Can Syria sit out the shadow war between Israel and Iran as Gaza bombardment intensifies?

Special Can Syria sit out the shadow war between Israel and Iran as Gaza bombardment intensifies?
Israeli military vehicles deployed in Majdal Shams in Golan Heights as smoke billowed from a Syrian position after Israeli bombardment in September. (AFP)
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Updated 02 November 2023
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Can Syria sit out the shadow war between Israel and Iran as Gaza bombardment intensifies?

Can Syria sit out the shadow war between Israel and Iran as Gaza bombardment intensifies?
  • Dependent on Tehran and Hezbollah, Syria’s Assad government may have little choice but to side with Hamas
  • Syrians say their “hearts are with Gaza,” but a decade of war and sanctions has left them too exhausted to fight

LONDON: Syrians are growing increasingly concerned that repeated Israeli airstrikes and airspace violations could drag their fractured homeland into the intensifying Israel-Hamas war, extending its decade-long existence as a proxy battleground.

In the three weeks since Hamas’ deadly assault on sites across the Israeli border of the Gaza Strip, Israel has launched attacks against international airports in Aleppo and Damascus, including simultaneous strikes on Oct. 12.

Nearly two weeks later, the Israeli Defense Forces killed eight soldiers during a raid in southern Syria, reportedly in response to rocket fire launched from Syrian territory the previous day.

On Monday, fighter jets again struck what were believed to be rocket launchers in Syria and Hezbollah targets in Lebanon, apparently in retaliation for attacks on Israeli territory.




A picture taken from Israel’s southern city of Sderot shows a fire erupting following Israeli shelling of the northern Gaza Strip, on October 29, 2023, amid ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement. (AFP)

“Since the 2006 Lebanon war, we have anticipated a direct confrontation with Israel or a full-blown US-Iran war on Syrian soil,” said Diana, 37, a UAE-based accountant whose name has been changed to maintain her anonymity. Having left the country in 2022 after losing hope of an economic recovery, she told Arab News that she feared “any war at this point might wipe my country off the map.” 

The uptick in IDF-led strikes builds on a history of hostilities since the eruption of Syria’s civil war in 2011. Israel has not been hesitant in launching hundreds of air raids in the Syrian north, often claiming that its targets were Iranian-backed forces and Hezbollah.

The argument is that Tehran, as one of Syria President Bashar Assad’s strongest allies, has deployed both its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and proxy forces to different parts of Syria, including near the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.

Further to this, various actors including the US, Russia and Turkiye, as well as foreign and regional militias and terrorist groups, have waged battles on Syrian land. Together with tight economic sanctions, the impact has devastated the country’s infrastructure, economy and citizens.

In 2021, World Vision estimated that the economic toll of Syria’s war exceeded $1.2 trillion and, assuming the war ended that year, the burden was projected to increase until 2035 by an additional $1.7 trillion at current rates.




An Israeli soldier takes position near the Israeli military base of Har Dov on Mount Hermon, a strategic and fortified outpost at the crossroads between Israel, Lebanon, and Syria, on October 10, 2023. (AFP)

Echoing Diana’s concerns is 48-year-old mother of two, Yara, whose name has also been changed. After leaving Syria in 2019 to start a new life in the UK, Yara thought the Syrian war was beginning to fade into the past, but recent developments in Gaza have made her “worry that the tumultuous years from 2012 to 2018, when the war was at its peak, might return.”

She told Arab News that she was now reliving the horrors of the 2018 clashes in Beit Sahem, which was close to her home in southeastern Damascus. 

“Syrians are tired of war,” Joshua Landis, who holds the Sandra Mackey chair and is the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told Arab News. “For the last several years, Israel has been bombing Syria weekly. Syria is the main conduit for Iranian arms to reach Hezbollah in Lebanon. 

“The Syrian government would prefer not to be stuck in the middle of the Gaza war, but it has little choice as it is dependent on both Iran and Hezbollah. Iran provides it with most of its oil, evading strict US sanctions against oil imports to Syria. Hezbollah helped Syria win the war against opposition forces.” 

But Iran does not seem to be in favor of a wider Middle East conflict. During a UN General Assembly emergency meeting on Thursday, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, Iran’s foreign minister, said his government did not welcome an expansion of the war, but warned that if the Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip continues, the US “will not be spared from this fire.”

He also said it was “totally wrong” for Washington to blame Tehran for attacks on its forces without providing proof. This comes in the wake of US fighter jets carrying out strikes at two sites in eastern Syria last week that the Pentagon said were used by the IRGC and its proxies, after allegedly two new attacks on US forces in Syria and Iraq.




