Why Iran absorbs Israeli-inflicted blows on its militant proxies in Syria

Israeli F35 I fighter jets are believed to have employed in a number of air strikes in Syria. (AFP)
1 / 9
Israeli F35 I fighter jets are believed to have employed in a number of air strikes in Syria. (AFP)
Israeli F35 I fighter jets are believed to have employed in a number of air strikes in Syria. (AFP)
2 / 9
Israeli F35 I fighter jets are believed to have employed in a number of air strikes in Syria. (AFP)
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on Feb. 24, 2020, reportedly shows Syrian air defende intercepting an Israeli missile in the sky over Damascus. (AFP)
3 / 9
A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on Feb. 24, 2020, reportedly shows Syrian air defende intercepting an Israeli missile in the sky over Damascus. (AFP)
An Israeli missile explodes as it is intercepted by Syrian air defenses over Damascus on Feb. 14, 2020. (AFP)
4 / 9
An Israeli missile explodes as it is intercepted by Syrian air defenses over Damascus on Feb. 14, 2020. (AFP)
Why Iran absorbs Israeli-inflicted blows on its militant proxies in Syria
5 / 9
Hezbollah supporters carry coffins of their fighters killed in Syria, during their funeral procession in Lebanon on March 1, 2020. (AFP)
6 / 9
Hezbollah supporters carry coffins of their fighters killed in Syria, during their funeral procession in Lebanon on March 1, 2020. (AFP)
Why Iran absorbs Israeli-inflicted blows on its militant proxies in Syria
7 / 9
Members of Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iran-allied paramilitary force in Iraq, holding a funeral procession in Baghdad for fellow comrades on December 31, 2019. (AFP file photo)
8 / 9
Members of Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iran-allied paramilitary force in Iraq, holding a funeral procession in Baghdad for fellow comrades on December 31, 2019. (AFP file photo)
Syrian protesters rally in front of a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Syrian President Bashar Assad and military commander Qassem Soleimani. (AFP)
9 / 9
Syrian protesters rally in front of a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Syrian President Bashar Assad and military commander Qassem Soleimani. (AFP)
Short Url
Updated 17 May 2021

Why Iran absorbs Israeli-inflicted blows on its militant proxies in Syria

Why Iran absorbs Israeli-inflicted blows on its militant proxies in Syria
  • Despite losing hundreds of fighters to Israeli bombardment, Iran and its proxies remain committed to their presence in Syria
  • Experts warn sanctions relief for Iran under revived nuclear talks could ignite an already volatile situation in the war-torn country

LONDON: Israel has launched hundreds of strikes against Iran and its allied proxies inside Syria since the country’s descent into civil war over a decade ago, with officials in Tel Aviv making it clear they will refuse to tolerate any Iranian entrenchment along their northern border.

Israeli warplanes have repeatedly attacked Iran-linked facilities and weapons convoys destined for Tehran’s Hezbollah proxies in Lebanon. On May 5, Israeli strikes in the Syrian provinces of Latakia and Hama claimed the lives of at least eight individuals on the payroll of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Despite the persistent bombardment and loss of personnel, experts say the IRGC is unlikely to strike back directly or relinquish its military presence any time soon. The reason: Syria is simply too precious a strategic prize for Tehran to give up.




A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on Feb. 24, 2020, reportedly shows Syrian air defende intercepting an Israeli missile in the sky over Damascus. (AFP)

“Both Israel and Iran believe that they have vital national security interests at stake in Syria,” Chris Bolan, professor of Middle East Security Studies at the US Army War College, told Arab News.

The Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah, which intervened early in the Syrian civil war in support of the Assad regime, is the crux of Israel’s national security headache in Syria, said Bolan.

“Israeli concerns with Iran’s support to Hezbollah are enduring and will continue regardless of the outcome of (nuclear) negotiations in Vienna. These concerns have only been exacerbated with Iran’s growing military presence and intervention on behalf of Syrian President Assad since the onset of the civil war,” he said.

“Israel will continue to take whatever actions are necessary — including airstrikes — to both minimize the threat posed by Hezbollah’s growing, sophisticated arsenal of missiles and ensure that Iran’s military presence in Syria does not pose an immediate threat to Israel.

