Israeli troops are pictured in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights on the border with Syria yesterday. A war monitor said yesterday that air raids in Syria the previous night, blamed on Israel, killed at least three foreign pro-regime fighters south of the war-torn country’s capital. – AFP

BEIRUT, Lebanon: A war monitor said yesterday that air raids in Syria the previous night, blamed on Israel, killed at least three foreign pro-regime fighters south of the war-torn country’s capital. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday night’s attack hit Syrian regime and Iranian positions south of Damascus. It said three non-Syrian loyalist fighters were killed by a rocket blast between the suburb of Aqraba and the nearby Sayyida Zeinab neighborhood, home to a shrine revered by Shiite Muslims.

It did not specify their nationality but said they were likely Iranian. Syrian state news agency SANA reported the attack just before midnight on Sunday. It said Syrian air defenses fired on “hostile missiles” coming from “the Occupied Territories”, referring to Israel. It said one missile came down in Aqraba, southeast of Damascus.

Israel has not publicly claimed responsibility for the raids. An Israeli army spokeswoman contacted by AFP said Israel does not comment on reports in foreign media. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict in 2011, Israel has conducted hundreds of strikes in Syria against Iranian targets and pro-Tehran militias allied with the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad. An Israeli strike on November 20 killed 21 pro-regime fighters including 16 foreigners, along with two civilians, according to the Observatory.

In July, six Iranians and three pro-regime Syrian fighters were killed in reported Israeli missile strikes in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, according to the Observatory. A month later, the Israeli army carried out a strike in Aqraba, killing two Hezbollah and one Iranian fighter. Meanwhile, regime forces have seized dozens of towns and villages in northwest Syria from jihadists following days of violent clashes, fuelling an exodus of civilians, a war monitor said Sunday.

The fresh advances in Idlib came as Russian warplanes continued to pummel the province’s south, killing nine civilians who were trying to escape the flashpoint area on Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. The ground assault by loyalists of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime brings them closer to capturing one of the largest urban centres in Syria’s last major opposition bastion.

“This push is an attempt to get closer to Maaret Al-Numan,” Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP. Residents of the southern Idlib town flooded out of the area, fearing further advances, an AFP correspondent there said. According to the Observatory, more than 30,000 people had fled the flashpoint area in southern Idlib in recent days. More than 40 civilians were reportedly killed in the region in the past week.

Abu Akram, a resident, said rescue workers and local relief groups were struggling to get families out. “Everybody is working at full capacity but they can’t handle such a large number of people,” the father of five told AFP after he could not find a vehicle to drive his own family further north.

‘Nowhere is safe’
The jihadist-dominated Idlib region hosts some three million people, including many displaced by years of violence in other parts of Syria. The Damascus regime, a Russian ally, has repeatedly vowed to take back the area and bombardment has continued despite a ceasefire announced in August, claiming the lives of more than 290 civilians and hundreds of fighters from both sides.

Heightened regime and Russian bombardment on the Maaret Al-Numan region since December 16 has forced tens of thousands of vulnerable people to flee their homes, according to the United Nations. The UN has called for “immediate de-escalation” and warned of further mass displacement if the violence continues. “Nowhere is safe. If we stay inside our homes, or if we flee outside, we will die either way,” said Abu Akram.

Damascus loyalists have since Thursday been locked in battles with jihadists and allied rebels, seizing a total of 29 towns and villages from their control, according to the Britain-based Observatory. Four days of fighting has killed 110 jihadists and rebels, as well as 77 regime loyalists, added the monitor, which relies on sources inside Syria for its reports.

The Idlib region is controlled by the country’s former Al-Qaeda affiliate, Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham. Pro-government forces launched a blistering offensive against the region in April, killing around 1,000 civilians and displacing more than 400,000 people from their homes.

Reports of Israeli strikes
On Sunday evening, Syrian anti-aircraft defense fired on Israeli missiles, hitting one that fell outside Damascus, the official Syrian news agency Sana reported. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, there were three explosions in the Damascus suburbs after the missiles targeted “Syrian regime and Iranian positions”.

A Turkish team was in Russia yesterday for talks on the conflicts in Syria and Libya, following reports that tens of thousands more Syrians were heading to Turkey, which is already host to the world’s biggest refugee population. President Tayyip Erdogan said on Sunday more than 80,000 civilians in Syria’s northwest Idlib province were migrating towards Turkey, after Russian and Syrian forces intensified their air strikes in the area in recent days.

Turkey-based Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) said 120,000 Syrians in south Idlib were fleeing towards the border. The visit to Moscow by the Turkish delegation, led by Deputy Foreign Minister Sedat Onal, was taking place before Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Turkey, a member of the NATO alliance that has angered the United States and other Western allies by buying a Russian missile defence system.

Turkey already hosts about 3.7 million Syrians, the largest refugee population in the world. It worries about a new influx. “We are putting up every effort with Russia for the attacks to stop, and we will continue to do so. In fact, we are sending a delegation to Moscow,” Erdogan said in his comments on Sunday.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has vowed to recapture the Idlib region, the last significant area of Syria still under rebel control after 8-1/2 years of civil war. Turkey has backed Syrian rebels fighting Assad, while Russia and Iran support Assad’s forces. Ankara, Moscow and Tehran have been working on a political solution to the conflict. The Turkish delegation will also discuss Turkey’s potential troop deployment and military support to Libya, after Ankara and Tripoli signed a military cooperation accord last month. – Agencies