Eyeing showdown with Hezbollah, Israel presses shadow campaign in Syria

A UN peacekeeper guards at a post along the Israel-Syria border in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, April 2, 2024. (REUTERS)
A UN peacekeeper guards at a post along the Israel-Syria border in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, April 2, 2024. (REUTERS)
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Updated 10 June 2024
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Eyeing showdown with Hezbollah, Israel presses shadow campaign in Syria

A UN peacekeeper guards at a post along the Israel-Syria border in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, April 2, 2024. (REUTERS)

AMMAN: Israel has intensified covert strikes in Syria against weapons sites, supply routes and Iranian-linked commanders, seven regional officials and diplomats said, ahead of a threatened full-scale assault on Tehran’s key ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A June 2 air raid that killed 18 people, including an adviser with Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards, targeted a clandestine, fortified weapons site near Aleppo, three of the sources said. In May, an air strike hit a convoy of trucks headed to Lebanon carrying missile parts and another raid killed Hezbollah operatives, four said.
Israel has for years struck militant groups backed by arch-foe Iran in Syria and elsewhere, in a low-level campaign that burst into open confrontation after Israel and Palestinian group Hamas — another Iranian ally — went to war in Gaza on Oct. 7.
Israel has since killed dozens of Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and Hezbollah officers in Syria, from just two last year before the Oct. 7 attack, according to a tally by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank.
The battle hit fever pitch in April when Israel bombed the Iranian consulate in Damascus, killing the top IRGC commander for operations in the Levant. In retaliation, Iran fired some 300 missiles and drones at Israel, almost all of which were shot down. Israel then attacked Iranian territory with drones.
This direct confrontation, a first for the two countries, stopped there. Israel also briefly reduced the number of strikes it was carrying out against Iranian proxies, said Selin Uysal, a French diplomat seconded to the Washington Institute, citing the tally, which counted publicly-known attacks in the weeks immediately before and after.
“There was a slowdown” after the face-off in April, she said.
“But they are picking up again because of suspected Iranian weapons transfers to Lebanon. There is a kinetic effort in Syria and Lebanon to disrupt the supply chain between Iran and Hezbollah.”
Reuters interviewed three Syrian officials, an Israeli government official and three Western diplomats about Israel’s Syria campaign. The officials asked not to be named to talk freely about sensitive matters.
The Syrian officials gave previously unreported details of the targets of Israeli strikes around the cities of Aleppo and Homs in recent months, including the June 2 attack.
All those interviewed said Israel’s moves suggested it was gearing up for a full-scale war against Hezbollah in Lebanon, which borders Syria, that could begin when Israel dials down its campaign in Gaza.
“The statements of our leaders have been clear that escalation could be imminent in Lebanon,” the Israeli government official said.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last week that his country was prepared for “very strong action” at its frontier with Lebanon, where it has been fighting a so-far limited battle with Hezbollah since Oct. 8.
War in Lebanon is not inevitable. Israel has also indicated openness to diplomatic efforts being brokered by Washington and France. The Israeli government official said the campaign in Syria was also aimed at weakening Hezbollah and thus discouraging it from a war with Israel.
The Israeli government and military did not respond to questions for this article. Israel rarely publicly acknowledges targeted killings overseas and has not commented on the recent strikes in Syria. A senior Israeli official said last year Israel was determined to prevent Syria becoming part of a new front.
The IRGC and a Syrian government spokesperson did not respond. Hezbollah declined to comment.
KILLING COMMANDERS, STRIKING SUPPLIES
