Van Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN (Reuters) – The Syrian army said on Monday that the Syrian air defense system had intercepted an “Israeli attack” on the capital, Damascus, during the latest intense bombing of Iranian targets in the country in the past two months.
A spokeswoman said that the Israeli army, which has just begun a surprise air exercise along the country’s northern border, “has not commented on the foreign reports.”
The official Syrian media did not provide details of the Israeli Air Force attack. An army statement said that Israeli warplanes flew over the Golan Heights to hit targets on the outskirts of the capital, without mentioning the losses, but it added that the air defenses dropped most of the missiles.
“Our air defenses continue to repel Israeli missile strikes in the air from the capital,” the Syrian army said in a statement.
A Syrian army defector said that the raids targeted a large military division in the city of Kiswa, 14 km south of the capital, in a vast area controlled by pro-Iranian factions.
Residents said that eyewitnesses heard explosions on the southern tip of Damascus, an area where Iranian-backed militias are being reinforced.
Israeli officials have admitted carrying out attacks in Syria to end the entrenched Iranian military presence in Syria.
The Army Chief of Staff, Aviv Kochavi, said late last year that Israeli missile attacks “slowed Iran’s entrenchment in Syria” and had struck more than 500 targets by 2020.
On Monday, the army said that during the surprise exercises, which will continue until Wednesday, air traffic will increase across the country and explosions could be heard in northern Israel.
She said, “The exercise simulates combat scenarios on the northern front and will test all components of the (Air Force) basic tasks, including maintaining air superiority, protecting the country’s airspace, attacking and gathering intelligence.”
Western intelligence sources say that Iranian military influence has expanded in Syria in recent years, prompting Israel to step up its campaign to prevent its opponent from gaining a significant military foothold along its border.
The Iranian proxy militias, led by the Lebanese Hezbollah, control vast areas in eastern, southern, and northwestern Syria, as well as several suburbs around Damascus. It also controls the Lebanese-Syrian border areas.
Israel, which has launched some of its largest attacks to date in Syria in the past two months, has focused on Albukamal, the Syrian city that controls the border checkpoint on the Baghdad-Damascus highway.
The expanded military campaign was part of what was termed a “campaign within wars,” which Israeli generals and regional intelligence sources said had tacit support from the United States.
Regional intelligence sources said that operations aimed at preventing Tehran from changing the balance of power in Syria in its favor had gradually undermined Iran’s formidable military power without leading to a significant increase in hostilities.
(Covering by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, additional cover by Kinda Makiya, edited by Peter Cooney, Jacqueline Wong, and Jerry Doyle)