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Killing of Syria agent could mark new phase in Israeli campaign against Iran

Military experts say alleged Israeli assassination of former Syrian Druze lawmaker could send a message against Iranian entrenchment in neighboring Syria

In this February 14, 2021, photo, Druze supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad wave Syrian flags during a rally close to the Syrian border demanding the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, in Majdal Shams, Golan Heights. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)
In this February 14, 2021, photo, Druze supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad wave Syrian flags during a rally close to the Syrian border demanding the return of the Golan Heights, captured by Israel in 1967, in Majdal Shams, Golan Heights. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

AP — The death of a former Syrian Druze lawmaker, allegedly by Israeli sniper fire, could mark a new phase in Israel’s war against Iranian entrenchment in neighboring Syria.

Syria’s state-run news agency said that Midhat as-Saleh was fatally shot Saturday in Ain Eltinah, a village along the Israeli frontier in the Golan Heights where he ran a Syrian government office. Israeli media said Saleh had been assisting the Iranian military against Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces declined to comment, but if the Syrian claim is true, it would mark the first time that Israeli snipers are known to have killed an Iran-linked target across the border. Israel has said it will not tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria and has acknowledged carrying out scores of airstrikes on alleged Iranian arms shipments and military targets in Syria in recent years.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed the strategic territory. Much of the world does not recognize the annexation, though the previous US administration of Donald Trump declared the territory to be part of Israel.

Saleh was born in Majdal Shams, on the Israeli side of the Golan, and was jailed several times by Israel, most recently for 12 years until 1997.

He later moved to Syria, was elected to parliament in 1998, and served as an adviser to the government on the Golan issue.

Midhat as-Saleh (Screenshot/Channel 13 news)

The small Druze community living in the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan generally has good relations with Israel. But many members still profess loyalty to Syria, in part because they have relatives on the other side of the border.

Samih Ayoub, a resident on the Israeli side of the Golan, said that Saleh had “no connection” to Iran or to any militia. “He’s just a quiet man who works in an office. They killed him next to his house,” he said.

While there was no official comment, Israeli military commentators — who are given high-level anonymous briefings with top army brass — said Saleh was intimately involved in assisting the Iranians build up their capabilities along the Israeli front. Iran has sent thousands of forces to Syria to back the army of President Bashar Assad during the country’s decade-long civil war.

“He answered directly to the Iranians,” said Yossi Yehoshua, a military correspondent for Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth.

Giora Eiland, a former Israeli national security adviser, told Army Radio that if Israel killed Saleh, it was meant to send a message to the Iranians. “I assume this was not an act of revenge,” he said. “We’re not talking about a mass murderer.”

Midhat as-Saleh with Syrian President Bashar Assad (Kan Public Broadcaster screenshot)

Yoel Guzansky, a senior fellow and expert on Iran at the Institute for National Security Studies, a Tel Aviv think tank, said it was not a sure thing that Israel had even been involved. He said that Saleh was not an especially valuable target and also had tense relations with Iranian proxy Hezbollah and objected to the group’s activities in the Golan.

But he said that if Israel did indeed kill Saleh through an unprecedented sniper attack, it sent a powerful message to Iran and Syria about their activities near the Israeli border.

“It says that we have many ways and many techniques,” he said. “We’re watching you.”

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