Syria, a longtime Iranian ally, became the key conduit for Tehran’s arms supplies to Hezbollah after Iran deployed military personnel and thousands of allied paramilitaries from around 2013 to help President Bashar Assad during his country’s ongoing civil war.
Some weapons parts are smuggled into Syria while others are assembled there, the three Syrian officials said.
Israel’s Syria campaign aims to make sure Hezbollah, Iran’s most loyal ally and the linchpin of Tehran’s projection of regional power through militant proxies, is as weak as possible before any kind of fight begins, the Syrian officials and Israeli official said.
The June 2 killing of Saeed Abyar, described by Iranian state media as an IRGC adviser, showed Israel’s reach in taking out key personnel and targeting equipment even when Iran has tried new methods of protecting weapons and parts bound for Hezbollah, the Syrian officials said, including moving the manufacture of weapons to more hidden or fortified locations.
Abyar was visiting a manufacturing plant for missiles for Hezbollah that was hidden inside a stone quarry east of the city of Aleppo when he was hit, the Syrian officials said. “The facility was in an area designed to be hard to find and hard to hit,” said one of the officials, an intelligence officer.
Iran blamed Sunday’s strike on Israel and the head of the IRGC has vowed to retaliate.
The officials said the strike killed 17 other people, including Iran-aligned militiamen. It was the first targeting of an IRGC official since Israel bombed the Iranian consulate, they said.
But it is not the only attack it has carried out since then.
An air strike near the Syrian city of Homs on May 29 targeted a vehicle carrying parts for guided missiles from Syria to Lebanon, the Syrian intelligence officer said. Another strike on May 20 targeted members of Hezbollah, the officer said.
Before the Iran consulate attack, a series of air strikes in late March around Aleppo hit warehouses storing high explosives for missile warheads, the officer said.
Other attacks have targeted Syrian air defense systems that had in recent years given Hezbollah and Iranian military personnel some security to operate, including Russian-made Pantsir air defense systems, mobile missile launchers that the Syrian military uses, a Syrian military official said. Other strikes had targeted early-warning radar systems, the official said.
“In some cases Israel is hitting even before we install our equipment,” the official said.
The Israeli government official said Israel’s targets were advanced anti-aircraft weapons, heavy rockets and precision-guidance systems for missiles.
ISRAEL TIPPING THE BALANCE?
The number of Israeli attacks in Syria jumped dramatically after Oct. 7, when Israel and Hamas went to war.
“The frequency has doubled,” said the Washington Institute’s Uysal.
Israel carried out 50 air strikes in Syria in the six months after the Gaza war began, she said. “These included attacks on Aleppo airport, the Nairab military airport, Damascus airport, and the Mezzeh military airport, which are key in weapon transfers. Weapons caches were also among the targets.”
The strikes have included the killing of some 20 IRGC officials and more than 30 Hezbollah commanders, Uysal said. Between January and October of 2023, two IRGC officials and no Hezbollah commanders were killed by Israeli strikes in Syria, Uysal said.
“The attacks in Syria certainly stop arms and ammunition deliveries and damage the ability of Hezbollah or Iran to organize,” said Lior Akerman of Reichman University, a former Brig.-General in Israel’s domestic security service.
Iran sends limited numbers of advisers to Syria, such as the senior IRGC officials killed in the consulate bombing. Hezbollah has deployed thousands of fighters there.
Hezbollah official Nawaf Musawi told the Iran-aligned Al Mayadeen TV channel in March that the group was opening new ammunition depots “and getting more precision missiles and better quality weapons by land, sea and air.”
Farzan Sabet, a senior researcher at the Geneva Graduate Institute who specializes in Iranian foreign policy, said attacks on Israel by Hezbollah and Iran’s allies in Iraq and Yemen during the Gaza war had taken a toll on Israel.
“But it has killed many more Hezbollah operatives and senior figures including IRGC personnel in Syria, so on balance it’s a bigger loss” for Iran’s allies, Sabet said.

