Netanyahu: Israel has carried out dozens of strikes in Syria


Israel has launched dozens of strikes in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, acknowledging for the first time such attacks against suspected arms transfers to Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrillas.

Though formally neutral on Syria's civil war, Israel has frequently pledged to prevent shipments of advanced weaponry to the Iranian-backed group, while stopping short of confirming reports of specific air operations.

Visiting Israeli troops in the occupied Golan Heights near the frontier with Syria, Netanyahu said: “We act when we need to act, including here across the border, with dozens of strikes meant to prevent Hezbollah from obtaining game-changing weaponry.”

Netanyahu did not specify what kind of strikes Israel had conducted in Syria. He also gave no timeframe or other details regarding the strikes.

Israel welcomed the cessation of hostilities in Syria in February but has indicated it could still launch attacks there if it sees a threat from Hezbollah, which holds sway over southern Lebanon and whose fighters have been allied with President Bashar al-Assad.

Israeli leaders have sought assurances from Russia, which sent forces to Syria last year to help Assad, that it would not allow Iran and Hezbollah to be bolstered by the partial military withdrawal that Moscow announced last month.

Israel and Russia have maintained a hotline to prevent any accidental clash between their aircraft over Syrian territory.

Hezbollah and Israel last fought a war in 2006 that included rocket strikes inside Israel and an Israeli air and ground offensive in Lebanon.

Israeli leaders have said that since that conflict, Hezbollah has built up and improved the range of a rocket arsenal that can now strike deep inside Israel.

Hezbollah targets Israeli forces with bomb, Israel shells south Lebanon


Hezbollah set off a bomb targeting Israeli forces at the Lebanese border on Monday in an apparent response to the killing in Syria last month of a prominent commander, triggering Israeli shelling of southern Lebanon.

Israel has struck its Iran-backed Shi'ite enemy Hezbollah in Syria several times, killing a number of fighters and destroying weapons it believes were destined for the group, whose support for President Bashar al-Assad has been crucial in the country's civil war.

Israel's army said Monday's blast, targeting military vehicles in the Shebaa farms area, promptedIsraeli forces to respond with artillery fire. It made no mention of casualties.

Hezbollah said in a statement that the explosive device had been detonated in the Shebaa farms area and carried out by a group whom it named after Samir Qantar, a commander killed in December. The group has accused Israel of killing Qantar in an air strike in Syria, and vowed to retaliate. 

The U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, UNIFIL, urged both sides to avoid an escalation, saying it had stepped up patrols on the ground after the incident.

In a statement, head of mission Major-General Luciano Portolano urged both sides “to exercise utmost restraint against any provocation.”

Lebanese media said Israeli shelling had hit the nearby town of Al Wazzani and other areas, with reports of material damage but no serious injuries.

Witnesses said at least 10 Israeli shells had hit Al Wazzani shortly after the blast.

A Reuters witness said the shelling had stopped later in the day. Al Manar TV reported that calm had returned to the Shebaa area.

An Israeli air strike killed Qantar on Dec. 20 in Damascus, Hezbollah said. Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said a week later that retaliation would be inevitable.

Israel stopped short of confirming responsibility for the strike that killed Qantar, but welcomed the death of the militant leader, who had been jailed in Israel in 1979 and repatriated to Lebanon in a 2008 prisoner swap.

Hezbollah did not say which role Qantar played in the Syrian conflict, but Syrian state media said he was involved in a major offensive earlier this year in Quneitra, near the Golan Heights.

Hezbollah is fighting on the side of Assad in Syria's civil war. The conflict has exacted a heavy toll on Hezbollah, with many hundreds of its fighters killed.

In January last year, an Israeli helicopter attack killed six Hezbollah members including a commander and the son of the group's late military commander Imad Moughniyah. An Iranian general was also killed in that attack. 

Two Israeli soldiers and a Spanish peacekeeper were killed later that month in one of the most violent clashes between the two sides since a 2006 war. 

Israel and Hezbollah have avoided large scale confrontation along their 80-km (50-mile) frontier since the 34-day war in 2006, which killed 120 people in Israel and more than 500 in Lebanon. 

Nasrallah has made repeated threats against Israel since then, part of what is seen as a calibrated policy of deterrence.

Israel wary of continued conflict in Syria


It’s been seven years since Israel and Syria were in talks mediated by Turkey.

Those negotiations in Ankara were premised on de-coupling Damascus from its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah and dislodging Israel from the Golan.

Neither side could envision paying the price required to seal a deal, and shortly after the talks ended, then-Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan (now president) began to nurture a personal animosity against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Syria’s Bashar al-Assad that only grew as Syria’s conflict turned sectarian and Israel went hard after Hamas in Gaza.

As the Syrian uprising got serious in 2011, Moscow presented itself as the mediator between Jerusalem and Damascus. Russia’s enhanced commitment to a presence in Syria may be the penultimate strategic legacy of this bloody chapter in Levantine history.

Details of the Damascus-Jerusalem interchange are outlined in the report by Seymour Hersh published earlier this month in the London Review of Books. The essay focuses largely on the debate inside Washington over the risks and rewards of arming the increasingly sectarian rebels, some of whom had clear al-Qaida antecedents.

Hersh writes that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) served as a conduit for United States intelligence to the Syrian government, since it was in Jerusalem’s interest to have Assad’s army instead of Islamist rebel battalions operating on the northern side of the Golan Heights. Hersh also writes the Kremlin relayed an offer from Assad to Netanyahu to resume talks over the territory.

It’s now known that Israel rebuffed the offer and moved to deepen its cooperation with Jordanian military intelligence, which was simultaneously supporting and monitoring the al Nusra Front in the southern Syrian governorates of Suwyeda, Daraa and Quneitra. It looked as if Assad was losing his grip, and the IDF took a realpolitik stance toward the rebels.

Gains by insurgents led the regime to deploy chemical weapons against the pro-rebel township of Ghouta in August 2013 and in the suburbs of Aleppo in March 2013.

At around this time, former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas made an impolitic comment to The New York Times.

“Let them both [sides] bleed, hemorrhage to death: That’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria,” Pinkas said in an article that found a consensus in Israel for a “limited strike” against regime targets.

But the quote has been cited multiple times to bolster a line uniting supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, pro-Assad “leftists” and basic meat-and-potatoes anti-Semites to charge that a blood-thirsty “Israel wants the civil war in Syria to continue.”

Of course, it’s not just Pinkas’ cynical sound bite that drives the “Israel likes this war” trope. To advance their territorial claims, the Golan annexationists in the highest political echelons promote the notion that Syria will never again be reassembled.

This case was made explicitly by Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett at the Herzliya Conference in June and even floated by the prime minister when he met U.S. President Barack Obama in November.

But the prime minister must know there is no room for the Americans to “think differently” about the Golan, especially now that there’s actually a chance that the powers playing in the Syrian sandbox are ready to push their clients to the negotiating table.

Beyond the bluster, Israel and, more importantly, Israelis, demonstrated consistent unease over the destabilizing consequences of the war in Syria, an anxiety stemming from self-interested security concerns [ranging from DAASH to Hezbollah] and genuine humanitarian revulsion toward the carnage at their doorstep. 

A memo written this week by former Israeli National Security Advisors Yaakov Amidror and Eran Lerman gives a good glimpse into what Israel’s security establishment really thinks about Syria. Here’s what they said:

1) The continuation of the Syrian civil war poses a threat to Jordan and thus to Israel.

2) DAASH feeds off of the sectarian conflict in Syria, and chaos there makes al-Nusra look like moderates compared to what DAASH leader Al-Baghdadi and his followers have on offer.

3) Expanded operational territory for Hezbollah fighters is problematic.

4) Ultimately, Israel’s borders are more secure when state actors are on the other side — instead of terror groups.

Concrete signs of this policy are documented in the consistent Israeli lobbying for increased U.S. allocations to help Jordan deal with the Syrian refugees. Israel is concerned that these refugees neither starve in Jordan during the short term, nor settle there in the long term. It’s clearly not in Israel’s interest that an additional million radicalized Sunnis show up in Jordan.

So, logically, the new Damascus “blood libel” doesn’t match strategic thinking in the real Israel.

The shameful inability of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and Netanyahu to do something for the Palestinians of the besieged Yarmouk Refugee Camp is a moral stain on both. The Syrian war has put the spotlight on the 1948 refugees and their descendants, and neither Jerusalem nor Ramallah can ignore this constituency indefinitely.

But the assistance provided by Israeli field hospitals to rebel fighters in the north and the volunteers of IsraAID on the Greek islands and in the Balkans to Syrian asylum seekers is well-known and appreciated by refugees and the exiled opposition leaders.

It is accepted that Israel shares intelligence on DAASH with the Russians, as well as the Jordanians.

 And of course they keep the Hashemite and Saudi courts briefed on Hezbollah and the Iranians.

While Russian President Vladimir Putin and Netanyahu navigate practical understandings over who can do what in Syria, it’s very clear that this war has aligned Israel to the Sunni Arab states to its east.

This week, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman said his government “was striving to maintain Syria as a unified nation inclusive of all sects.”

Petroleum politics and the perceived U.S. detachment from the Middle East have paved the way for an unprecedented Riyadh-Moscow dialogue.

It is Russia that will have to engineer a stage-left exit for Hezbollah and Iran if she wants to keep her assets in a transitional Syria and maintain credibility with the Sunni states.

“Saudi Arabia is ready to pay any price to bring down the Assad regime,” an exiled leader of the Assyrian Christian Community whose family has suffered from the ravages of both the Damascus government and Islamist fighters told the Jewish Journal.

