Russian army patrol rebel enclave in Syria to avert offensive, sources say

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Russian forces moved into an opposition enclave in the Syrian city of Deraa on Tuesday to try to avert an army assault on a stronghold that has defied state authority since it was retaken three years ago, witnesses, residents, and army sources said.

Their entry brought a halt to shelling by pro-Iranian army units who have encircled the enclave, where protests first erupted in 2011, and had attempted to storm the area on Monday in the latest drive to force former rebels to surrender.

The Syrian army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, in 2018 retook control of the province of which Deraa is the capital and which borders Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights.

Local officials and army sources say the Iranian-backed army units have been pushing for a major new offensive.

However, Moscow gave guarantees to Israel and Washington in 2018 that it would hold back Iranian-backed militias from expanding their influence in the strategic region.

That deal forced thousands of mainstream Western-backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons but kept the army from entering Deraa al Balaad.

On Tuesday, dozens of Russian military police were seen patrolling neighborhoods of Deraa al Balaad – the center of the first peaceful protests against the Assad family rule, which were met by force before spreading across the country.

Russian generals presented local leaders and the army with a road map on Aug. 14 to head off any showdown and have been trying to win over the opposition, some of whom fear the plan reneges on the 2018 deal.

Moscow’s plan, seen by Reuters, offers ex-rebels a pardon but allows the army to gradually take over the enclave, while offering safe passage to former rebels who oppose the deal to leave for opposition areas in northwest Syria.

Russian troops were accompanied by a group of former Western backed mainstream rebels now integrated in a division of the army known as the Eighth Brigade under Russian command, residents said.

The enclave and other towns in southern Syria have continued to hold sporadic protests against President Bashar al Assad’s rule that are rare in areas under state control.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Alison Williams)

U.N. says Afghan war has entered ‘deadlier and more destructive phase’

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -The U.N. special envoy for Afghanistan on Friday questioned the Taliban’s commitment to a political settlement, telling the U.N. Security Council the war has entered a “deadlier and more destructive phase” with more than 1,000 civilians killed in the past month during a Taliban offensive.

“A party that was genuinely committed to a negotiated settlement would not risk so many civilian casualties, because it would understand that the process of reconciliation will be more challenging, the more blood is shed,” Deborah Lyons said.

The Taliban has stepped up its campaign to defeat the U.S.-backed government since April as foreign forces complete their withdrawal after 20 years of war. The Taliban captured an Afghan provincial capital and assassinated the government’s top media officer in Kabul on Friday.

“This is now a different kind of war, reminiscent of Syria, recently, or Sarajevo, in the not-so-distant past,” Lyons said.

“To attack urban areas is to knowingly inflict enormous harm and cause massive civilian casualties. Nonetheless, the threatening of large urban areas appears to be a strategic decision by the Taliban, who have accepted the likely carnage that will ensue,” she said.

She said the United Nations expected both irregular and legal migration numbers to double this year.

Peace talks between the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators started last year in the Qatari capital of Doha, but have not made any substantive progress.

Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia told the council that the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan was of increasing concern and “with the withdrawal of foreign forces, the outlook looks grim.”

“The prospects of Afghanistan slipping into full scale and protracted civil war, unfortunately, is a stark reality,” Nebenzia said.

CONSEQUENCES

Britain’s U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward said the council “should leave the Taliban in no doubt that there will be consequences for them if they continue to pursue this military offensive” and pledged that Britain would not recognize a Taliban government that comes to power by force.

The U.N. Security Council has the ability to impose targeted sanctions on Taliban individuals or entities who constitute a threat to the peace, stability and security of Afghanistan.

Senior U.S. diplomat Jeffrey DeLaurentis urged the Taliban to halt its offensive, pursue a political settlement and protect Afghanistan’s infrastructure and people.

“The Taliban must hear from the international community that we will not accept a military takeover of Afghanistan or a return of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate,” he said.

Foreign forces aim to be completely out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11. U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the Taliban from power in 2001 for refusing to hand over al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

Deputy Chinese U.N. Ambassador Dai Bing said foreign forces withdrawing from Afghanistan should be “more transparent with regional countries and avoid leaving behind all the problems and wash their hands of them.”

