Sirens wailed shortly before noon in the Golan Heights on Wednesday, as heavy fighting took place just over the border in Syria between President Bashar Assad’s forces and rebels.
The sirens sounded in the Alonei Habashan and Ein Zivan regions of the Golan, prompting local residents to flee for cover. IDF units scanned the area for signs of stray fire damage, but the shells landed in Syrian territory.
Tanks on the Syrian side could be seen firing and there was the sound of helicopters overhead.
Sirens last sounded in the area in April, when two shells fired from Syria struck the Golan Heights. They failed to cause injury or damage and the IDF did not return fire.
Syrian rebels surround the border town of Hader, but have not penetrated the village, Mendi Safadi, an Israeli Druse who has served as Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara’s chief of staff told The Jerusalem Post
. He has met with Syrian opposition activists.
“Hader is now totally surrounded by rebels, who just took a strategic hilltop north of the village,” Rami Abdel Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, told AFP.
Fighting around Hader, he said, has led to the deaths of at least 10 rebels and 14 pro-regime fighters.
In Israel, the Druse have mounted ongoing protests about the situation, with some waving Syrian flags to show their support for Assad’s regime.
Last week, Nusra Front killed 20 Druse in the village of Qalb Loze in Idlib province in northwestern Syria.
Eyad Bos, a Druse who comes from the Golan village of Bukata, told the Post
from the Golan border with Syria that many Druse are there watching Hader, where there was sporadic fighting outside the village on Wednesday, particularly in the surrounding hills.
The IDF is present on the border and is observing and being vigilant, Bos said.
“All the Druse in all the world are worried in solidarity” regardless of where they are from, he added, explaining that in the Druse religion there is a strong belief about the connection of Druse souls and a need to take care of fellow Druse no matter where they are. Asked about Israel’s possible action to protect the Druse, Bos replied that the state needs to take care of the Druse near its border just as it did for those in Nepal following April’s earthquake.
Separately, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday he had discussed Syria’s use of chemical weapons with Russia.
Speaking to reporters via video conference from Boston, Kerry said he is confident Assad’s government is responsible for a “preponderance” of chemical attacks against his own people and that “everyone’s patience is wearing thin.”
Meanwhile, rebels in southern Syria announced a major offensive on Wednesday to capture remaining positions held by the Syrian military in Quneitra province, near the Golan Heights, where bombardments could be seen a short distance away.
Quneitra sits in a sensitive region around 70 km. southwest of the capital Damascus and has been the scene of frequent fighting between insurgent groups opposed to Assad and the army backed by allied militia.
A Syrian army source told Reuters the army had beaten back an insurgent assault to take over several hilltops and the government-controlled villages of Tel Shaar and Tel Bazaq, north of the deserted provincial capital of Quneitra.
“Army units have foiled efforts by the terrorist groups against these villages in the Quneitra countryside,” the army source said, adding that at least 200 insurgents were killed or wounded in the army operations.
State television footage showed several tanks and dozens of ground troops moving reinforcements through army-held villages in the lush agricultural border province, where rebels have made gains in the last two years.
Rebel spokesman Issam al-Rayes wrote on Twitter that an alliance of insurgent groups that did not include Nusra Front, were taking part in the offensive under the banner of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Nusra has fought in southern Syria, but is not thought to be the main insurgent force there, unlike in other parts of the country.
Rayes later told Reuters the attempt to seize remaining army strongholds in the province, following several failed efforts, including the targeting of the army’s main Liwa 90 base.
“This is an attempt to end the presence of the regime in the province,” he said.
The insurgents were eyeing the city of Baath, the province’s main administrative center and the town of Khan Arnba, the two main urban centers still in the hands of the government.
Dislodging the army from Quneitra would open a supply route to rebels south of Damascus in the opposition- controlled western Ghouta, from where they could target Assad’s seat of power.
“We are aiming to destroy the first line of defense of the army around Damascus in this area,” Rayes said.
Insurgents fighting in Sweida province further east had failed during recent fighting to capture a main road to Damascus and it was not clear whether they could secure a route to the capital in this latest offensive, he said.
Another insurgent alliance including Nusra Front has taken hold of the northwestern Idlib province, edging closer to Assad’s coastal stronghold, while Islamic State fighters overran the central city of Palmyra last month.
The United States and its coalition partners staged 11 air strikes in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday targeting Islamic State militants, the Combined Joint Task Force leading the operation said.
In Syria, four strikes hit three units of militant fighters near the cities of al Hasaka, Aleppo, and Kobani, the task force said in a statement released on Wednesday.
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