“Israel’s interest is to satisfy the Sunni Arabs, and that means they, too, want to see a negotiated end to this war.”

Blaming operative’s death on Israel, Hezbollah chief vows revenge


Hassan Nasrallah, the top leader of the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah, blamed the killing of operative Samir Kuntar on Israel and said his group would retaliate.

“We reserve the right to respond to this assassination at the time and place of our choosing,” Nasrallah said Monday evening in a televised speech from Beirut, the Times of Israel reported. The newspaper cited an English translation from a journalist with the al-Mayadeen Arabic satellite television channel.

Nasrallah’s statement came hours after a Syrian rebel group claimed responsibility for the airstrike in Damascus that killed Kuntar, who was released in a 2008 prisoner swap after spending nearly three decades in Israeli prison for his role in a deadly terrorist attack.

“We have no doubt that the Israeli enemy was behind the assassination in a blatant military operation,” Nasrallah said, according to the Naharnet news site.

Israel has not confirmed whether or not it was involved in the attack, but several Israeli officials praised Kuntar’s death.

Kuntar was responsible for the deaths of four Israelis, including a 4-year-old girl and her father, in a 1979 attack in Nahariya. He is suspected of planning multiple attacks against Israeli soldiers in the Golan Heights.

Israel says Arrow 3 missile shield aces test, hitting target in space


Israel's upgraded Arrow ballistic missile shield passed a full interception test on Thursday, hitting a target in space meant to simulate the trajectory of the long-range weapons held by Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the Defense Ministry said.

The success was a boost for “Arrow 3,” among Israeli missile defense systems that get extensive U.S. funding. Its first attempt at a full trial, held a year ago, was aborted due to what designers said was a faulty deployment of the target.

“The success of the Arrow 3 system today … is an important step towards one of the most important projects for Israel and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) becoming operational,” said Joseph Weiss, IAI's chief executive officer.

Arrow 3 interceptors are designed to fly beyond the earth's atmosphere, where their warheads detach to become 'kamikaze' satellites, or “kill vehicles”, that track and slam into the targets. Such high-altitude shoot-downs are meant to safely destroy incoming nuclear, biological or chemical missiles.

The Arrow system is jointly developed by state-owned IAI and U.S. firm Boeing Co. <BA.N> and U.S. officials were present for the test. The earlier Arrow 2 was deployed more than a decade ago and officials put its success rate in trials at around 90 percent.

The United States has its own system for intercepting ballistic missiles in space, Aegis, but a senior Israeli official played down any comparison with Arrow 3.

While it “might be true” that the allies were alone in having such proven capabilities, “Israel is not on the level of the U.S.,” Yair Ramati, head of anti-missile systems at the Defense Ministry, told reporters.

Arrow serves as the top tier of an integrated Israeli shield built up to withstand various potential missile or rocket salvoes. The bottom tier is the already deployed short-range Iron Dome interceptor, while a system called David's Sling, due to be fielded next year, will shoot down mid-range missiles. 

Israel's strategic outlook has shifted in recent months, given the international deal in July curbing Iran's nuclear program, the depletion of the Syrian army's arsenal in that country's civil war and Hezbollah's reinforcement of Damascus against the rebels. Israel and Hamas fought a Gaza war in 2014 but the Palestinian enclave has been relatively quiet since.

Nonethless, a senior Israeli official said there was no sign of waning government support or weakening U.S. backing for the various missile defense programs.

“Everyone knows that you have to prepare with an eye well beyond the horizon, especially as the enemy's capabilities improve all the time,” the senior official told Reuters.

In the coming months the Defense Ministry and Israeli military will discuss a possible schedule for deployment of Arrow 3, Ramati said, adding that further tests of the system were expected.

Israel says 90 pct of Syria’s ballistic missiles used up on rebels


Syria has used up more than 90 percent of its ballistic missiles against rebels during a more than four-year-old civil war but a few were transferred to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon, a senior Israeli military officer said on Wednesday. 

Israel, which is expanding its high-altitude Arrow air defence system with U.S. help, has been keeping an eye on Syria's Scud-type missiles as well as Iran's long-range Shehabs as potential threats. 

“The number of (Syrian) ballistic missiles left is less than 10 percent,” a senior Israeli officer told Reuters on condition of anonmity, but added: “That could still change. They could start making them again.” 

Syrian opposition activists say Damascus' army has fired dozens of devastating Scud-type missiles at rebel-held areas, out of a ballistic arsenal believed to have numbered in the hundreds before the insurgency erupted in 2011. 

Israel had a stable standoff with Syria's ruling Assad family for decades. It sees little chance of the now fractured Arab neighbour going to war with it now, but is still on guard for any accidental cross-border launches or deliberate attacks by jihadi rebels.

The Israelis are more worried about Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which fought their superior military to a standstill in a 2006 Lebanon war and has been building up its arsenal.

Hezbollah now has more than 100,000 rockets, including “around 10” advanced Scud-D missiles with conventional warheads supplied by Syria, the senior Israeli military officer said. 

Hezbollah does not comment publicly on its military capabilities but has confirmed improving them since 2006.

Two suicide bombers hit Hezbollah bastion in Lebanon, 43 killed


At least 43 people were killed and more than 240 wounded on Thursday in two suicide bomb blasts claimed by Islamic State in a crowded residential district in Beirut's southern suburbs, a stronghold of the Shi'ite Muslim group Hezbollah.

The explosions were the first attacks in more than a year to target a Hezbollah stronghold inside Lebanon, and came at time when the group is stepping up its involvement in the Syrian civil war — a fight which has brought Sunni Islamist threats and invective against the Iran-backed Shi'ite group.

Hezbollah has sent hundreds of fighters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces in the four-year-old conflict over the border. Government forces backed by Hezbollah and Iranian troops have intensified their fight against mostly Sunni insurgents, including Islamic State, since Russia launched an air campaign in support of Assad on Sept. 30.

Syria's civil war is increasingly playing out as a proxy battle between regional rivals, including Iran and Saudi Arabia, which supports the rebels. The two foes also back opposing political forces in Lebanon, which suffered its own civil war from 1975 to 1990, and where a political crisis has been brought about by factional and sectarian rivalries.

The blasts occurred almost simultaneously late on Thursday and struck a Shi'ite community center and a nearby bakery in the commercial and residential area of Borj al-Barajneh, security sources said. A closely guarded Hezbollah-run hospital is also nearby.

Health Minister Wael Abu Faour said 43 people were killed and 240 people were wounded.

Islamic State said in a statement posted online by its supporters that its members blew up a bike loaded with explosives in Borj al-Barajneh and that when onlookers gathered, a suicide bomber blew himself up among them. The group said the attacks killed 40 people.

Hezbollah vowed to continue its fight against “terrorists”, warning of a “long war” against its enemies.

Medics rushed to treat the wounded after the explosions, which damaged shop fronts and left the street stained with blood and littered with broken glass.

Interior Minister Nouhad Machnouk said a third suicide bomber had been killed by one of the explosions before he could detonated his own bomb. His body was found nearby.

It was a blow to Hezbollah's tight security measures in the area, which were strengthened following bombings last year. The army had also set up checkpoints around the southern suburb entrances.

'UNJUSTIFIABLE ATTACKS'

A series of bomb blasts struck Lebanon in 2013 and 2014, including attacks on Hezbollah strongholds. Most of them were claimed by Sunni militants in response to Hezbollah sending fighters to Syria to fight in support of Assad.

Hezbollah's involvement has brought many threats against it in Lebanon.

Security forces say they have foiled a number of attacks inside the country recently and dismantled terror cells. A security source said a man wearing a suicide vest was arrested in Tripoli on Thursday, and a bomb dismantled in the northern city.

The attacks drew a wave of condemnation across the country's political spectrum, including some of Hezbollah's opponents. 

Lebanonese Prime Minister Tammam Salam condemned the attacks as “unjustifiable”, and called for unity against “plans to create strife” in the country, urging officials to overcome their differences. France's foreign ministry also condemned the attacks.

The war in Syria, with which Lebanon shares a border of more than 300 km (190 miles), has ignited sectarian strife in the multi-confessional country, leading to bombings and fighting between supporters of the opposing sides in Syria.

Gun battles broke out in Tripoli last year in clashes that involved the army and Islamist militants, and regular infiltrations of Islamists from Syria into a Lebanese border town still draw army or Hezbollah fire.

The bombers also struck as Lebanese lawmakers held a legislative session for the first time in over a year. A political crisis has left the country without a president for 17 months, with the government failing to take even basic decisions.

Religious leaders warned last year that in the absence of a head of state, sectarian strife was threatening a country that was gripped for 15 years by its own civil war.

Syrian rebels to Russia: Stop bombing us


An alliance of Free Syrian Army-related insurgent groups said on Monday it was skeptical about a Russian proposal to help rebels, and that Moscow must stop bombing rebels and civilians and withdraw its support for President Bashar Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday the Russian air force, which has been bombing insurgents in Syria since Sept. 30, would be ready to help the “patriotic” Syrian opposition.

“Their words are not like their actions. How can we talk to them while they are hitting us?” Issam Rayyes, spokesman for the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters.

Russian warplanes have bombed a number of FSA-affiliated groups in northern areas of Syria since intervening in the war on the side of Assad. The Russian air force is providing air cover for several major ground offensives being waged by the Syrian army and allied Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

Rayyes added that there was no contact between the rebels and the Russians, clarifying an earlier remark to the BBC that the rebels had not turned down a Russian offer. “There is no offer, there is no communication,” Rayyes said. 