“The U.S. recently expressed its intention to assist Afghanistan in maintaining stability. We hope that the U.S. can earnestly fulfill its commitment and step up efforts,” Dai told the council.

Afghanistan’s U.N. Ambassador Ghulam Isaczai urged the Security Council to act to “prevent a catastrophic situation.” He told reporters after the meeting that he was confident the Afghan army could withstand the Taliban offensive and that the country was not yet in a civil war.

“We have a six months security plan to stabilize the situation. And not only that, we have seen an outpouring of support from communities and villages that were recently attacked by the Taliban … so we have a lot of interest among the population to support the army,” he said.

(Reporting by Michelle NicholsEditing by Dan Grebler and Mark Potter)

Russia allows U.N. Syria aid access from Turkey for 12 months

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) -The U.N. Security Council agreed on Friday to extend a cross-border aid operation into Syria from Turkey after Russia agreed to a compromise in last minute talks with the United States that ensures U.N. aid access to millions of Syrians for 12 months.

“Parents can sleep tonight knowing that for the next 12 months their children will be fed. The humanitarian agreement we’ve reached here will literally save lives,” said U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield.

The council mandate for the long-running aid operation was due to expire on Saturday. After not engaging in weeks of discussion on a resolution drafted by Ireland and Norway, Syrian ally Russia on Thursday proposed a six month renewal.

Following negotiations between Thomas-Greenfield and Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia on Friday morning, the 15-member council unanimously adopted a compromise resolution that asks for a U.N. report on Syria aid access in six months, but that diplomats said does not require another vote in January to again extend the cross-border operation.

Nebenzia described the vote on the resolution, presented by both the United States and Russia, as a “historical moment” that he hoped could “become a turning point that not only Syria will win from … but the Middle Eastern region as a whole.”

U.S. President Joe Biden had raised the importance of the cross-border aid operation with Russian President Vladimir Putin in June. The Biden administration warned at the time that any future cooperation with Russia over Syria would be at risk if the cross-border aid deliveries were shut down.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed to the Security Council to renew the cross-border aid operation for another year, warning that a failure to do so would be devastating for millions of people.

The council first authorized a cross-border aid operation into Syria in 2014 at four points. Last year, it whittled that down to one point from Turkey into a rebel-held area in Syria due to Russian and Chinese opposition over renewing all four.

Russia has said the aid operation is outdated and violates Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. In a swipe at the United States and others, Russia and China have also blamed unilateral sanctions for some of Syria’s plight.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols, Editing by William Maclean)

With aid in balance, Syrians who fled Assad fear deeper hardship

By Mahmoud Hassano

IDLIB PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – Having fled their homes to escape President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, many of Syrians sheltering in the rebel-held northwest fear their fate may once again be placed in his hands.

Russia, Assad’s key ally, wants U.N. aid to the region to come through the capital Damascus and not via Turkey, raising fears that food on which they rely will fall under their oppressor’s control.

A U.N. mandate to supply aid from Turkey, currently via the Bab al-Hawa crossing, expires on Saturday, and while Western members of the U.N. Security Council want to extend and expand it, veto powers Russia and China are wary of renewing it.

Russia skipped negotiations on the issue on Tuesday.

Hossam Kaheil, who fled to Idlib in 2018 when the rebellion in Ghouta, just outside Damascus, was defeated, does not trust Syrian authorities to let aid through if supply lines are changed.

“In Idlib the situation is good, but if they close the crossings, there will be a humanitarian catastrophe,” said the 36-year-old, who recalls being so hungry in 2014, as the Syrian army laid siege to Ghouta, that he had to eat animal feed.

He added that two of his siblings died due to medical shortages during the siege, described by U.N. investigators as the longest in modern history.

U.N. aid across the Turkish border has helped to keep millions of Syrians supplied with food, medicine and water in the last part of Syria still held by anti-Assad insurgents.

