damascus

Islamic State claims triple suicide bombing on Damascus police HQ

The Islamic State terror group claimed responsibility on Wednesday for a triple suicide attack on the main police headquarters in Syria’s capital Damascus that killed at least two people.

Two attackers “entered the headquarters building and fought with those inside… then detonated their explosive vests” before a third also blew himself up, it said in a statement released via the Telegram messaging app.

The attack was the second time in a month that suicide attackers have targeted the capital, which has often been insulated from the worst of the violence in the war-torn country.

Two of the suicide bombers detonated their explosives in front of the police HQ on Khaled Bin al-Walid street in central Damascus, the Syrian interior ministry said in a statement carried by state media.

“The terrorist suicide attackers tried to storm the police command headquarters… The guards opened fire on them, forcing them to blow themselves up before they entered the building and achieved their goals,” it added.

Police surrounded a third attacker behind the building who also blew himself up, the statement said.

The interior ministry said two people had been killed and six wounded in the attack, among them two children.

Damascus police chief Mohammed Khairu Ismail told reporters at the scene of the attack that one of the dead was a policeman who tried to stop the bombers.

“One of our forces grabbed one of the suicide bombers and prevented him from entering the building, so he blew himself up, killing the sergeant,” Ismail said.

It was the second time this month that suicide attackers have targeted police in the capital, after at least 17 people were killed in an October 2 attack on a police station in the southern district of Midan.

City largely spared

That attack was claimed also by IS, which said three of its fighters armed with guns, grenades and explosives had targeted the station.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s conflict began in March 2011, with anti-government protests.

Damascus has been shaken by several bomb attacks, despite being largely spared from the worst of the violence in the six-year war.

The Midan police station itself had previously been targeted in December 2016, when a seven-year-old girl entered the building wearing an explosive belt that was remotely detonated.In this month’s incident at Midan, one attacker was able to reach the first floor of the police station before blowing himself up.

Rebel groups have been gradually expelled from territory in the capital they once held, though they maintain a presence in a handful of positions, including the Jobar neighborhood.

They also hold territory in the Eastern Ghouta region outside the capital, and have regularly launched rockets into the city.

A deal worked out between regime allies Russia and Iran with rebel backer Turkey earlier this year has implemented so-called “de-escalation zones” in several parts of the country, including Eastern Ghouta, bringing a measure of relative calm.

But the fight against IS is continuing, with government troops and the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Kurdish and Arab fighters, leading separate offensives against the jihadists in the north and east Syria.

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THE IRAQI MILITIA HELPING IRAN CARVE A ROAD TO DAMASCUS

 

In late May, an Iraqi cleric called Akram Kaabi visited militia fighters in a desolate Iraqi town near the Syrian border. Kaabi, who heads a Shi’ite Muslim militia named Harakat Hezbollah al Nujaba, was decked out in a camouflage uniform and led the fighters in prayer on mats laid on the dusty ground. A video of the session showed heavily armed militiamen standing guard.

The event took place in Qayrawan, a town the Nujaba militia had seized back from Islamic State, the radical Sunni Muslim group. Nujaba, whose name means ‘the Virtuous,’ have also fought across the border in Syria, where they have lent support to President Bashar al-Assad in the fight against Islamic State and others.

The Nujaba group, which has about 10,000 fighters, is now one of the most important militias in Iraq. Though made up of Iraqis, it is loyal to Iran and is helping Tehran create a supply route through Iraq to Damascus, according to Iraqi lawmaker Shakhwan Abdullah, retired Lebanese general Elias Farhat, and other current and former officials in Iraq. The route will run through a string of small cities including Qayrawan. To open it up, Iranian-backed militias are pushing into southeast Syria near the border with Iraq, where US forces are based.

The Nujaba militia is one example of the way Iran is seeking to expand its Shi’ite influence in Iraq and across the wider region. In the 1980s, Shi’ite-dominated Iran was at war with Iraq, where Sunni Muslims held power despite being a minority of the population. But after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the Shi’ite majority in Iraq took control of the government.

Since then, ties between the Shi’ite-led governments in Tehran and Baghdad have become stronger, and Iran has acquired growing influence in Iraq. Iranian money and religious backing are now key to the Iraqi government’s power.

Kaabi has repeatedly said that Nujaba is allied with Iran. Last autumn, he said his group follows “Velayat-e Faqih,” or Guardianship of the Jurist, the ideological cornerstone of Iran’s theocratic system of government, according to the Iranian Tasnim news agency.

Current and former Iraqi officials told Reuters they worry Nujaba will help Iran make a decisive strategic breakthrough.