“We don't need the help now, they should stop attacking our bases and then we can talk about future cooperation,” Rayyes said in his earlier BBC interview.

His comments echo the views of other Syrian rebels towards the Russian statement, with Assad's opponents suspicious that Moscow is working purely to shore up its ally. 

The Southern Front alliance operates mostly near the border with Jordan and Israel – an area thus far not targeted in the Russian air strikes, but where the rebels are continuously fighting the Syrian army and allied militias.

The FSA is a loose alliance of groups, some of which have received military aid from Assad's foreign enemies. They are often led by former Syrian army officers and espouse a nationalist vision for the country.

Such groups have, however, been eclipsed in much of Syria by jihadists including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State group – the stated target of the Russian intervention in the war.

Israel faces potential challenge from Russia over Syria


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Periodically throughout the four and half years of the Syrian civil war weapon shipments destined for Hezbollah were intercepted and decimated by airstrikes inside Syria. In each instance Israel, whose air force has enjoyed unrivalled dominance of the airspace around the Jewish state’s borders, was believed responsible. But with the deployment of Russian combat aircraft to bases in Syria several weeks ago this hegemony may have ended.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow underscores Israel’s uncertainty over the future in Syria. Israeli officials worry that, inadvertently or otherwise, Russian fighter jets and air defense systems may act as a screen for Hezbollah to move new arms convoys into Syria.

Several days ago Israeli artillery units fired on Syrian army positions in response to errant shells crossing the border. This represented the first time Israel has attacked Syria since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops and jets into the country. Yet the incidents took place in the Golan Heights, far south of any Russian units which are stationed on the coast.

“The most immediate issue is one of having Israeli flights over Syrian territory (and) ensuring that Russia flights won’t have any confusion or accidental fire incidents (with them),” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line. But, he added, “This doesn’t need Netanyahu to visit Moscow.” In a similar manner to back channel communications between the US and Syria, Israel and Russia could have cooperated quietly to ensure that both states air forces operated in the same airspace without coming into conflict. A high level visit by Netanyahu demonstrates a deeper agenda, Sayigh said.

“(Its) more a question of working out how far will Russia go in protecting the regime (of President Bashar Al-Assad) – air defenses, new high tech combat aircraft,” Sayigh explained. Of chief concern to Israel would be the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to the Syrian military, something Russia has repeatedly said it will do, Sayigh said. The Russian built anti-aircraft system is capable of targeting planes and cruise missiles and is considered one of the most capable air defense systems in the world. The Israeli government has stated in the past that it would not accept the S-300 being transferred to the Syrian army.

Although Israel has not actively sought to undermine the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict the two countries are still technically at war. Israelis debate whether Assad’s fall or his survival is better for Israel. Russia, on the other hand, has stated that it will work to ensure Assad remains in power, with Putin declaring that supporting the regime is the most effective way to both fight Islamic State and end violence in the region.

A possibility exists that Russian and Israeli jets could come into conflict over Syrian skies but such a scenario is highly unlikely, Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “Russia is not fighting on the ground and in the air there is enough technical solutions (to ensure an accidental clash would not occur),” Magen said.

On the issue of Hizbullah, Israel retains the right to strike at weapon shipments and this will be understood and accepted by Russia, Magen said. “Russia is not looking for war,” and understands that Israel has certain requirements, the researcher explained. But this is not a disadvantage for Hizbullah however. “It’s good for them because they are part of this coalition – Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah,” Magen concluded.

Israel’s freedom of action over Syria could be curtailed by the Russian deployment, Raymond Hinnebusch, the director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, told The Media Line. “To the extent a Russian air defense umbrella reaches outward from their base in the coastal areas… this would potentially limit Israeli options,” the professor said.

The boost to the beleaguered Syrian regime that Putin’s actions represent could have far reaching implications for the whole of the region if they are enough to ensure Assad’s survival. This could alter Israel’s view of the near future and reverse assessments previously made by Israeli intelligence chiefs that Assad’s demise was inevitable.

“The main strategic change is… that the Russian presence will tend to push back against those pressuring for turning the US/Western airstrikes from (targeting) ISIS to hitting Assad,” Hinnebusch said.

Putin is “hoisting the Americans on their own petard,” by lauding the US sentiment that all states must work together to combat ISIS and then including Syria in this equation, Yezid Sayigh argued. Effectively, the Russians have created a “back window” for Assad to survive by, he suggested.

Iran’s allies, not atoms, preoccupy Israeli generals


While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thunders against a looming Iranian nuclear deal, his defense chiefs see a more pressing menace from Tehran's guerrilla allies.

Chief among these is Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that fought Israeli forces to a stand-still in their 2006 war and has since expanded its arsenal and honed its skills helping Damascus battle the Syria insurgency.

Ram Ben-Barak, director-general of Israel's Intelligence Ministry, accused Iran on Tuesday of “seeking footholds” from Syria to Yemen to Egypt's Sinai and the Palestinian territories. But he deemed Hezbollah a foe as formidable as the conventional Arab armies that clashed with Israel in the 1967 and 1973 wars.

“The only entity that can challenge us with a surprise attack on any scale nowadays is Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Ben-Barak told a conference organized by the Israel Defense journal.

Israel believes Hezbollah has more than 100,000 missiles capable of paralyzing its civilian infrastructure. Seeking to deter the guerrillas, Israeli generals have threatened to devastate Lebanon should there be another full-on conflict.

In the interim, Lebanese and Syrian sources report regular Israeli air force sorties as part of an apparent effort to monitor, and at times destroy, weapons transfers to Hezbollah.

A Jan. 18 air strike that killed an Iranian general and several Hezbollah operatives in Syria's Golan Heights, northeast of Israel, suggested the Lebanese guerrillas have been setting up a second front close to Jordan, Israel's security partner.

An Iranian-backed Hezbollah presence in the Golan “will pose a very big problem for us in the future”, Ben-Barak said.

Two Western diplomats who track Israel's military assessed that it was now busiest securing the Lebanon and Syria borders.

“I don't think anyone's looking for escalation, but the potential for this to spiral out of control is high,” one diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

When Israel's military intelligence chief, Major-General Herzi Halevy, visited Washington in March, as world powers and Iran entered the final stretch of nuclear negotiations, he urged U.S. care on inadvertently fuelling regional instability.

“What he was really interested in getting across was the military threat from groups like Hezbollah, the (Tehran-backed) Houthis in Yemen, and the IRGC (Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps) in Syria,” one of Halevy's American hosts said.

Israel has condemned as insufficient a proposed nuclear deal, whose deadline is June 30, and under which Iran would scale down its disputed projects in return for sanctions relief.

Hezbollah says Israel wants to set ‘new rules’ with Syria raid


An Israeli attack which killed several prominent members of Lebanon's Hezbollah last week was an attempt by Israel to set “new rules” in the conflict between the two foes, Hezbollah's deputy leader said at a gathering to commemorate those who died.

Sheikh Naim Qassem's comments were the first reaction from the group's leadership to the missile attack in the Syrian province of Quneitra near the Israeli border.

Among those killed was an Iranian officer and the son of Hezbollah's late military chief. Israel has struck Hezbollah inSyria several times since the conflict there began, hitting weapons deliveries, but the group did not acknowledge these attacks.

However, the prominence of those killed in the latest raid will make it difficult to ignore for Hezbollah, putting the group under pressure to retaliate and also undermining a ceasefire between Israel and Syria.

“It is a Zionist attempt to lay the foundation for a new (military) equation in the framework of our struggle with them and achieve by these strikes what they could not achieve in war … But Israel is too weak to be able to draw new steps or new rules,” he told mourners.

Qassem did not elaborate but hinted that the group would respond. He said Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah would give the group's formal stance in the coming days.

“We will continue our jihad and we will be where we should be without (allowing) anything to stand in our way,” he said.

Hezbollah, which fought a 34-day war against Israel in 2006, could attack Israel from its Lebanon stronghold, hit Israeli interests abroad, or attack Israeli posts in the Golan Heights.

All options could trigger another all-out war or even a wider conflict between Israel and Syria.

Fighters from Iran-backed Hezbollah have been fighting alongside government forces in Syria's civil war and have helped turn the tide in favor of President Bashar al-Assad.

The group says it is fighting in Syria in part to prevent Islamist militant fighters, such as al Qaeda's Syrian wing, the Nusra Front, and Islamic State, from advancing into Lebanon.

Speaking to Israel's Army Radio, Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon declined to confirm or deny Israel had carried out the attack, but said reinforcements had been sent to the north.

“Given what was prevented on the Golan Heights, what was exposed is an Iranian effort, in partnership with Hezbollah, to open a front with us on the Golan Heights,” he said.

“They started with rockets and a few bombs. We understood that they apparently want to upgrade it to high-quality and far more significant terrorist attacks …,” the minister said.

Hezbollah says Assad’s allies have right to respond to Israeli attacks in Syria


Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Thursday that Israeli strikes inside Syria were also an aggression against Syria's regional allies and they had the right to retaliate.

“The frequent attacks on different sites in Syria is a major breach. We consider (those) hostilities (to be) against all the resistance axis,” he told the Beirut-based Al Mayadeen TV.

“(Retaliation) is an open issue … It is not only Syria's right to respond but also it is the right of the axis of resistance to respond. When this right will be executed is subject to certain criteria … it could happen any time.”

Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and some Palestinian factions consider themselves an “axis of resistance” against Israel.

Hezbollah is a staunch ally of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and has sent hundreds of combatants to fight alongside his forces in the nearly four-year civil war.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the nearly four-year civil war, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for Hezbollah.

In December, Syria said Israeli jets had bombed areas near Damascus airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon. Israel does not publicly confirm bombing missions.

