Why Israel is waging a shadow war with Iran’s IRGC in Syria

Israel’s airstrikes across Syria come amid suspicions that Iran is using the country to move precision-guided missiles. (AFP/File Photos)
Israel’s airstrikes across Syria come amid suspicions that Iran is using the country to move precision-guided missiles. (AFP/File Photos)
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Updated 21 January 2022

Why Israel is waging a shadow war with Iran’s IRGC in Syria

Israel’s airstrikes across Syria come amid suspicions that Iran is using the country to move precision-guided missiles. (AFP/File Photos)
  • Israel has launched airstrikes across Syria amid suspicions that Iran is using the country to move precision-guided missiles
  • Experts believe Israel is trying to minimize Hezbollah’s capacity to retaliate in case it has to attack Iran’s nuclear sites

WASHINGTON D.C.: Israeli airstrikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria have been growing in scale and frequency in recent months as Tehran seeks to cement its hold over Syrian seaports, airports and overland smuggling routes.

From the Israeli standpoint, Iran’s ability to deliver precision-guided missile technology to Syrian territory via these routes poses a serious strategic threat, allowing Iran and its Hezbollah proxies to attack from short range at short notice in the event of a regional war.

Israel does not always claim responsibility for its strikes on sensitive Syrian facilities controlled by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, giving it a measure of plausible deniability to avoid open conflict or Syrian retaliation.

The country is nevertheless thought to be behind scores of recent strikes across Syrian regime territories, from the capital Damascus and the coastal province of Latakia in the northwest to Deir el-Zour in the east.

Latakia was struck twice in December amid suspicions the IRGC was using the port to move precision-guided weapons. The resulting fireball following one such strike revealed just how much dangerous material Iran was attempting to transfer to its regional terror network.

Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister, issued a stark warning to Iran following the Latakia strikes, vowing that “game-changing” weapons were a red line and Israel would not allow their proliferation.

However, the strikes do not appear to have deterred Iran.

“Preventing Iranian entrenchment in Syria is probably impossible. The question is the rate and quantity of Iranian entrenchment and the quality of this entrenchment,” Tal Beeri, head of the research department at the Alma Research and Education Center in Israel, told Arab News.

“Israel does this without plunging the region into war by attacking only armaments and almost completely refraining from attacking commanders. The attacks are carried out in a targeted manner based on accurate intelligence and only against targets that clearly will not have collateral damage or, alternatively, only minor collateral damage.”

According to Beeri, Israel primarily targets deliveries of components destined for air-defense systems, cruise missiles, long-range missiles, drones and electronic combat systems.

A picture taken on September 9, 2016 from the Isaeli-annexed Golan Heights shows smoke rising from the Syrian village of Jubata Al-Khashab after fire reportedly struck the Israeli-held zone. (AFP/File Photo)

“It is estimated that about 70 percent of the time, the air, sea and land arms-smuggling routes are closed due to Israeli activity,” he said.

“However, although arms smuggling has decreased compared with 2020, we do not know what has managed to evade Israeli intelligence and reached Syria and Lebanon.”

Constant pressure on the IRGC and its smuggling routes is seen by Israeli officials as the best means of preventing, or at least slowing, an Iranian military build-up on its doorstep.

“In light of this, we have been witnessing an increasing volume of airstrikes on Syrian soil that has been taking place for a long time now. This is the only way the ‘mowing the grass’ strategy can succeed,” said Beeri.

“It is not just in Israel’s interest. It is in the interest of all relevant players in the Middle East that are threatened by Iran and the international community’s interests, especially the US, Russia and Europe.”

Syrians hold pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad during a demonstration in front of the UN office in Damascus, 30 July 2006, condemning an Israeli air strike on the southern Lebanese village of Qana. (AFP/File Photo)

Beeri warned that ballistic missiles on Syrian and Lebanese soil could be easily directed toward Europe.

“Nowadays, the Saudis understand this well in light of the fighting in Yemen and the physical threat posed to them from a direct geographic front under Iranian auspices,” he said.

Indeed, in his most recent speech, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah spoke at length of his group’s intentions to target Saudi Arabia and broader Arab interests not aligned with Iran’s regional hegemonic aims.

Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, said that Israeli strikes on targets in Syria are already having an impact.

“Israel has achieved impressive results in its campaign in Syria to prevent advanced weaponry from reaching Iran’s proxies and partners,” Brodsky told Arab News.