“If Iran can open this road they will have access through Iraq and Syria all the way to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” said Farhat, the retired Lebanese army general.

Iran, which backs Syria’s Assad, has stated that it wants to see its influence extend through Iraq to its allies in Damascus and beyond to Hezbollah, a Shi’ite militant group in Lebanon it has long supported.

A security adviser who works with a number of governments in the Middle East said Iran needs road access to Damascus to supply the conflict in Syria. “There is a very high cost for air transport for the militias. Troops and small supplies are easy to transport but it’s hard to load heavy weapons on airplanes,” said the adviser, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject.

“The goal is to open a road on both sides for logistics … They want to bring in artillery, rockets and heavy equipment like bulldozers,” the adviser said.

In Iraq, the Nujaba fights under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), which encompass tens of thousands of Shi’ite militiamen. Last year Iraq’s parliament passed a law that put these fighters under the control of the Iraqi government. But current and former officials in Iraq and militia members say many of the militias have been armed and trained by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

A representative at an Iranian Revolutionary Guards office in Tehran declined to comment on the Nujaba militia.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other senior Iraqi officials have not spoken out in public about Nujaba or the new road. But some players within Iraq’s governing coalition want to distance Iraq from Iran.

Ayad Allawi, a vice president, is Shi’ite, but he has a nationalist outlook and wants to prevent the conflict in Syria from spilling over further into Iraq. He said in an interview: “The government of Iraq should prevent them (Shi’ite militias) from going to Syria. We are not supposed to supply fighting people to support a dictatorship in Syria.”

Asked to comment on Iran-backed militias moving into southeast Syria near where American forces are based, US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, a spokesman for the US-led coalition fighting Islamic State, said: “The Coalition reserves the right to protect itself and its vetted Syrian partners against any threat.”

A US State Department official said: “The United States remains deeply concerned about the Iranian regime’s malign activities across the Middle East which undermine regional stability, security and prosperity.”

The current route that Iran is pushing to open through Iraq was not its first choice. Soon after Iran became involved in the Syria conflict in 2011, the Iranians attempted to open a logistical supply line through the Kurdish region of northern Iraq to Syria, lawmaker Abdullah, who is a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee, told Reuters. But Massoud Barzani, the president of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, resisted the move, said Abdullah, who is a member of Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP).

The new route bypasses the Kurdish region but could still destabilize the country, according to Abdullah.

“All the groups in Iraq other than Shi’ites will be under threat if Iran can make this road,” Abdullah said. “Sunnis will be displaced. The Kurdistan region will be under threat and Christians will be under threat.”

ARAB MEDIA REPORTS ISRAELI AIRSTRIKE ON DAMASCUS AIRPORT

 

Arab media reports on Thursday night claimed that Israel attacked a weapons depot next to Damascus International Airport.

A report from one daily, Al Arabia Al Jadid, said that a series of explosions shook the airport. Al Masdar News, a Lebanese outlet, also reported that an Israeli drone attack the airport, citing a report from the Syrian military that the attack did not seriously damage the airport or its surroundings, and that there were no casualties. The report also claims that, in response, the Syrian military shot down an Israeli drone near the Israeli-Syrian border, though these claims remain unconfirmed.

Al-Mayadeen, a Lebanese television station, also claimed that two rockets hit near the airport. An independent Syrian pro-Assad outlet, Muraselon, reported that three strikes hit the airport. A pro-Assad Facebook page called ”Damascus Now” claimed that a ”hostile missile” had targeted the airport.

The weapons depot that was allegedly attacked is said to be one of Hezbollah’s.

There have been no confirmations or denials from Israel, Syria or Hezbollah.

In recent weeks, Israel has launched several attacks in Syrian territory. One targeted an Assad-linked outpost that is part of a scientific research center that has worked to development missiles and chemical weapons. Earlier this week, Israel launched a Patriot missile towards and unmanned Iranian aircraft operated by Hezbollah that was reportedly attempting to enter Israeli airspace in the Golan Heights.

Earlier this year, Israel reportedly attacked the same Hezbollah weapons depot next to the Damascus Airport. While the claims were never confirmed by Israeli civilian or military officials, Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz hinted that the attack had, in fact, been an Israeli offensive; he said on Army Radio that he could ”confirm that the incident in Syria completely conforms to Israel’s policy” of preventing Iran from smuggling weapons to Hezbollah.

This is a developing story.

REPORT: SYRIAN ARMY CONTROLS ENTIRE DAMASCUS-DEIR AL-ZOR HIGHWAY

 

Syrian government forces seized a final stretch of highway linking the eastern city of Deir al-Zor to the capital Damascus on Sunday in further advances against Islamic State, a Hezbollah-run media unit reported.