Hezbollah, created in the 1980s to fight Israeli occupation in Lebanon, fought a 33-day war with Israel in 2006 in which it fired thousands of rockets that hit deep into Israel.

Nasrallah said his group was ready for any possible future war with Israel despite being engaged in the war in Syria.

“If the Israelis think that the resistance is weakened or exhausted …then they are mistaken.”

Syrian war and Israeli spies mean hard times for Hezbollah


Drained and delegitimized by the Syrian civil war, penetrated by Israeli intelligence and separated from traditional allies, the Lebanese group Hezbollah’s self-proclaimed glory days of 2006, when it went to war with Israel, have never seemed so distant.

Supporting President Bashar Assad’s war against his people has put Hezbollah under unprecedented strain. Since its involvement began, the group has lost hundreds of fighters. For a relatively small outfit — Hezbollah’s core military force is a few thousand strong — these losses have a significant impact. Nevertheless, amid all the killing, Hezbollah’s most serious loss in Syria has been its reputation. With hundreds of thousands murdered in Syria — starved, poison-gassed and barrel-bombed — Hezbollah’s direct complicity with Assad has been noticed. After all, while Hezbollah has long claimed to defend “all the oppressed,” including Sunnis, Syria’s wreckage testifies to the group’s duplicity. Put simply, after witnessing Hezbollah kill Syrian Sunnis, other Sunnis view its claims of beneficence skeptically. Even the Sunni militant group Hamas has moved away from Hezbollah; a poor relationship emphasized by Hezbollah’s unwillingness to open a northern front during last summer’s Israel-Hamas war.

For “the Party of God,” this reputational damage is a big problem. Both a militant group and a political actor in the traditional sense, Hezbollah needs political consensus to advance its agenda. For a long time, Hezbollah’s hostility against Israel won it friends across the political spectrum, but now that it’s targeting Muslims, the well of diplomacy is evaporating. As Hezbollah’s intolerance for satire suggests, the group is deeply uncomfortable with challenges to its identity narrative as Lebanon’s pious, paternalistic guardian.

The Syrian civil war is the greatest challenge this narrative has ever faced, but there are challenges at home as well.

Hezbollah’s Lebanese political identity has been polluted by the way it has taken up arms to carry out Iran’s foreign policy by fighting on Assad’s behalf. Up until now, Hezbollah’s semi-independence has given the group flexibility to forge coalitions in Beirut.

But with other Lebanese political leaders now taking a tougher line against the group, things might be changing. Facing Islamic State fighters in Syria who are threatening northeastern Lebanon and increasing sectarian violence at home, Lebanese politics are hardening into more pronounced sectarian identities and greater paranoia. While Hezbollah hopes its military power will incentivize domestic alliances, it knows being outmaneuvered is a real risk.

The pain doesn’t end there.

Hezbollah is also hurting for another reason: its operational security collapse over the past few years. A senior commander was killed by a car bomb in 2008, another assassinated in December 2013 and new reports suggest another group of Hezbollah officers were recently identified as assets of the Israeli secret service, Mossad. This has surely shaken nerves in Hezbollah’s executive leadership.

Still, Hezbollah has one sign of hope. With the Obama administration so intent on making a deal with Iran, it’s unlikely that the United States will encourage political maneuvering against it.

Hezbollah says border attack was message to Israel


An attack by Hezbollah on Lebanon's border with Israel which wounded two Israeli soldiers was a message that the group remained ready to confront its old foe despite its engagement in Syria's civil war, the group's deputy leader said.

The soldiers were wounded by a bomb planted by Lebanese Hezbollah fighters in the Shebaa hills, drawing Israeli artillery fire in response. It was the first time Hezbollah has claimed responsibility for an attack against the Israeli army since 2006, when the two sides fought a 33-day war.

“This is a message.. Even though we are busy in Syria and on the eastern front in Lebanon our eyes remain open and our resistance is ready to confront the Israeli enemy,” Sheikh Naim Qassem told Lebanese OTV television late on Tuesday.

Israel and Lebanon are technically at war but their 50-mile border has been largely quiet since the 2006 conflict.

Hezbollah members have been fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria's civil war. The move by Hezbollah, which is backed by Shi'ite Iran, has helped turn the tide of the war in Syria against insurgents seeking to oust Assad.

The group said it took the decision to fight in Syria to prevent jihadi fighters, like those from Nusra Front and Islamic State which seized parts of Syria and Iraq, from advancing into Lebanon.

On Sunday, 10 of the group's fighters were killed during a battle with hundreds of Nusra Front militants on the border in eastern Lebanon.

Reporting by Laila Bassam; Editing by Mariam Karouny and Janet Lawrence

Israel raises alarm over Islamist militants on its frontiers


Israel's frontier with Syria, where militants have kidnapped 45 U.N. peacekeepers, has become a magnet for Islamist activity and Israel itself is now a target, the defense minister and security analysts said on Tuesday.

The Nusra Front, an al-Qaida-linked group fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad, has established a major presence in the region, analysts said, and is poised to carry out attacks across the barren borderlands where Syria, Israel and Jordan converge.

Iran meanwhile is seeking to expand its influence in the region via its support for Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, all of which are allied against the Sunni insurgency confronting Assad, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

“Iran's fingerprints can be seen in Syria, including in the Golan Heights, in attempts to use terror squads against us,” Yaalon told an economic conference as he set out the combined threat from Islamist groups in Syria.

In their latest assault, Nusra Front fighters seized 45 Fijians serving as U.N. monitors in the demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria. It is demanding to be removed from global terrorism lists in exchange for their release.

“We now have Jabhat al-Nusra, which is basically al-Qaida, on the border with Israel, and Israel is a legitimate target for Muslim militants all over,” said Aviv Oreg, a retired Israeli intelligence officer and a specialist on al-Qaida.

Oreg said it was only “a matter of time” before the Islamist groups now engaged in fighting in Syria turn more of their attention towards Israel.

“I cannot tell you exactly when, but it's very risky. It only needs one suicide bomber to cross the fence and attack an Israeli military patrol or a tractor full of farmers going to work in the fields…”

But while Israel may be growing alarmed, it is not clear that the Jewish state is a strategic priority for Nusra or other radical Sunni Muslim groups.

Their focus since 2011 has been the overthrow of Assad, a campaign that has bogged down from infighting in their ranks and Shi'ite Muslim Hezbollah's intervention on the side of Assad.

If Israel is attacked in any serious way, the retaliation would likely be intense, setting back the insurgency and opening the way for Assad's forces to further reclaim the initiative.

Israel has bolstered its forces in the Golan Heights, a rugged plateau seized from Syria during the 1967 war, with armored patrols keeping a close eye across the frontier, sometimes passing within 300 meters (yards) of Nusra fighters.

The plateau, scattered with fruit farms, vineyards and rocky peaks, looks down across the plains of southwest Syria, where Nusra and other groups, including the secular, Western-backed rebel Free Syrian Army, can be seen battling Assad's forces.

After three years of fighting, opposition forces control patches of territory to the west and south of Damascus, including a portion of the 375-km (225-mile) border with Jordan.

That has allowed thousands of foreign fighters from both the Arab world and Europe to cross into Syria, including an estimated 2,000 Jordanians. At least 10 Israeli Arabs have also gone to Syria, five of whom were later detained after returning home, according to Oreg.

RISKY CORNER

The frontier between Israel and Syria has been administered by the United Nations since 1974, a year after the last war between them. It consists of an area of separation, a narrow strip of land running about 70 km (45 miles) from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River with Jordan.

About 1,200 soldiers are involved in monitoring the separation zone, in what has been for most of the past 40 years one of the world's quietest peacekeeping missions. That changed with the uprising against Assad, and the area is now precarious.

Stephane Cohen, the former chief liaison between the Israeli army and the U.N. peacekeeping force known as UNDOF, said the U.N.'s mandate was now meaningless.

With the Philippines, Ireland and other contributing nations set to withdraw from the mission, it was questionable whether the United Nations could continue monitoring the area.

“UNDOF is collapsing and the mandate has not been relevant for at least two years,” said Cohen, now a defense analyst with the Israel Project, a pro-Israel advocacy group.

“Eighty percent of the border area is now in the hands of (Syrian) opposition forces,” he said, adding that if more nations withdrew, the militant presence would only rise.

For now, Israel is merely remaining vigilant.

“We have to be very cautious about our retaliation policy,” said Oreg, emphasizing that the priority should be to keep careful tabs on the Nusra Front and other groups' capabilities, while sharing any intelligence judiciously.

Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

In the new Middle East, an embarrassment of evils


One of the crazy things about following the Middle East is trying to keep track of all the bad guys. Remember when Iran was the big bad Islamic wolf? Or al-Qaida? Or Hezbollah? Or the Muslim Brotherhood? Or Hamas?

Now, as if in a flash, along comes ISIS to become the evil flavor of the month. Seriously, how much evil can one region generate?

A screenwriter couldn’t make up such a cocktail of hatred. Just for starters, you have Shias against Sunnis, Persians against Arabs, Arabs against Turks, Turks against Persians, Iraqis against insurgents, Syrians against insurgents, insurgents against insurgents, Lebanese against Syrians, Egyptians against Qataris, Saudis against Iran — and everyone against the Jews.

I’ll leave it to the scholars to explain how each shade of evil differs from the next. I know that a lot of people these days are into the “Who’s worse? Hamas or ISIS?” game, but from where I sit, whether you chop people’s heads off or hide behind children to murder other children, evil is evil.