 


Turkiye to send navy to Somalia after agreeing oil and gas search

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia September 7, 2022. (REUTERS)
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia September 7, 2022. (REUTERS)
Updated 20 July 2024
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Turkiye to send navy to Somalia after agreeing oil and gas search

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan during a visit to Belgrade, Serbia September 7, 2022. (REUTERS)
  • Turkiye has become a close ally of the Somali government in recent years. Ankara has built schools, hospitals and infrastructure and provided scholarships for Somalis to study in Turkiye

ANKARA: Turkiye is set to send navy support to Somali waters after the two countries agreed Ankara will send an exploration vessel off the coast of Somalia to prospect for oil and gas.
President Tayyip Erdogan submitted a motion to the Turkish parliament late on Friday, seeking authorization for the deployment of Turkish military to Somalia including the country’s territorial waters, state-run Anadolu Agency reported.
The move came a day after the Turkish energy ministry announced that Turkiye will send an exploration vessel off the coast of Somalia later this year to search for oil and gas as part of a hydrocarbon cooperation deal between two countries.
Earlier this year, Turkiye and Somalia signed a defense and economic cooperation agreement during Somali defense minister’s visit to Ankara.
Turkiye has become a close ally of the Somali government in recent years. Ankara has built schools, hospitals and infrastructure and provided scholarships for Somalis to study in Turkiye.
In 2017, Turkiye opened its biggest overseas military base in Mogadishu. Turkiye also provides training to Somali military and police.

 


Algeria places pro-democracy activists in pre-trial detention: lawyer

Algeria places pro-democracy activists in pre-trial detention: lawyer
Updated 20 July 2024
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Algeria places pro-democracy activists in pre-trial detention: lawyer

Algeria places pro-democracy activists in pre-trial detention: lawyer
  • UN Special Rapporteur Clement Voule called on Algeria to “address the climate of fear caused by a string of criminal charges”

ALGIERS: Eight Algerian activists from pro-democracy protests that toppled the country’s last president have been placed in pre-trial detention while six others were released under judicial supervision, one of their lawyers said Friday.
The activists were arrested between July 8 and 15 in Bejaia, some 220 kilometers (136 miles) east of the capital Algiers.
Mira Mokhnache, a university professor and human rights defender, along with seven other activists were placed in pre-trial detention on Thursday by an investigating judge at the Sidi M’Hamed court in downtown Algiers, according to lawyer Fetta Sadat.
The protest movement, known as Hirak, broke out in February 2019 and forced longtime president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to step down two months later.
The movement continued to press for deep reforms, but it waned during the Covid pandemic.
The National Committee for the Release of Detainees (CNLD) said that among the eight convicted was a man who was released from prison last month after three years of imprisonment over ties to the pro-democracy protests.
A 16-year-old whistleblower who documented Algerian political prisons on his Facebook page was among those released under judicial supervision, according to Sadat.
Local media said the group was being prosecuted under a 2021 law amendment relating to “terrorism.”
Last year, a United Nations expert called for the repeal of the article that “broadened the definition of terrorism,” and urged Algerian authorities to pardon people convicted or detained over their involvement in the pro-democracy protests.
UN Special Rapporteur Clement Voule called on Algeria to “address the climate of fear caused by a string of criminal charges.”
Dozens of people are still detained in Algeria over links to Hirak or human rights activism, according to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees.
In February, rights watchdog Amnesty International said that five years after the protests erupted, Algerian authorities had “escalated their repression of peaceful dissent.”
“It is a tragedy that five years after brave Algerians took to the streets in their masses to demand political change and reforms, the authorities have continued to wage a chilling campaign of repression,” said Amnesty’s Middle East and North Africa director, Heba Morayef.
The North African country is readying for presidential elections set to take place on September 7 as the incumbent President Abdelmadjid Tebboune remains its frontrunner.
 