“Similarly, Iranian leaders view their support to Hezbollah as an essential element of Iran’s national security strategy of forward defense. A well-equipped Hezbollah that poses a significant threat to Israel serves as Tehran’s most potent deterrent against large-scale Israeli or Western strikes.”




Members of Hashed al-Shaabi, an Iran-allied paramilitary force in Iraq, holding a funeral procession in Baghdad for fellow comrades on December 31, 2019. (AFP file photo)

Alongside Hezbollah, the IRGC has nurtured, trained and armed a host of other militia groups across Syria. By shipping in fighters from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Iraq and even Pakistan, Tehran has created its own army of Shiite mercenaries in Syria.

Still, on Syria’s front lines and at the mercy of Israeli warplanes, these foreign fighters have paid a heavy price for their allegiance to Tehran.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), between January 2018, when Israel’s involvement in Syria first escalated, and January 2020, almost 500 Iran-backed fighters were directly killed by Israeli airstrikes.

That figure includes “228 militiamen of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian-backed militias” and “171 members of the Iranian forces and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps,” as well as nearly 100 Syrian pro-government militiamen.




Hezbollah supporters carry coffins of their fighters killed in Syria, during their funeral procession in Lebanon on March 1, 2020. (AFP)

Thousands more have died on the front lines in direct clashes with rebels and Daesh militants.

According to SOHR, the May 5 strikes alone claimed eight lives: Five Iranians and Afghans, a Syrian and two others of “non-Syrian” nationality.

“The death toll is expected to rise further as the attack left many members injured, some seriously, including Lebanese militiamen and officers,” it said. It is not yet clear whether any members of Hezbollah were killed or injured.

IN NUMBER

500+

Fighters killed in Israeli strikes in Syria in Jan. 2018-Jan. 2020.

According to Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s program on counterterrorism and intelligence, Hezbollah is unlikely to risk striking back against Israel in spite of these heavy losses.

“Hezbollah has a clear track record over the past few years of only responding to Israeli strikes in Syria when those strikes kill Hezbollah operatives,” Levitt told Arab News.

“So long as Israeli strikes only hit Hezbollah weapons shipments or infrastructure, the group is unlikely to respond against Israel directly for fear of igniting a cross-border conflict that it currently wants to avoid.

“Hezbollah prefers to avoid fighting wars on two different fronts at once (Syria and Israel), and is also sensitive about dragging Lebanon into a war with Israel that the vast majority of Lebanese don’t want, at a time when Lebanon is experiencing severe economic and political instability.”

Instead, in the face of escalating losses, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has resorted to fiery rhetoric and lofty promises.

Just days after the latest strikes, Iranian state-backed media quoted Nasrallah as saying: “The ‘Israelis’ are concerned today due to the growing capabilities of the Axis of Resistance. The ‘Israeli’ entity is in trouble and its wall is cracking; there is a leadership crisis and this is a sign of collapse and weakness.”

However Hezbollah chooses to dress things up, Israel’s air campaign has not only caused hundreds of casualties but also succeeded in its stated objective of preventing widespread Iranian entrenchment in Syria, particularly in the country’s south.




Syrian protesters rally in front of a poster of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Syrian President Bashar Assad and the late military commander Qassem Soleimani. (AFP)

“The Israeli airstrikes against Iranian-backed groups have been quite effective in destroying and disrupting key targets in Syria,” said Johan Obdola, founder of the International Organization for Security and Intelligence.

In the course of the Syrian war, Israel has bombed secret weapons depots in major cities, key infrastructure including highways, as well as hundreds of shipments of missiles and other arms earmarked for Iran’s allies.




A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on April 27, 2020 shows a damaged building in Damascus after reported Israeli air strikes. (AFP)

“These constant airstrikes have been severely hitting Iran’s smuggling operations of advanced weapons, including missiles to Hezbollah in Syria, and also including warehouses and pre-existing underground compounds that serve as pipelines for military components,” Obdola said.

That said, Israel cannot afford to rest on its laurels, according to experts. If the talks should falter between Washington and Tehran over Iran’s nuclear program, Bolan warns, the standoff in Syria between Iran and Israel could become even more volatile.

“The outcome of negotiations is not likely to significantly alter the basic calculations of entrenched Israeli or Iranian interests in Syria,” said Bolan.

