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Israel-Syria conflict reaches a flashpoint

People and a civil defence personnel carry children at a damaged site after an air strike on rebel-held Idlib city, Syria on Sunday. (REUTERS)
JERUSALEM/DAMASCUS: Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman on Sunday threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems after they fired ground-to-air missiles at Israeli warplanes carrying out strikes.
Meanwhile, fierce clashes have broken out on the eastern side of the Syrian capital following an ambush by opposition-aligned forces, according to residents in Damascus.
Speaking on on Israeli public radio, Lieberman said: “The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,”
Israeli warplanes hit several targets in Syria on Friday, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying the strikes targeted weapons bound for Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
Syria’s military said it had downed one of the Israeli planes and hit another as they were carrying out the pre-dawn strikes near the famed desert city of Palmyra that it recaptured from militants this month.
The Israeli military denied that any planes had been hit.
An Israeli army statement said “several anti-aircraft missiles” were fired following the raid but that none hit their targets.
One missile was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow air defense system, Israeli media reported.
It was the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.
In April 2016, Netanyahu admitted for the first time that Israel had attacked dozens of convoys transporting weapons in Syria destined for Hezbollah, which fought a 2006 war with Israel and is now battling alongside the Damascus regime.
“Each time we discover arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon we will act to stop them. On this there will be no compromise,” Lieberman said Sunday.
“The Syrians must understand that they are held responsible for these arms transfers to Hezbollah and that if they continue to allow them then we will do what we have to do.”
Israel does not usually confirm or deny individual raids, but it may have been led to do so this time by the circumstances of the incident.
President Bashar Assad’s position has been strengthened in recent months with his forces reclaiming the whole of Syria’s second city Aleppo, as well as enjoying continued Russian support.
Lieberman said he did not wish “to interfere in the Syrian civil war or provoke a confrontation with the Russians” but that Israel’s security would remain his top priority.
Israel seized most of the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War and annexed it in 1981, in a move never recognized by the international community.
Israel and Syria are still technically at war, though the border had remained largely quiet for decades until 2011 when the Syrian conflict began.
Meanwhile, opposition fighters are reported to have detonated two large car bombs at 5:20 a.m. on Sunday morning close to the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus. Residents say artillery shells and rockets are landing inside the heart of the city.
Government warplanes responded with a number of raids around the areas of the clashes.

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