Beirut: Missile strikes on central Syria killed 26 pro-regime fighters, most of them Iranians, a monitor said Monday, in a raid that bore the hallmarks of Tehran’s archfoe Israel.
The Syrian regime, which denounced a “fresh aggression” after the strikes, meanwhile continued to flush out armed groups from the capital with more deals to transfer fighters to the country’s north.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, missile strikes hit two military targets in Aleppo and Hama provinces late Sunday.
The strike on Hama province hit a base known as the 47th Brigade where pro-regime fighters are stationed. Both hits destroyed surface-to-surface missiles, the monitor said.
“At least 26 fighters were killed, including four Syrians,” in the Hama strike, said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Britain-based monitoring group.
“The others are foreign fighters, a vast majority of them Iranians,” he told AFP. “Given the nature of the target, it is likely to have been an Israeli strike.”
Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told army radio on Monday morning that he was “not aware” of the latest strikes.
But, he said, “all the violence and instability in Syria is the result of Iran’s attempts to establish a military presence there. Israel will not allow the opening of a northern front in Syria.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday said he has “proof” that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons programme that it “has been hiding for years from the international community in its secret atomic archive”.
His main US ally, which led an unprecedented wave of missile strikes on Syria’s chemical weapons infrastructure on April, is considering pulling out of the landmark deal.
– Israel-Iran tension –
Syria President Bashar al-Assad, whose main allies are Russia and Iran, did not explicitly mention the overnight strikes but said “hostile countries have shifted to a stage of direct aggression”.
Quoted by the official SANA news agency after meeting an official Iranian delegation, Assad said “escalating aggression on Syria will enhance Syrians’ resolve to eliminate terrorism”.
Syria remains technically at war with neighbouring Israel, which is concerned at the growing presence of Iranian forces and those of Tehran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah on Syrian territory.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman vowed in an interview Thursday to strike at any attempt by Iran to establish a “military foothold” in Syria.
Iran has forces deployed in Syria to support Assad’s regime, as well as supervising the involvement of several Shiite militia groups it sponsors, some of them from other countries such as Iraq or Afghanistan.
There was no immediate comment from Tehran on the Sunday strikes, but the reformist-linked ILNA news agency quoted a security official who did not deny the strike and said any reports on the military situation in Syria should come from Damascus.
“The Syrians must announce the statistics as they are responsible. We are present in this country at the request of the government of Syria,” said Hossein Naghavi Hosseini, spokesman for parliamentary national security and foreign policy commission.
– Damascus transfers –
The Syrian government has focused its efforts in 2018 on securing the capital Damascus, the heart of which was spared the worst of the seven-year-old conflict but was long surrounded by rebel-held pockets.
Backed by massive Russian military support, the regime took full control of the Eastern Ghouta enclave earlier this month.
The sprawling semi-rural area east of Damascus had been home to thousands of armed Islamist and jihadist fighters, who were besieged for years but sporadically fired rockets and mortar rounds on the capital.
Pro-regime forces are now battling jihadists from the Islamic State group and other armed factions in southern neighbourhoods of Damascus.
After days of air strikes and heavy fighting, state media reported late Sunday that those areas would be evacuated under deals similar to those that emptied other enclaves around Damascus in recent weeks.
The first evacuations from Yarmuk, a neighbourhood once home to a Palestinian refugee camp and the main hub of IS forces in southern Damascus, began on Monday night, SANA news agency said.
Five buses carrying 200 rebels and their families left Yarmuk, it said,
But as they set off, IS jihadists fired mortar rounds at the outskirts of Yarmuk, wounding 14 people, SANA added.
The transfer deal does not include IS fighters, but other jihadists from a former Al-Qaeda affiliate who control pockets inside Yarmuk, Abdel Rahman said.