Why Israel has stepped up strikes on Iranian arms shipments to sites in Syria

Analysis Why Israel has stepped up strikes on Iranian arms shipments to sites in Syria
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Israeli Air Force F-15 fighters are stepping up strikes on targets in Syria. (AFP)
Analysis Why Israel has stepped up strikes on Iranian arms shipments to sites in Syria
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Israeli Air Force F-15 fighters are stepping up strikes on targets in Syria. (AFP)
Analysis Why Israel has stepped up strikes on Iranian arms shipments to sites in Syria
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Israeli Air Force F-15 fighters are stepping up strikes on targets in Syria. (AFP)
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Updated 08 September 2022

Why Israel has stepped up strikes on Iranian arms shipments to sites in Syria

Why Israel has stepped up strikes on Iranian arms shipments to sites in Syria
  • Iranian commitment to long-term military presence in Syria viewed as threat by Israel
  • Pressure on IRGC facilities aimed at disrupting flow of weapons to regional proxies

WASHINGTON: The Israelis call it “the war between the wars.” A concerted campaign against Iran’s proxies in Syria, which falls just short of the threshold for all-out war, has emerged as the centerpiece of Israel’s security and defense agenda.

All indications are that Iran is intensifying its commitment to a long-term military presence in Syria that can be used to threaten not only Israel but also its Arab adversaries.

Standing in the way is the Israeli government’s resolve to prevent Iran from achieving its objective, no matter what the Biden administration or the European Union’s views on the subject.
 




Iran’s IGRC has reportedly been moving sensitive precision-guided munitions and high-end electronic equipment to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia via Iranian bases in Syria. (AFP)

In recent weeks, the Israeli military has dialed up the pressure on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Syria, hoping to disrupt the movement of sensitive precision-guided munitions, drones, and high-end electronic equipment via Iranian bases in Syria to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia.

On Tuesday, an Israeli air attack launched from the Mediterranean Sea on Aleppo airport damaged the runway and took it out of service, according to Syrian military sources. The previous week, rockets fired by Israel at the airport caused material damage, according to war monitors, just before the arrival of a plane from Iran. 

Israeli military strategists are not just concerned about the IRGC’s use of covert facilities in northwestern Syria and around the capital Damascus to replenish Hezbollah’s missile arsenal. They fear that Iran is seeking to establish a new front for a future war with Israel in the strategic Golan Heights.

The IRGC is believed to be going about this in two ways: By greatly increasing the existing front between Hezbollah and Israel and by putting wider swaths of Israeli territory within range of missile and drone attacks.

In response, Israel has jacked up the frequency of its air strikes against IRGC facilities in Syria and, at the same time, greatly widened the scope when it comes to targets.
 




Iran is using civil operators such as Mahan Air to transport weapons to Syrian proxies, analysts say. (AFP)

According to Western defense officials, owing to disruptions in ground transfers, Iran has become increasingly reliant on civil air transport enterprises, such as Mahan Air, to deliver the weapons and materiel to Syria that ensure the combat readiness of Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups.

Before the latest strikes on Damascus and Aleppo airports, Israeli intelligence services reportedly detected a notable uptick in covert weapons flights involving commercial aircraft.

The runway at Damascus airport suffered its most severe damage earlier this summer, but just weeks after it was repaired, the Israeli air force struck again on Aug. 31. The same day the airport in Aleppo and its runway suffered damage when a suspected IRGC plane tried to use the facility after failing to land in Damascus.




This handout file photo released by ImageSat International shows a satellite image depicting the damage at Syria’s Aleppo airport following Israeli strikes on August 31. (AFP)

Alma Research Center, an Israeli think tank, has been closely following the ongoing shadow war in Syrian skies. It says the Israeli air force has struck on multiple occasions an Iranian base in Masyaf, located next to the Syrian Scientific Research Center, an organization suspected to be involved in missile production, guided munitions development, and chemical weapons production and storage.