“Nevertheless, failed negotiations in Vienna will likely add to the already mounting tensions between Israel and Iran inside Syria and thereby increase the prospect of intended or unintended escalation.”

Obdola, for his part, says Iran and its allies are likely to capitalize on the talks and any sanctions relief achieved as an opportunity to strengthen their position against Israel.

“The nuclear talks represent to Iran an opportunity to move forward with its plan against Israel,” he said.

An end to sanctions on Iran “would facilitate Iran and Hezbollah in its expansion not only in Syria, but in other countries around the world where they have been implementing an aggressive military, militia and terrorist network.”

_______________________

Twitter: @CHamillStewart


Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for fire balloons

Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for fire balloons
Updated 18 June 2021

Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for fire balloons

Israel strikes Gaza in retaliation for fire balloons

GAZA CITY, Palestinian Territories: Israeli jets launched air strikes on Gaza overnight Thursday to Friday after militants in the Palestinian territory again set off incendiary balloons into southern Israel, the army and AFP journalists said.
The fire balloons and air strikes are the latest violence heaping pressure on a fragile cease-fire between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers that came into place on May 21, ending 11 days of heavy fighting.
“Over the past day, arson balloons were launched from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory,” Israel’s military said in a statement.
“In response... fighter jets struck military compounds and a rocket launch site belonging to the Hamas terror organization.”
AFP journalists in the Palestinian enclave also reported hearing explosions, which the army said hit sites in both Gaza City and in Khan Yunis, in the south of Gaza, home to some two million people.
Soon after the strikes, Hamas militants opened fire with heavy machines guns toward the Jewish state, as Israeli warning air raid sirens rang out.
US Secretary of State Blinken spoke on Thursday with Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and discussed “the need to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations in practical ways,” the State Department said in a statement.
“They also shared opinions on opportunities to deepen normalization efforts as well as on regional security issues, including Iran,” the State Department said.
Palestinian militants in Gaza launched balloons for a third day running on Thursday, according to Israeli firefighters battling the blazes sparked by the devices.
The balloons are basic devices intended to set fire to farmland and bush surrounding Gaza.


Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll

Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll
Updated 18 June 2021

Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll

Iranians nonchalant as regime opens poll
  • Khamenei’s ally Raisi likely to succeed succeed the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani

JEDDAH: Iranians vote on Friday in a race that is seen by the regime’s critics as not democratic, fair, or free by any means.

The election, tightly managed by the nation’s top authorities, is likely to hand the presidency to a judge sanctioned by Washington for alleged involvement in executions of political prisoners.

Hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi, an ally and protege of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is the favorite to succeed the pragmatist incumbent Hassan Rouhani.

“The regime will attempt to project that it enjoys legitimacy during this election. Government employees will be instructed to go to the ballots in order to show the popularity of the regime, while the authorities may manipulate the statistics in order to show a high voter turnout,” Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist, writes in Opinion.

Khamenei on Wednesday urged Iranians to turn out and vote, but a record number of people are expected to boycott the polls due to anger over worsening economic hardship and frustration with hard-line rule.

Another potential deterrent for voters is a hard-line vetting body’s disqualification of hundreds of would-be candidates, including many advocating more freedoms.

For an overwhelmingly young population chafing at political restrictions, the lack of choice at the ballot box means a vote serves little purpose, analysts of Iranian politics say.

Soraya, a student at Tehran University, told Arab News: “The government is telling people to vote. But I see voting as an insult. We are not going to vote in order to show the world that we Iranians are frustrated with this clerical establishment.

“We are not with a government that shoots down a passenger plane (Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, which was downed by the IRGC in January 2020), lies repeatedly, and kills and tortures its own citizens.

“We are not with a government that steals the nation’s natural resources and spends it on its militias. The old game of moderate or hard-liner is over. They are all the same.”

Within Iran’s mix of clerical rulers and elected officials, Khamenei has the final say on all state matters, including nuclear and foreign policies. But the elected president will be in charge of tackling an economy hammered by US sanctions.

Over 50 percent of Iran’s 85 million population has been pushed under the poverty line since 2018 when then US President Donald Trump ditched a 2015 nuclear deal and reimposed nuclear-related sanctions that have squeezed Tehran’s oil income.

Aware of its vulnerability to anger over the economy, the leadership fears a revival of street protests that have erupted since 2017, in which protesters called for “regime change.”


Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens

Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens
Updated 18 June 2021

Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens

Lebanese army calls for Arab, foreign aid as cash crisis deepens
  • Threat to military ‘leaves entire country at risk,’ defense ministers warn summit

BEIRUT: Lebanese army commander Gen. Joseph Aoun on Thursday expressed confidence that the military will overcome what he described as a “crucial and delicate period” facing Lebanon.

The military chief warned of an increasingly untenable situation, but said that the institution remains strong.

“We believe that we will overcome this crucial and delicate period thanks to the strong will of our soldiers, and to the support of the Lebanese people and the friendly countries,” Gen. Aoun said.

His remarks came as 20 members of the International Support Group for Lebanon (ISG), in addition to European and Arab countries, the UN, EU and other international organizations attended a virtual conference on Thursday to support the army.

Discontent is brewing among Lebanon’s security forces over a currency crash that has wiped out most of the value of their salaries. Lebanon’s pound has lost 90 percent of its value against the dollar since late 2019.

The conference, organized by France in collaboration with Italy and the UN, aimed to mobilize support through in-kind aid for the Lebanese Army such as food, medicine and spare parts for its military equipment, in light of the collapse of the pound and the effect of the country’s struggling economy on the military.

Lebanon is facing a political deadlock and the biggest economic crisis in its history, and there are expectations that the army will step in to protect public safety in the event of a full collapse — much feared by the international community.

French Defense Minister Florence Parly said: “We are concerned that the Lebanese army remains capable of fulfilling its duties in maintaining security and stability.”

Her Italian counterpart, Lorenzo Guerrini, highlighted the importance of “quickly responding to the needs of the army by providing it with basic support requirements.”

Joana Wronecka, UN special coordinator for Lebanon, said that the army must be kept “cohesive and operative.”

Zeina Akar, Lebanon’s caretaker defense minister, said: “Taking into consideration the unstable environment — full of upheaval and uncertainty — that surrounds Lebanon, the army is a guarantee for stability and for the security of the Lebanese people.”

The minister said the army is facing the same problems as the Lebanese people.

“Its purchase power is eroding and it needs strong support to keep performing its duties. The army’s personnel need support in order to provide livelihood for their families.”

Gen. Aoun reviewed the army’s requirements at Thursday’s talks, saying that there is “an incremental need today to support it so that it remains tenacious and capable of doing its duties.”

He said that the depreciation of the Lebanese pound had stripped military salaries of 90 percent of their value.

Gen. Aoun warned that “the continuous retreat of the economic and financial situation in Lebanon will eventually lead to the collapse of institutions, including the military institution, which will render the whole country vulnerable on the security level.”

Soldiers “need support as individuals to overcome this precarious period,” he added.

“The army is the guarantee for security and stability in Lebanon and the region. Jeopardizing its role will lead to the collapse of Lebanon and to the spread of chaos.”

France, which has led international efforts, has sought to ramp up pressure on Lebanon’s squabbling politicians after failed attempts to agree a new government and launch reforms.

“The participants highlighted the dire and steadily degrading economic and social conditions in Lebanon. In this context, they stressed that the Lebanese army, though overstretched, remains a crucial pillar of the Lebanese state,” the French Armed Forces Ministry said in a statement.

“Their cohesiveness and professionalism remain key to preserving the country’s stability.”


How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq

How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq
Updated 18 June 2021

How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq

How corruption and violence go hand-in-hand in Iraq
  • Iran-backed groups willing to kidnap, kill to protect corrupt revenue streams: Experts
  • Iraq ranked 160 out of 180 in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index

LONDON: Iran-backed militias in Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) employ assassinations, kidnappings and other forms of violence in order to protect the income they derive from widespread and deep-rooted corruption in Iraq, a panel of experts said on Thursday.

At an online event hosted by British think tank Chatham House and attended by Arab News, Mohammad Al-Hakim, senior advisor on economic reform to Iraq’s prime minister, said the country’s corruption crisis extends back to the days of Saddam Hussein’s rule, but is now systemic, politically sanctioned and backed by the threat of violence by Iran-backed groups.

“There’s a deep problem with the structure of the Iraqi state. This is very much a legacy that needs to be addressed,” Al-Hakim said. “The Iraqi state system has been deteriorating over 50 years.”

