Former Qaeda leader in Syria ‘welcomes’ Israeli airstrikes

Saleh Al-Hamwi tweets rare public support for Jerusalem, but contends Iran succeeded in creating deterrence over Syrian skies

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Saleh Al-Hamwi, one of the founders of Al Qaeda's Nusra Front (now called Jaish al-Fatih). He was expelled from the group mid-2015. (Youtube)
Saleh Al-Hamwi, one of the founders of Al Qaeda's Nusra Front (now called Jaish al-Fatih). He was expelled from the group mid-2015. (Youtube)

In a rare public expression of support for Israel by a radical Islamist figure in Syria, a former leader in al-Qaeda’s Syrian militia on Saturday welcomed Israeli airstrikes against Syrian and Iranian targets in the country after an Iranian drone infiltrated Israeli airspace, and called on the Jewish state to quickly “uproot” Iran from its northern neighbor.

“We welcome any Israeli aerial or naval bombardment against the [Syrian] regime and Iran in Syria. We urge them to do more. And we say to Israel: Your silence over Iran’s intervention in Syria will turn against you. It’s inevitable. Act with haste to uproot them,” Saleh Al-Hamwi wrote on Twitter.

Hamwi was a founder of the Nusra Front in 2012. In July 2015, the jihadist group said it dismissed him for not falling in line with the group’s internal politics.

He is now reportedly affiliated with the hardline Islamist group Ahrar il-Sham.

Israeli soldiers survey the border with Syria from a military post in the Golan Heights, following a series of aerial clashes with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria, on February 10, 2018. (Flash90)

On Saturday, tensions flared on the Israeli-Syrian border, after the IDF intercepted an Iranian drone that entered Israeli airspace from Jordan and an Israeli F-16 was apparently hit while flying over Syria during a retaliatory raid. The Israeli plane managed to return to Israel, where its two pilots ejected. One of the airmen was severely injured, while the second was lightly wounded.

In response, the Israeli Air Force quickly conducted a series of reprisal strikes in Syria.

Hamwi contended that Iran had intentionally sent the drone into Israeli airspace in order to draw Israeli planes into the range of anti-aircraft weaponry stationed at the base where the UAV had taken off from.

“[Iran] sent a drone and penetrated Israeli airspace with the prior knowledge that Israel would respond and bomb the launch site of the UAV,” he tweeted.

A picture taken in the northern Israeli Jezreel Valley on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses during attacks against ‘Iranian targets’ in the war-torn country. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

“A decision was made in advance to bring down any Israeli fighter plane that would bomb the airport” using the Russian-made S-200 air defense system, Hamwi added.

The outspoken Syrian militant concluded that neither Iran nor Israel are interested in war right now. He argued, however, that Iran had succeeded in its goal of deterring Israeli airstrikes, which have reportedly become commonplace in Syria in recent years.

“It certainly opens a new stage,” he wrote.

The Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which has been fighting for the Assad regime, hailed Syria’s air defenses, saying Saturday’s incident marked the start of a new era.

“This is the beginning of a new strategic era that puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory,” the terror group said in a statement published by Lebanon’s ANI news agency.

The remains of an Iranian drone that was shot down by the Israeli Air Force after it penetrated Israeli airspace on February 10, 2018. (Israel Defense Forces)

During Israel’s widespread retaliatory offensive on Saturday in Syria, the IDF said, it hit four Iranian positions and eight Syrian sites, causing significant damage.

Israel also said it destroyed the Syrian military’s main command and control bunker in its most devastating assault in the country in decades.

Saturday’s exchange marked Israel’s most serious engagement in neighboring Syria since fighting there began in 2011. The events also seemingly marked the first direct combat between Israel and Iran.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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