Troops moving in from the west linked up with forces already in Deir al-Zor at the Panorama entrance to the city, bringing the whole road under their control for the first time in years, it said.

The Syrian army and its Iran-backed allies, which include Lebanese Hezbollah, this week broke a three-year siege by the jihadists of a government-held enclave of Deir al-Zor and an adjacent air base.

The rapid government advances, accompanied by Russian air strikes, are squeezing Islamic State in its last major Syria stronghold, as US-backed forces separately oust the jihadists from areas they hold to the east, on the other side of the Euphrates river.

The US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said they had made further gains against IS a day after announcing an operation to capture northern and eastern parts of Deir al-Zor province.

Syrian state TV broadcast footage of Syrian officers who had been holed up in Deir al-Zor emotionally greeting their superiors after being surrounded by IS since 2014.

The United Nations has estimated that some 93,000 people were living in “extremely difficult” conditions in government-held parts of Deir al-Zor, supplied by air drops to the air base.

Islamic State has lost nearly half of its territory across both Iraq and Syria, but still has 6,000-8,000 fighters left in Syria, the United States-led coalition has said.

5 reported killed as rocket hits Damascus business fair

DAMASCUS, Syria — Rocket fire killed five people Sunday near the entrance to the Damascus International Fair, a key business gathering being held for the first time in five years, a monitor said.

There was no official confirmation of the toll, though state television reported the rocket fire and said it had caused injuries, without specifying further.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the rocket by the Damascus International Fair had killed five people and injured around a dozen more.

State television, citing its reporters on the scene, said the rocket hit near the entrance of the exhibition complex where the business fair opened this week.

“We were preparing to receive visitors when I heard an explosion… then I saw smoke so the side of the of the entrance to the exhibition hall,” said Iyad Jaber, 39, a Syrian working at a textile stand.

The Damascus International Fair was once the top event on Syria’s economic calendar, but was last held in the summer of 2011, months after the start of a revolt against President Bashar Assad’s government. This year’s fair opened on Thursday, and was scheduled to last 10 days.

Its general director, Fares al-Kartally, said the decision to hold the fair this year was a result of “the return of calm and stability in most regions” of Syria.

“We want this fair to signal the start of (the country’s) reconstruction,” Kartally told AFP earlier this week.

While Damascus has been insulated from much of the worst violence of the country’s war, several key rebel enclaves remain in the Eastern Ghouta region outside the city. Fighters in the area have regularly fired rockets into the capital, and government warplanes have frequently carried out devastating raids across Eastern Ghouta.

But in recent weeks, much of the area has been quieter after the implementation in July of a “de-escalation zone” covering parts of Eastern Ghouta.

The United States and European countries, which have imposed sanctions on Assad’s government, were not officially invited to participate in the fair, which was first held in 1954. But a handful of European companies are participating on an individual basis in the event.

More than 330,000 people have been killed in Syria since the conflict began in March 2011 with anti-government protests.

Rebels fighting for Damascus suburbs kill 20

A Syrian rebel faction says it has killed 20 army soldiers in a tunnel blast as the battle for Damascus’s northeastern suburbs shows no signs of letting up.

Wael Olwan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rahman faction, says the operation took place before dawn Sunday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group says 16 soldiers are reported missing because of the blast.

A Russian mediated ceasefire announced last month has failed to quell the fighting between the government and rebels on the northeastern edges of Damascus. The Failaq al-Rahman opposition faction says it is not party to the agreement, and the government says it is fighting terrorists.

The government has leaned on its air force and its ground-to-ground missile systems to push rebels out and away from the capital. Several neighborhoods and towns have been destroyed. The opposition does not have an air force

Syrian truck driver on road to Damascus reportedly killed by Israeli drone

JERUSALEM (JTA) — A Syrian man was killed when the truck he was driving in the Quneitra region of the Golan Heights on the road to Damascus allegedly was fired on by an Israeli drone, Syrian media is reporting.

The Israel Defense Forces is not commenting on the alleged air strike, neither confirming nor denying the Syrian reports.

The alleged victim has been named as Yasser al-Sayed, with some reports calling him a terrorist member of Hezbollah and others identifying him as a civilian.

Hours before the strike, Syrian media reported that Syrian army forces had repelled an Israeli drone in the same area.

The actions come after the IDF confirmed carrying out aerial strikes in Syria and intercepting missiles launched at its aircraft from the ground on Thursday night.