Iraq ranks in the bottom 20 countries in the world in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.

Government employees from the bottom to the top of Iraqi governance are engaging in systematic corruption, said Al-Hakim.

At the highest levels of the Iraqi state, civil servants have developed relationships with politicians that they use to line their own pockets and make money for their political allies.

Maya Gebeily, Middle East correspondent at the Thomson Reuters Foundation, said one of the underpinnings of this system is the PMF, which operates as a “cartel,” using violence to suppress any opposition or attempt to upturn the status quo.

“It’s important to think about this corruption as a cartel. There are players in the cartel who agree with each other on how to divvy up the spoils that are coming in either from tariffs, from a specific project, or into the ministry,” she added.

“That’s why there are no ‘turf wars’ … because everyone is benefitting from this system. As soon as the bodies start showing up, that means an economic loss.”

But that has not deterred the militias from violence, Gebeily said. They just do not use it against each other.

“What they’re doing is using violence against anybody who’s trying to root out corruption. Researchers, activists and others who’ve been extremely vocal about corruption have been kidnapped, murdered or otherwise harassed,” she said.

Law-abiding officials have been physically threatened, beaten up or had their families attacked when they refused to be complicit in corruption.

“Armed groups use violence as an enforcement mechanism to make sure their economic interests are secured,” said Gebeily.

“Let’s say you want to import cigarettes. Cigarettes are extremely lucrative to import, so you need an extremely powerful group — and the one I discovered was importing them was Kata’ib Hezbollah — to be involved in that import.”

Iraq’s most powerful armed militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah has directly attacked US forces in the country.

It is also widely believed to be behind a string of assassinations and kidnappings, including that of Hisham Al-Hashimi, a journalist who described the Iran-backed group as “the strongest and most dangerous group in the so-called Islamic resistance.”

Renad Mansour, director of the Iraq Initiative at Chatham House, said: “If we’re talking about power and where it lies in the Iraqi state, you only need look at the attempt by the prime minister to arrest Qasem Muslih, the leader of a brigade in the PMF, and why the prime minister was unable to keep someone who he accused of having a role in assassinations in jail.”

Mansour added: “Actually, these aren’t just militias. They have more connectivity to Iraq’s Parliament, to Iraq’s judiciary, than the prime minister does. They’re effectively connected to power in a more central way than the traditional and formal heads of state.”

This reveals the true and farcical nature of power in Iraq, Mansour said. “Those sitting on top of the system struggle with access to the state that they’re meant to be head of,” he added.

“Those apparently sitting outside the state actually have more connectivity to the essence, the power, the core of the state.”


Bahrain crown prince discusses Middle East security with UK PM Johnson

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad meets UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street. (BNA)
Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad meets UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street. (BNA)
Updated 18 June 2021

Bahrain crown prince discusses Middle East security with UK PM Johnson

Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad meets UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street. (BNA)
  • The two leaders discussed the global effort against COVID-19 and deepening cooperation on green technology
  • Prince Salman also met with Prince Charles, conveying greetings from King Hamad to Queen Elizabeth II

LONDON: Bahrain and the UK vowed to boost economic and security cooperation as Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad held talks with the British prime minister on Thursday.
Prince Salman said relations with the UK continued to evolve toward more advanced and solid partnerships in various fields, based on their close history spanning decades, Bahrain News Agency reported.
“The bilateral partnership between the two countries are based on opening wider horizons for the development of solid relations at all levels, in a manner that reflects the aspirations of the two countries,” Prince Hamad said during his meeting with Prime Minister Boris Johnson at 10 Downing Street.
He praised Britain’s strategic and vital role in maintaining security and stability in the region, and developing cooperation in areas such as military, economic and trade.
“They reflected on the close and historic partnership between the UK and Bahrain and agreed to further strengthen our economic, security and diplomatic cooperation,” Downing Street said in a statement, adding the two leaders discussed the global effort against COVID-19, support for international initiatives to combat the pandemic, including COVAX, and deepening cooperation on green technology and the transition to renewable energy.
“They also spoke about regional security issues and defense collaboration, and the prime minister commended the Bahraini government’s steps to normalize relations with Israel,” the statement added.
Prince Salman also met with Prince Charles, conveying greetings from King Hamad to Queen Elizabeth II.