the capital, an army statement said, without mentioning casualties but adding most of the missiles fired were brought down.
“Our air defences are continuing to repel the Israeli missile attacks over the skies of the capital,” the Syrian army said in a statement.
A Syrian military defector said the bombing raids hit a considerable army division in the town of Kiswa, 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, residents said.
Senior Israeli military officials have previously acknowledged escalating attacks inside Syria aimed at ending Tehran’s military presence in Syria.
Israel’s Defence Force Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said at the end of last year 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 significant 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 attacks yet inside Syria, has concentrated on al-Bukamal – the Syrian city that controls the border checkpoint on the main Baghdad-Damascus highway.
Balance of power
The widening military campaign is part of a so-called “campaign within wars”, which, according to Israeli generals and regional intelligence sources, has been tacitly approved by the United States.
The operations that aim to prevent Tehran from changing the balance of power in Syria in its favour have gradually eroded Iran’s extensive military power without triggering an extensive increase in hostilities, according to intelligence sources.
Israel has consistently vowed to prevent its arch-enemy Iran from gaining a foothold in Syria.
On Sunday, the Israeli army started a four-day drill along its northern border with Lebanon, a country with which it is still technically at war.
The “surprise exercise” was “designed to improve Air Force readiness for combat” in the border region, the army said in a statement.
During the exercise, which ends on Wednesday, Israeli “aircrafts, jets and helicopter traffic will be felt across the country, and a number of explosions may be heard in northern Israel”, it added.