Syria says it is committed to facilitating the delivery of U.N. aid from within the country. The Syrian information ministry did not respond to emailed questions from Reuters for this article.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month that the Red Cross and Red Crescent should be allowed to observe if there were suspicions of any stealing, although he did not think that would happen.

RUSSIAN LEVERAGE

The tussle marks a diplomatic front in a war that has been in military stalemate for several years, with Moscow and Damascus seeking to reassert state sovereignty over a corner of Syria outside their control.

Since winning back the bulk of Syria with Russian and Iranian help, Assad has struggled to advance further: Turkish forces block his path in the northwest, and U.S. forces are on the ground in the Kurdish-controlled east, where oilfields, farmland and land routes to Iraq are located.

Government-held Syria, along with the rest of the country, is in economic crisis. Assad’s plans for reconstruction and economic revival, which came to little, faced new headwinds with the imposition of new U.S. sanctions last year.

“This is a moment of leverage for Russia – a wrangle over strategic advantage in which humanitarian issues are being used as the fulcrum,” said Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.

“Unfortunately the Syrian people are the real losers in this battle between Russia and the United States.”

The United States wants the aid mandate renewed. So does Turkey, which exercises sway in the northwest through support to rebels, aid, and Turkish boots on the ground.

The United Nations has warned that failure to renew the aid operation would be devastating for millions of people.

“We don’t want to see these people becoming pawns in a political game,” said Mark Cutts, U.N. deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis.

“It is really shameful that we are talking about reducing access at a time when we should be scaling up the operation.”

The number of people dependent on aid in the northwest has grown by 20% to 3.4 million in a year, the U.N. says.

MISTRUST

Russia cites U.S. sanctions as a reason for the humanitarian problems. Washington, whose sanctions aim to cut off funds for Assad’s government, rejects this.

Agreed in 2014 when Assad was in retreat, the U.N. mandate initially allowed deliveries from four locations. Russian and Chinese opposition whittled this down to one last year. Russia says the operation is outdated.

Delivering aid across frontlines has proven difficult if not impossible throughout the war.

“We’ve requested access for cross-line convoys multiple times … because we would like as much access as possible from all sides, but the war is not over,” Cutts said.

“In this kind of environment, it is very difficult to get agreement from the parties on both sides for convoys to move across that frontline.”

Insurgents in the northwest include groups proscribed as terrorists by the Security Council. U.N. oversight has prevented aid being diverted to armed groups, Cutts said, expressing concern that the loss of such oversight may deter donors.

Durmus Aydin, secretary-general of Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH), part of the aid operation, told Reuters that aid deliveries across frontlines did not seem possible at the moment.

“One of the reasons this isn’t a realistic solution is the mistrust in people towards the Syrian government and Russia.”

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut, Andrew Osborn in Moscow and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Red Cross reveals that children held in northeast Syria prisons

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Hundreds of children are incarcerated in adult prisons in northeastern Syria, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Wednesday, disclosing their plight as inmates for the first time.

The children, mostly boys, have been removed to prisons from al-Hol, a desert camp run by Syrian Kurdish forces for 60,000 people from more than 60 countries associated with Islamic State (IS) fighters, the aid agency said. Most are women and children who fled there after IS’s last enclaves collapsed two years ago.

“Hundreds of children, mostly boys, some as young as 12, are detained in adult prisons, places they simply do not belong,” Fabrizio Carboni, ICRC regional director for the Middle East, told a news briefing.

The ICRC made 36 visits to places of detention across Syria last year, the only agency with such access. It requires private talks with inmates on their treatment and conditions, but its confidential findings are shared only with the authorities.

It has access to some places of detention in northeast Syria – a Syrian Kurdish-controlled area – a spokeswoman said, declining to give details.

The ICRC also renewed its appeal for countries to repatriate their nationals from the al-Hol camp and keep families together, “as international law requires”.

Carboni, who has visited al-Hol four times in the past two years, said: “I really can’t get used to seeing so many children behind barbed wire.”

The ICRC runs a field hospital and provides food and water at the sprawling site. Medical needs remain huge, with a rise in resident children dying last year, including some from preventable conditions, Carboni said.