Although Israeli airstrikes over the years have destroyed numerous warehouses and missile depots as well as large quantities of military equipment, the IRGC is said to be still determined to use its presence in Syria to launch attacks against Israel.

A secret operational branch of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, Unit 840, has been put in charge of plotting external attacks against Israel, according to Israeli researcher Tal Beeri.
 




Members of Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement take part in a funeral procession for fighters of the group killed in Syria while fighting for Iran and the Assad regime. (AFP file photo)

“The Iranian strategic concept is to ‘create’ a common border with Israel through the Syrian and Lebanese fronts. In Lebanon they have Hezbollah. In southern Syria, they operate through both civilian and military establishments,” he said.

“The Iranians have a number of options in southern Syria. The more reliable of them are the Hezbollah units (the Golan File and the Southern Command), local mercenary militias and Shiite militias.

“It is quite possible that even now, driven by a desire for revenge, the Iranians will try to make it operationally feasible to act against Israel through southern Syria, through Unit 840’s local infrastructure.”

FASTFACTS

Iran’s enriched uranium stockpile is now more than 19 times the limit set out in the 2015 nuclear deal.

Its stockpile as of Aug. 21 stood at an estimated 3,940kg, up 131.6kg on the IAEA’s last quarterly report. 

(Source: IAEA)

Israel is believed to be behind the killing in May of Hassan Sayyad Khodaei, the leader of Unit 840 in Tehran. The unit last conducted limited cross-border attacks along the no-man’s land separating the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and the Syrian border in 2020. Since then, the Iranians have not been able to successfully carry out a major attack against Israeli and American interests.

However, analysts believe the synergistic interaction between IRGC operatives in Syria and terror agents across the Middle East poses a security threat to other countries.
 




Syrians lift a placard depicting the leaders of Iran, Syria and the Hezbollah and Houthi terror movements at the Al-Nayrab camp for Palestinian refugees east of Aleppo on May 7, 2021. (AFP)

The nexus between the two groups is embodied by Quds Force commander Gen. Javad Ghaffari, who is believed to be leading the IRGC Intelligence Organization’s mission to target Israelis abroad, including this summer’s plot targeting Israeli diplomats that was thwarted as part of a joint Mossad and Turkish intelligence operation.

Ghaffari was the former top Quds Force commander in Syria, where he earned the moniker the “Butcher of Aleppo” for his role coordinating with Hezbollah and the Fatemiyoun Brigade. The two Iranian proxies have established a number of bases in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor.

Reports from Syria say Ghaffari was expelled from the country for reportedly being too aggressive in plotting and launching attacks against Israel from Syrian territory, which stoked concern in Damascus that the “war between wars” was close to becoming a direct confrontation.

Fear of an all-out war, however, does not seem to have deterred hawks in the Iranian regime from plotting overseas terror attacks, with Syria being just one node of a transcontinental web.


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“It is estimated that in Iran’s list of priorities, Turkey and Azerbaijan are the most preferable locations for its activities,” Beeri told Arab News. “Unit 840 (Khodaei) was responsible for recently planning and attempting to carry out terrorist activities against Israeli and Jewish targets (diplomats, businessmen and institutions) in Cyprus, Colombia, Senegal, Tanzania, Turkey and India.”

The connection between Iran’s regional military operations and international terror activities cannot be overemphasized, according to Behnam Ben Taleblu, a researcher at the Washington-based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

“The heartland of the region remains the wellspring of Iran-backed terror operations,” he told Arab News. “What the regime has shown is a willingness to step up terror, assassination, intimidation, and kidnapping operations abroad and across a host of different jurisdictions.”

Tehran’s mission in Syria, according to Ben Taleblu, is designed to advance its broader objective of targeting Israel and Israeli interests on multiple fronts.




Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian meets his Syrian counterpart Faisal Mekdad in Tehran. (AFP)

“It’s clear that the Islamic Republic is overseeing multiple missions in Syria,” he said. “These include not just bolstering the Assad regime and Hezbollah fighters operating in the country, but also using the Quds Force to pose a clear and present threat to Israel. That’s where the reports of what Unit 840 in Syria is doing matter most.”