No Israelis were hurt during the strikes Thursday night or from the anti-aircraft fire, the first time that Israel has used the Arrow anti-missile system.

According to the nrg news site, the strikes Thursday were against targets affiliated with Hezbollah, possibly on a weapons shipment to the Shiite terrorist group, which is based in Lebanon but is fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s forces against rebels and Sunni militants.

The incidents on Thursday are reported to be the most serious between Syria and Israel since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war six years ago. At that time, Israel Air Force planes struck targets in Syria and Syria’s air defense system fired an anti-aircraft missile at the Israeli planes.

Israel is believed to have carried out several attacks on Syrian soil in recent years, but usually refrains from confirming or denying reports on its alleged actions there.

Also on Sunday, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in an interview with Israel Radio threatened to take out Syrian air defense systems.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said. “Each time we discover arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon we will act to stop them. On this there will be no compromise.”

Israel said to strike Syria for second time in 24 hours, amid threats from Damascus

Israel is said to have struck Syria overnight Sunday-Monday, the second strike in 24 hours and third in three days as tensions escalated between the two countries over the weekend.

Syria media reported early Monday that Israeli jets took out a number of targets near the Lebanon-Syria border including a Hezbollah weapons convoy and Syrian military sites.

The reports have not been confirmed.

Earlier Sunday, an Israeli drone strike reportedly killed a member of a Syrian pro-regime militia, an attack that came two days after Israeli jets, in an early Friday morning operation, hit an arms transfer meant for Hezbollah near Palmyra, with Syrian air defenses firing missiles at the planes.

One missile was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow missile defense battery, military officials said, in the first reported use of the advanced system. It was the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.

On Sunday evening, Syria’s ambassador to the UN Bashar al-Jaafari said Syria’s response to Friday’s strike was a “game-changer.”

Speaking on Syrian state TV, Jaafari said the military’s response was “appropriate and in line with Israel’s terrorist operation,” and that Israel “will now think a million times [before striking again],” according to a translation cited in Ynet.

“Syria’s forceful response to the Israeli attacks changed the rules of the game,” he said.

His comments came hours after Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems for targeting the Israeli aircraft during the bombing run Friday.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said on Israel Radio.

Israeli officials have warned of the possibility Hezbollah and Iran could attempt to set up a base to attack Israel near the border with the Israeli Golan Heights.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow, where he asked the Kremlin to make sure Iran does not gain a foothold in the area.

Israel has also repeatedly vowed to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring any advanced weaponry and several strikes on such convoys over the years since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 have been attributed to Israel. Jerusalem has also claimed several of the raids, including Friday’s.

“Each time we discover arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon we will act to stop them. On this there will be no compromise,” Liberman said Sunday.

“The Syrians must understand that they are held responsible for these arms transfers to Hezbollah and that if they continue to allow them then we will do what we have to do.”

Earlier Sunday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Israeli aircraft struck a truck driving near the town of Khan Arnabeh in the Quneitra province, on the road to Damascus.

The National Defense Force, a pro-regime militia set up in 2012, claimed the man killed was from among its ranks, naming him as Yasser Hussien Assayed.

View image on TwitterView image on Twitter

pro-regime media reporting Israeli drone targeted civilian car near Khan Arnebe in Qunitera and killed 1civilian “Yasser al-Sayed”

The group, reportedly set up with the help of Hezbollah, published four pictures on Facebook it said were from the scene of the alleged airstrike. The group said an Israeli drone carried out the strike.

The Lebanese news channel NBN reported that the man killed was a Syrian air defense commander. Other reports said Assayed was a civilian.

Twin bombings kill at least 46 in Damascus Old City

DAMASCUS, Syria (AFP) — Twin bombs targeting Shiite pilgrims on Saturday killed 46 people in Damascus, most of them Iraqis, a monitoring group said, in one of the bloodiest attacks in the Syrian capital.

There have been periodic bomb attacks in Damascus, but the stronghold of the regime of President Bashar Assad has been largely spared the destruction faced by other major cities in six years of civil war.

A roadside bomb detonated as a bus passed and a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Bab al-Saghir area, which houses several Shiite mausoleums that draw pilgrims from around the world, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

“There are also dozens of people wounded, some of them in a serious condition,” Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP.

State television said there were 40 dead and 120 wounded after “terrorists detonated two bombs.”

It broadcast footage of several white buses with their windows shattered, some of them heavily charred.

Shoes, glasses and wheelchairs laid scattered on the ground covered in blood.

Syrian Interior Minister Mohammad Shaar said the attack targeted “pilgrims of various Arab nationalities.”