 


Blast hits Iraq former paramilitaries depot: officials

Blast hits Iraq former paramilitaries depot: officials
Updated 20 July 2024
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Blast hits Iraq former paramilitaries depot: officials

Blast hits Iraq former paramilitaries depot: officials
  • A security source confirmed the blast, adding that it “occurred in a warehouse storing equipment that belongs to Hashed Al-Shaabi”

BAGHDAD: An explosion ripped through “logistics” warehouses belonging to former pro-Iran paramilitaries south of the Iraqi capital Baghdad on Thursday, officials said.
“At 7:00 p.m. (1600 GMT)... an explosion occurred in logistics warehouses belonging to the 42 Brigade... in the Yusufiyah area, south of Baghdad,” said the Hashed Al-Shaabi — an alliance of pro-Iranian former paramilitary groups now integrated into the regular army.
The cause of the blast was not immediately known, and the Hashed said it assigned a committee to investigate.
Firefighters were battling the blaze, it added in a statement.
A security source confirmed the blast, adding that it “occurred in a warehouse storing equipment that belongs to Hashed Al-Shaabi.”
A Hashed official said he did not rule out the possibility of an “air strike.”
In April, one person was killed and eight wounded in a blast at a military base housing Hashed groups in Babylon province, south of Baghdad.
An investigation found the blast was caused by munitions stored on-site, not by an air strike.
The Hashed Al-Shaabi is an integral part of the Iraqi security apparatus under the authority of the prime minister.
It includes some pro-Iran groups which have carried out dozens of attacks against US forces in Iraq and neighboring Syria.
The latest blast comes after two drones were launched on Tuesday against an Iraqi base used by US-led troops without causing any damage.
 

 


Israel threatens reprisals for deadly Yemen rebel drone strike

Israel threatens reprisals for deadly Yemen rebel drone strike
Updated 20 July 2024
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Israel threatens reprisals for deadly Yemen rebel drone strike

Israel threatens reprisals for deadly Yemen rebel drone strike
  • Israel has killed at least 38,848 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data from the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory, where fighting raged on Friday

TEL AVIV: Israel threatened reprisals Friday after a drone claimed by Yemen’s Houthi rebels penetrated its vaunted air defenses and killed a civilian in a Tel Aviv apartment building near a US embassy annexe.
The attack drew condemnation from UN chief Antonio Guterres and an appeal for “maximum restraint” to avoid “further escalation in the region.”
The pre-dawn strike came hours before Israel suffered another blow, a ruling by the UN’s top court that its occupation of the Palestinian territories was “illegal” and needed to end as soon as possible.
The advisory opinion of The Hague-based International Court of Justice is not binding, but it comes amid mounting international condemnation of Israel’s handling of its war on Hamas in Gaza.
The office of Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas hailed the court’s decision as “a victory for justice.” Hamas said it puts “the international system before the imperative of immediate action to end the occupation.”
But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has overseen a major expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, insisted: “The Jewish people are not occupiers in their own land.”
The Houthis are one of a number of Iran-backed armed groups around the Middle East that have claimed drone and missile attacks on Israel in retaliation for the Gaza war.
The group, which controls swathes of Yemen, including much of its Red Sea coast, has previously claimed attacks on Israeli cities including Ashdod, Haifa and Eilat, but Friday’s strike appears to be the first to breach Israel’s sophisticated air defenses.
The Houthis fired at Tel Aviv a “new drone called ‘Yafa’, which is capable of bypassing the enemy’s interception systems,” their spokesman Yahya Saree said.
An Israeli military official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said a “very big drone that can travel long distances” was used in the 3:12 am (0012 GMT) attack.
He said the drone was detected but due to “human error” the alarm was not raised in time, and it slammed into an apartment building.
Military spokesman Daniel Hagari said Israel believed the drone used was Iranian-made and upgraded so it could reach Tel Aviv from Yemen — at least 1,800 kilometers (1,100 miles) away.
Medical services said one civilian was killed and four people suffered “relatively minor” injuries.
Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed revenge.
“The security system will settle the score with all who try to harm the state of Israel, or sends terrorism against it, in a decisive and surprising manner,” he said in comments posted on social media platform X.

