BEIRUT: Israeli air strikes killed 23 Syrian and foreign fighters in Syria on Thursday, a monitor said, the latest in a spate of raids Israel has said targeted an Iranian presence on its doorstep.

Israel has pledged to prevent its main enemy from entrenching itself militarily in Syria, where it is backing President Bashar al-Assad’s government alongside Russia and Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

The pre-dawn raids killed three Iranians and seven Tehran-backed foreign fighters near Kisweh south of the capital, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Eight Syrian air defence forces also lost their lives in both Mezzeh and Jisr Baghdad, west of the capital, the Britain-based war monitor said.

Five Syrian members of pro-Iran group were killed in the Ezra area in the southern province of Daraa.

A Syrian army source quoted by state news agency SANA said air defences responded to two waves of Israeli strikes after midnight that targeted the Damascus area and then positions in Daraa and the adjacent province of Quneitra.

“The attack wounded eight fighters,” the source said, without elaborating on where they had been stationed or their nationality.

He said the raids were carried out from the airspace above the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and southern Lebanon.

An Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on the strikes when contacted.

Israel has carried out repeated strikes in Syria since the civil war erupted in 2011, mainly targeting government forces and their Iranian and Hezbollah allies.

Israel’s political leadership has spoken publicly of the bombing campaign, although the army rarely comments on individual strikes.

Last month, Damascus accused the Israeli air force of carrying out an attack on the T4 airbase in central Syria, which the Observatory said killed at least three Iran-backed militiamen.

In December, the Observatory said Israeli air strikes killed three foreigners fighting alongside government forces south of the capital.

The previous month, the Israeli army claimed responsibility for a wave of air strikes against Syrian military sites and Iranian forces that killed 23 people including 16 foreigners.

The reported Israeli strikes come as government forces press a blistering offensive against Syria’s last major rebel bastion, in the Idlib region in the northwest.

The Syrian army source said the strikes would not deter government forces from retaking the region, which is dominated by jihadists of Syria’s former Al Qaeda affiliate.

“This escalation will not save the armed terrorist groups that are collapsing in Idlib and western Aleppo under the strikes of the Syrian Arab Army,” the source said.

Published in Dawn, February 7th, 2020