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.

UN Security Council in renewed call for Abu Akleh’s killers to be brought to justice

UN Security Council in renewed call for Abu Akleh’s killers to be brought to justice
Updated 15 sec ago

UN Security Council in renewed call for Abu Akleh’s killers to be brought to justice

UN Security Council in renewed call for Abu Akleh’s killers to be brought to justice
  • Council members condemn Israeli violence at slain journalist’s funeral and repeat demands for independent investigation into her death
  • Israel again called on to halt settlement expansion, and rescind Palestinian property demolition and eviction orders


NEW YORK: The killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jenin in the West Bank and the subsequent excessive use of force by Israeli police against mourners at her funeral were again a key focus of a UN Security Council meeting held on Thursday to discuss the latest report on the situation in the Palestinian territories.

Council members condemned Abu Akleh’s killing, and reiterated their calls for an independent and transparent investigation into her death, while Tor Wennesland, the UN special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said that “those responsible must be held accountable.”

US permanent representative to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield described Abu Akleh’s “heart-wrenching killing” as a “tragic loss and an affront to press freedoms everywhere.”

She strongly condemned the killing, and called for “an immediate, thorough, transparent and impartial investigation,” adding: “And upon the conclusion of an investigation, we expect full accountability for those found responsible.”

Thomas-Greenfield said that Abu Akleh’s death was compounded by the violence at her funeral procession.

“We have directly shared our concern with Israel regarding the troubling footage of Israeli police intruding on the procession,” she said.

The US envoy called on all parties to honor Abu Akleh by “redoubling” peace efforts.

Former and current European members of the Security Council also reiterated their call for an investigation into Abu Akleh’s killing and expressed shock at “the violence exercised by the Israeli police toward mourners at her funeral.”

In a joint statement issued after the Security Council meeting, EU members France, Ireland and Estonia, joined by Albania, deplored the decision by the Israeli Higher Planning Council on May 12 to advance plans for the construction of more than 4,000 housing units in the occupied West Bank.

The statement urged Israel to rescind that decision, as well as abandon planned demolitions and evictions, especially in Masafer Yatta area, which alone could result in the forced transfer of 1,200 people.

Condemning all attacks against journalists, Wennesland said that Abu Akleh’s death “brought Palestinians and countless others around the world together in grief and anger, while serving as another reminder of the devastating human cost of this conflict.”

The special coordinator also lamented “the familiar pattern of daily violence, including armed clashes, settlement expansion, evictions, demolitions and seizures of Palestinian structures, as well as a deadly terrorist attack in Israel.”

The daily violence has left 10 Palestinians, including a woman and three children, dead and 346 Palestinians, including 24 children, injured.

Those deaths and injuries at the hands of Israeli security forces occurred during demonstrations, clashes, and search-and-arrest operations, said Wennesland.

He said that Israeli settlers and other civilians have carried out 57 attacks against Palestinians, resulting in one Palestinian child being killed, 24 injuries and damage to Palestinian property.

Meanwhile, four Israeli civilians and one Israeli security personnel were killed and 22 civilians and 20 security personnel injured by Palestinians in shooting and stabbing attacks or clashes involving the throwing of stones or homemade incendiary devices.

Wennesland also called for urgent attention to the Palestinian Authority’s “dire” financial situation, “compounded by the constraints of the occupation, the absence of serious Palestinian reforms and unclear prospects for donor support.”

He said: “Without meaningful policy steps on the part of Israel, bold reforms on the part of the PA and increased donor support, these economic challenges will continue.”

Death of US embassy employee in Houthi detention sparks outrage

Death of US embassy employee in Houthi detention sparks outrage
Updated 26 May 2022

Death of US embassy employee in Houthi detention sparks outrage

Death of US embassy employee in Houthi detention sparks outrage
  • The US embassy said that Abdulhameed Al-Ajami, one of its staff members in the Yemeni capital, who was abducted by the Houthis, had died in Houthi detention
  • Al-Ajami was among at least a dozen Yemeni workers at the embassy, and USAID, who were abducted and later forcibly disappeared

AL-MUKALLA: The Iran-backed Houthis have again been criticized for mistreating prisoners after an employee at a US aid organization in Yemen died while being held by the group.

The US embassy in Sanaa said on Thursday that Abdulhameed Al-Ajami, one of its staff members in the Yemeni capital who was abducted by the Houthis late last year, had died in Houthi detention.

In a statement, also calling for the release of the other workers detained by the Houthis, the embassy said: “We grieve for retired USAID (US Agency for International Development) employee Abdulhameed Al-Ajami, who died in Houthi captivity.

“He was an innocent grandfather who should never have died away from his family, a proud Yemeni dedicated to educating Yemeni children.

“We extend our condolences to his loved ones and call on the Houthis to end this injustice and release every single current and former US Embassy employee now.”

