Israeli jets were reported to have carried out airstrikes near the Syrian capital early Wednesday, hours after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue hitting weapons convoys and rebuffed claims Russia had ordered the strikes halted.
Syrian opposition news outlets reported that the airstrikes took place in the Mount Qasioun region near Damascus overnight.
The Israeli raids targeted Syrian army posts in the area, the reports said, in the fourth round of airstrikes attributed to Israel in Syria in less than a week.
There was no immediate confirmation from Jerusalem, nor any information on casualties or damage.
Syrian forces have been battling a fresh rebel offensive in the eastern neighborhoods of the capital since Sunday.
Clashes Tuesday raged between regime forces on one side and opposition fighters and allied jihadists from the Fateh al-Sham Front, formerly al-Qaeda’s branch in the war-ravaged country.
An AFP journalist in east Damascus reported a large explosion at sunrise Tuesday followed by fierce clashes, shelling and government airstrikes on opposition positions.
Tensions escalated between Israel and Syria over the weekend, with Israel said to have struck Syria overnight Sunday-Monday in the third alleged batch of airstrikes. Syria media reported early Monday that Israeli jets took out a number of targets near the Lebanon-Syria border including a Hezbollah weapons convoy and Syrian military sites.
Earlier Sunday, an Israeli drone strike reportedly killed a member of a Syrian pro-regime militia, an attack that came two days after Israeli jets, in an early Friday morning operation, hit an arms transfer meant for Hezbollah near Palmyra, with Syrian air defenses firing missiles at the planes.
One missile was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow missile defense battery, military officials said, in the first reported use of the advanced system. It was the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.
On Sunday evening, Syria’s ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari said Syria’s response to Friday’s strike was a “game-changer.”
Speaking on Syrian state TV, Jaafari said the military’s response was “appropriate and in line with Israel’s terrorist operation,” and that Israel “will now think a million times [before striking again],” according to a translation cited by the Ynet news site.
“Syria’s forceful response to the Israeli attacks changed the rules of the game,” he said.
His comments came hours after Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems for targeting the Israeli aircraft during the bombing run Friday.
“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said on Israel Radio.
On Tuesday, Netanyahu denied reports that Moscow had told Israel to end airstrikes in the war-torn country and vowed to continue attacking weapons convoys.
“It’s simply incorrect to say the Russians are changing their policy toward us,” he said.
Netanyahu said that he told Russian President Vladimir Putin during a March 9 meeting that Israel will continue to thwart attempts by Iran and its terrorist proxies, such as Hezbollah, to smuggle advanced weapons to Lebanon via Syria.
“My policy is consistent, and this is also what I told Putin,” the prime minister said during a visit to China. “We will not allow Israel to be attacked from Syrian territory and we will not tolerate the transfer of advanced weaponry of those entering Syria — Hezbollah — to the extent that we detect it.”
Netanyahu said Israel was targeting Iranian attempts to move advanced arms within Syria, and that he had told Putin as much during their Moscow sit-down.
“It’s our policy to strike at the convoys of sophisticated weaponry, and the Iranians continue with them. We will continue to attack whenever the Iranians smuggle advanced arms. Therefore we need this personal connection [with Putin], which is important for Israel’s national security,” Netanyahu said.
“If there’s intelligence and operational feasibility, we strike, and so it will continue,” he told reporters in his Beijing hotel as he wrapped up the official part of his three-day visit to Chinese capital.
Israel does not inform the Russian forces stationed in Syria ahead of attack there, out of fear for the Israeli pilots, according to an Israeli source.
Israel has been largely unaffected by the Syrian civil war raging next door, suffering mostly sporadic incidents of spillover fire that Israel has generally dismissed as tactical errors by Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces. Israel has responded to the errant fire with limited reprisals on Syrian positions.
The skies over Syria are now crowded, with Russian and Syrian aircraft backing Assad’s forces and a US-led coalition striking Islamic State and al-Qaeda targets.
Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.