Even that old standby, “the enemy of your enemy is my friend,” doesn’t really hold up anymore. Just look at ISIS and Syria.

One of the sworn enemies of ISIS just happens to be … yeah, the biggest murderer of the new century, Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, who’s responsible for the deaths of nearly 200,000 of his own people.

I know ISIS is the height of evil, but can I really cheer for that Syrian butcher against anybody?

Same with the Jew-hating Holocaust deniers in Iran – they also hate ISIS. Aside from the fact that we belong to the same species, do I really want to have anything in common with the nuclear mullahs of Persia—even if it’s a common enemy?

It’s hard to fathom that one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel – Hezbollah – could now be fighting in Syria against one of the nastiest, Jew-hating threats to Israel—ISIS.

Consider also Saudi Arabia, presumably in the “moderate” camp of the Mideast jungle. We’re now supposed to be buddy-buddies with the Saudi royalty because they’re the enemies of Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. But wait. Guess who for years has been funding the most violent strains of Islam in the region? That’s right, the Ferrari-driving House of Saud.

Those turkeys are surely coming home to roost.

The craziness is everywhere. Remember when the Muslim Brotherhood was running the show in Egypt and helping smuggle lethal weaponry to their Hamas brothers in Gaza? Well, the Brotherhood became so hated in Egypt that most of them are now in jail. So, guess who’s now Egypt’s sworn enemy? That’s right, Hamas, the sworn enemy of Israel.

Of course, the Egyptian people are not exactly crowding into Tahrir Square to cheer on the Zionist army as it fights Hamas. But cheering privately? Highly likely.

We saw another example of the new Middle East craziness a few weeks ago when Egypt first tried to negotiate a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.

On one side you had Egypt, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and (yes!) Israel—all sworn enemies of Hamas– and on the other side you had Turkey, Qatar and (yes!) the United States. Why would the U.S. be on the “wrong” side?

The best analysis I’ve read is that President Obama is obsessed with closing a nuclear deal with Iran, and since the Egyptian-led coalition is strongly opposed to Iran, Obama was reluctant to poke Iran in the eye by empowering the anti-Iran coalition on any issue.

In any event, now that ISIS has crossed the line by beheading an American journalist, Obama is facing some serious cognitive dissonance: Should he align with the evil mullahs of Iran or the butcher of Damascus against the evil killers of ISIS, at least covertly? Good luck with that one.

I knew things were getting hairy when I asked my daughter in Tel Aviv how she was holding up with all the latest Hamas rockets, and she replied: “We’re worried about ISIS now.”

This is what the new Middle East has come down to– an embarrassment of evils. ISIS may be a new brand of evil, but when I look at longtime murderous entities like Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran or Syria, all I can think is: Pick your poison, folks.

If a sinister game designer wanted to create a new video game to capture what’s going on right now in the Middle East jungle, that’s a good name right there: “Pick your poison.”

There wouldn’t be any good guys in this game– just an orgy of bad guys. The whole fun would be in deciding who the baddest guy is at any moment, and knocking down as many of these guys as possible.

The ultimate goal would be to take down the baddest “bad guy” of them all, the one the whole world really hates: Israel.

Despite Syria rift, Hezbollah pledges full support to Hamas


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah pledged full support on Friday to the Palestinian group Hamas in its conflict with Israel despite a deep rift between the two militant organizations over the civil war in Syria.

“We in Hezbollah will be unstinting in all forms of support, assistance and aid that we are able to provide,” Nasrallah said.

“We feel we are true partners with this resistance, a partnership of jihad, brotherhood, hope, pain, sacrifice and fate, because their victory is all our victory, and their defeat is all our defeat,” he said.

Nasrallah delivered his speech in public in Hezbollah's stronghold of south Beirut, a rare event for the militant Shi'ite Lebanese leader who has lived in hiding, fearing for his security, after Hezbollah's 2006 war with Israel.

That inconclusive 34-day conflict won Hezbollah sweeping support around the Arab world for standing up to Israel's military superiority. But its more recent military action in neighboring Syria has eroded that regional backing.

Shi'ite Hezbollah has sent thousands of fighters into Syria to fight alongside President Bashar al-Assad's forces, helping turn the tide against overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim rebels.

But the Hamas leadership, once based in Damascus, refused to support Assad as he confronted with force peaceful protests which broke out in 2011 and descended into an insurgency and civil war. Since then 160,000 people have been killed.

“We call for all differences and sensitivities on other issues to be put to one side,” Nasrallah said in reference to the rift over Syria. “Gaza is above all considerations”

His speeches are usually delivered via video-link from an undisclosed location, but in a sign of confidence the Hezbollah leader spoke on Friday for an hour in front of hundreds of supporters at Hezbollah's Martyr's Compound in the south of the Lebanese capital.

“We say to our brothers in Gaza: We are with you, by your side, trusting in your strength and your victory. We will do all that we believe to be our duty, on all fronts,” he said.

Nasrallah did not specify what support would be given, but he pointedly said that Iran, Syria and Hezbollah in the past had supplied “all factions of the Palestinian resistance, financially, materially, politically…with weapons, logistical help and training.”

Four Israeli troops hurt in Golan blast, Israel blames Syria


A roadside bomb wounded four Israeli soldiers patrolling the Golan Heights on Tuesday, and Israel retaliated with artillery fire on Syrian army positions, the army said.

It was not clear who had planted the bomb in an area where the Syrian military, Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas and Syrian rebels fighting President Bashar Assad all have a presence.

Violence in Syria has spilled over the Golan frontline in the past but Tuesday's casualties were the worst Israel has suffered in there since the Syrian uprising began three years ago, army spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Peter Lerner said.

Noticing suspicious movement near the Golan separation fence, the soldiers left their patrol vehicle to inspect it on foot and were hit by an explosion, Lerner said. One was seriously hurt and the others had moderate to light injuries.

Israeli artillery shelled Syrian army positions on the far side of the fence in retaliation, Lerner said.

“We see the Syrian army as responsible, and that is indicated by our response to the attack,” he said.

His language suggested Israel was blaming Damascus because it had formal authority over the Syrian-held side of the Golan.

Lerner declined to be drawn on whether Israel knew who specifically had planted the bomb. Two weeks ago, Israel said it foiled a similar attack when its forces shot two Hezbollah men near the Golan fence. Hezbollah has fighters in Syria helping Assad combat a rebellion led by Sunni Islamist insurgents.

In Jerusalem, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu said the Syrian-held side of the Golan was “filled” with al Qaeda-linked rebels and Hezbollah guerrillas who, while at each other's throats in Syria, shared deep enmity for the Jewish state.

“This presents a new challenge for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told his Likud faction.

Israel has accused Hezbollah of setting up positions on the other side of the boundary fence. On Friday, an explosive device was detonated against Israeli soldiers patrolling the nearby border with Lebanon, causing no injuries, the army said.

Hezbollah accused Israel of carrying out an air strike on one of its bases on the Lebanon-Syria border last month and vowed to respond. Israel said it would hold the Beirut government responsible if Hezbollah attacked it from Lebanese territory.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Crispian Balmer and Alistair Lyon

Bomb on Lebanese border targets Israeli soldiers, IDF says


An explosive device was detonated against Israeli soldiers patrolling the border with Lebanon on Friday, causing no injuries, Israel's military said.

Israel shot six mortars into southern Lebanon, causing no damage or injuries, a Lebanese security source said, and an Israeli military spokeswoman said she was checking whether the army had returned fire.

The Israel-Lebanon border has been mostly quiet since Israel and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah fought an inconclusive war in 2006, even as civil war has raged in neighboring Syria.

Hezbollah has been helping President Bashar Assad in Syria fight rebels trying to topple his government.

Earlier this month Israel said its troops shot two Hezbollah gunmen who tried to plant a bomb farther east near the fence between the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and Syrian-held territory.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Alexander Dziadosz; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall

Hezbollah says will respond to Israeli air strike


Hezbollah will respond to an Israeli air strike that hit one of its bases on the border with Syria on Monday night, the Lebanese militant group said on Wednesday.

“The new aggression is a blatant assault on Lebanon and its sovereignty and its territory … The Resistance (Hezbollah) will choose the time and place and the proper way to respond to it,” Hezbollah said in a statement.

The strike, which Israel has not confirmed, hit the Lebanese-Syrian border near the Bekaa Valley village of Janta, Hezbollah said. It denied reports that the strike targeted artillery or rocket bases and said there were no casualties.

Lebanese security sources have said they believed that any attack took place on Syrian soil, but Hezbollah's reference to Lebanese sovereignty suggested it took place on the Lebanese side of the ill-defined frontier.

Israeli planes have struck areas on the Syrian side of the border several times in the last two years but, if confirmed, an air strike on Lebanese soil would be the first since the Syrian revolt began in 2011.

The eastern Lebanon-Syrian border area is frequently used by smugglers and Lebanese security sources say the target of Israeli strikes in Syria may have been trucks of weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Israel has voiced alarm that amid the chaos of Syria's civil war, weapons could be transferred to Hezbollah, which is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fight an insurgency but has traditionally fought Israel.

Israel's military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz reiterated those fears on Sunday, a day before the strike, when he accused Iran, Assad's ally and Hezbollah's patron, of moving weapons to the militant group.

“There is no theatre in which Iran is not involved – giving out, if you like, torches to pyromaniacs – whether this is munitions or missiles or intervention in the fighting,” he said.

“We are tracking the processes of arms transfers in all of the operational theatres. This is something that is very, very negative. This is something that is very, very sensitive. And from time to time, when the need arises, things can happen.”