Al-Ajami was among at least a dozen Yemeni workers at the embassy and USAID who were abducted and later forcibly disappeared after the militia group raided the embassy’s compound.

Yemeni activists and local media reports said that Al-Ajami was brutally tortured by the Houthis and was denied life-saving mediation, a move that led to his death.

Al-Ajami’s death came as friends of another US embassy abductee, Bassam Al-Mardahi, warned that he could die too, as he was in a critical condition due to torture by his captors.

Yemeni government officials, human rights activists, and former abductees strongly condemned the Houthis for abusing prisoners, stating that the death of Al-Ajami was another clue to the torture methods used by the group against thousands of prisoners.

Yemen’s Minister of Information Muammar Al-Eryani offered his condolences to Al-Ajami’s family and called for international action to force the Houthis to stop abusing prisoners and release them immediately.

He expressed his strong condemnation of the group’s “psychological and physical torture” of Al-Ajami, treatment, the minister said, that had resulted in his death eight months after being abducted, adding that he had been deprived “of his most basic rights, including medicines.”

The French Embassy in Yemen also denounced the death and asked the Houthis to release the remaining abducted US and UN workers.

In a tweet, the embassy said: “It reiterated its demand for the release of all local employees of the US embassy and the UN who have been arbitrarily detained by the Houthis for several months.”

The Houthis are also still holding two Yemenis working for the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Sanaa who were abducted in the city in November. The two workers have not been put on trial and the Houthis have prevented them from contacting their families, the UN said.

Similarly, Yemeni human rights activists said that torture was rife inside Houthi prisons and dozens of civilians abducted by the group had died while in detention.

Fuad Al-Mansouri, a Yemeni human rights activist, told Arab News that many detainees inside Houthi prisons may face the same fate as Al-Ajami if the Houthis were not forced to stop abusing prisoners.

“Al-Ajami’s death is a very serious indication of the mistreatment of detainees in the prisons of the Houthi militia. This is not the first incident, and it will not be the last,” Al-Mansouri said.

Amat Al-Salam Al-Hajj, chairwoman of the Abductees’ Mothers Association, an umbrella organization for thousands of female relatives of war prisoners, told Arab News that the Houthis had barred relatives of the detained US embassy employees from speaking to the organization or media, urging the UN Yemen envoy to work on releasing thousands of detainees.

“In Houthi prisons, the dignity of the Yemeni human being is insulted. The file of the abductee is a true humanitarian crisis that must be addressed,” she said.

Abdullah Al-Munifi, a Yemeni journalist and former detainee who was released from a Houthi prison in 2018, told Arab News that he was whipped with electrical cables, hung by his arms, deprived of sleep and toilet facilities, electrocuted, and kept in solitary confinement for months.

“I wish I would die due to torture. Sometimes they make wounds on the body and put salt on them,” Al-Munifi said.

Europe ‘silent’ on ‘deplorable conditions’ for migrants in Libya: NGO chief

Europe ‘silent’ on ‘deplorable conditions’ for migrants in Libya: NGO chief
Updated 26 May 2022

Europe ‘silent’ on ‘deplorable conditions’ for migrants in Libya: NGO chief

Europe ‘silent’ on ‘deplorable conditions’ for migrants in Libya: NGO chief
  • IOM Chief of Mission Federico Soda: ‘On a number of issues in the country, we (the IOM) are the only voice; that’s problematic; what concerns me is kind of the acquiescence’
  • A recent IOM report found that a record 32,425 people were returned to Libya after trying to travel to Europe last year

LONDON: Europe has failed to note and act on the plight of thousands of migrants in Libya who are being held in “deplorable conditions” and often under arbitrary detention, an international NGO chief has said.

Federico Soda, chief of mission for the International Organization for Migration’s presence in Libya, said too little is being done to have an effect on the country’s “environment of arbitrary detention and deplorable conditions” for migrants.

“Most member states are silent on these issues in Libya,” Soda told reporters in Brussels. “On a number of issues in the country, we (the IOM) are the only voice. That’s problematic. What concerns me is kind of the acquiescence.”

He described the attitude prevalent in Europe as: “‘It’s not a problem on our shore, so let’s just keep it there’.”

Soda said the international community should dish out “more condemnation” and demand “more calls for law and order for investigations” into the situation in Libya.

A recent IOM report found that a record 32,425 people were returned to Libya after trying to travel to Europe last year.

The majority were intercepted or rescued from the often unsafe small boats they travel in across the Mediterranean Sea.

Soda said the issue is society-wide, with multiple groups guilty of allowing the crisis to continue.

“It’s not about elected people; I think the whole of the community has a responsibility here, because when societies becomes as polarized as we’ve been on migration issues, I think we all have to look in the mirror and maybe put ourselves in the shoes and the conditions of where these people are coming from,” he added.