A drone carries a flag of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement above Aaramta bordering Israel on May 21, 2023 ahead of the anniversary of Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. (AFP)

Iran, which backs both Hamas and Hezbollah, has denied any role in Hamas’ Oct. 7 assault but also described it as a victory for “the anti-Zionist resistance.” 

Landis said “Iranians do not appear to want an escalation.” He pointed out that “Iran and Hezbollah have both refused to establish red lines that would trigger their involvement in Gaza. All the same, they have made general threats, backing Hamas and the Palestinians.” 

One of the reasons that an all-on war against Israel “does not seem to be on the cards,” according to Landis, “is the poverty of the ‘resistance states,’” which include Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen and Gaza.

INNUMBERS

  • 2.3% Projected contraction of Syria’s real GDP in 2023.
  • 60% Projected increase in inflation rate this year.
  • 80% Syrian pound’s loss of value in May-August period.

Syria’s economy is “completely broken” while Lebanon’s economy has been in free fall since 2019, when its banks and government fell into bankruptcy, he said. Iraq and Iran are also struggling, the latter being “eager to get out of sanctions.”

Be that as it may, many Syrians, inside their home country and abroad, have been expressing solidarity with Gaza through demonstrations and social media. Syrian aid and civil society organizations, including Molham Team and Mart, showed support for the Palestinians by launching donations and educational campaigns. 

Marwan Alrez, the head of Mart Group, posted a video on Instagram in which he said that shared pain and loss may be the main reason for Syrians standing in solidarity with Palestinians. Over 12 years of conflict and isolation from the rest of the world have displaced more than half of the population, pushed over 90 percent under the poverty line, and killed more than 306,000, according to UN figures. 

“Syrians feel a strong sense of affinity to Palestinians,” said Landis. “Syrians are horrified by the brutal retribution that Israel is inflicting on Gazans. Despite normally being supportive of any government that bombs Syrian forces and Iranian surrogates in the region, even Syrian opposition groups have begun to speak out against Israel. Syrians are torn. Their hearts are with the Gazans, but they are exhausted by war.” 




A convoy of vehicles of the United Nation drive through damaged buildings in the Syrian town of Quneitra, in the Golan Heights on March 26, 2019. (AFP)

Yara said that news images of Palestinian women in their prayer dresses evoked painful memories of clashes near her home in Syria. “The authorities had asked us to evacuate, but there was nowhere for us to go,” she recounted. 

Describing how she and her family weathered those perilous times, Yara said: “I would wear my prayer set and gather with my children, mother and husband in one room — the safest in our house — so as to be together if we die or get trapped under rubble. 

“I doubt what is left of my country can survive another war.”

In emailed comments to Arab News, Camille Alexandre Otrakji, a Syrian-Canadian analyst, said ordinary Syrians clearly recognize the exhaustion of their nation’s economic resources and the diminished capabilities of their armed forces as a result of more than a decade of conflict.

“However, there are elements that desire the involvement of the entire Axis of Resistance in the ongoing struggle, even though Syria cannot — and should not be expected to — bear this burden,” Otrakji said.




Syrian army soldiers raised the national flag in Quneitra in 2018, four years after losing control of the area to rebels. (AFP)

Landis, the Syria expert, does not rule out the eruption of a regional conflict, citing Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel as a cautionary tale. 

“No one thought that Hamas had the capability to inflict such a heavy blow on Israel,” he told Arab News.

“Hezbollah, which has built up an inventory of over 100,000 rockets, could inflict considerable pain on north Israel. We got an inkling of its capabilities in the 2006 war with Israel. Israel devastated Lebanon with its wide-ranging bombing raids, which were meant to ‘take Lebanon back to the Middle Ages,’ according to one Israeli general.

“They seem to have worked in creating a deterrent, but one never knows how long that deterrent will last. Everyone thought that Hamas had been deterred and was wrong. In Operation Cast Led, Israel inflicted a 100-to-1 kill ratio on Gazans and here we are — Hamas was not deterred.”

 


First Algerian presidential hopeful submits candidacy

First Algerian presidential hopeful submits candidacy
Updated 48 min 6 sec ago
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First Algerian presidential hopeful submits candidacy

First Algerian presidential hopeful submits candidacy
  • Algerian president said he would seek a second term