Put differently, he said: “If the past, plus evolving Iranian military capabilities, is prologue, then the unmanned aerial threats space is something the Quds Force will look to deepen in Syria.”

Ben Taleblu’s assessment of the IRGC’s strategy squares with that of Jason Brodsky, director of United Against a Nuclear Iran, a non-partisan think tank in New York City.

He believes the Quds Force, and its specialized units tasked with conducting terror attacks against Israelis worldwide, will continue to view Syria as a critical base of operations, as the Russian military presence in Syria is scaled back owing to the military stalemate in Ukraine.

However, Israel has formulated a specific doctrine meant to outflank and outmaneuver the Iranians, according to Brodksy.

“There is a distinct possibility that the Quds Force, including Unit 840, will seek to expand its presence in Syria. This is because of Russia’s ongoing transfer of military assets to Ukraine, which will create a vacuum that Iran will seek to exploit,” he told Arab News.




A secretive operational branch of the IRGC’s elite Quds Force, Unit 840, is said to be in charge of plotting external attacks against Israel. (AFP file photo)

“The Khodaei operation was meant to send a message to Tehran that Israel will not hesitate to reach deep inside Iranian territory to exact a price for non-nuclear malign behavior like terrorism. It is an implementation of the Octopus Doctrine, which has long been championed by Israel’s prime minister.”

Although it would have preferred to sit out the Israel-Iran shadow war, the US has frequently found itself in the crosshairs of IRGC proxies alongside its regional partners.

A series of American strikes in August targeted Fatemiyoun Brigade facilities in Deir Ezzor and the base of an IRGC-backed militant group just west of the Euphrates River that was believed to be behind a spate of drone and missile attacks against the US military bases in eastern Syria.

In recent times, Shiite militias seem to have become increasingly bold in hitting US bases in the arid flat desert landscape of the Syrian-Iraqi border.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

Compared with Israel, US military retaliation in Syria against attacks by Iranian proxies is usually less aggressive and more geographically precise. Still, the Americans and the Israelis coordinate with each other when they launch attacks against the IRGC in Syria, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Iran’s military and intelligence networks in Syria were established with meticulous care by the slain Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

“Soleimani had the unique ability to manage Iran’s proxy and partner network,” Brodsky told Arab News. “More than two years after his death, Tehran is still struggling to rebuild a durable management structure for this network.”

 


Jailed ex-Sudanese president a hospitalised - lawyer

Jailed ex-Sudanese president a hospitalised - lawyer
Updated 05 December 2022

Jailed ex-Sudanese president a hospitalised - lawyer

Jailed ex-Sudanese president a hospitalised - lawyer

KHARTOUM: Jailed former Sudanese president Omar Bashir has been admitted to hospital, his lawyer said on Sunday.
Hashim Abu-Bakr did not specify what condition Bashir was being treated for.


Two killed as demonstrators storm governor’s office in southern Syria

Two killed as demonstrators storm governor’s office in southern Syria
Updated 05 December 2022

Two killed as demonstrators storm governor’s office in southern Syria

Two killed as demonstrators storm governor’s office in southern Syria

JEDDAH: Dozens of demonstrators angry over worsening economic conditions in Syria stormed and ransacked the governor’s office in the southern city of Sweida on Sunday, clashing with police, the authorities and witnesses said.

Earlier, more than 200 people had gathered around the building in the center of the Druze-majority city, chanting slogans calling for the overthrow of Syrian President Bashar Assad, they said, amid spiraling prices and economic hardship.

“Down with Assad,” the crowd chanted. Anti-government protests in state-controlled areas in Syria are not tolerated and rare.

Syria’s pro-regime media said tens of “outlaws” stormed the governor’s office and burned files and official papers.

The Ministry of Interior said they had also tried to seize the city’s police headquarters, and that one policeman was killed in the ensuing clashes.

