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.”

 


Human rights groups join legal review of UK arms sales to Israel

Human rights groups join legal review of UK arms sales to Israel
Updated 5 sec ago
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Human rights groups join legal review of UK arms sales to Israel

Human rights groups join legal review of UK arms sales to Israel
  • Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Oxfam allowed to submit evidence in case brought by Al-Haq, Global Legal Action Network
  • UK has issued 100 new arms licenses to Israel since start of war in Gaza that has killed over 35,000 Palestinians

LONDON: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Oxfam will be able to provide evidence to a High Court judicial review of UK arms sales to Israel.
The decision, made by a judge on Thursday, will see the three prominent groups submit testimony to the review launched by Palestinian human rights group Al-Haq and the Global Legal Action Network.
The case is expected to be heard in October, with UK government lawyers having previously sought to block HRW and Amnesty from submitting evidence.
It comes after it was revealed that the UK government has issued over 100 new arms export licenses for Israel since Oct. 7.
UK Department for Business and Trade data also showed that no licenses have been revoked in that period, during which more than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military in Gaza.
The UK government is legally obligated to suspend licenses if it is found that exported weapons could be used to break international law, which numerous organizations, including GLAN and Al-Haq, say has already happened.
HRW and Amnesty had requested that they be allowed to participate in the review as they are “better placed in terms of capacity and resources” than GLAN and Al-Haq to contribute evidence due to “several decades” of experience in the field.
Amnesty International UK’s CEO Sacha Deshmukh said in a statement: “This is a very welcome decision and we look forward to presenting our evidence to the court. We’ve always believed it was vital that the court has the fullest opportunity to review expert human rights evidence from ourselves and Human Rights Watch.
“Our evidence demonstrates the gap between the Israeli military and political leadership’s policies and practices and their legal obligations, and shows how this gap has resulted in Israeli forces repeatedly committing grave breaches of international humanitarian law.
“The UK’s continued sale of components for equipment such as US-made F-35 jets despite the clear risk that these could be used by Israel in the commission of serious violations of international law is making a mockery of the UK’s own arms export rules and needs to be stopped as a matter of urgency.”
HRW’s UK director, Yasmine Ahmed, said in a statement: “We welcome the court’s decision to allow Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International to intervene with key evidence in this critical case.
“In the face of Israel’s ongoing crimes in Gaza, the UK government presents the nonsensical argument that it is lawful to continue sending arms to Israel on the basis that Israel is committed to complying with international law. Our evidence shows the exact opposite.
“Time and again, Israel’s official statements, policies and practice are in direct contradiction with international law and the results are clear to see: children in Gaza are dying of starvation and starvation-related illnesses.
“It is critical that the Government’s justification for arming Israel is properly scrutinized by the UK courts.
“The law is very clear: licenses should be suspended when there is a clear risk that arms and military equipment might be used to facilitate or commit serious violations of international law.
“As Israel continues to carry out widespread serious violations, including war crimes, the UK should immediately suspend arms licenses to avoid breaching its own laws and being complicit in these grave abuses.
“While this decision is of course welcome, it is a sorry state of affairs that the case even needed to be brought. We shouldn’t have to drag ministers in front of judges to have them comply with their own laws.”
Oxfam CEO Halima Begum said in a statement: “Oxfam has been systematically prevented from getting life-saving aid into the enclave, and our staff and partners face a constant threat to their lives while trying to sustain basic humanitarian operations.”
The UK government has said its licenses are kept under “careful and continual review.”


Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz

Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz
Updated 14 min 24 sec ago
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Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz

Israeli polls show Netanyahu party narrowing gap behind Gantz
  • The polls showed Likud winning 21 seats behind the National Unity Party on 24
  • Both polls showed a majority of voters would prefer Gantz as prime minister in a head-to-head choice with Netanyahu

JERUSALEM: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right wing Likud party has reduced the gap behind the centrist party of former minister Benny Gantz, who quit the wartime unity government on Sunday, two polls showed on Friday.
The polls, for the left wing Ma’ariv daily and the right wing Israel Hayom newspaper, showed Likud winning 21 seats behind the National Unity Party on 24. The Ma’ariv poll last week showed Gantz’s party on 27 seats, while at the start of the year, it was regularly polling in the high 30s.
The Ma’ariv poll shows the current ruling coalition winning 52 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, against 58 for the main opposition parties, with the balance of 10 seats held by the United Arab List and the left-wing Hadash-Ta’al alliance.
The Israel Hayom poll put the coalition on 50 seats against 61 for the opposition parties and 9 for the UAL and Hadash-Ta’al.
Both polls showed a majority of voters would prefer Gantz as prime minister in a head-to-head choice with Netanyahu. However, the Israel Hayom poll showed that if former prime minister Naftali Bennett were to join forces with Avigdor Liberman and Gideon Saar, two other center right politicians from outside the Likud camp, their alliance could beat both Likud and Gantz’s National Unity Party.
Gantz, a former army general and defense minister in the last government, joined Netanyahu’s coalition last year as a gesture of national unity following the devastating attack by Hamas on Oct 7.
However, he clashed repeatedly with other ministers and quit the government after demanding Netanyahu articulate a clear strategic plan for the war in Gaza, now in its ninth month.
Netanyahu, who was widely blamed for the security failures that allowed the Oct. 7 attack to take place, has refused to call early elections and would not normally face voters until 2026 if his coalition with a clutch of religious and right wing pro-settler parties holds.