ALGIERS: The leader of Algeria’s main Islamist party on Thursday kicked off the official candidate submissions for the upcoming presidential election in which the incumbent President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, 78, is the frontrunner.
Abdelaali Hassani, head of the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP) party, was first to submit his candidacy on Thursday morning, an AFP correspondent saw, hours before Tebboune was expected to do the same.
Tebboune, who was elected in 2019 following months of pro-democracy protests and the ousting of longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, said on July 11 he would seek a second term.
In March, he announced that the election would be held on September 7, three months ahead of schedule, but gave no reason for the decision.
Algeria, home to some 45 million people, is Africa’s largest country.
The hydrocarbon-rich nation is the continent’s main natural gas supplier, with neighboring Tunisia, Spain, and Italy heavily reliant on Algerian gas.
The final list of hopefuls for the election will be published on July 27.
To qualify to appear on the ballot, candidates are required to present a list of at least 50,000 individual signatures from registered voters or from 600 members from at least 29 of Algeria’s various provincial assemblies.
Ahmed Sadok, an MSP representative, told AFP that his party had already gathered “more than 90,000 petition signatures” in support of Hassani as well as the backing of “2,200 other elected representatives.”
With the Algerian Workers Party’s leader Louisa Hanoune dropping out of the race last week, only two female candidates — businesswoman Saida Nezgha and lawyer Zoubida Assoul — remain in contention.
But Tebboune is still the favorite, with endorsements from several political parties.
“Given the desire of many parties, political and non-political organizations and the youth, I announce my intention to run for a second term,” he said when announcing his candidacy.


Syrian President Assad’s Baath Party clinches control of parliament

Syrian President Assad’s Baath Party clinches control of parliament
Updated 18 July 2024
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Syrian President Assad’s Baath Party clinches control of parliament

Syrian President Assad’s Baath Party clinches control of parliament
  • Elections for 250 parliamentary seats were held Monday at 8,151 centers in government-held areas of the country
  • The voting was repeated in several districts after election officials said there had been irregularities

DAMASCUS: The results of Syria’s parliamentary elections, announced Thursday, showed that President Bashar Assad’s Baath Party has won a majority of seats, as expected.
The elections for 250 parliamentary seats were held Monday at 8,151 centers in government-held areas of the country, but the voting was repeated in several districts — including Aleppo, Latakia, Hama and Daraa — after election officials said there had been irregularities, including voters casting ballots twice.
The heads of some electoral centers were referred to the judiciary for alleged electoral violations.
Altogether, 1,516 candidates were competing for the 250 seats. However, only 65 of those seats were seen as truly up for competition, as the Baath Party and allied parties presented a list of 185 candidates. Typically, all candidates who make it through the Baath Party primaries and appear on the final list win seats.
The results announced Thursday showed that all 185 candidates from the Baath Party and its allies won seats as expected, an increase from the 177 seats won by the coalition in 2020.
Turnout was 38 percent of the 19.3 million eligible voters, election officials said.
Unlike presidential elections, Syrians in the diaspora are not eligible to vote in parliamentary elections.
The head of the Supreme Judicial Committee for Elections, Jihad Murad, who announced the results, said they “reflected the broadest representation of the Syrian people in their various groups and sectors.”
The vote is the fourth since the country’s civil war began in March 2011.
With Assad facing term limits that would end his presidency in 2028, the next parliament is widely expected to try to pass a constitutional amendment to extend his term.
An amendment requires a three-quarters majority, or 188 votes, just over the number of seats held by the Bath Party and its allies. However, nominally independent candidates are also generally seen as loyal to the government.


Israel bombards central Gaza as tanks advance deeper in Rafah

Israel bombards central Gaza as tanks advance deeper in Rafah
Updated 18 July 2024
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Israel bombards central Gaza as tanks advance deeper in Rafah

Israel bombards central Gaza as tanks advance deeper in Rafah
  • One Israeli airstrike kills six people in Zawayda town in central Gaza
  • An Israeli airstrike killed three people in a car in Deir Al-Balah

