Israel confirms attacking Iranian ‘Quds’ forces in Syria

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An explosion was heard in the south of the Syrian capital Damascus. (File/AFP)
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Kurds stage protests on Sunday to mark the first anniversary of the takeover of the northern Syrian city of Afrin by Turkish-backed forces. The operation evicted Kurdish fighters from the town and displaced tens of thousands of its residents. (AFP)
Updated 21 January 2019

Israel confirms attacking Iranian ‘Quds’ forces in Syria

  • Airstrikes, rockets and bomb blasts on Syria’s day of violence
  • Syrian military says it thwarted most of the missiles fired by Israelis

JEDDAH: Syria exploded into new violence on Sunday with an Israeli airstrike on a military base near Damascus, a rocket attack aimed at the occupied Golan Heights, and bombings in the capital and the northern Syrian town of Afrin.

Four Israeli F-16 jets launched six missiles on Sunday afternoon targeting the base in the Kisweh area south of Damascus.

“Warehouses containing weapons for Hezbollah and Iranian fighters are located in that area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.

The Israeli military later confirmed that it attacked Iranian military targets in Syria, hours after carrying out a rare daylight air raid near the Damascus International Airport.

“We have started striking Iranian Quds targets in Syrian territory,” the military statement said in an extraordinary statement. “We warn the Syrian Armed Forces against attempting to harm Israeli forces or territory.”

The statement was issued hours after Israeli missile defenses intercepted an incoming missile over the Golan Heights in the wake of the airport raid.

Until now Israel has largely refrained from public admissions of its covert military operations in neighboring Syria, in order to avoid large-scale involvement in the eight-year civil war.

“We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier. 

The Israeli military had initially declined to comment on the airstrike, though it said a rocket fired at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights was intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome defense system.

Israeli warplanes have used Lebanon’s airspace recently to strike deep inside Syria, including attacking a warehouse near Damascus International Airport earlier this month, according to Syrian state media.

The Syrian military said Israel carried out intensive airstrikes with successive waves of guided missiles shortly after 1 a.m., but added that Syrian air defenses destroyed most of the missiles before they reached their targets.

Israel has pledged to stop Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria. It has carried out hundreds of airstrikes there against Iranian military targets and advanced arms deliveries to Hezbollah, but rarely confirms the strikes.

A Syrian military source told state TV: “Our air defense systems thwarted an Israeli air aggression and prevented it from achieving any of its goals.” 

He said five missiles were shot down and one diverted to nearby empty farmland. It was a rare daytime raid, as most previous strikes have been at night.

Damascus residents said they heard five explosions early on Sunday afternoon, apparently the sound of air defenses firing into the air.

Earlier on Sunday the Observatory reported a “huge explosion” near a military intelligence office in southern Damascus that left a number of people dead or injured.

“The explosion took place near a security branch in the south of the city” and was followed by shooting, said the monitor. “There are some people killed and injured but we could not verify the toll immediately.”

The explosion in Damascus came as a bomb blast in a bus killed three civilians in the northern Syrian city of Afrin on the first anniversary of a Turkish attack on the Kurdish-majority region. Nine other people, including fighters, were injured.

“The explosion was the result of a bomb that was placed in a bus in the center of Afrin,” Abdel Rahman said.

Iran govt faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

Since protests began in December, Iranians have had their internet access disrupted and have lost access to the messaging app Telegram. (Reuters)
Updated 18 February 2019

Iran govt faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

  • The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government

GENEVA, LONDON: In early January, labor activist Esmail Bakhshi posted a letter on Instagram saying he had been tortured in jail, attracting support from tens of thousands of Iranians online.
Bakhshi, who said he was still in pain, also challenged the intelligence minister to a public debate about the religious justification for torture. Late last month, Bakhshi was rearrested.
Sepideh Qoliyan, a journalist covering labor issues in the Ahvaz region, was also rearrested on the same day after saying on social media that she had been abused in jail.
Bakhshi’s allegations of torture and the social media furor that followed led Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to call for an investigation, and the intelligence minister subsequently met with a parliamentary committee to discuss the case, a rare example of top officials being prompted to act by a public backlash online.
“Each sentence and description of torture from the mouths of #Sepideh_Qoliyan and #Esmail_Bakhshi should be remembered and not forgotten because they are now alone with the torturers and under pressure and defenseless. Let us not forget,” a user named Atish posted on Twitter in Farsi on Feb. 11.
“When thousands of people share it on social media, the pressure for accountability goes up,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Sham investigations won’t put it to rest. Social media is definitely becoming a major, major public square in Iran.”
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said last month, without naming Bakhshi, that allegations of torture online constitute a crime.
His comments follow growing pressure from officials to close Instagram, which has about 24 million users in Iran. Iran last year shut down the Telegram messaging app, which had about 40 million users in the country, citing security concerns.
“Today you see in cyberspace that with the posting of a film or lie or rumor the situation in the country can fall apart,” Dolatabadi said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “You saw in recent days that they spread a rumor and announced the rape of an individual or claimed suicide and recently you even saw claims of torture and all the powers in the country get drawn in. Today cyberspace has been transformed into a very broad platform for committing crimes.”
The arrests of Bakhshi and Qoliyan are part of a crackdown in Ahvaz, center of Iran’s Arab population. Hundreds of activists there pushing for workers’ and minority rights, two of the most contentious issues in Iran, have been detained in recent weeks.
The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government.