Syria says Israel attacks areas around southern Damascus

CAIRO/AMMAN (Reuters) - The Syrian army said on Sunday evening that Israeli-fired rockets struck parts of southern Damascus in escalating attacks that regional intelligence sources say target Iran-linked assets.

A Syrian army statement said the attack came from the Golan Heights and that it had downed most of the missiles, in the second such strike in less than a month on the outskirts of the capital.

An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on the report.

Israel has struck a wider range of targets than usual since the start of the year, including a major strike on Iranian-linked strongholds further east near the Iraqi border.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz on Friday said Israel was taking action “almost weekly” to prevent Iranian entrenchment in Syria.

Regional intelligence sources say Iran’s Quds Force and militias it backs, whose presence has spread in Syria in recent years, have a strong presence in the Sayeda Zainab neighbourhood of southern Damascus where Iranian backed militias have a string of underground bases.

Israel has regularly attacked what it says are Iranian-linked targets in Syria in recent years, and stepped up such strikes this year in what Western intelligence sources describe as a shadow war to reduce Iran’s influence.

Israeli Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Aviv Kochavi said in December Israel had struck over 500 targets in 2020.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government has never publicly acknowledged there are Iranian forces operating on his behalf in Syria’s civil war, only that Tehran has sent military advisers.

The entry of thousands of Shi’ite militias from Afghanistan to Lebanon to fight alongside Assad had helped the authoritarian ruler survive a widespread armed insurgency that sprang from a violent crackdown on pro-democracy protests in 2011.

Western intelligence sources say Israeli strikes this year have undermined Iran’s extensive military power in Syria without triggering a major increase in hostilities.

Iran has built underground tunnels and spread decoys to help mitigate the impact of repeated Israeli strikes on its elaborate military infrastructure in the country, Syria military defectors say.

Reporting by Nayera Abdallah in Dubai and Dan Williams in Israel and Suleiman al -Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Peter Cooney and Stephen Coates