“According to recent Israeli estimates, Iran has been unable to make such transfers through the region — via, air, land and sea — around 70 percent of the time. Israel aims to increase the cost for Bashar Assad in allowing such illicit Iranian activity to take place on Syrian soil.”

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) riding a tank as part of five-days military exercises in three provinces. (AFP)

However, Brodsky suspects it is only a matter of time before Iran finds alternative routes and methods to move its weaponry.

“As it relates to Iran’s calculus, I don’t see Tehran letting up on its designs to use Lebanon and Syria as a launchpad for attacks against Israel in the future. But such Israeli strikes will cause the Iranians to improvise their smuggling routes,” he said.

“According to public reports citing Syrian sources, Iran has ramped up arms transfers by sea in an attempt to avoid Israeli strikes in eastern Syria. That explains the uptick in Israeli strikes targeting Latakia port, with two alone in December.”

Israel’s fast-paced approach to containing Iranian activity coincides with international negotiations in the Austrian capital Vienna aimed at reviving the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or Iran nuclear deal.

Donald Trump, the former US president, withdrew from the accord in 2018, arguing that the agreement reached by the administration of Barack Obama did not go far enough in reducing Iran’s ballistic missile program or its policy of arming and funding militia proxies throughout the Middle East.

Israeli soliders patrol near an Iron Dome defence system, designed to intercept and destroy incoming short-range rockets and artillery shells, in the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, on January 20, 2015, two days after an Israeli air strike killed six Hezbollah members in the Syrian-controlled side of the area. (AFP/File Photo)

Israeli defense officials worry that history might repeat itself if US President Joe Biden’s team signs a new nuclear deal that fails to address the issues cited by Trump. These widening strategic differences between the US and Israel could lead to more unilateral Israeli action.

Brodsky believes Israeli strikes against IRGC targets in Syria may also be intended to show Iran that Israel means business, no matter what the US decides in Vienna.

“While the timing of these strikes is driven by the operational needs of the moment, they have a secondary upside for Israel as it seeks to demonstrate to Tehran that it is prepared to hold it accountable militarily, all while the nuclear talks are happening in Vienna,” he said.

Farhad Rezaei, a senior research fellow at the Philos Project, also believes Israel is sending an unambiguous message to Tehran, showing that it is prepared for any scenario, especially if it concludes that Iran’s nuclear program can be halted only by military means.

A damaged hotel near Syria’s Latakia port after an Israeli air strike targeted the port early on December 28, 2021. (AFP)

“My understanding is that Israel is trying to minimize a Hezbollah missile attack in case it has to bomb the Iranian nuclear facilities, so Israel is bombing the convoys that bring precision-guided missiles to Lebanon via Syria, as well as the workshops in Syria and storage facilities where precision-guided missiles and rockets are built and stored,” Rezaei told Arab News.

“Israeli papers are talking about a multi-domain operation to prepare for a strike, such as training pilots, obtaining aerial-refueling craft, and trying to limit the potential damage from a Hezbollah barrage once the operation is launched.”

For the time being, according to most experts, neither Israel nor Iran appears interested in starting an open conflict. But with ever more advanced Iranian missile technology finding its way into Hezbollah hands and an isolated Syrian regime growing increasingly reliant on Iran, the stakes are getting higher.

If a fresh nuclear deal is signed in Vienna without additional restrictions on IRGC activity and Iranian missile proliferation, then the chances of a military escalation will rise dramatically.

Iran says ‘accident’ near Tehran was at defense research unit

Iran says ‘accident’ near Tehran was at defense research unit
One person has been killed in an “industrial accident” near an Iranian military complex. (Shutterstock)
Updated 26 May 2022

Iran says ‘accident’ near Tehran was at defense research unit

Iran says ‘accident’ near Tehran was at defense research unit
  • One person has been killed in an “industrial accident” near an Iranian military complex, according to state media
  • It gave no details of the cause of the accident.