UNICEF said eight children under 5 years old had died at the camp last August, half from malnutrition-related complications. The other deaths had been due to dehydration from diarrhea, heart failure, internal bleeding and hypoglycemia, the U.N. children’s agency said.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alex Richardson)

U.S., other nations call for unimpeded delivery of aid to Syria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and other nations in a joint statement on Monday reiterated their call for immediate nation-wide ceasefire in Syria and unimpeded delivery of aid to the war-torn country.

The group of 19 countries as well as the European Union and Arab League said in the statement released after a meeting of their ministers that United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, the 2015 resolution that laid out the steps for a ceasefire and political transition in Syria, is the “only solution” to the country’s decade-long conflict.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert)

U.S. warplanes strike Iran-backed militia in Iraq, Syria

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States said on Sunday it carried out another round of air strikes against Iran-backed militia in Iraq and Syria, this time in response to drone attacks by the militia against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq.

In a statement, the U.S. military said it targeted operational and weapons storage facilities at two locations in Syria and one location in Iraq. It did not disclose whether it believed anyone was killed or injured but officials said assessments were ongoing.

Iraqi militia groups aligned with Iran in a statement named four members of the Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada faction they said were killed in the attack on the Syria-Iraq border. They vowed to retaliate.

The strikes came at the direction of President Joe Biden, the second time he has ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militia since taking office five months ago. Biden last ordered limited strikes in Syria in February, that time in response to rocket attacks in Iraq.

“As demonstrated by this evening’s strikes, President Biden has been clear that he will act to protect U.S. personnel,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The strikes came even as Biden’s administration is looking to potentially revive a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. The decision to retaliate appears to show how Biden aims to compartmentalize such defensive strikes, while simultaneously engaging Tehran in diplomacy.

Biden’s critics say Iran cannot be trusted and point to the drone attacks as further evidence that Iran and its proxies will never accept a U.S. military presence in Iraq or Syria.

Iran called on the United States to avoid “creating crisis” in the region.

“Certainly what the United States is doing is disrupting security in the region, and one of the victims of this disruption will be the United States,” Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said on Monday.

In an apparent indication that Baghdad is determined to avoid getting sucked into a U.S.-Iran escalation, Iraq’s military issued a rare condemnation of the U.S. strikes. The Iraqi and U.S. militaries continue close coordination in a separate battle in Iraq, fighting remnants of the Sunni extremist group Islamic State.

Biden and the White House declined comment on the strikes on Sunday. But Biden will meet Israel’s outgoing president, Reuven Rivlin, at the White House on Monday for a broad discussion that will include Iran and U.S. efforts to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal. Those efforts have raised serious concerns in Israel, Iran’s arch-foe.

U.S. officials believe Iran is behind a ramp-up in increasingly sophisticated drone attacks and periodic rocket fire against U.S. personnel and facilities in Iraq, where the U.S. military has been helping Baghdad combat the remnants of Islamic State.

Two U.S. officials, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said Iran-backed militias carried out at least five drone attacks against facilities used by U.S. and coalition personnel in Iraq since April.

The Pentagon said the facilities targeted were used by Iran-backed militia including Kataib Hezbollah and Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada.

One of the facilities targeted was used to launch and recover the drones, a defense official said.

The U.S. military carried out strikes with F-15 and F-16 aircraft, officials said, adding the pilots made it back from the mission safely.

“We assess each strike hit the intended targets,” one of the officials told Reuters.

Iraq’s government is struggling to deal with militias ideologically aligned with Iran which are accused of rocket fire against U.S. forces and of involvement in killing peaceful pro-democracy activists.

Earlier in June, Iraq released Iran-aligned militia commander Qasim Muslih, who was arrested in May on terrorism-related charges, after authorities found insufficient evidence against him.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington; Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, John Davison in Baghdad; Editing by Matthew Lewis, William Maclean)

Syria opposition leader says Assad election to worsen country’s plight

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – A “sham” election designed to prolong President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on Syria shows that only international pressure for a U.N.-backed peace plan can pave the way for democratic rule, a Damascus-based secular opposition leader said.

