Middle East

Israeli airstrikes add fuel to fire in Syria

Israeli soldiers stand atop tanks in the Golan Heights near Israel's border with Syria March 19, 2014. (REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)

OCCUPIED JERUSALEM/DAMASCUS: Israeli warplanes unleashed a series of airstrikes on Syrian military posts early Wednesday, killing one soldier and wounding seven in one of the most serious clashes between the countries in the past four decades.

The airstrikes came after a roadside bombing a day earlier in the Golan Heights wounded four Israeli soldiers on patrol along the tense frontier with Syria.

It is unclear which of the many groups fighting in Syria might have planted Tuesday’s bomb. But Israel has said it holds President Bashar Assad responsible for any attacks emanating from his country, and accused his forces of allowing the attack to take place.

“Our policy is clear. We hurt those who hurt us,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon meanwhile said Assad would “regret his actions” if attacks continued.

The Israeli military said its warplanes hit a Syrian army training facility, an army headquarters and artillery batteries. Israel had also carried out artillery strikes against Syrian military targets shortly after Tuesday’s bombing.

The Syrian military said the raids targeted three army posts near the town of Qunaitra, on the edge of the Israeli-occupied part of the Golan.

The Syrian army denounced the airstrikes as Israel’s “desperate attempt to escalate and worsen the situation” and to divert attention from Damascus’ advances on the battlefront, especially the military’s capture last weekend of the rebel stronghold of Yabroud near the Lebanese border, which had served for months as a key rebel logistics hub.“Repeating such hostile acts would endanger the security and stability of the region and make it open to all possibilities,” a Syrian military statement said.

In the central province of Homs, army troops entered the village of Al-Hosn and fought for control of the famed Krak des Chevaliers castle, a security official told AFP.

“The army entered Al-Hosn and took two districts of the village. It is bombarding areas around the Krak des Chevaliers to take control of the castle,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Meanwhile, Syrian troops pressed on with their offensive near the Lebanese border, capturing a village from rebels, whose forces appeared to be collapsing along a key central front, state media and activists said.

Ras al-Ain was the latest area in the Qalamoun region to fall to government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters.

“It was a fast and crushing operation,” an unidentified Syrian army officer in Ras al-Ain said on state television. “The operation will continue day and night until all terrorists are wiped out,” he said, referring to the rebels. A brigadier general, also unidentified, told the Lebanon-based Al-Mayadeen TV network that “dozens” of rebels were killed in the village.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said government troops captured the village after fighting several rebel factions – including the Al-Qaeda-linked Nusra Front – for two days.

Syria’s air force also bombarded a suburb northwest of Damascus, killing eight people and violating a truce that had been in place since October, a monitoring group said.

“Seven men have been killed in airstrikes targeting the edges of Qudsaya, and an eighth man was shot dead by an army sniper,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. Among the dead were an unknown number of anti-regime activists, the group added.

Rebels in Qudsaya reached a truce with the regime in October, when they set up joint checkpoints there with pro-regime local militia.

Mohammad Ali, an activist in Qudsaya, told AFP via Skype: “We don’t know what’s going to happen next. We are in the dark. We didn’t expect this.”

He also expressed concern over any further escalation, as the truce has allowed thousands of families fleeing other areas to take refuge there.

In Hassakeh, in the northeast, 20 members of the Al-Qaeda splinter group the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) were killed fighting against Kurdish militias, the Observatory said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on March 20, 2014, on page 1.




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