At least five people have been killed and 15 wounded in Israeli air strikes on Syria’s capital that have heavily damaged residential buildings.
The raids early on Sunday hit a building in central Damascus’s Kafr Sousa neighbourhood near a large, heavily guarded security complex close to Iranian installations, witnesses said.
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The attack was a rare one on a residential area in the heart of the city. It hit a densely populated district close to Omayyad Square.
Explosions were heard around 12:30am (21:30 GMT on Saturday), and the state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported that air defences confronted “hostile targets in the sky around Damascus”.
Citing a military source, SANA reported five people had been killed, including a soldier, and “a number of residential buildings” had been destroyed.
“It caused damage to several civilian homes and material damage to a number of neighbourhoods in Damascus and its vicinity,” the army said in a statement.
Footage posted on state media showed a badly damaged 10-storey building, the structure crushed to its lower floors.
Unnamed Syrian military sources who were not authorised to speak publicly said stray anti-aircraft rockets fired from Mount Qasioun to counter the Israeli attack hit several other locations, including near the capital’s historic citadel.
“The strike on Sunday is the deadliest Israeli attack in the Syrian capital,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a United Kingdom-based group that has a wide network of sources inside Syria.
Israel did not comment on the air strikes, which were carried out a month after an Israeli missile attack hit Damascus International Airport, killing four people, including two soldiers.
Mohamad Dulo, a resident of the neighbourhood, said, “All the windows fell into the street, and people ran down to the streets as well.”
Dulo said he did not understand why the area was targeted. “It’s a residential area. There is nothing [military] here.”
Syrian Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad said the strike should be considered a “crime against humanity” given it took place less than two weeks after the earthquake that killed more than 5,800 people across the country.
Director General of Antiquities and Museums Mohamad Awad said the damaged buildings around the Damascus Citadel were arts and heritage institutes, as well as the offices for managing the historical site.
“It will cost a lot to rebuild or restore some of the buildings that were destroyed in the attack,” Awad said, adding “rare and expensive” equipment and machinery were obliterated.
Israel targets Syria
Two Western intelligence sources said the target was a logistics centre in the building, run by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
Syria’s close allies – Russia and Iran, whose military support helped President Bashar al-Assad turn the tide of the civil war in his favour – both condemned the strikes, warning they threatened regional stability.
For almost a decade, Israel has been carrying out air attacks against suspected Iranian-sponsored weapons transfers and personnel deployments in neighbouring Syria. Israeli officials have rarely acknowledged responsibility for specific operations.
The raids, which in recent months have targeted Syrian airports and air bases, are part of an escalation of what has been a low-intensity conflict with the goal of slowing down Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria, military analysts say.
Iran has expanded its military presence in Syria in recent years and has a foothold in most state-controlled areas and thousands of members of militias and local paramilitary groups under its command, Western intelligence sources say.
Commenting on the latest attack, Nasser Kanani, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesperson, blamed Israel for “trying to exacerbate the pain and suffering of the Syrian nation at a time when it is faced with the effects of the recent destructive earthquake”.
More than 46,000 people have died in Syria and Turkey after devastating earthquakes struck on February 6. The death toll in Turkey stands at nearly 41,000 while neighbouring Syria has reported more than 5,800 dead.
Kanani called on the UN Security Council to react to the latest attack by Israel.
Iran’s proxy militias, led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah, now hold sway in large areas of eastern, southern and northwestern Syria and in several suburbs around the capital.
Iranian news agency Tasnim said “no Iranian was harmed”, adding the strikes hit “exactly the spot” where Hezbollah’s top commander Imad Mughniyeh was killed in a 2008 car bombing that the group blamed on Israel.
Al-Assad’s government has never publicly acknowledged that Iranian forces operate on its behalf in the Syrian war. Tehran has said it has only military advisers on the ground.