Israel attacks Syrian bases after four soldiers wounded

McClatchy Foreign StaffMarch 19, 2014 

— Israeli aircraft struck Syrian army positions early Wednesday after an explosion wounded four Israeli soldiers on the Golan Heights frontier, the military said, in the most serious flareup of violence there since the start of Syria’s 3-year-old civil war.

A Syrian army announcement said one person was killed and seven wounded in the Israeli air attacks on three sites on the outskirts of the city of Quneitra, near Israeli lines on the Golan Heights.

Israel captured the strategic plateau from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War. After decades of calm along the frontier, the fighting in Syria occasionally has spilled over the cease-fire line, with shells and small arms fire hitting the Israeli-held Golan, sometimes drawing Israeli artillery or anti-tank rockets in response.

On Tuesday, an explosive device detonated near an Israeli patrol along the frontier near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-held Golan, wounding four soldiers, one seriously. The Israeli army said it initially responded with artillery fire at Syrian military positions.

Early Wednesday, Israeli aircraft targeted “several Syrian army positions which aided and abetted the attack,” including a training facility, military headquarters and artillery batteries, an Israeli army statement said.

Israeli analysts said that the attack on the Israeli patrol came from an area controlled by Syrian government forces and may have been the work of a pro-government militia or Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese group that has sent fighters to Syria to support the forces of President Bashar Assad.

The Israeli army said that Friday another explosive device was set off against soldiers on the Golan Heights frontier with Lebanon, drawing retaliatory fire toward a Hezbollah target.

On March 5, a bombing attempt was foiled when troops fired at “two Hezbollah-affiliated terrorists” who were identified trying to plant an explosive device along the frontier with Syria in the northern Golan Heights, the army said.

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said after Wednesday’s airstrikes that “we consider the Assad regime responsible for what happens from its territory, and if it continues to cooperate with terrorist elements seeking to strike Israel, we will continue exacting a heavy price from it.”

The Israeli statements did not name a group as responsible for Tuesday’s bombing.

“It appears to be something linked to the regime,” said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University. “There are all kinds of forces of volunteers, supporters. The rebels have no interest in this, unless there are extreme groups who want to heat up the border.”

The Syrian army said the Israeli airstrikes were an attempt to “divert attention from the successive victories” of its troops against rebel forces and were aimed at providing the rebels with “moral support.”

“Such desperate attempts at escalation,” the statement added, “would jeopardize the region’s security and stability and make it vulnerable to all options.”

Israeli officials have said they do not wish to intervene in the fighting in Syria, but previous Israeli airstrikes there have hit targets and convoys said to have contained advanced missiles suspected of being destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon. Israeli officials have warned that they would act to stop the transfer of arms, including chemical weapons, from Syria to militant groups.

Greenberg is a McClatchy special correspondent.

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