Syria warned by Israel as rebels strike in Damascus

Israel defence minister threatens to destroy Damascus's air defence systems after missiles were fired at warplanes carrying out strikes on Hizbollah arms shipments.

Smoke billows from an air strike on rebel-held parts of Jobar district in Damascus on March 19, 2017 after rebels and extremists launched a surprise assault on Syrian government forces. Mohammed Eyad / AFP
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Jerusalem // Israel on Sunday threatened to destroy Syria’s air defence systems after they fired ground-to-air missiles at Israeli warplanes carrying out strikes.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defence systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” defence minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israeli public radio.

Israel says several anti-aircraft missiles were fired at its warplanes on Friday after they carried out strikes targeting weapons bound for Lebanon’s Shiite Hizbollah movement, a key ally of the regime in Syria’ six-year civil war.

Although the Bashar Al Assad government has made major gains against the rebels and extremist groups over the past year, they managed to stage a surprise attack in the capital on Sunday.

Fierce clashes broke out in the Syrian capital after insurgents infiltrated government-held parts of the eastern side of the city through tunnels overnight, state media said.

The clashes centered around the Abasseen neighbourhood, an area sandwiched between the besieged, opposition-held Jobar and Qaboun neighbourhoods.

Steady shelling and sniper fire could be heard across Damascus as rebel factions allied with former Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fatah Al Sham launched an attack on regime positions.

Residents said artillery shells and rockets were landing inside the heart of the city, and an activist-run Facebook group, Damascus Today, reported government air raids over the area of the clashes.

Reinforcements arrived on the government side to repel the attack in the afternoon, the group said.

With its military depleted from six years of fighting and defections, the Syrian government relies on a blend of official and semi-official forces to defend its territory, including Hizbollah and other Shiite militias from Iran, Iraq and other countries.

Although Israel has said it was keeping out of the Syrian war, prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu admitted for the first time in April last year that it had attacked dozens of convoys in Syria transporting weapons destined for Hizbollah, which fought a 2006 war with Israel.

Israel does not usually confirm or deny individual raids, but it may have been led to acknowledge Friday’s raid by the circumstances of the incident.

“Each time we discover arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon we will act to stop them. On this there will be no compromise,” Mr Lieberman said Sunday.

“The Syrians must understand that they are held responsible for these arms transfers to Hizbollah and that if they continue to allow them then we will do what we have to do.”

* Agence France-Presse and Associated Press