In grainy security camera footage, the buzz of what appeared to be the drone was followed by an explosion that shook the building and set off car alarms.
The blast occurred about 100 meters (yards) from a US embassy annexe, said an AFP journalist who saw broken windows along the street lined with apartment blocks.
“It woke me up because the vibration of the sound was like a 747 (jet) coming in,” said Kenneth Davis, an Israeli who was staying in a hotel opposite the building which was hit.
“And then the explosion... everything blew out in the room,” he told AFPTV.
Since November, the Houthis have also carried out dozens of drone and missile attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden that they claim is Israeli-linked.
The United States and Britain launched a campaign of air strikes in January to deter the attacks on shipping.
The Gaza war was triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,195 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.
The militants also seized 251 hostages, 116 of whom are still in Gaza, including 42 the Israeli military says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory campaign has killed at least 38,848 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to data from the health ministry in the Hamas-ruled territory, where fighting raged on Friday.

Residents said clashes were heard between Palestinian fighters and the Israeli army, with explosions and shelling in the Tal Al-Hawa district of Gaza City.
The war has destroyed much of Gaza’s housing and other infrastructure, leaving virtually the entire population displaced and short of food and drinking water.
Many are living in unsanitary conditions. Health authorities in Gaza and Israel said on Thursday that poliovirus had been detected in Gaza sewage samples.
The World Health Organization said on Friday that no cases of the highly infectious disease had been discovered in Gaza so far.
 

 


Houthis damage cargo ship in Gulf of Aden as it steps up attacks

Houthis damage cargo ship in Gulf of Aden as it steps up attacks
Updated 20 July 2024
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Houthis damage cargo ship in Gulf of Aden as it steps up attacks

Houthis damage cargo ship in Gulf of Aden as it steps up attacks
  • Houthis in recent weeks have become more adept at inflicting damage on their targets

CAIRO: Yemen’s Houthi militants hit and damaged a Singapore-flagged container ship with two missiles on Friday as they escalate attacks on global shipping over Israel’s war in Gaza.
The overnight assault on the Lobivia cargo ship came as the Iran-aligned Houthis also claimed responsibility for a fiery, long-range aerial drone strike in the center of Tel Aviv that killed one man and wounded four others.
The Houthis in recent weeks have become more adept at inflictingdamage on their targets. In June, the militants struck the Greek-owned Tutor coal carrier with missiles and an explosive-laden remote-controlled boat, causing it to sink.
Tutor was the second ship sunk in the Houthi campaign against commercial shipping, which since November has killed at least three sailors and upended global trade by forcing ship owners to avoid the Suez Canal trade shortcut.
“Their capacity, their access to more sophisticated weapons, has only increased over the course of this conflict,” said Gerald Feierstein, director of the Arabian Peninsula Affairs Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
Houthi military spokesman Yahya Saree in a television speech on Friday said the group launched the Lobivia strikes, adding that the assault also included drones. The manager of Lobivia did not immediately comment.
Lobivia was in the Gulf of Aden when the missiles struck two areas on its port side, the Joint Maritime Information Center (JMIC) said in an incident report.
The ship was located 83 nautical miles southeast of Yemen’s port city of Aden during the attack. All crew are reported safe and the ship was returning to its last port of call, the United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) said.
“The ship was transiting northeast along the Gulf of Aden when a merchant vessel in the vicinity observed ‘light and blast’ where the ship was located,” British security firm Ambrey said.
The ship appeared to perform evasive maneuvers immediately and switch off her automatic identification system approximately an hour later, Ambrey said.
On Tuesday, the Houthis hit the Liberia-flagged oil tanker Chios Lion with a drone boat, causing damage to the port side that left an oily trail that experts said appeared to be fuel.
Britain and the US have conducted retaliatory strikes since February, shooting down drones and bombing attack sites in Yemen.
That has come at a significant cost, said Feierstein, who was the US Ambassador to the Republic of Yemen from 2010 to 2013 under President Barack Obama.
“We’re basically spending a million dollars every time we shoot down a Radio Shack drone. That’s wearing on the Navy and wearing on our supplies,” he said.