“We will pursue all the outlaws and take all legal measures against anyone who dares to undermine the security and stability of the province,” the regime’s statement said.

Three witnesses told Reuters the governor was not in the building which was vacated before protesters stormed and ransacked offices.

“The governor’s office was burnt completely from the inside,” said Rayan Maarouf, a civic activist and editor of Suwayda 24, a local website that covers the southern region, who said several people were wounded in the exchange of gunshots.

“There was heavy gunfire,” Maarouf told Reuters, saying it was not clear from where the shooting came in the heavily policed area.

A source in the city hospital said one civilian who was being treated had died from gunshot wounds while another was still in hospital after being shot.

Sweida province has been spared the violence seen in other parts of Syria since the start of the over-decade long conflict that began after pro-democracy protests erupted against Assad’s family rule were violently crushed by security forces.

The minority Druze sect, whose faith draws its roots from Islam, have long resisted being drawn into the Syrian conflict.

Many community leaders and top Druze religious leaders have refused to sanction enlistment in the army.

Syria is in the throes of a deep economic crisis where a majority of people after a devastating conflict that killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions struggle to afford food and basic goods.

Witnesses in Sweida told Reuters that once inside the building, demonstrators brought down pictures of Assad.


GCC education bureau to partner with Jordanian teaching academy

GCC education bureau to partner with Jordanian teaching academy
Updated 05 December 2022

GCC education bureau to partner with Jordanian teaching academy

GCC education bureau to partner with Jordanian teaching academy
  • Agreement outlines plans for joint professional development programs

RIYADH: Dr. Abdulrahman Al-Assimi, director general of the Arab Bureau of Education for the Gulf States, and Dr. Osama Obeidat, CEO of Jordan’s Queen Rania Teacher Academy, signed an agreement to strengthen partnership through teacher training, exchanging expertise and establishing joint programs for professional development, the Saudi Press Agency reported on Sunday. 

The move is in line with the ABEGS framework on boosting cooperation with specialized organizations and institutions.

 


Morocco reaps cash, clout from fertilizer supply shock

Morocco reaps cash, clout from fertilizer supply shock
Updated 04 December 2022

Morocco reaps cash, clout from fertilizer supply shock

Morocco reaps cash, clout from fertilizer supply shock

RABAT: A global fertilizer supply shock deepened by Russia’s Ukraine invasion has brought boom times for the North African phosphate superpower Morocco and earned the country new diplomatic capital.

Rabat is using the leverage especially in the decades-old fight over the disputed desert territory of Western Sahara, a former Spanish colony also claimed by Algeria-backed rebels, analysts say.

Morocco is set to chalk up record revenues for a second year running as farmers worldwide scramble for phosphate, made scarce by sanctions against top world producer Russia and a Chinese ban on exports.

Phosphate is a key ingredient of artificial fertilizers, which are vital for industrial agriculture and global grain supplies despite the long-term damage they inflict on soil and groundwater.

“It’s a strategic mineral for the future because it’s crucial for global food security,” said Abderrahim Handouf, an agricultural policy expert.

“As populations grow, fertilizers are the most effective way to increase farm productivity.”

According to Morocco’s state-owned phosphates firm OCP, the country controls around 31 percent of the international trade in the substance.

The OCP, which holds a national monopoly in the trade, is on track to record more than 131 billion dirhams ($12.4 billion) in revenue this year, up 56 percent on 2021 — already a bumper year.

Even before the start of the year, prices had been edging higher as the world emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic and market leaders like China imposed export restrictions, said sector expert Mounir Halim.

There was also “strong demand from India, one of the world’s biggest importers, which had exhausted its stocks,” Halim said.

Then as Western powers imposed sanctions on Russia after its invasion of Ukraine, prices of fertilizer shot up.

That made Morocco a vital alternative supplier. 

The kingdom’s exports of phosphates and their derivatives jumped by two thirds year-on-year in the first nine months of 2022, according to the latest official figures.