Lawyer Hassan Abdul Azim of the National Coordination Committee for Democratic Change added that Wednesday’s vote would only worsen the plight of a country afflicted by hunger, poverty and an “authoritarian regime”.

“This insistence on clinging to power does not bring stability,” Abdul Azim told Reuters in a phone interview, referring to acute fuel and food shortages and sky-rocketing inflation that has pushed most Syrians deeper into poverty.

“These sham elections show the regime does not want a political solution and the situation will worsen,” said Abdul Azim, the committee’s general coordinator.

“People are now dying of hunger.”

Unrepentant, Assad says Syrians made their feelings clear by coming out in large rallies to support the election. Addressing his critics as he voted, he said: “The value of your opinions is zero. “Abdul Azim’s committee, whose leaders are based mainly in Syria, was set up in the aftermath of pro-democracy protests in March 2011 that spiraled into a devastating war that killed tens of thousands and displaced millions.

It is a coalition of mainly outlawed opposition parties inside Syria bringing together liberals, leftists and nationalists who demand real democratic change.

Syria’s political future, he argues, rests on major powers pushing forward stalled U.N. Security Council resolution 2254 that paves the way for a transitional government and free and fair elections under U.N. supervision.

“It would be real elections with competing candidates and not ones whose results are known beforehand,” Abdul Azim said of peace plan, negotiated in 2015 in a rare show of unity among major powers.

The prominent opposition figure spent several years in prison during the long decades of Assad family rule.

Abdul Azim blamed the president for wrecking several rounds of Syria Constitutional Committee meetings in Geneva since October 2019 that brought together the opposition and the government to draft a new constitution.

UNIFYING OPPOSITION RANKS

Abdul Azim said the mainly domestic opposition parties made major strides in unifying their ranks this month by forming the broad based National Democratic Front (JOOD) coalition. The grouping represents about 15 political parties from a wide spectrum of groups both inside Syria and outside.

After security forces prevented them from holding a founding meeting in Damascus on March 26, a virtual meeting was held on May 18 that will hold a wider conference sometime between mid-June and the first half of July where it will approve its leadership structure, he added.

Abdul Azim and his allies had earlier parted ways with other opposition figures over the nature of opposition to Assad, with Abdul Aziz and his partners advocating peaceful protests and rejecting foreign intervention and an armed insurgency.

They later joined the Riyadh-based High Negotiation Committee that included the Istanbul-based based opposition backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Western enemies of Assad who for years financed mainstream rebel groups.

Abdul Azim said their meeting last week endorsed a political program in line with the U.N. peace plan that would allow the return of millions of Syrians who fled or were displaced and have so far resisted returning for fear of reprisals.

“We seek fundamental democratic change that ends the existing authoritarian regime with all its symbols,” he said.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, Editing by William Maclean)

Syria releases hundreds of social media critics ahead of election

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syria has freed more than 400 civil servants, judges, lawyers and journalists detained this year in a crackdown on social media dissent, a move seen by rights activists and former detainees as intended to win over public opinion ahead of presidential elections.

Those released after being held under Syria’s cyber crimes law were among thousands freed this month under a general amnesty for currency speculators, drug dealers, smugglers and kidnappers ahead of the May 26 election that is expected to hand President Bashar al Assad a fourth term.

Most of the freed social media critics were supporters of Syrian authorities’ handling of the uprising in 2011 that spiraled into a war that has killed hundreds of thousands.

The amnesty excluded tens of thousands of Assad opponents and political detainees held for years without trial, many of whom are believed dead, rights groups say.

“The auspicious timing of the release right before elections of a moderate loyalist camp … is to generate a façade of entertaining some form of dissent to further make elections look credible,” said Sara Kayyali, Syria researcher with U.S.-based Human Rights Watch.

The group had seen an uptick in arrests for online activities in recent months to silence public disaffection over Syria’s economic crisis.

Its economy is collapsing under the weight of war, sanctions and COVID-19, but public criticism of deteriorating living conditions is not tolerated.

The crackdown under cyber crime law on mostly Assad supporters was intended to instill fear ahead of elections, according to two released detainees, who requested anonymity.