Yemen government, Houthis begin Amman talks on ending Taiz siege 

Yemen government, Houthis begin Amman talks on ending Taiz siege 
Updated 26 May 2022

Yemen government, Houthis begin Amman talks on ending Taiz siege 

Yemen government, Houthis begin Amman talks on ending Taiz siege 
  • Desperate civilians hold rallies protesting the Houthi siege, calling for action from international community

AL-MUKALLA: Discussions between the Yemeni government and the Iran-backed Houthis on opening roads in the city of Taiz and other provinces started on Wednesday as thousands gathered in the streets of Taiz to demand an immediate end to the Houthis’ siege. 

Hans Grundberg, the UN’s Yemen envoy, said his office would sponsor the meeting between both sides in the Jordanian capital to discuss opening roads in Taiz and the provinces as part of the two-month truce.

“The meeting between Government of Yemen & Ansar Allah representatives on opening roads in #Taiz & other governorates as per the truce agreement starts today in Amman under the auspices of the UN Envoy for #Yemen,” Grundberg tweeted, using the official name of the Houthis.

The Yemeni government delegation said they held a meeting with Grundberg shortly after landing in Amman, adding that they might engage in direct talks with the Houthis over the coming days. 

“We would be pushing for opening roads to pre-war time and resuming the flow of water and power supplies to the city,” Ali Al-Ajar, a member of the government delegation, told Arab News by telephone from Amman. 

The truce, which came into effect on April 2 and is the longest since the beginning of the war, called for a pause in fighting on all fronts, resuming flights from Sanaa airport, allowing fuel ships to enter Hodeidah port and forming a joint committee to discuss opening roads in Taiz, Abyan, Al-Bayda, Marib and the other provinces. 

The meeting was delayed many times as the Houthis refused to name their representatives, despite constant demands from international mediators. 

Meanwhile, hundreds of citizens rallied in the streets of Taiz on Wednesday to demand international action to force the Houthis to end their siege on the city. 

The protesters carried posters and slogans demanding action from Yemeni negotiators in Amman, the UN Yemen envoy and the international community in ending the siege that has cut off the city from the rest of the country. 

“The complete lifting of the siege is an inalienable human right,” read one of the posters. 

This week, people in Taiz challenged the Houthi siege by arranging rallies near the heavily mined checkpoints on the edges of the city, drawing attention to their suffering under the siege. These rallies are rare and reflect the desperation felt by the people living under siege.

During the past seven years, the Houthis have blocked the city’s main entrances and roads that link it with Sanaa, Hodeidah and Aden. The Iran-backed terrorists have planted landmines and deployed snipers in the surrounding areas after failing to seize control of the city’s downtown due to resistance from government troops. 

The siege has pushed thousands of people into famine as the Houthis prevent aid and vital goods from reaching the city, forcing people into using dangerous mountain roads. 

Mohammed Al-Mekhlafi, a Yemeni political analyst, criticized the international community for not mounting enough pressure on the Houthis to lift the siege on Taiz as they did with the Yemeni government and the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen over Sanaa airport and Hodeidah port. 

“The UN and the international community did not use serious and active pressure on the Houthis to open humanitarian corridors in Taiz. The Houthis got many concessions concerning Sanaa airport and Hodeidah seaport without offering anything in return,” Al-Mekhlafi told Arab News.

The Houthis, who usually deny that they are laying a siege on Taiz, said on Tuesday that they closed some roads in Taiz to protect people from clashes. 

“The procedures in Taiz were imposed following military necessities to preserve the lives of citizens,” said Abdul Malik Al-Ajri, a Houthi negotiator, according to the Houthi media. He said the movement has not discussed the truce extension with the UN. 

Slain IRGC officer headed assassination unit: Report

Slain IRGC officer headed assassination unit: Report
No one has taken responsibility for Khodaei’s death. (File/AFP)
Updated 26 May 2022

Slain IRGC officer headed assassination unit: Report

Slain IRGC officer headed assassination unit: Report
  • Hassan Sayyad Khodaei planned kidnappings, killings for Quds Force Unit 840: WSJ
  • Targets included Israeli diplomat, American general, French intellectual

LONDON: An Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps officer killed outside his home in Tehran on Sunday is thought to have been responsible for the group’s assassination unit, the Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday.

Citing unnamed sources, the newspaper reported that Col. Hassan Sayyad Khodaei planned kidnappings and killings for Quds Force Unit 840, including recent failed plots against an Israeli diplomat, an American general and a French intellectual.  

Some of those the WSJ cited questioned whether any of the operations planned by Khodaei had been successful, noting that he was also tied to a foiled plot to murder an Israeli businessman in Cyprus last year, which led to the arrest of an Azerbaijani national.

No one has taken responsibility for Khodaei’s death, but Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi appeared to blame the US when he referred to the role of the “global arrogance” — a term applied to America — in the killing during a televised statement.

“I have no doubt that revenge for the pure blood of this martyr on the hands of the criminals is inevitable,” he added.

Israel warned that it would respond to acts of Iranian aggression abroad inside Iran, the WSJ reported.