Morocco has around 70 percent of the world’s phosphate reserves, and has been mining four sites since 1921, including in the disputed Western Sahara.

Morocco’s OCP has ramped up its production capacity by a factor of four since 2008, hitting 12 million tons last year, on target to reach 15 million by the end of 2023.

That makes it a major player in a global market fearful of further supply shocks.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization warned in a report this year that “fertilizer supplies remain restricted, stocks are depleted and geopolitical tensions could spark additional supply restrictions at short notice.”

The result is that Morocco is enjoying not only an influx of cash, but also growing diplomatic muscle, particularly on Western Sahara.

The kingdom sees the vast stretch of desert as an integral part of its territory, but the Polisario movement backed by Morocco’s arch-rival Algeria seeks independence there.

Rabat has placed the question at the heart of its diplomacy.

King Mohammed VI in August demanded that Morocco’s allies “clarify” their stances on the issue, calling it “the prism through which Morocco views its international environment.”

According to L’Economiste, a Moroccan French-language newspaper, OCP has become “the economic arm of Moroccan diplomacy.”

In September, Rabat recalled a shipment of 50,000 tons of fertilizer destined for Peru after Lima restored diplomatic relations with the Polisario’s self-proclaimed Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic.

But as well as sticks, OCP offers carrots.

The firm has been expanding its presence across Africa, with branches in 16 countries, a fertilizer factory in Nigeria and a deal signed in September to open another one in Ethiopia.


Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem

Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem
Updated 04 December 2022

Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem

Palestinian Santa brings festive cheer to Jerusalem

JERUSALEM: In Jerusalem’s Old City there are dozens of churches, but as Christmas beckons there is just one Santa Claus — a towering Palestinian former basketball player.

Each December, the streets sparkle green and red as Christian pilgrims and others arrive to celebrate Christmas in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

Seven years ago one resident, Issa Kassissieh, transformed the ground floor of his 700-year-old home into a grotto, complete with candy, mulled wine and a chance to sit on Santa’s lap.

Welcoming the season’s first visitors to Santa House, the red-suited and bearded Kassissieh belted out a “Ho, ho, ho!” at families queueing to see him.

“We are dealing with many religions here in Jerusalem. We have Muslims, Christians and Jews. I have all religions come to my house. I open my hands to everybody,” said Kassissieh, himself a Christian.

Among the visitors were a group of Israeli tourists, as well as two priests who blessed the opening with prayers in Arabic and the ancient language of Aramaic.

At 1.9 meters tall, Kassissieh’s height served him well as captain of the Palestinian basketball squad, and does not seem to intimidate the children he towers over.

“I’m not a Christian, but I still love Santa Claus ... We have a (Christmas) tree at home too,” said eight-year-old Marwa, a Palestinian Muslim, grinning.

Visitors from around the world also lined up to sit on Santa’s lap, and to find out if they were on his naughty or nice list.

Alison Pargiter, from the US, waited with her children.

“It is important that our kids have fun, but we also want them to know the true story behind Christmas,” the 52-year-old said.

At Santa House, Kassissieh said his young visitors have more modern concerns.

“Every child asks me for an iPhone,” he chuckled.

“I never promise anything, but I say: ‘Let’s pray, and if you’re on my good list, you will get it’.”

As a child, Kassissieh’s father would dress up as Santa for him and his two sisters.

Fifteen years ago, he found his father’s suit and decided to slip into the red velvet role.

But it has involved more than just putting on a suit.

Since then, he has attended the World Santa Claus Congress in Denmark and studied at a Santa school — yes, there is such a thing — in the US state of Colorado.

Kassissieh displayed a certificate from another center of Santa learning, the Charles W. Howard Santa Claus School, and said his training makes him Jerusalem’s only accredited Santa.

Based in Michigan, the Howard school traces its establishment to 1937, making it the world’s longest-running.

In his role, he is all too aware of the sensitivities in Jerusalem.