Syrian military reinforcing its air defenses near Israeli Golan — report

Pro-Assad commander reveals plan to Reuters days after Israel launches surprise drill in north, as regime forces fight to clear out remaining rebel pockets in southern Syria

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A Pantsir-S1 weapons system, illustrative (YouTube screenshot)
A Pantsir-S1 weapons system, illustrative (YouTube screenshot)

The Syrian military recently deployed additional air defenses near the border with Israel amid heightened tensions over Iran’s presence in Syria, a commander in the pro-regime coalition told the Reuters news agency Tuesday.

Syrian dictator Bashar Assad’s forces also planned to set up more anti-aircraft weapons in the area in coming days, said the officer, who was identified as a non-Syrian who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The deployment was announced days after the Israel Defense Forces launched a surprise exercise on the Israeli Golan Heights.

The military said the exercise was not tied to current events but was “planned in advance as part of the 2018 training schedule.”

According to the Reuters report, the air defense reinforcement included the deployment of a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 system, also known as a SA-22, which the commander said was meant to “renew the air defense system against Israel in the first degree.”

The Israeli Air Force destroyed a SA-22 air defense system last month after Iranian forces launched 32 rockets at Israeli military positions on the Golan Heights, the army said at the time.

After weeks of threats and in retaliation for Israeli preemptive strikes, on May 10, the IRGC’s al-Quds Force launched 32 rockets at Israel’s forward defensive line on the Golan Heights border, the IDF said. Four of them were shot down; the rest fell short of Israeli territory. In response, over the next two hours Israeli jets fired dozens of missiles at Iranian targets in Syria and destroyed a number of Syrian air defense systems.

In this image made from video provided by Yehunda Pinto, the wreckage of an Israeli F-16 is seen on fire near Harduf, northern Israel, February 10, 2018. (Yehunda Pinto via AP)

Israel also destroyed a significant amount of Syrian anti-aircraft weapons in February after an Iranian drone carrying explosives briefly entered Israeli airspace before it was shot down. Israel immediately launched a counterattack on the T-4 air base in central Syria from which the drone had been piloted. One Israeli F-16 fighter jet was shot down by Syrian air defenses in the exchange.

In both cases, Israel fired on the Syrian air defense systems that attacked IAF jets. Last month, a senior air force official said the military would not attack those anti-aircraft batteries that refrain from targeting Israeli planes.

“All batteries that fire on Israeli aircraft will be destroyed. All batteries that do not fire on us will not be destroyed,” he said.

The pro-regime commander’s comments came as Assad and his allies prepared to move in on the remaining pockets of rebel resistance in southwestern Syria, as the country’s civil war begins to come to a close.

Throughout the conflict, which has killed approximately half a million people and driven nearly a million out of their homes, Israel has waged a relatively quiet campaign against Iran’s military presence in Syria.

Israel fears that as the civil war winds down, Iran, whose forces and Shiite proxies have backed Assad, will entrench militarily in Syria and turn its focus — and missiles — toward Israel.

British Prime Minister Theresa May poses for photographs with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu inside 10 Downing Street in London on June 6, 2018, at the beginning of their meeting. (AFP PHOTO / POOL / TOBY MELVILLE)

As a result, Israel has vowed not to tolerate any Iranian forces in Syria.

Diplomatically, in recent weeks, Israel has stepped up its negotiations with Russia, and to a lesser extent the United States, in order to secure an Iranian withdrawal from Syria.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also traveled to Germany, France and the UK last week to try to get support for this position.

According to reports, Moscow is prepared to force Iran to pull its forces from the area closest to the border. Israel has rebuffed the offer, calling for Iran to pull out of Syria entirely.

On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iranian-backed forces stationed on the Golan border, including from the Hezbollah terror group, had begun posing as Syrian military units, in a ploy to try to stave off pressure from Israel.

Multiple Syrian rebel commanders told the American newspaper that Lebanese Hezbollah troops and other Iranian-backed militias withdrew from the Daraa and Quneitra provinces in Syria’s southwest near Israel, but later returned dressed in Syrian military uniforms and under the regime flag.

One commander told the paper that the convoys were returning equipped with rockets and missiles.

“It’s a camouflage,” Ahmad Azam, a commander with the rebel Salvation Army, a rebel group based in Quneitra told the Wall Street Journal. “They are leaving… in their Hezbollah uniform and they are returning in regime vehicles and dressed in regular [Syrian] army uniforms.”

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