Saturday, December 16, 2017

Syrian tanks enter demilitarized Israeli frontier

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Three Syrian tanks entered the demilitarized zone in the Golan Heights on Saturday, Israel said, raising concerns violence from Syria's civil war could heat up a long-quiet frontier that has not seen such an incursion in nearly 40 years.

Israel complained to U.N. peacekeepers present in the area, a relatively low-key response that suggested it did not see the Syrian armor as an immediate threat. But the entry marks the most serious spillover of Syria's turmoil to date at the frontier, where stray ordnance has exploded on the Israeli side in the past.

Neighboring countries are dealing with a variety of incidents linked to the conflict — Turkey exchanged artillery fire with Syria for a week last month, while Jordan has seen several shootings at the border, and clashes linked to the uprising against President Bashar Assad have broken out in Lebanon.

Some in Israel worry that if Assad goes, the country could fall into the hands of Islamic extremists or descend into sectarian warfare that would destabilize the region. Islamic fighters — some from abroad — are increasingly taking part in key engagements alongside the rebels.

Inside Syria on Saturday, for example, Islamic militants took part in a dawn assault on a strategic air base in the north of the country. The attack, reported by activists, aimed to disrupt strikes by government warplanes and helicopters that are pounding rebel-held towns.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an activist group opposing the regime, said the attack on the Taftanaz air base continued into the evening, although Syria's state-run SANA news agency said the fighting was over and government troops had repelled a "terrorist attack." The government considers the rebels terrorists and pawns in a foreign plot to destroy the country.

Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaida-inspired Islamic militant group made up of foreign jihadis, had joined in the assault, said the Observatory, which relies on reports from activists on the ground. Al-Nusra fighters, who are considered among the most experienced and disciplined among the forces fighting to topple Assad, have led attacks on other air bases in the north in recent months.

The Taftanaz base mainly houses military helicopters, near the main highway between the capital, Damascus, and the northern city of Aleppo, where rebels and the military have been battling for control for months.

Also on Saturday, warplanes hit targets in the rebellious Damascus suburbs, killing at least 10 people and wounding dozens of others, the Observatory said. Fighter jets also bombed areas around the strategic northern city of Maaret al-Numan on a key supply route from Damascus to Aleppo, the country's commercial hub. Rebels have been using Maaret al-Numan as a base to disrupt government supplies to Aleppo.

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