Sudan’s army says it has killed US-sanctioned RSF Darfur commander

Sudan’s army says it has killed US-sanctioned RSF Darfur commander
Updated 14 June 2024
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Sudan’s army says it has killed US-sanctioned RSF Darfur commander

Sudan’s army says it has killed US-sanctioned RSF Darfur commander
  • Gibril was a leading commander for the RSF in Al-Fashir

KHARTOUM: Sudan’s army said on Friday it had killed Ali Yagoub Gibril, a senior commander for the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF) who was under US sanctions, during a battle in the besieged north Darfur city of Al-Fashir.
There was no immediate comment from the RSF.
Gibril was a leading commander for the RSF in Al-Fashir, the last major city in the Darfur region of Sudan that the paramilitary force does not control.
The army said in a statement Yacoub was killed as an RSF attack was thwarted early on Friday by its troops and allied “joint forces” fighting alongside it — a reference to non-Arab former rebel groups from Darfur that are aligned with the army.
The RSF has been besieging Al-Fashir, a city of 1.8 million people, for weeks and top UN officials have warned that the worsening conflict there could trigger widespread intercommunal violence.
The UN Security Council called on Thursday for a halt to the siege.
War between the army and the RSF erupted over conditions for a transition to democracy in mid-April last year in the capital Khartoum, soon spreading to other parts of the country.
The conflict has led to the world’s largest displacement crisis, renewed ethnic violence in Darfur blamed on the RSF and its allies, and a sharp increase in
extreme hunger.


Missile barrage hits northern Israel, emergency services report

Missile barrage hits northern Israel, emergency services report
Updated 14 June 2024
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Missile barrage hits northern Israel, emergency services report

Missile barrage hits northern Israel, emergency services report
  • The military said that warning sirens had sounded in northern Israel and emergency services said teams were searching the area
  • Television footage on Friday showed damaged buildings and cars as well as brush fires in several locations caused by strikes

JERUSALEM: Israeli emergency services reported dealing with a string of fires in northern Israel on Friday after dozens of missiles were fired from southern Lebanon into the area around the border town of Kiryat Shemona.
The military said that warning sirens had sounded in northern Israel and emergency services said teams were searching the area, where they reported there was property damage but no casualties.
Television footage on Friday showed damaged buildings and cars as well as brush fires in several locations caused by strikes or falling debris amid heatwave conditions.
The Israeli military has exchanged regular fire with Hezbollah forces across the border in southern Lebanon ever since the start of the war in Gaza in October.
Neither side has appeared to wish a wider conflict, but there has been growing worry that the steady intensification of strikes could push the situation out of control with the risk of a wider conflict in a region that has already seen direct exchanges between Israel and Iran.
The latest salvo came after an Israeli strike killed a senior commander from the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon on Tuesday, drawing the heaviest bombardment of northern Israel since the start of the war in October last year.
Tens of thousands of residents have been evacuated from their homes on both sides of the border, creating growing pressure to resolve the stand-off, but diplomatic efforts have so far proved fruitless.
On Friday, the Israeli military said fighter jets and anti-aircraft systems had intercepted 11 of the 16 drones launched by Hezbollah against Israel in the past 72 hours.
“The Israeli Air Force is continuing to operate at all times to thwart terrorist activities and protect Israel’s skies from any threat,” it said in a statement.


Sweden summons Iraqi diplomat to protest death penalties reportedly handed to 2 Swedes

Sweden summons Iraqi diplomat to protest death penalties reportedly handed to 2 Swedes
Updated 14 June 2024
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Sweden summons Iraqi diplomat to protest death penalties reportedly handed to 2 Swedes

Sweden summons Iraqi diplomat to protest death penalties reportedly handed to 2 Swedes
  • Two Swedes have been sentenced to death in Iraq after being convicted of killing a member of criminal gang
  • “We condemn the use of the death penalty,” Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said

COPENHAGEN: Sweden’s Foreign Ministry said officials summoned the Iraqi chargé d’affaires Friday to protest against death sentences handed down to Swedes in Iraq.
Swedish media reported in recent days that two Swedes have been sentenced to death in Iraq after being convicted of killing a member of criminal gang there. On Friday, Sweden’s news agency TT cited the foreign ministry in Stockholm’s confirmation that at least one person with a Swedish passport has received a death sentence.
“We condemn the use of the death penalty. We oppose it always, everywhere and regardless of the circumstances,” Sweden’s Foreign Minister Tobias Billström said in a statement.
He said officials conveyed Sweden’s protests at the meeting and demanded that the sentences not be enforced.
TT reported that another two Swedes have been detained for alleged involvement in the murder of a criminal in Iraq.
The killing earlier this year is believed to be linked to an internal gang war between two Swedish groups that has resulted in numerous killings and attempted murders, some occurring outside Sweden. The Foxtrot network and its rival, Rumba, have for years been involved in deadly feuds.
Sweden has grappled with gang violence for years and criminal gangs often recruit teenagers in socially disadvantaged immigrant neighborhoods to carry out hits. Swedish police recorded 109 shootings so far this year, including 14 fatal shootings. Last year, 53 people were killed and 109 were wounded in a total of 363 shootings.