TEHRAN: Iran’s defense ministry said Thursday that an “accident” in the Parchin area near Tehran, happened at one of its “research units,” and killed one “engineer” and injured another.
“On Wednesday evening, in an accident that took place in one of the research units of the defense ministry in the Parchin area, engineer Ehsan Ghad Beigi was martyred and one of his colleagues injured,” the ministry said.
State media had earlier reported one person killed in an “industrial accident” near the Parchin military complex, which has previously come under scrutiny by the UN nuclear watchdog.
The Parchin complex, southeast of Tehran, is alleged to have hosted past testing of conventional explosives that could be used to detonate a nuclear warhead, something Iran has repeatedly denied.
The site came under renewed scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2015 when Tehran reached a landmark deal with major powers under which it agreed to curb its nuclear activities under UN supervision in return for the lifting of international sanctions.
Iran had previously denied the IAEA access to Parchin, insisting it was a military site unrelated to any nuclear activities, but the agency’s then chief, the late Yukiya Amano, paid a visit.
In June 2020, a gas tank explosion in a “public area” near the complex shook the capital, 30 kilometers (20 miles) away, but caused no casualties, the defense ministry said at the time.
Iran’s nuclear program has been the target of a campaign of sabotage, cyberattacks and assassinations of key scientists that it has blamed on arch foe Israel.
Israeli leaders have repeatedly refused to rule out military action to prevent Iran developing an atomic bomb.
Iran has consistently denied any ambition to develop a nuclear weapon, insisting its activities are entirely peaceful.

Talks begin between Yemeni government and Houthis over reopening of Taiz road

Talks begin between Yemeni government and Houthis over reopening of Taiz road
Updated 26 May 2022

Talks begin between Yemeni government and Houthis over reopening of Taiz road

Talks begin between Yemeni government and Houthis over reopening of Taiz road
  • The negotiations are part of a two-month truce that is due to expire on June 2 but the UN’s special envoy, Hans Grundberg, said working with all parties to extend it
  • He added that also as part of the truce, important progress has been made in efforts to agree the resumption of commercial flights to and from Sanaa airport

NEW YORK: Negotiations began in Amman on Wednesday between Yemen’s government and the Iran-backed Houthi militia over the reopening of roads in Taiz and other governorates.

The talks are taking place under the auspices of the UN. Hans Grundberg, the organization’s special envoy for Yemen, said that they are part of a two-month truce that was agreed in April at the start of Ramadan. He added that it is due to expire on June 2 but he is working with all parties to extend it.

Grundberg called on all of those involved to negotiate “in good faith” and take urgent action to reach an agreement on restoring freedom of movement and improving the living conditions of the people of Yemen.

“Yemenis have suffered for too long from the impact of road closures,” he said. “Opening roads in Taiz and elsewhere is a crucial element of the truce that will allow families divided by front lines to see each other, children to go to school, civilians to go to work and reach hospitals, and essential trade to resume.”

Yemenis protest in Taiz on Wednesday, demanding the end of the blockade imposed by the Houthis on the country’s third city. (AFP)

He added that also as part of the truce, important progress has been made in efforts to agree the resumption of commercial flights to and from Sanaa airport. More than 1,000 passengers have flown so far and the frequency of flights is increasing. Preparations are now under way to resume flights between Sanaa and Cairo, Egypt.

“This will allow more Yemenis to travel abroad to access medical care, educational and trade opportunities, and to visit family,” said Grundberg, who thanked the Egyptian government for its help arranging the flights and its “active support to the UN’s peace efforts.”

Although fighting has abated in Yemen since the truce began, with a significant reduction in civilian casualties, Grundberg raised concerns about reports of continued fighting and civilian casualties in some parts of the country in recent weeks.

“I call on the parties to exercise maximum restraint to preserve the truce and to fulfill their obligations under international law to protect civilians,” said the envoy, who vowed to continue to work with all involved under the terms of the truce to “prevent, deescalate and resolve incidents.”

He added: “We have seen the tangible benefits the truce has delivered so far for the daily lives of Yemenis. The parties need to renew the truce to extend and consolidate these benefits to the people of Yemen, who have suffered over seven years of war.

“The truce has presented a window of opportunity to break with the violence and suffering of the past and move toward a peaceful future in Yemen. The parties need to seize this opportunity by implementing and renewing the truce and negotiating more durable solutions on security, political and economic issues, including revenues and salaries, to support a comprehensive political settlement of the conflict.

“The parties have the responsibility to safeguard and deliver on this potential for peace in Yemen.”