Israel's Channel 10 television on Tuesday broadcast what it said were satellite images of the locations struck, which appeared to show missile silos being readied for weapons.

The Lebanese army reported that four Israeli planes had flown across north Lebanon on Monday night towards the Bekaa Valley before heading southwest towards the Mediterranean near Lebanon's southern border with Israel. Israeli jets regularly fly through Lebanese airspace without permission.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not claim or deny the strike but said on Tuesday Israel would “do everything required to safeguard the security of the citizens of Israel.”

Additional reporting by Oliver Holmes and Dominic Evans in Beirut and Dan Williams and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem; Editing by Janet Lawrence

Israel sees safe passage for chemical arms out of Syria


Internationally-monitored convoys removing Syrian chemical weapons are at little risk of being seized by rebels fighting President Bashar Assad or by his Lebanese Hezbollah allies, a senior Israeli military officer said on Tuesday.

The estimate suggested that Israel, which repeatedly bombed targets in Syria last year to prevent suspected transfers from Assad's arsenal to hostile guerrillas, was holding fire as tonnes of toxins are trucked out – in some cases through war zones not under Assad's control.

“We are not poised for a situation in which a convoy encounters rebels. This is something being addressed by the international forces that are there,” the officer told Reuters, referring to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is overseeing the disarmament process.

He assessed the OPCW's role would also prevent Hezbollah, which has fighters in Syria helping Assad battle an almost three-year-old rebellion, from redirecting trucks to Lebanon.

“I reckon such a scenario is not possible,” said the officer, who declined to be named under military secrecy.

Syria agreed to abandon its chemical weapons by June under a deal worked out by Russia and the United States after an August 21 sarin gas attack near Damascus that Western nations blamed on Assad forces. The government blames rebels for the attack.

Around 1,300 tonnes of Syrian chemical weapons are slated for decommissioning. Some are to be shipped from Latakia port for destruction on a specially converted U.S. vessel.

Syria loaded a first batch of chemicals onto a Danish cargo vessel last Tuesday, a week after missing the original December 31 target to ship out all the deadliest chemicals. The OPCW has called on Assad's government to speed up the process. An official contacted by Reuters on Tuesday declined to say whether any further cargoes had been loaded onto ships.

ENTIRE ARSENAL OUT?

Israel is an old enemy of Syria under Assad's family, and of Hezbollah, but also feels threatened by the Islamist-led rebels. It has welcomed the stripping of Syria's chemical arsenal while warning world powers that Damascus could renege.

“We are very preoccupied by places (in Syria) where – perhaps – the weapons have not been dismantled, and remain, and may end up in Lebanon,” the Israeli officer said, without elaborating. “We are looking very closely for this, and we really do not want it to happen.”

Iranian-backed Hezbollah, which has tens of thousands of rockets as well as riflemen, fought Israel's technologically superior forces to a standstill in a 2006 border war and poses its most immediate threat. But some Israeli officials doubt the militia would try to obtain chemical weapons.

Regional security sources said that on at least three occasions last year Israel bombed convoys or depots in Syria that it believed held advanced weapons destined for Hezbollah.

Israel has not formally confirmed carrying out those raids, which drew retaliation threats from Damascus. While not commenting on specific actions, the Israeli officer acknowledged that intervening militarily now could upset a disarmament campaign coordinated by numerous foreign powers.

“I know that, as of now, no convoy has been harmed. I don't know what will happen tomorrow, but I am not preparing for a situation in which I would be the one 'protecting' these convoys,” the officer said.

Asked if the possibility of inadvertently harming foreigners accompanying the convoys might stay Israel's hand, the officer said: “Yes, unequivocally.”

“We very much do not want to undermine this process of the chemical weapons being dismantled. It is a dramatic event in terms of Israel's security outlook. It is, without a doubt, an achievement.”

Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Beirut, editing by Mark Heinrich

U.S. officials: Hezbollah upgrades missile threat


Hezbollah operatives are smuggling components of advanced guided missiles from Syria to Lebanon, U.S. officials said.

Operatives from the Shi’ite terrorist group have been moving the components in parts to avoid detection and airstrikes by Israel, unnamed officials told The Wall Street Journal.

As many as 12 guided-missile systems may now be in Hezbollah’s possession inside Syria, according to U.S. officials briefed on the intelligence, the newspaper said.

In addition to aircraft, Hezbollah will be able to target ships and bases with the new systems, which include supersonic Yakhont rockets, the Journal reported Friday.

Such guided weapons would be a major step up from the “dumb” rockets and missiles Hezbollah now has stockpiled, and could sharply increase the group’s ability to deter Israel in any potential new battle, the officials said.

U.S. and Israeli officials also said several strikes last year attributed to Israel stopped shipments of surface-to-air SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons and ground-to-ground Fateh-110 rockets to Hezbollah locations in Lebanon. Some originated from Iran, others from Syria itself.

On Tuesday, Israel conducted its second successful experiment on the Arrow-3 interceptor missile, the Israel Ministry of Defense said in a statement Friday. Arrow-3 is designed to intercept large, longer range missiles as part of Israel’s multilayer interception defense array.

The intercepting missile hit its target over the Mediterranean during a test conducted by the Israel Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

“The successful test is a major milestone in the development of the Arrow-3 Weapon System and provides confidence in future Israeli capabilities to defeat the developing ballistic missile threat,” the ministry said in a statement.

Nasrallah warns Israel that Hezbollah will avenge commander’s killing


Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah on Friday vowed to avenge Israel for the killing of a senior Hezbollah commander in Beirut earlier this month.

Hassan Laqqis, who fought in Syria's civil war for the Lebanese Shi'ite militia, was shot dead outside his home on December 4.

A previously unknown group, Ahrar al-Sunna Baalbek brigade, claimed responsibility at the time of the attack, but Hezbollah quickly blamed Israel, with which it fought a 34-day war in 2006.

“All the indicators and clues points to the Israeli enemy,” Nasrallah said, in his first public comments since the attack.

“Our killer is known, our enemy is known, our adversary is known … When the facts point to Israel, we accuse it,” he said in televised remarks to supporters in southern Beirut.

Israel has denied any role in the shooting and hinted that the motive may have been Hezbollah's military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad in his war with mainly Sunni Muslim rebels.

The 2-1/2 year-old civil war in Syria has polarized the Middle East between Sunni Muslim powers, such as Turkey and the Gulf Arab states who support the rebels, and Shi'ite Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, who back Assad.

The president's Alawite faith is an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Hezbollah has sent several thousand fighters to Syria, helping to turn the tide in Assad's favor this year. But Nasrallah said on Friday that would not prevent it from avenging the killing of Laqqis.

“If the Israelis think … that Hezbollah is busy and that Israel will not pay the price, I say to them today, 'You are wrong',” he said.

“The killers will be punished sooner or later and the blood of our martyrs – whether large or small – will not be wasted. Those who killed will not be safe anywhere in the world. Vengeance is coming.”

The open role of Hezbollah fighters in the Syrian civil war and the steady flow of Lebanese Sunnis joining the anti-Assad rebels have fuelled sectarian strife in Lebanon.

Car bombs killed dozens of people in Beirut in August and a twin suicide attack on the Iranian embassy in the Lebanese capital killed at least 25 people last month.

But Nasrallah mocked critics who he said blamed Lebanon's woes – from sectarian tension to the flooding of a road during winter storms – on Hezbollah's intervention in Syria.

“Why isn't there a government? Because Hezbollah entered Syria. Why haven't we held elections? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why is the economic situation like this? Hezbollah is in Syria. Why did the tunnel on the airport road become a lake? Because Hezbollah is in Syria. This of course isn't logical.”

Reporting by Laila Basasm and Stephen Kalin; Editing by Mike Collett-White

The forgotten refugees of Ghouta, Syria


The most infamous attack over two-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria – a silent sarin gassing in the city of Ghouta that killed more than 1,500 and sent allied countries to the brink of world war – came in the middle of the night.

When I woke up, I found that everyone in my neighborhood had died,” said Syrian refugee Alia Wahban, 18, as she tried to warm the hands of her wailing 8-month-old. “Everyone was on the ground, in the street. We brought water to put on their faces, but they didn’t wake up.”

Wahban knew she had to get out of Syria. So she made her way through the Syrian desert with the help of the Free Syrian Army, praying she wouldn’t be stopped at a military checkpoint, where she feared Hezbollah operatives might rape her – or, worse, kill her son.

A few months later, safe yet starving in a makeshift camp in Jordan, Wahban spoke of the hard new reality she faces as a refugee. A single light bulb – dangling from a cord in the center of her United Nations tent, sucking electricity from a nearby Jordanian home – gave dim shape to the two dozen people huddled alongside Wahban. They were perched along a ring of thin sleeping mats that lined the tent, drinking tiny cups of tea and batting at the flies that had taken refuge there, as well.

“We expect to die this winter,” said Shadua al-Hamdan, 40, a mother of four who fled Ghouta seven months ago, just missing the chemical-weapons attack. (Many of her friends and relatives back home, however, didn’t make it.)

Outside, as if on cue, thunder growled across the late November sky, announcing the second rainfall of winter. It was an ominous reminder of the icy storms to come, which meteorologists predict will be some of the worst to hit Jordan in decades.

[Related: Fifteen-year-old Amira al-Hamed, standing, and her little sister are living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Mafraq. “There are no clothes, no water, no blankets,” she said. “It's very cold at night. … Please send the message to the world to send winter stuff to us.” Photo by Simone Wilson

Rabeit Na’eam nearly doubled in size following the chemical-weapons attack in Ghouta: The camp’s total population now sits at about 300 families, or 1,500 people, according to al-Khaldi. “The main worry for me now is if these organizations stop giving me aid for the camp, [because then] I cannot give any aid to the refugees in the camp,” he said in his office, lined in ornate gold wallpaper and hung with portraits of the Jordanian royal family.

