An Israeli air strike has killed seven militants believed to be linked to the Islamic State group and seeking to infiltrate the country from the Syrian Golan Heights, the army said Thursday.
The rare incident came as Israel readied itself for Syria regaining complete control of the country’s south near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A Syrian offensive, backed by Russia, has seen Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces rout rebels and jihadists in the region, sending them fleeing.
On Thursday, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Assad’s gains present advantages for Israel since it would provide a level of stability in the Golan even though the two countries remain technically at war.
Israel’s army said there had been no coordination with Assad’s government before the strike.
The strike was carried out late Wednesday after the militants crossed a ceasefire line and came within a few hundred metres (yards) of the fence in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israeli army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said.
Later searches turned up the seven bodies, five AK-47 assault rifles, explosive vests and what appeared to be grenades, he added.
‘Moving in combat formation’
Israeli forces monitored the militants’ movements before carrying out the strike, Conricus said.
“Had they been able to continue, they would have come to the Israeli security fence,” he said.
Conricus said Israeli forces believed they were on a “terrorist mission” and “trying to infiltrate into Israel”.
“It did not seem as if they were fleeing, seeking refuge,” Conricus said. “It seems as if they were moving in a combat formation, with combat equipment.”
He declined to say specifically where they were located, but said it was in the southern Golan, near the Jordanian border.
Initial findings show they were linked to IS but it remains unconfirmed, said Conricus.
Jordan’s army also said Thursday it had killed a number of jihadists who tried to approach its northern border with Syria.
Conricus said he was not aware of any coordination with the Jordanians.
Israel seized much of the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.
Conricus said there also had been no coordination with Syria or Russia before the strike, adding that Israel was within the bounds of a 1974 ceasefire agreement for the area in carrying it out.
Israel has sought to remain out of direct involvement in Syria’s civil war, but it admits carrying out dozens of air strikes there to stop what it says are deliveries of advanced weaponry to its Lebanese enemy Hezbollah.
It has also pledged to prevent its arch foe Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria and a series of recent strikes that have killed Iranians in Syria have been attributed to Israel.
Confrontations with IS-linked fighters have been more rare.
The only other similar incident since the start of Syria’s seven-year civil war occurred in November 2016, when Israeli soldiers were targeted with machine gun fire and mortars and shot back.
The air force then bombed the vehicle carrying the gunmen, identified as members of the Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade, a Syrian rebel group that pledged allegiance to IS.
Four of the militants were killed, with no Israeli soldiers injured.
Assad told his troops on Wednesday they were close to victory after inflicting a succession of defeats on rebels.
A series of blistering offensives backed by Moscow and Tehran has forced the rebels out of many of their strongholds, putting Assad’s government back in control of nearly two-thirds of the country.
Russia will now deploy “eight military police observation posts” in the region, Russian army general Sergei Rudskoy said on Thursday.
He added that “conditions have been created for the resumption of the activities of UN peacekeeping forces in the Golan Heights”.
Israel has been pressing Russia to keep Iranian forces or its proxies far away from the Golan.
Lieberman saw benefits in Assad consolidating his gains.
“In Syria, as far as we are concerned, the situation is returning to the previous one before the civil war, meaning there is a clear address, there is responsibility and there is a central government,” Lieberman said.
Eight Iranians were among 15 foreign pro-regime fighters killed in a suspected Israeli strike in Syria on a weapons depot of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, a war monitor said Wednesday.
The raid struck the area of Kisweh south of Damascus late Tuesday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
Syria‘s official news agency SANA said the army had intercepted two Israeli missiles fired towards Kisweh, with state television broadcasting images of fires in the nearby area.
“The death toll of the missile strike has risen to 15 pro-regime fighters — eight from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and others not of Syrian nationality,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said.
The monitor previously reported nine pro-regime combatants had died in the raid, without specifying their nationality.
SANA quoted a medical source saying that two civilians had died on a highway linking Damascus with the southern city of Deraa as a result of an explosion linked to “the Israeli aggression”.
Late Tuesday, the Israeli-occupied section of the Golan Heights was placed on high alert due to “irregular activity by Iranian forces” across the demarcation line in Syria.
It is not the first time that Kisweh has been targeted. In December, Israel reportedly bombed military positions in the area south of Damascus, including a weapons depot.
Since the start of Syria‘s civil war in 2011, Israel has repeatedly targeted positions of the Syrian army and the Lebanese Hezbollah movement backing it inside the country.
On April 29, missile strikes — “probably Israeli” — fired on regime military positions killed at least 26 mostly Iranian fighters, according to the Observatory.
On April 9, missiles targeted the T-4 air base in the central province of Homs, killing up to 14 fighters, including seven Iranians, two days after an alleged chemical attack carried out by the Syrian regime.
Damascus accused Israel of carrying out the strike.
Israel and Syria are still officially in a state of war, though the armistice line on the sector of the Golan Heights which the Jewish state seized from its Arab neighbour in 1967 was largely quiet for decades until the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011.
In an interview late last month, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman vowed to strike at any attempt by Iran to establish a “military foothold” in Syria.