x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Israel warns Assad over Golan Heights exchange of fire

Exchange adds to fears Syria's civil war could create further regional instability. Hugh Naylor reports from Jerusalem

Lebanon's Hizbollah troops carry the coffin of their comrade Hussein Ahmed Abul Hassan during his funeral in southern Beirut. Elite Hizbollah fighters are pouring into Syria to lead a withering assault by President Bashar Al Assad.
Lebanon's Hizbollah troops carry the coffin of their comrade Hussein Ahmed Abul Hassan during his funeral in southern Beirut. Elite Hizbollah fighters are pouring into Syria to lead a withering assault by President Bashar Al Assad.

JERUSALEM //Israel's military chief yesterday issued a stern warning to Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad after an Israeli military vehicle came under fire from Syrian forces.

Lt General Benny Gantz's comments followed reports that Syrian and Israeli forces exchanged fire in the Golan Heights early yesterday and added to fears that Syria's civil war could create further regional instability.

Israel would not allow the Golan Heights "to become a comfortable sphere for Assad to operate from", Lt Gen Gantz said at a news conference.

He said that if the situation deteriorated further, Mr Al Assad "will have to bear the consequences".

Syrian army fire damaged an Israeli military vehicle but there were no injuries, Israel's military said. It said soldiers returned fire after troops reported a "direct hit" from the Syrian side.

In a statement carried by Syria's state-run news agency, Sana, Syria's armed forces said it destroyed an Israeli-military vehicle and "those in it" after it crossed the ceasefire line separating areas held by Syria and Israel.

Israeli forces responded by firing two missiles near the Syrian-held city of Zobaydiya, causing no casualties, the statement said.

Syria's military also warned Israel that further incursions would be met with "immediate and firm retaliation".

The cross-border fighting is the latest signal of Syria's civil strife following years of relative calm in the Golan Heights. Israel captured the area from Syria in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and then annexed it.

The fighting was the latest in a string of incidents in which gunfire and mortar shells have struck the Golan Heights in recent months.

Israel believes that most of the incidents have been spillover from the Syrian civil war, but that several cases were intentional, including yesterday's incident.

The Syrian army acknowledged yesterday that it had fired at Israeli troops across the frontier in what appeared to be an attempt by Mr Al Assad's regime to project toughness following three Israeli air strikes near Damascus this year.

The attacks reportedly targeted Iranian-made weapons being delivered to Lebanon's Hizbollah movement, whose fighters are known to have joined regime forces.

After an Israeli air raid this month on a military facility located near Damascus, Syria's government warned that Israel had opened "the door to all possibilities".

Mr Assad's forces have been strained by the brutal counter-insurgency campaign against rebel forces. More than 70,000 people have been killed in the two-year civil war, according to the United Nations.

Recent Russian deliveries of advanced anti-ship and air-defence weaponry appear to have given government forces a boost. Officials in the United States and Israel have criticised the supply of those weapons to government forces, fearing they could be transferred to Hizbollah fighters.

Concern has also grown over the Syrian regime's security of its chemical and biological weapons stores.

On Sunday, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, suggested Israel would not hesitate to strike at weapon shipments in Syria that could fall into the hands of its opponents.

Mr Netanyahu said Israel was "preparing for every scenario" in Syria and that Israel would act to ensure the interest of its citizens.

 

hnaylor@thenational.ae

* Additional reporting by Reuters and Associated press