JERUSALEM: Israeli aircraft struck a machine gun-mounted vehicle inside Syria on Sunday, killing four Daesh-affiliated militants inside after they had opened fire on a military patrol on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights, the Israeli military said.
Israel has been largely unaffected by the Syrian civil war raging next door, suffering only sporadic incidents of spillover fire over the frontier that Israel has generally dismissed as tactical errors of the Assad regime. Israel has responded to these cases lightly, with limited reprisals on Syrian positions in response to the errant fire.
But Sunday’s event, in the southern part of the Golan Heights, appears to be a rare case of an intentional shooting ambush by Daesh targeting Israeli troops.
Lt. Col. Peter Lerner said the Israeli patrol came under machine gun and mortar fire early Sunday. They returned fire toward Syria before an Israeli aircraft engaged, striking the vehicle in question and killing its passengers. He said all were suspected militants from a Daesh offshoot that controls the area. No Israeli troops were harmed.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu commended the troops for thwarting the attack.
“We are well prepared on our northern border and will not allow Daesh elements or any other hostile elements to use the war in Syria to establish themselves close to our borders,” he said at a weekly Cabinet meeting.
Though Israel has generally stayed on the sidelines of the fighting, fearing being sucked into a clash between forces that are all hostile to it, it is widely believed to have carried out airstrikes on arms shipments said to be destined for the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, a close ally of the Syrian government.
Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast War and the two countries remain enemies.
Amos Yadlin, a former military intelligence chief and current director of the Institute for National Security Studies, an independent think-tank, said it was too early to determine whether the attack marked a shift in Daesh policy or just a local initiative by some of its fighters.
He said Daesh has been very careful to avoid attacking Israel to this point since it has been engaged with so many other adversaries. But with its back against the wall in Syria and Iraq, he said they may be looking for a propaganda victory by targeting Israel. He said they were capable of far worse than a routine ambush.
“We will have to watch closely in the future to see if this is a change of policy,” Yadlin said. “I don’t think this is a planned strategy.”
In Syria, hundreds of residents of rebel-held eastern Aleppo fled shifting frontlines after a rapid advance by the Assad army and allied militias that rebels fear could split their most important urban stronghold in two.
The rapid advances in the last two days, after weeks of intense Russian and Syrian airstrikes, have raised fears among the rebels that the northern part of east Aleppo could be cut off from the southern part. That would weaken their control over the east and bring more residents closer to frontlines.
A war monitoring group said over 400 people have fled opposition-held districts to areas under regime control. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the evacuees sought refuge in the Masaken Hanano neighborhood in eastern Aleppo, which was taken by pro-regime forces on Saturday.
An estimated quarter-million people are trapped in wretched conditions in rebel-held eastern Aleppo since the regime sealed its siege of the enclave in late August. Food supplies are running perilously low, the UN warned Thursday, and hospitals have come under relentless attack by the government.
The Observatory said another 30 families fled the city’s rebel-held eastern areas to the Sheikh Maqsoud neighborhood, under Kurdish control.