“The sole aim was to kill,” he said.

The Iraqi foreign ministry said around 40 of its nationals were among the dead and 120 among the wounded.

There was no immediate claim for the attack.

Shiite shrines are a frequent target of attack for Sunni extremists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group (IS), not only in Syria but also in neighboring Iraq.

The Sayeda Zeinab mausoleum to the south of Damascus, Syria’s most visited Shiite pilgrimage site, has been hit by several deadly bombings during the six-year-old civil war.

Twin suicide bombings in the high-security Kafr Sousa district of the capital in January killed 10 people, eight of them soldiers.

That attack was claimed by former al-Qaeda affiliate Fateh al-Sham Front which said that it had targeted Russian military advisers working with the Syrian army.

It was widely seen as an attempt to disrupt UN-brokered peace talks that took place the following month which to the anger of Fateh al-Sham were supported by its former Islamist rebel ally Ahrar al-Sham.

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura has called a new round of talks for March 23.

Fateh al-Sham has been repeatedly bombed in its northwestern stronghold this year, not only by the Syrian army and its Russian ally but also by a US-led coalition battling IS in both Syria and Iraq.

The rift over the UN-brokered talks between the rebels and the government has also seen deadly clashes between the jihadists and their former Islamist rebel allies.

The two groups had together seized virtually all of the northwestern province of Idlib but are now vying for territorial control.

Bomb attacks are rare in Damascus. The Syrian capital is sometimes the target of shelling by rebel groups who hold areas on the outskirts.

On December 16 a seven-year-old girl wearing an explosive belt blew herself up outside a police station in Midan district, wounding three police officers.

Two blasts near state security agencies in Kafr Sousa in December 2011 killed more than 40 people and wounded more than 150, the Syrian government said at the time.

Israeli jets strike outside Damascus – Syrian media

Syrian media reported that Israeli aircraft targeted Syrian Army positions, including a convoy bearing weapons for the Hezbollah terrorist group, early Wednesday morning.

The strike was said to have occurred at approximately 3:30 a.m., in the Qalamoun Mountains, northeast of Damascus, close to the Lebanese border.

According to Arab media, outposts of the Syrian Army’s 3rd Division were targeted in the strikes.

The Syrian Shaam news service quoted a spokesperson for the nearby city of Yarboud who said the Israeli jets fired six missiles at the various targets.

Some were directed toward military positions, while others targeted weapons caches near Ba’albak, in the eastern Qalamoun range, and set alight a Hezbollah convoy, according to the spokesperson, Abu al-Jude al-Qalamouni.

Anonymous security sources confirmed to the Lebanese al-Mayadeen outlet, which is supportive of Hezbollah, that missiles had been fired into Syria, but said that no damage or injuries were caused.

The sources also said that only two missiles, not six, had been fired.

The pro-government al-Masdar news service quoted a Syrian Army source as saying that the Israeli aircraft flew first through Lebanon and then into Syria.

Israeli aerial activity over Lebanon was also reported in the Beirut-based al-Jadeed outlet.

An Israel Defense Forces spokesperson refused to comment on the strike.

Israel has said in the past that it will conduct airstrikes in Syria and Lebanon in order to prevent Hezbollah from getting its hands on “advanced weaponry.”

Earlier this week, it was reported that Hezbollah had obtained advanced Russian Yakhont anti-ship missiles.

In December, Syria blamed Israel for a missile strike on the Mezzeh Military Airport, located in a suburb of Damascus, which was apparently being used as a weapons depot.

A general view shows flames and smoke at the Mezzeh military airport on the southwestern outskirts of the capital Damascus following an explosion early on January 13, 2017. (AFP)

In recent days, Hezbollah and Lebanon have ratcheted up their rhetoric against Israel.

Last week, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah threatened the Jewish state, warning that his group’s missiles could reach Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona.

He doubled down on those comments on Tuesday, saying there would be “no red lines” in a future conflict with Israel.

“In the face of Israel’s threats to destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure, we will not abide by red lines, especially regarding Haifa’s ammonia and the nuclear reactor in Dimona. Hezbollah possesses the full courage for this,” he said, according to an English translation of his comments reported by the Naharnet website.

And Saturday, Lebanese President Michel Aoun — an ally of Hezbollah — warned that his country would meet any perceived threats by Israel with an “appropriate response,” after the Israeli ambassador to the UN complained about his statements regarding Hezbollah.

“Any attempt to hurt Lebanese sovereignty or expose the Lebanese to danger will find the appropriate response,” Aoun said in an official statement, according to Reuters.