Syrian, Iranian backed forces advance in border area near Israel

This file photo taken on Sept 25, 2017, by the Ghouta Media Center, a Syrian activist media group, shows smoke and debris rising after Syrian government shelling of the rebel-held Jobar neighborhood of Damascus, Syria. (AP)
Updated 25 December 2017

Syrian, Iranian backed forces advance in border area near Israel

AMMAN: Syrian army forces backed by Iranian-backed militias pushed deeper into the last rebel-held enclave near a strategic border area with Israel and Lebanon in a new expansion of Tehran's influence in the war-torn country.
The army and the Shi'ite forces advanced east and south of the Sunni-rebel held bastion of Beit Jin backed by some of the heaviest aerial bombing and heavy artillery shelling since a major assault began over two months ago to seize the area, rebels said.
The Syrian army said it had encircled the village of Mughr al Meer at the foothills of Mount Hermon as troops moved towards Beit Jin amid fierce clashes.
The enclave is the last rebel bastion left in the south west of Damascus known as the Western Ghouta that had since last year fallen under government control after months of heavy bombing on civilian areas and years of siege tactics that forced rebels to surrender.
A western intelligence source confirmed rebel reports that Iranian-backed militias including the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah Shi'ite group were playing a major role in the ongoing battles.
"The Iranian backed militias are trying to consolidate their sphere of influence all the way from southwest of Damascus to the Israeli border," said Suhaib al Ruhail, an official from the Liwa al Furqan rebel group that operates in the area.
Worried by Iran's expanding influence in Syria after the defeat of Daesh, Israel has in the last few weeks stepped up its strikes against suspected Iranian targets inside Syria.
Early this month an Israeli strike on a base near Kiswah, south of Damascus was widely believed to be an Iranian military compound, according to a Western intelligence source
Israel has been lobbying both big powers to deny Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Shi‘ite militias any permanent bases in Syria, and to keep them away from the Golan, as they gain ground while helping Damascus beat back Sunni-led rebels.
The southwest of Syria is part of a de-escalation zone in southern Syria agreed last July between Russia and Washington, the first such understanding between the two powers.
The area has not seen Russian bombing unlike other ceasefire areas in Syria.
Diplomatic sources say several thousand Shi'ite fighters who have been amassing from outside the Quneitra province are pitted against hundreds of Islamist and mainstream Free Syria Army (FSA) rebels closing ranks under the banner of Itihad Quwt Jabal al Sheikh "Union of fighters of Jabal al Sheikh". They are mainly drawn from local fighters from the area.
With the army and Iranian backed offensive widening, the rebels have called on youths to enlist as mosque imams in Beit Jin called on people to take up arms and fight the army.
Rebels still have a sizeable presence in central and southern Quneitra, in the Syrian Golan Heights.
Western diplomatic sources say the crushing of the Sunni rebel presence in areas they have been in since 2013 will allow Lebanon's Hezbollah to open another secure arms supply line from its border in southern Lebanon into Syria.
Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Iran has had a growing presence in the country, deploying thousands of Shi'ite fighters who have fought against both mainstream Sunni rebel groups and more militant groups.


Resumed cargo flights: Thaw in Israel-Turkey ties?

Updated 25 May 2020

Resumed cargo flights: Thaw in Israel-Turkey ties?

  • Ankara’s involvement in Syria’s Idlib province against the Tehran-backed Assad regime has recently provided a common denominator for Turkey and Israel to reconcile
  • Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians remains a major irritant in relations with Ankara – Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday reiterated his support for the Palestinians

ISTANBUL: Israeli airline El Al has resumed cargo flights twice weekly between Tel Aviv and Istanbul for the first time in 10 years — a sign that decade-long bilateral tensions might be easing.
A cargo flight landed in Istanbul on Sunday morning to pick up humanitarian aid and protective equipment destined for US medical teams fighting COVID-19.
Burhanettin Duran, head of the Ankara-based think tank SETA, wrote that Turkey’s regional empowerment is “obliging Israel to search for normalization steps with Ankara.”
Dr. Nimrod Goren, head of the Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, said the cargo flight is a positive and visible development in bilateral relations that was probably approved by top government officials on both sides and required diplomatic efforts.
“However, the fact that this step takes place in parallel to a discussion about Israeli annexation in the West Bank, and to criticism of annexation by regional and international actors, might impact how it’s viewed in Turkey,” he told Arab News.
Goren said while the Israeli and Turkish governments continue to have significant policy differences, they should work to restore their relations to ambassadorial level, and to relaunch a strategic dialogue on regional developments of mutual interest.
“The forming of a new Israeli government, and the appointment of Gabi Ashkenazi as a new foreign minister, could be an opportunity to do so, and the cargo flight brings some positive momentum,” he added.
Turkey expelled Israel’s ambassador in May 2018 after the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Ankara’s involvement in Syria’s Idlib province against the Tehran-backed Assad regime has recently provided a common denominator for Turkey and Israel to reconcile, as it also serves the latter’s strategic interests in weakening the Iranian presence in Syria.
But Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians remains a major irritant in relations with Ankara. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday reiterated his support for the Palestinians. 
In a video message on Twitter, he said the issue of Jerusalem “is a red line for all Muslims worldwide.”
He added that Israel’s “new occupation and annexation project … disrespects Palestine’s sovereignty and international law.”
Ryan Bohl, Middle East analyst at geopolitical-risk firm Stratfor, told Arab News: “Turkey is trying to create economic ties with Israel because … Erdogan is finding the political ground changed, caused in part by demographic changes as young Turks are less incensed by the Palestinian issue, and in part by a general weariness among Turks about putting too much skin in the game to solve the Palestinian question,” 
Israel is expected to annex large parts of the occupied West Bank on July 1 under the terms of a coalition government agreement. Ankara has strongly criticized the plan.
Israeli and Turkish officials are rumored to have held talks behind closed doors to reach a deal on maritime borders and exclusive economic zones in the eastern Mediterranean. 
Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently said it was “proud of our diplomatic relations with Turkey.”
But Goren said it is currently unlikely that Israel will advance a maritime demarcation deal with Turkey as it would shake several regional balances at the same time.
“It will put in jeopardy, and run in contrast to, the important alliances in the eastern Mediterranean that Israel has fostered in recent years with Greece, Cyprus and Egypt,” he added.