None of those arrested had criticized Assad, a capital offence, and most were rounded up by security forces for online posts ranging from a “like” on a Facebook comment lamenting growing hardship and critical of the government to remarks decrying state corruption.

Syrian officials were not immediately available for comment on the releases but the head of the journalists’ union, Musa Abdul Noor, had earlier confirmed that journalists had been held for social media comments on their personal accounts but not under another law that technically bans the arrest of journalists.

WELL-KNOWN FIGURES

At least 60 of those released are well-known in their local communities, including senior police officers, judges and a senior customs inspector, state employed journalists, lawyers, university students, businessmen and women’s rights advocates, four detainees said.

The releases were among steps taken in recent weeks ahead of the elections to influence public opinion, such as efforts to fight sky-rocketing inflation, and extending government grants to state employees in areas suffering from economic hardship.

The interior ministry had in January warned that violators of the cyber-crimes law, which criminalizes social media comments deemed to undermine the authority of the state, would face a minimum of six months in prison.

The ministry said it would pursue people who leaked fake news to portals that “distort and sow confusion in public opinion”.

Family members said Hala Jerf, a leading presenter on state television, Firyal Jahjah, a senior civil servant who serves as the head of a government inspection agency, and a prominent local journalist in Latakia province, Kenan Wakkaf, were among those released.

“I will stay with you, the voice that believes truth is the highest value. To corruption, I say you think you have shaken my resolve or maybe frightened me? You have not even scared my boots,” Wakkaf said in a post after he arrived home.

The majority of those released were not formally charged or put on trial, according to two released detainees who requested anonymity because they were warned not to speak publicly.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; editing by Maha El Dahan and Giles Elgood)

Syrian missile explodes in area near Israeli nuclear reactor, Israel retaliates

By Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -A Syrian missile exploded in southern Israel on Thursday, the Israeli military said, in an incident that triggered warning sirens near the secretive Dimona nuclear reactor and an Israeli strike in Syria.

An Israeli military spokesman identified the projectile as an SA-5 surface-to-air missile fired by Syrian forces against Israeli aircraft. He said it overflew its target to reach the Dimona area, 200 km (125 miles) south of the Syrian border.

The missile did not hit the reactor, exploding some 30 km (19 miles) away, the spokesman added.

The sirens that sounded overnight in the Dimona area followed weeks of heightened tension between Israel and Iran, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, amid renewed global negotiations over Tehran’s nuclear program.

For weeks, Israeli media have said air defenses around the Dimona reactor and the Red Sea port of Eilat were being strengthened in anticipation of a possible long-range missile or drone attack by Iranian-backed forces.

In public remarks on Thursday’s incident, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said the anti-aircraft missile was fired from Syria during an Israeli strike there against “assets that could be used for a potential attack against Israel”.

Gantz said Israel’s anti-missile systems had attempted to intercept the SA-5 but were unsuccessful.

“In most cases, we achieve other results. This is a slightly more complex case. We will investigate it and move on,” he said. Israeli security sources said the missile exploded in mid-air.

In response, Israel launched further overnight attacks inside Syria, the military spokesman said, targeting several missile batteries, including the one that fired the SA-5.

Syria’s state news agency said the country’s air defense system intercepted Israeli rockets over the suburbs of Damascus “and downed most of them”. Four soldiers were injured and there was some material damage, it said.

A Syrian military defector said the Israeli strikes targeted locations near the town of Dumair, some 40 km (25 miles) northeast of the capital, where Iranian-backed militias have a presence. It is an area hit repeatedly in past Israeli attacks.

Addressing the likelihood of a Syrian anti-aircraft missile overshooting its target and flying a long distance into Israel, Uzi Rubin, an Israeli missile expert, said the scenario was “consistent with the characteristics” of an SA-5.

“The trajectory of a stray anti-aircraft missile on an unintended descent is very tricky to track,” he told Reuters.

“Israel’s air defense systems are in theory capable of carrying out such an interception with proper preparation, but it would be at the edge of the capability envelope.”

(Reporting by Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Maha El Dahan, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Clarence Fernandez and John Stonestreet)