Syrian state media says Israel fires missiles in southern province

AMMAN (Reuters) - An Israeli drone fired four missiles near a demolished hospital and an army observation post in Syria's southern Quneitra province near the border with Israel, but there had been only material damage, the Syrian army said on Monday.

An army source was quoted by state news agency SANA as saying that the "Israeli enemy" also hit several sites along border villages close to a 1974 demilitarized zone on the Golan frontier, which with Russian support, the Syrian army regained control from rebels last year.

Asked about the reported Quneitra strikes, an Israeli military spokeswoman declined comment.

State media earlier said the sites in Quneitra that were hit by Israel came from several tank artillery rounds.

Residents familiar with the area said that the sites targeted fall within the strategic area known as the "Triangle of Death" connecting the southern Damascus countryside with Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

The area is a bastion of Iranian-backed militias led by Lebanon's Hezbollah group. The Israeli missile strike coincides with Tehran celebrating the 40th anniversary of the fall of the Shah and the Islamic revolution.

In many cases the deployment of the militias in the area relies heavily on recruitment of local youths, according to two Western intelligence sources.

They say Shi'ite Hezbollah group has consolidated its new front in southern Syria and entrenched Iran's influence since the defeat of Sunni rebels who were once backed by Washington, Jordan and Gulf states.

Israel has mounted attacks in Syria as part of its effort to counter the influence carved out there by Iran, which has supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the war that erupted in 2011.

Iranian and Iran-backed groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah that have deployed in Syria and now maintain a large presence in former rebel-held areas and territory regained from Islamic State militants in eastern Syria, according to regional military experts.

In January, Israeli warplanes carried out a strike on what they called an Iranian arms cache in Syria.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel would ramp up its fight against Iranian-aligned forces in Syria following the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.

A senior Israeli official said in September Israel had carried out more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.

With an election looming in April, Israel has been increasingly open about carrying out air strikes.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi, additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; editing by Toby Chopra and Grant McCool)

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