BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel attacked Syrian army posts on Thursday near the Golan frontier after a drone incursion, but signalled it would not impede President Bashar al-Assad’s battle to recover south Syria from rebels.
With the help of heavy Russian air power, Syrian government forces have swept through the southwest. Their offensive against insurgents is expected to turn soon to Quneitra, which adjoins the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, briefing Israeli reporters on a visit to Moscow, indicated that Israel would not act against Assad, while it is working to ensure the exit of the Iranian forces that fight alongside his army.
“We never had a problem with the Assad regime. For forty years (after the 1973 Middle East war), not one bullet was fired on the Golan Heights,” a reporter for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper quoted Netanyahu as saying.
“The heart of the matter is retaining our freedom of action against anyone who acts against us, and the removal of the Iranians from Syrian territory,” Netanyahu said, a day after meeting Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Putin also held talks on Syria with Ali Akbar Velayati, a top adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader, in Moscow on Thursday, the Kremlin said.
Israel has been on high alert as Syrian government forces advance on rebels near the Golan, much of which Israel took from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. Israel worries Assad could let his Iranian allies entrench there or that Syrian forces may defy a 1974 Golan demilitarisation.
In three weeks, Syrian government forces in the south have seized much of Deraa province - the birthplace of the 2011 uprising - and marched towards the border.
The pro-Damascus newspaper al-Watan said on Thursday the army sent reinforcements to Quneitra to launch a “broad military operation” and bring all the province under state rule.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitor, said rebel factions clashed with government forces overnight in Quneitra. State news agency SANA said insurgent shelling injured five people in Baath City.
The United Nations says fighting has uprooted more than 320,000 people, most heading towards the frontiers in the biggest exodus of the war. Both Israel and Jordan, which beefed up their borders, said they would not let refugees in and distributed aid inside Syria.
Ahmad al-Hariri, one of thousands sheltering near the Golan frontier, said he did not know where to go after the army took his village of Hrak in Deraa.
“I’m lost...Even if they want to expel or slaughter us, I don’t want to hand myself over to the Syrian regime. You can’t trust it,” he told Reuters. “Under the warplanes...I carried my kids and did not expect to arrive here.”
The Damascus government says it targets only militants.
Abu Hussam al-Aboud, who fled another part Deraa, said he did not want to stay away and did not know his village’s fate.
“Everyone tells you something different, we don’t know what’s happening,” he said. “We came here out of fear, because of the shelling. Our houses are gone, they’re on the ground.”
Russia and Iran have worked together militarily to support Assad since 2015. He now controls most of the country after crushing rebels with his allies’ help, although the northern border with Turkey and much of the east remain out of his grasp.
Syrian state media said Israel targeted military positions around Hader village in the southern province of Quneitra near the Golan frontier.
“The aircraft of the Israeli enemy fired several missiles,” it cited a military source as saying. Air defences thwarted the attack which caused only material damage, it said.
The Israeli military said it had hit three targets in retaliation for the incursion of a Syrian drone which it shot down over its air space hours earlier.
“The IDF (Israeli Defence Forces) holds the Syrian regime accountable for the actions carried out in its territory and warns it from further action,” it said in a statement.
Israel issued black-and-white surveillance footage that showed missiles hitting what appeared to be a hut, a two-storey structure and a five-storey structure in hilly terrain.
Iranian clout in Syria’s seven-year war has alarmed Israel, which has struck targets it describes as Iranian deployments or convoys of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.
Earlier this week, Syrian state media said air defences struck an Israeli warplane and shot down missiles targeting the T4 air base in Homs province. Israel neither confirmed nor denied carrying out that strike.
Reporting by Ellen Francis, Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Chris Reese, James Dalgleish, David Stamp and Peter Graff