UN Security Council calls for swift formation of new government in Lebanon

UN Security Council calls for swift formation of new government in Lebanon
Updated 26 May 2022

UN Security Council calls for swift formation of new government in Lebanon

UN Security Council calls for swift formation of new government in Lebanon
  • Members also stressed the need for the urgent implementation of economic reforms, and urged all parties to dissociate themselves from external conflicts
  • They reiterated need for a transparent investigation into the 2020 Beirut explosion to be concluded, to meet Lebanese demands for justice and accountability

NEW YORK: The UN Security Council on Wednesday welcomed the fact that parliamentary elections in Lebanon went ahead as planned on May 15, “despite challenging circumstances,” but called for the swift formation of a new, inclusive government and the “urgent implementation” of previously outlined economic reforms.

In a joint statement, council members said that the reforms should include the adoption of “an appropriate” national budget for 2022 that will enable the speedy implementation of an agreement with the International Monetary Fund “to respond to the demands of the Lebanese population.”

The country’s economy has been mired since August 2019 in a crippling crisis, during which the Lebanese pound has lost more than 90 percent of its value and more than three-quarters of the population have fallen into poverty.

Last month, Lebanon and the IMF had reached an agreement on a plan that could unlock about $3 billion of international funding over several years. However, the deal is subject to approval by the management and executive board of the IMF, and hinges on Lebanese authorities implementing a host of economic reforms, including the restructuring of the country’s collapsed banking sector, improved transparency, and unifying the multiple exchange rates that apply to the nation’s spiraling currency.

The Security Council stressed the role Lebanese institutions, including the newly elected parliament, have to play in the implementation of these necessary reforms and underscored the importance of delivering them, “to ensure effective international support.”

Members also called for steps to be taken to enhance the “full, equal and meaningful participation and representation” of women in Lebanese institutions, including the new government.

“These elections were key to enabling the Lebanese people to exercise their civil and political rights,” the council members said.

They reiterated the need for “a swift conclusion of an independent, impartial, thorough and transparent investigation” into the devastating explosion at Beirut’s port on Aug. 4, 2020, which left more than 200 people dead, thousands injured and many more displaced, as well as billions of dollars in property damage.

The council said the investigation is “essential to meet the legitimate aspirations of the Lebanese people for accountability and justice.”

Members also urged all Lebanese parties to implement a tangible policy of “disassociation from any external conflicts, as an important priority, as spelled out in previous declarations, in particular the 2012 Baabda Declaration.”

The Iran-backed Hezbollah party has sent militants to Syria to fight alongside the forces of the Assad regime.

US calls for more crossing points for delivery of aid to Syria

US calls for more crossing points for delivery of aid to Syria
Updated 26 May 2022

US calls for more crossing points for delivery of aid to Syria

US calls for more crossing points for delivery of aid to Syria
  • During a meeting of the UN Security Council, American envoy Linda Thomas-Greenfield, called for unity for the sake of millions of Syrians in need
  • Her Russian counterpart blamed the stalled peace process on “US occupation” of Syrian territories and American “plundering” of the country’s resources

NEW YORK: The denial of access for humanitarian efforts during armed conflicts is reinforcing a vicious cycle of killings and forced displacements, the US warned on Wednesday.

The result of this can be seen in Syria where, after 11 years of the “Assad regime’s brutal war,” 14 million people rely on humanitarian aid to survive and 6.6 million are displaced within their own country, said Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the permanent US representative to the UN.

She called for the renewal and expansion of existing crossing points and addition of new crossings to make it easier to deliver aid to the Syrian people.

“Every month, Syrian civilians are attacked and killed by the Assad regime and others,” she said. “And hospitals often don’t have the medicine or supplies to help the injured because humanitarian convoys aren’t able to reach them.”

She was speaking as she convened a meeting of the Security Council, the presidency of which is held by the US this month. It came in the wake of the publication of a report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on the protection of civilians during armed conflicts, which paints a bleak picture of the difficulties humanitarian operations face in conflict zones such as Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan and Mali.

It highlights grave concerns about attacks on humanitarian workers and assets; 143 such security incidents were recorded in 14 countries and territories during 2021, which resulted in the deaths of 93 aid workers.

In a concept note distributed before the meeting, the US mission stated that although international humanitarian law and other legal frameworks provide the necessary foundation to facilitate humanitarian access and the protection of aid workers, the legal principles are often ignored.

Focusing on Syria in particular, Thomas-Greenfield told her fellow ambassadors that the Security Council has the power to provide paths for humanitarian access where it is most desperately needed.

“We did this last year when we unanimously voted to renew the mandate for UN cross-border assistance in Syria,” she said.

“That was an important, lifesaving decision for millions of people. It demonstrated the best of what we can do when we work together.”

