Hezbollah and Syrian army forces have reportedly launched an assault on a besieged Syrian rebels’ stronghold some 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) from Israel’s border, even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that Israel will not accept Iranian proxies on its frontier.
Rebels groups have reported heavy bombardments and artillery fire on their positions, and the Syrian army claimed it had encircled Mughr al Meer at the foot of Mount Hermon, the elevated area that commands the Golan Heights.
The rebels holed up in those areas have been ordered by surrounding regime forces to surrender or face defeat, Reuters reported Tuesday night.
“They were given 72 hours to surrender with fighters to go to [rebel-held] Idlib or those who want to stay have to reach a settlement,” a Free Syrian Army official said.
According to Hadashot news, Assad’s forces and Hezbollah were also eyeing an advance on Beit Jinn. The Beit Jinn area is the last significant rebel-held enclave southwest of Damascus.
Fierce fighting has been reported in the area in recent days, and Hezbollah has said the rebels intend to surrender and talks have begun on the terms.
Suhaib al Ruhail, an official from the Liwa al Furqan rebel group operating in the area, told Reuters on Monday that “the Iran-backed militias are trying to consolidate their sphere of influence all the way from southwest of Damascus to the Israeli border.”
Thousands of Shiite fighters are up against several hundred rebels including those of the Free Syrian Army, a loosely affiliated group of militias, some of which have been receiving military aid and weapons from Western countries, including the US.
Rebels still hold other areas in central and southern Quneitra on the Golan Heights.
Netanyahu on Wednesday stressed that Israel would not allow Iranian proxies to establish a stronghold in Syria.
“We will act to prevent the production of accurate and lethal weapons aimed at us,” he said, speaking at a graduation ceremony for new IAF pilots.
The prime minister also addressed the status of the air force at the Wednesday ceremony, which he said is currently “at its peak.” He added that Israel has the best planes in the world, capable of hitting distant targets, apparently referring to Israel’s newly acquired F-35 stealth jets.
Israel is concerned that Iran will increase its reach into Syria via Iran-backed militias and in particular, the powerful Hezbollah. Jerusalem fears the Iranian presence in that area would serve as a springboard for terrorist groups to attack Israel in the future.
In September, a Hezbollah commander said the group has 10,000 fighters in southern Syria ready to confront Israel. Israel last fought a full-scale war with Hezbollah in 2006’s Second Lebanon War, and tensions have remained high even as the northern border has been relatively quiet.
Led by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah is believed to have an arsenal of between 100,000 and 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles and a fighting force of some 50,000 soldiers, including reservists.
It is seen by the IDF as its main threat, representing the standard by which the Israeli army measures its preparedness.
When Russia and Washington agreed last July that southwest Syria be a deescalation zone, Israel lobbied both countries for any future ceasefire agreement in the region to include a stipulation that Iran and its forces be kept back from the Israeli border, but with limited success.
In November, an Israeli official said that under a deal hammered out between the US, Russia, and Jordan, militias associated with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as little as five to seven kilometers (3.1-4.3 miles) from the border in some areas, Reuters reported at the time.
At the beginning of December, Arab media attributed an airstrike near Damascus to Israel, with some reports saying the target was a military base that Iran is building in the area, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Israeli border.
The alleged Israeli attack came three weeks after the BBC reported that Iran was building a permanent military base in Syria just south of Damascus. The British broadcaster commissioned a series of satellite pictures that showed widespread construction at the site.
Stuart Winer and AP contributed to this report.