Back at camp, the refugees are becoming anxious. “When it rains, the tent leaks and floods,” said al-Hamdan, mother of four. Her teeth were yellowed, and some rhinestones had flaked off the geometric pattern running down her abaya. “The water also comes up from the ground.”

Al-Hamdan turned from the visiting journalist to the accompanying JRO volunteer, a Syrian refugee himself, and grilled him about when she would receive a caravan to replace her tent.

The JRO volunteer, a friendly twenty-something with a buzz cut and a puffy thermal vest, pulled up a photo on his smartphone of the typical refugee caravan — a small rectangle, five meters by three meters, with double-paneled walls for insulation. “Very nice,” he said.

“Everybody wants a caravan,” said a spokesperson for UNHCR who wished not to be identified by name. “It’s a way of having a roof — literally a roof — over your head. You can lock your door. You can stand up. It’s also raised a little bit from the ground. And it certainly provides, on a psychological level, a sense of more protection.”

JRO director Al-Khaldi said the Rabeit Na’eam camp is currently populated by 300 tents and 20 caravans; however, refugees at the camp told the Journal that none of them had yet received a caravan.

Al-Khaldi also claimed the UNHCR originally promised to help with the camp, but that “the promises ran out.” However, the UNHCR spokesperson said she had never heard of the Rabeit Na’eam camp, nor its parent organization. “There are hundreds of informal settlements, ranging from a few tents to larger numbers,” she said in an email. “It doesn’t help us when people are not in an official camp setting, as they don’t have access to water, to food and non-food items, kitchens, medical clinics, schools, and to other assistance the humanitarian community provides.

“We do make every effort to support all Syrians in need, however the needs are so enormous, that it can be incredibly challenging to identify everyone,” she said.

At the UNHCR’s massive Za’atari refugee camp, 20 minutes east — whose 80,000 residents come mainly from the Syrian city of Daraa — all but 4,000 families live in caravans, and public restrooms dot the city grid. Some enterprising refugees even steal scraps to build their own private stalls. (“Have they stolen it, or have they privatized it?” asked the UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt in a YouTube documentary on the camp. “I think they privatized it.”)

Much has been written and observed about Za’atari, a 1.3-square-mile refugee haven equipped with schools, medical tents and marketplaces. Its internal issues are often less aid-related and more city-related: As the fourth largest “city” in Jordan, it sees theft, violence, contagious diseases, in-fighting between communities and other problems that would arise in any cluster of 80,000 people fenced into rows of caravans in the ruthlessly hot-and-cold desert.

“Although a camp situation is not the most desirable, at least we can support them,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.

Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

In Arabic, Rabeit Na’eam means a desert oasis — a green “paradise” where water springs from the ground, according to a young Jordanian entrepreneur who helped translate at the camp.

The irony of this did not escape him. Water is scarce at the Rabeit Na’eam refugee camp, and the terrain harsh. One small boy, around 4 years old, padded over the desert rocks in bare feet, his dark toes coated in a layer of white-orange dust.

To go to the bathroom, al-Hamdan explained, she and the other Ghouta escapees must dig holes in the wet ground — which is especially difficult, and humiliating, for the women.

“In Syria, I had a safe life. I was in school, in the sixth grade,” said Amira al-Hamed, a shy 15-year-old girl living at Rabeit Na’eam with her mother and little sister. “I was playing every day with my friends in my neighborhood. My parents owned a house.”

But after Syrian forces destroyed the family home, al-Hamed, her mother and her sister were forced to leave Ghouta and camp Bedouin-style near the Syrian-Jordanian border for a few months. (Her father stayed behind.) Then, in October, they crossed the border into Jordan, where Jordanian soldiers delivered them straight to Za’atari.

However, because members of their extended family were already living at Rabeit Na’eam, they requested to be transferred.

Now, daily life is bleak. “There is no work or school for me. I just sit in the tent and sleep,” the 15-year-old said.

Although al-Hamed said she wishes she had a caravan like the ones she saw at Za’atari, the bigger camp frightened her: “There are many problems there, and violence,” she said. “It’s a dangerous situation. Also, I have relatives here.”

The No. 1 priority for the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam is to live alongside familiar faces from their old neighborhood, according to JRO Director al-Khaldi. “You can see that everyone knows everyone, and the kids play with each other, and everything is OK,” he said. “All of them come from the same family, so no problems will happen.”

The UNHCR spokesperson said another reason for avoiding Za’atari is that refugees aren’t allowed to leave or find work. Despite the Jordanian government’s ban on hiring Syrian refugees, “we do often find that those outside the camp are working informally, on farms for example,” she said. (A hotel manager in nearby Irbid, Jordan, confirmed this, saying he regularly hired Syrian men to work on his house in the cover of night, before inspectors came around at dawn.)

But the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam pay a price for their freedom. “There are no bathrooms here, and no water,” said al-Hamdan. “There are not enough blankets and clothes for the winter. There are no heaters, and no wood to make a fire. There is nowhere to buy bread. There is no money.”

Like most refugees in Jordan, the Ghouta natives at Rabeit Na’eam receive a limited ration of food coupons from the World Food Programme (WFP). But their remote location makes it more difficult for them to use the credit.

Most days, the refugees said, they eat only rice.

Asked what he does for fun, a 12-year-old boy named Hamed said he plays football all day on the desert flats. “But in the winter,” he said, “I’ll just sleep.”

The shelters at Rabeit Na’eam, which sleep around 12 to a room, are made from a patchwork of UNHCR tents and other assorted tarps and canvases. Donated rugs line the inside. Photo by Simone Wilson

As the sun set at Rabeit Na’eam, leaving behind a chill that cut to the bone, the lights of a Syrian border town blinked in the distance, beyond the tents.

“When Obama made the decision to go to Syria, I was very happy,” said al-Hamdan. “But now I think Obama supports Bashar [al-Assad].” A 70-year-old woman with dark, leathery skin who appeared to be the tent’s communal grandmother chimed in. “I thought America would help the Syrian people, but they didn’t,” she said, raising her voice to a shout. “If Obama wanted, he could help us. He doesn’t want to help us.”

The Ghouta survivors stressed that August’s infamous chemical-weapons attack, which they all blamed on Assad, was only one of thousands of assaults that have devastated their homeland. “The helicopters shot my house and my house broke down,” said Mohammad al-Ahmed, 35, a second cousin of al-Hamdan whose red-and-white keffiyeh was secured to his head with a circle of black rope. He crunched a string of yellow beads compulsively in his hand as he described hearing the helicopters overhead, running out of his house and watching as it was bombed to nothing. The same blast killed 13 of his neighbors, including a two-day-old infant.

On his flip phone, Al-Ahmed looked through photos of two happy memories at Rabeit Na’eam: The first, when the camp was gifted an entire sheep to kill and eat at Ramadan, and the second, when Patch Adams came to visit, dancing around in a red clown nose and stuffing kids into his signature pair of giant underwear. Cracks of laughter broke the musty hush in the tent as the refugees told stories about Adams’ visit.

But they can never forget the biting realities unfolding in their hometown, and their new temporary home, for long. Al-Ahmed said his brother recently told him over the phone that the Syrian government is surrounding Ghouta, blocking civilians from leaving the city and barring any food from entering.

A young girl named Noor said her father and her brother, too, are still trapped in Ghouta. “She cries every day and asks when her dad will come,” al-Ahmed said, his hand on the girl’s shoulder. As he said it, tears welled up again in Noor’s eyes. A pickup truck full of whooping Jordanian teenagers roared by on a road that cuts through the camp.

“I hope my father will be able to come here soon,” Noor said, hugging herself from the cold.

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To support the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam and help keep them warm through the winter, monetary donations can be made to the Jordan Relief Organization through the following bank account: Arab Islamic Bank, account number 1060-11065-505, swift code iibajoam200. The most-needed items are currently blankets ($18 each), heaters plus bottles of gas ($141 each) and caravans ($2,260).

Iran, Syria central in U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue


U.S. and Israeli officials addressed the potential for an Iranian nuclear weapon as well as turmoil in Syria in their periodic strategic dialogue.

“Both sides reiterated their determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon,” said a U.S. State Department statement released Wednesday after the two teams had met.

William Burns, a U.S. deputy secretary of state, and Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, led the teams.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made clear its concern in recent weeks that renewed talks between Iran and the major powers could lead to an easing of sanctions on Iran before it effectively ends its suspected nuclear weapons program.

“The two delegations reviewed developments in Syria, including efforts to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapon program, as well as threats to regional stability from terrorist groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas,” the statement said.

The sides meet about twice a year.

Report: Israel bombed Syrian weapons convoy bound for Lebanon


Israel Air Force jets bombed a convoy carrying advanced missiles from Syria to Lebanon, a Kuwaiti newspaper reported.

The Arabic language Al-Jarida daily cited an unnamed Israeli security official as saying the missiles were intended for the terrorist group Hezbollah.  The report, which has not been confirmed by another independent news source, did not say if the attack was in Syrian or Lebanese territory, only that it was on the border of the two countries.

The Lebanese media have not reported on any recent Israeli strikes.

Reports of heavy Israeli drone activity and over flights of Lebanon were reported over the weekend.

Israel was accused earlier this year of bombing weapons warehouses and convoys in Syria of arms meant for Hezbollah.

Israel under pressure to give up chemical, nuclear weapons


This story originally appeared on themedialine.org.