The UN estimates that 14.6 million Syrians will need humanitarian assistance this year, an increase of almost 10 percent on last year.

“So we have to renew the mandate again,” Thomas-Greenfield said. “And we have to expand it and increase the number of crossing points to meet the rising demands for humanitarian aid in Syria.”

She will visit Bab Al-Hawa, the only crossing point that currently remains open, in the coming days.

Security Council discussions about the issue often prove difficult, with Russia and China consistently insisting that all humanitarian aid deliveries require the consent of the Syrian authorities.

When deliveries of international aid to Syria began in 2014, the Security Council approved four border crossings. In January 2020, permanent member Russia used its power of veto to force the closure of all but one. Moscow argues that international aid operations violate the Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, said: “Despite notable successes in the fight against international terrorism, the establishment of complete peace and stability in the country is hindered by the illegal occupation by the United States of a significant part of the (Syrian) territory.

“Camps with inhuman living conditions for the civilian population continue to operate in the occupied territories. Devastation and total lawlessness reign.”

He accused the “occupying US power” of “openly plundering” Syria’s natural and agricultural resources, and of illegally smuggling oil and grain out of the country, describing it as “the American recipe for dealing with the global energy and food crisis.”

“Despite the protracted serious humanitarian situation in Syria and the economic crisis, the US and the EU continue to apply illegal, unilateral sanctions against the long-suffering people of Syria, with disastrous consequences,” Nebenzia added.

The current mandate for the cross-border mechanism is due to expire in July.

Egypt wants to shift focus to developing countries in climate talks — official

Egypt wants to shift focus to developing countries in climate talks — official
Updated 26 May 2022

Egypt wants to shift focus to developing countries in climate talks — official

Egypt wants to shift focus to developing countries in climate talks — official
  • A natural gas exporter, Egypt takes over presidency of the UN climate talks from Britain
  • Delivering this financing is among Egypt’s priorities for COP27

CAIRO: Egypt will position itself as an impartial arbiter while hosting this year’s COP27 UN climate summit, as it pushes other nations to act on climate pledges while promoting the interests of the developing world, a senior Egyptian official said.
Egypt, where unauthorized public demonstrations are banned, would also welcome protests within the rules of the Nov. 7-18 summit in Sharm el-Sheikh, said Wael Aboulmagd, special representative to the COP27 president.
A natural gas exporter, Egypt takes over presidency of the UN climate talks from Britain. Last year’s summit in Glasgow, Scotland, ended with the nearly 200 countries in attendance promising to strengthen their climate pledges this year.
Wealthy nations also disappointed many in Glasgow by saying they would not deliver the $100 billion per year promised from 2020 until 2023 to help developing countries with their energy transition and with adapting to a warming world.
Delivering this financing is among Egypt’s priorities for COP27. It also wants to focus on securing separate “loss and damage” funds, or compensation payments to climate-vulnerable countries already suffering from climate-related weather extremes, Aboulmagd said in an interview.
“There are issues that are of interest and priority to developing countries, and there are high expectations from us as a developing country to ensure that these issues are taken on board and that they achieve commensurate progress with how important they are,” he said.
But Egypt also would seek to mediate between developed and developing countries that have clashed over issues including carbon emissions and climate financing, as it tries to help steer a move from pledges to action, Aboulmagd said.
“In this particular year it is in the interest of the process that a perception of impartiality and equal distance from everyone is maintained.”
Aboulmagd said Egypt was working to launch about 17 voluntary initiatives in areas including food and agriculture and water management, hoping to inspire ideas and action to help countries meet their pledges.
Egypt is fine tuning its own updated target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, known as a nationally determined contribution (NDC).
“We intend to move even faster, despite very difficult circumstances,” Aboulmagd said, referring to economic disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine.
To promote global access and representation at COP27, Egypt has sought to fast track accreditation for under-represented civil society organizations from Africa, Aboulmagd said, adding that he hoped climate campaigners and activists play a constructive role.
“There are certain rules and we’re working with the secretariat to ensure that if there are people who want to protest, they’re entitled to do that, and it’s done in a peaceful manner,” he said.
“It’s good to have people yelling at you — hopefully not throwing stuff at you, but just yelling at you and we’re accustomed to that.”
Egypt’s government had worked with hotels to provide affordable accommodation for participants in Sharm el-Sheikh, a tourist resort on the Red Sea, he said.
“What we have done to the utmost is to ensure that decent hotels and very reasonable rates are made available.”