Middle East tensions flare up as US military chief visits Israel

Escalation after Israeli strikes in Syria against regime and Hezbollah targets.

Saturday 25/07/2020
A file picture shows an Israeli army tank in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. (AFP)
A file picture shows an Israeli army tank in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. (AFP)

Beirut/Jerusalem - The top US general made an unannounced visit to Israel on Friday to discuss “regional security challenges” at a time of heightened tensions across the Middle East after Israeli strikes in Syria against regime and Hezbollah targets.

Army General Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs chairman, met with senior Israeli military and intelligence leaders at an air base in southern Israel and held a video conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The visit came days after an air raid on the Syrian capital, Damascus, suspected to have been carried out by Israel, killed five foreign fighters, including a member of the Iran-backed Hezbollah. The radical Shia group has since vowed to retaliate provoking greater tensions on the Israeli-Lebanese border.

But it is on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights that a new flashpoint developed Friday. The Israeli military said Friday its helicopters struck Syrian army targets in response to mortars fired earlier towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

“A number of targets were struck, including SAF observation posts and intelligence collection systems located in SAF bases,” the military said in a statement, referring to the Syrian Armed Forces.

Syria’s state news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying Israeli helicopters targeted three outposts in Syria’s southern Quneitra area with anti-tank guided missiles, causing two injuries and some forest fires.

The strike came a few hours after the Israeli military said blasts were heard from the Syrian-held area of the Golan Heights. No casualties were reported but a building and an Israeli vehicle were damaged, it said.

 

Israel said the Syrian government would be held responsible as Israeli media talked of Hezbollah movements on the Syrian side of the Golan.

Following threats by Hezbollah to seek revenge for the killing of one of its fighters in Syria, the Israeli army announced an initial reinforcement of the northern border on Thursday.

A further troop reinforcement on the northern border was announced on Friday, with the army saying it had “elevated its readiness against various potential enemy actions”.

“The Israel Defence Forces holds the Lebanese Government responsible for all actions emanating from Lebanon,” the statement said, without making reference to Hezbollah.

Earlier Friday, the Israeli military said an explosion on the Syrian side of the frontier damaged a building and a vehicle in the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in 1967 and later annexed.

Recent weeks have also seen a series of mysterious explosions in Iran, including a blast at what analysts say was a nuclear centrifuge production facility.

Milley’s visit also came hours after a US fighter jet passed near an Iranian passenger plane as it flew over Syria provoking condemnation from Tehran.

Israel has long viewed Iran as its main regional threat, mainly because of its nuclear ambitions, as well as Iran’s military presence in neighboring Syria and its support for armed proxies like Hezbollah.

Israel has carried out scores of airstrikes in recent years targeting Iran’s military presence in Syria, where Tehran is a close ally of President Bashar Assad in the civil war.

Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz said that in his talks with Milley, he emphasized “the need to continue the pressure on Iran and its proxies.”

The Israeli military “is prepared and ready for any scenario and any threat, and I do not suggest our enemies to test us. We have no interest in escalation, but we will do all that is necessary to protect Israeli citizens,” Gantz said.