The United States-Russian deal for the destruction of Syria’s huge chemical weapon stocks caused Israelis to breathe an audible sigh of relief.

Many expected that a US strike would push either Syria or its ally Hezbollah to retaliate by attacking Israel. Over the past few weeks, thousands of Israelis, not known for their patience, spent hours waiting in line for government-issued gas masks.

Yet the deal also increases pressure on Israel to get rid of its chemical and, even more troubling to the Jewish state, its nuclear stockpile. If Syria must get rid of its chemical weapons, the reasoning goes, why can’t Israel do the same?

US Secretary of State John Kerry came to Israel to discuss the Syrian plan with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. According to the deal, Syria will give a list of all its chemical weapons sites to the United Nations within a week, and all such arms would be destroyed by the middle of 2014.

Groups opposed to Syrian President Bashar Assad said Syria has already moved significant stocks of chemical weapons out of the country. The Lebanese daily Al-Mustaqbal claimed that some 200 trucks were loaded with chemical weapons last week and sent to Iraq.

Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio that Israel has “good capabilities” when it comes to following the trail of Assad’s chemical arsenal.

At the same time, the 100 tons of chemical agents and munitions that Syria is believed to possess are distributed among dozens of sites, which will make their verification and destruction difficult.

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu sounded unconvinced when it came to the new US-Russian agreement.

“We hope that the understandings that have been achieved between the US and Russia regarding Syria's chemical weapons will show results, and indeed, these understandings will be tested by results – the full destruction of the stocks of chemical weapons that the Syrian regime has used against its own people,” Netanyahu said. “Israel must be prepared and ready to defend itself by itself against any threat. Today, this ability and this willingness are more important than ever.”

Other Israeli officials were less diplomatic.

“All of the conversation is duplicitous,” a senior Israeli official told The Media Line. “It’s a way of diverting attention away from the real subject which is the fact that Syria has chemical weapons, has used chemical weapons, and has threatened its use of chemical weapons to try to switch the spotlight onto us. While we’ve been going to coffee shops and starting high tech companies, they’ve been using chemical weapons.”

Israel has always kept a low profile when it comes to its own chemical weapons program. They signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1982 but never ratified it, which means that Israel considers itself bound by the spirit of the treaty, but not legally obligated to observe it.

“The main pretext for Israel’s refusal to ratify the treaty was the Syrian arsenal,” Eitan Barak, a professor of international relations from Hebrew University, told The Media Line. “Israel says Syria is a neighbor country, hostile, with a large arsenal of chemical weapons and we needed to be able to retaliate.”

He said that given Israel’s pharmaceutical success, it is likely that Israel has a significant arsenal of these armaments. Israeli officials say that efforts to force Israel to join the Chemical Weapons Convention are duplicitous.

“Unfortunately, while Israel signed the Convention, other countries in the Middle East, including those that have used chemical weapons recently or in the past, have failed to follow suit and have indicated that their position would remain unchanged even if Israel ratifies the Convention,” Deputy Foreign Minister Paul Hirschson told The Media Line. “Some of these states don't recognize Israel's right to exist and blatantly call to annihilate it. In this context, the chemical weapons threat against Israel and its civilian population is neither theoretical nor distant. Terror organizations, acting as proxies for certain regional states, similarly pose a chemical weapons threat. These threats cannot be ignored by Israel in the assessment of possible ratification of the Convention.”

Even more disturbing to the Jewish state is a possible linkage of its chemical weapons program with its nuclear weapons program. Israel’s long-stated nuclear policy is one of ambiguity.

“Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East,” officials have intoned repeatedly over the past decades.

Yet the purported chemical weapons deal with Syria has also increased pressure on Israel to join the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Some 190 states have joined the NPT, whose goal is to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons and weapons technology. Only four known nuclear powers have not joined the treaty. India, Pakistan and North Korea have all openly tested nuclear weapons, and Israel, with its policy of nuclear ambiguity.

International press reports say that Israel has some 200 nuclear weapons. Israel has refused to sign the NPT despite pressure from the international community. However, when it comes to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the country might be more flexible.

“Israel has an interest in a chemical free zone as opposed to a nuclear-free zone,” Eitan Barak said. “That would leave Israel with its alleged monopoly on nuclear weapons.”

Syria transferred weapons to Hezbollah, Saudi paper reports


Syrian President Bashar Assad transported some of his country’s chemical weapons to the terrorist group Hezbollah, a Saudi newspaper reported.

The daily Al-Watan, citing opposition leader Kamal al Labwani, reported Monday that the Syrian government hid some of its chemical weapons stockpile in trucks that transport vegetables.

Some of the weapons also were smuggled to Russia, according to Labwani of the Syrian Coalition.

Other unconfirmed reports said that Syria has spread its chemical weapons stockpile throughout 50 locations within the country or to Iraq.

Israel has expressed concern that Syria’s chemical weapons will fall into the hands of terror groups bent on the Jewish state’s destruction, including Hezbollah.

Al-Qaida-affiliated terror group says it’s resuming holy war against Jews


A terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaida that claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on northern Israel said it has resumed a jihad, or holy war, against the Jews.

The Lebanon-based Azzam Abdullah Brigades said the rocket attack last week was carried out “as part of the resumption of the jihad against the Jews.”

“We’ve frozen the activity for the sake of the blessed Syrian revolution,” read the statement posted Monday on the Twitter account of a radical Salafist cleric.

Azzam Abdullah Brigades, an offshoot of al-Qaida in Iraq, claimed responsibility for firing four long-range missiles into northern Israel, including two that fell in residential areas, causing damage to houses and cars in Nahariya and Acre.

The “green light given by Israel and the Western countries to Hezbollah in the fight against our people in Syria, so that Israel could safeguard its security, will not provide it with security,” the statement said. “Rather, it will bring it closer to the fire of the jihadi fighters and make it much more exposed to them.”

The attack gives the “Jewish conquerors an indication of the quality of rockets in our possession,” it said. “Haifa should be decorated with the most magnificent shrouds to greet our rockets.”

At least one rocket in the attack was intercepted by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed in the area, according to the Israel Defense Forces.

Iran looks to the north


In the United States, our focus is on Iran’s activities to its west and east. Tehran supports Bashar Assad in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, menaces oil exports in the Gulf and threatens Israel with annihilation. On its other flank, it seeks influence in Afghanistan as U.S. and NATO forces prepare to withdraw. However, we tend to ignore Iran’s actions to its north, even as this — the greater Caspian region — emerges as a particularly active theater for Iran’s ambitions of regional power.

We do so to our detriment. With Washington’s focus elsewhere during the past few months, Iran has steadily pushed the envelope with its northern neighbors, in the disputed Caspian Sea and along its land borders with Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, is considered more moderate than his predecessor, since his election, Iran seems to be continuing its northward pivot.

In late June, Iranian warships sailed across the Caspian Sea to the Russian port of Astrakhan. Their mission was to coordinate plans for a major joint naval exercise in the fall. This is noteworthy because not only is the Caspian a center of oil production that is exported to Western markets, but also a key transit hub for the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces and equipment from Afghanistan. Vessels with U.S. military hardware routinely sail from Kazakhstan’s port of Aktau on the eastern shore to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, in the west. Joint Iranian-Russian naval exercises could disrupt both the energy and transit activities on the sea.

It would not be the first time. Iranian warships have, in the past, threatened to attack Azerbaijani oil fields that were at the time being explored by BP vessels. The issue of how the Caspian’s energy-rich waters are divided among the littoral states remains unresolved. While most of the countries on its shores have come to bilateral understandings, Iran refuses to cooperate with any of its neighbors — except when it teams with Russia to threaten the rest.

Iran is also injecting itself into the region’s most protracted conflict: the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan. While Iran supported pro-Russian Armenia in the 1990s against secular, pro-Western Azerbaijan, Iranian clerics are now painting the conflict as a war against Islam. They recently met with ethnic Azeris seeking to liberate Karabakh. 

On the other hand, Tehran has cultivated pro-Iranian groups and extremist clerics in Azerbaijan to undermine the government in Baku. It has mobilized hacker attacks under the banner of the Iranian Cyber Army. These activities are intensifying as the October presidential election in Azerbaijan approaches.

Earlier this year, Iranian lawmakers on the Security and Foreign Policy Committee in Parliament released a number of statements demanding the annexation of 17 of Azerbaijan’s cities, including the capital Baku. They prepared a bill that would revise the 1828 treaty demarcating Iran’s northern border to pave the way for a greater Iran that could incorporate territory from across the Caspian region, from Turkey to Central Asia. It seems that Israel is not the only country that Tehran has considered wiping off the map.

These sorts of actions have actually pushed Azerbaijan and Israel closer together. The two have a joint venture on the production of drone aircraft, as well as a wider defense technology relationship wherein Azerbaijan has sought anti-aircraft systems from Israel to guard against potential Iranian attack. Such threats are all too specific for Azerbaijan, as Iran’s leadership has consistently mentioned Azerbaijan’s major oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Mediterranean as a primary target in the event of conflict with the West.

Were such a clash to occur, it would behoove U.S. policymakers to be more cognizant of the northern angle in Iran’s aggressive regional policy. Even without the prospect of a major conflict, U.S. Iran policy should reflect Tehran’s threats to our interests in the Caspian and to regional partners such as Azerbaijan. For all Iran watchers, its activities to its north will serve as a key test of Mr. Rouhani’s supposed moderation.

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Times.


Alexandros Petersen is the author of “The World Island: Eurasian Geopolitics and the Fate of the West” (Praeger, 2011).

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