CAIRO: Israeli forces bombarded the Gaza Strip’s historic refugee camps in the center of the enclave and struck Gaza City in the north on Thursday, killing at least 13 people, and tanks pushed deeper into Rafah in the south, health officials and residents said.
One Israeli airstrike killed six people in Zawayda town in central Gaza and two other people were killed in a strike on a house in Bureij camp. An Israeli air strike killed three people in a car in Deir Al-Balah, a city packed with people displaced from elsewhere in Gaza, health officials said.
In Gaza City in the north, medics said two Palestinians were killed in another airstrike.
The Israeli military said in a statement its forces killed two senior Islamic Jihad commanders in two airstrikes in Gaza City, including one whom it said had taken part in the Oct. 7 attack in southern Israel that triggered the Gaza war.
In Rafah, residents said Israeli tanks advanced deeper in the western side of the city and took position on a hilltop there. The Israeli military said forces located several tunnels and killed several gunmen.
The armed wing of militant group Hamas and its allies said they fired mortar bombs at Israeli forces in southwest Rafah on Thursday.
More than a million people had sought shelter in Rafah from fighting further north, but most have scattered again since Israel launched an offensive in and around the city in May.
The fighting has pushed the 60-bed Red Cross field hospital in Rafah to the brink of capacity, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement on Thursday.
“The repeated mass casualty events resulting from the unrelenting hostilities have stretched to breaking point the response capacity of our hospital – and all health facilities in southern Gaza – to care for those with life-threatening injuries,” said William Schomburg, head of the ICRC’s subdelegation in Gaza.
CEASEFIRE EFFORTS STALLED
More than nine months into the war, Palestinian fighters led by Hamas are still able to attack Israeli forces with anti-tank rockets and mortar bombs, occasionally firing rocket barrages into Israel.
Israel vowed to eradicate Hamas after its militants killed 1,200 people and took more than 250 hostages in the Oct. 7 attack, according to Israeli tallies. More than 38,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory offensive since then, Gaza health authorities say.
On Tuesday, Israel said it had eliminated half of the leadership of Hamas’ military wing and killed or captured about 14,000 fighters since the start of the war. Israel says 326 of its soldiers have been killed in Gaza.
Hamas doesn’t release figures of casualties among its ranks and said Israel was exaggerating to portray a “fake victory.”
Diplomatic efforts by Arab mediators to halt the hostilities, backed by the United States, appear on hold, though all sides say they are open to more talks, including Israel and Hamas.
A deal would aim to end the war and release Israeli hostages in Gaza in return for many Palestinians jailed by Israel.
Hamas was awaiting an Israeli response to a ceasefire offer drafted by the United States based on ideas announced by President Joe Biden, a Palestinian official close to the mediation effort said.
“The feeling in Hamas is that (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu is stalling and that he might not say anything before he goes to the United States next week,” said the official, who asked not to be named.


Omani brothers behind Shi’ite mosque attack, police say

Omani brothers behind Shi’ite mosque attack, police say
Updated 18 July 2024
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Omani brothers behind Shi’ite mosque attack, police say

Omani brothers behind Shi’ite mosque attack, police say
  • The brothers were killed in a shoot-out with security officers

MUSCAT: Perpetrators in the shooting that targeted a Shi’ite mosque in Oman’s Wadi al-Kabir area near the capital Muscat were all Omani citizens, state news agency ONA said on Thursday.

The perpetrators were brothers and were killed in a shoot-out with security officers, according to a statement released by the Omani police.

Monday’s shooting killed at least six people -- four Pakistanis, an Indian and an Omani police officer -- and wounded 28, authorities have said.

Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack in a rare operation in one of the most stable countries in the Middle East, the group said in a statement on Telegram on Tuesday.

The police said in their statement on Thursday that the perpetrators “were influenced by misguided ideas.”

 


Lebanese media, Hamas-allied group says Israel strike kills commander

Lebanese media, Hamas-allied group says Israel strike kills commander
Updated 18 July 2024
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Lebanese media, Hamas-allied group says Israel strike kills commander

Lebanese media, Hamas-allied group says Israel strike kills commander
  • Jamaa Islamiya, formed in the 1960s, has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks against Israel

Beirut, Lebanon: Official media in Lebanon and a Hamas-allied group said one of its commanders had been killed in an Israeli strike on Thursday in the country’s eastern Bekaa valley.
Since Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel that triggered the war in the Gaza Strip, Israel has repeatedly targeted the commanders and members of Jamaa Islamiya, whose armed wing in the past nine months has launched attacks on Israel from southern Lebanon.
Lebanon’s National News Agency (NNA) said that “Jamaa Islamiya commander Mohammed Hamed Jbara” was killed when an “enemy drone” targeted his vehicle in the village of Ghazze, in the Bekaa valley.
Jamaa Islamiya and its armed wing the Fajr Forces in a statement said Jbara, a commander also known as Abu Mahmud, was killed in a “treacherous Zionist raid” in the Bekaa.
Jamaa Islamiya, formed in the 1960s, has claimed responsibility for multiple attacks against Israel, including joint operations with Hamas in Lebanon.
The Fajr Forces, Jamaa Islamiya’s armed wing, was established in 1982 to fight against the Israeli invasion of Lebanon.
In June, an Israeli strike on a vehicle in east Lebanon killed a Jamaa Islamiya leader who Israel’s military said supplied weapons to the group and to Hamas.
The cross-border violence since October has killed 512 people in Lebanon, mostly fighters — nine of them from Jamaa Islamiya — according to an AFP tally, but also including at least 104 civilians.
On the Israeli side, 17 soldiers and 13 civilians have been killed, according to authorities.
The exchanges of fire — mostly between Hezbollah and Israeli forces — have largely been restricted to the Lebanon-Israel border area, although Israel has repeatedly struck deeper inside Lebanese territory.
The violence has raised fears of all-out conflict between the two foes, who last went to war in the summer of 2006.