Syria

RAQQA HAS FALLEN. WHAT’S NEXT FOR SYRIA?

 

‘We few, we happy few, we band of brothers,” says Shakespeare’s Henry V. Its characterization of a small group fighting against incredible odds could have been written three years ago in October 2014 when Islamic State laid siege to the Kurdish city of Kobani in Syria. It was defended by a small group of men and women of the People’s Protection Units (YPG). At that time ISIS was at the height of its powers, its black clad legions of fighters with their slaves in tow and riding US Humvees they had captured from the Iraqi army, were conquering swaths of the Middle East. On October 17th their Syrian capital of Raqqa fell to the Syrian Democratic Forces and the YPG.

It is now the SDF that is the major power in eastern Syria. With help from the US-led coalition it has cleared tens of thousands of square kilometers of land and liberated hundreds of villages. The US has launched more than 12,000 airstrikes in Syria, according to estimates compiled from its strike updates posted by the US Defense Department. In a coalition Operation Inherent Resolve press briefing on October 17th US Col. Ryan Dillon said that three thousand civilians had been rescued in Raqqa in the last week. 350 ISIS fighters had surrendered. A traffic circle where ISIS had once celebrated in 2014 and held public executions, the SDF did donuts with an armored vehicle. It was a symbolic victory as men and women fighters celebrated, a stark contrast to ISIS chauvinist world of religious extremist male dominance. The coalition estimated that up to 6,500 ISIS fighters may remain in the Syrian and Iraqi desert areas straddling the border southeast of Raqqa. But the writing is on the wall, ISIS will be defeated soon.

Human rights activist and anti-ISIS campaigner Macer Gifford who has fought in Raqqa alongside the SDF’s Syriac Military Council, says the next months will be a greater challenge. “What will come next? What sort of country do we want to see emerge from this crisis? The SDF is the military umbrella that brings together all the communities in Northern Syria,” he wrote in an email. “They have proven themselves effective and reliable, the politics and ideology that underpins their struggle is also making strong progress. It’s heartwarming to see a secular and democratic federation emerge after years of tyranny.” He argues that it is important the fight against ISIS continues and the West continues to support its allies. But he also wants to see humanitarian aid to rebuild the country.

The battle for Raqqa is a great victory for the SDF but thousands have been killed and wounded in the struggle against ISIS in Syria. This includes dozens of foreign volunteers who came to aid the Kurds and others in their time of need. Chris Scurfield’s son Konstandinos Erik Scurfield, often called “Kosta” for short, was one of those. “I am shocked as it shows the fundamental differences in Kurdish politics,” his father Chris Scurfield said from the UK. “Personally I am relieved my son’s sacrifice has resulted in putting Kurds’ issues onto the world stage and has led to the sustainability of a model democracy in the Middle East.” He hopes that the concept of democratic confederalism put forward by the SDF and its political equivalent will emerge in Syria.

There is still fighting to be done. The SDF’s southern frontline now rests on the Khabur river from south of Al-Shaddadi toward the town of Al-Busayrah on the Euphrates. Wladimir Van Wilgenburg, an analyst who is on the ground in eastern Syria wrote in The Daily Beast that US Special Envoy Brett McGurk met with the Raqqa Civil Council on Tuesday. Saudi Arabia Minister for Gulf Affairs Thamer al-Sabhan also visited the area, scoping out opportunities for donor countries to aid in rebuilding. Saudi Arabia has been an implacable opponent of the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Wilgenburg says Raqqa is a symbolic victory that leaves future uncertainty. “The ramifications of the SDF defeat of ISIS is the problem of what the Syrian government will do. Is it going to accept a federation or autonomy or work with Iran and Turkey as we saw what happened in Kurdistan in Iraq?” The affect of watching the Kurds in Iraq lose area they conquered from ISIS to the central government and US actions to support Baghdad have cast a shadow over what happens in eastern Syria. The US has not articulated what its long-term strategy is beyond the defeat of ISIS.

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IRAN’S MILITARY CHIEF VOWS TO COOPERATE WITH SYRIA AGAINST ‘ZIONIST ENEMY’ ISRAEL

 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Wednesday with Russian President Vladimir Putin amid reports that Moscow has accepted Israel’s demand for a Hezbollah-and Iranian-free buffer zone along the Syrian border, though not one as deep as Jerusalem had wanted.

Also on Wednesday, Iran’s military chief, Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, met in Damascus with his Syrian counterpart, Lt.-Gen. Ali Ayoub, and warned Israel against violating Syrian airspace.

“It is not acceptable for the Zionist regime to violate Syria anytime it wants,” Bagheri was quoted as saying by Iran’s Islamic Republic News Agency.

Meanwhile, according to the London-based Asharq al-Awsat newspaper, based on an Israeli source, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is visiting Israel, said that Moscow agreed to a 10- to 15-kilometer zone that would be off limits to Iranian and Hezbollah forces along the border on the Golan Heights. The report said that Israel had requested a 40-kilometer buffer zone.

Netanyahu has said in recent weeks that Israel never stipulated to the Russians how deep a buffer zone should be, but made clear to them – including in a meeting he had with Putin during their last meeting in Sochi on August 23 – that Israel would not tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence anywhere in Syria.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sharpened that message on Wednesday, when he reacted to Iranian threats that Iran would no longer allow Israel to act militarily in Syria.

“The Iranians are trying to take control of Syria, want to establish themselves there and be the dominant force – we will not let that happen,” Liberman said. “We are aware of this, and have all the tools necessary to deal with this challenge.”

And in Syria, the SANA news agency quoted Bagheri as saying, “We are here in Damascus to coordinate and cooperate in facing our common enemies of Zionists and terrorists.” He added that the two sides “discussed means of enhancing relations in the future and outlined the bilateral cooperation.”

According to SANA, Ayoub said that the relations between the Iranian and Syrian militaries have been strengthened since Iran entered the civil war, and will be further enhanced following Bagheri’s visit.

The Kremlin issued a statement on Wednesday saying that Israel initiated the Netanyahu-Putin phone call, and that the two leaders discussed Russian-Israeli cooperation in the context of the agreements they reached in Sochi on August 23.

The details of those agreements were never made public, and the Prime Minister’s Office on Wednesday did not reply to queries about the nature of those agreements The Kremlin also said that Netanyahu and Putin spoke about “the Syrian settlement, the Iranian nuclear program, as well as the results of a recent referendum in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”

Liberman, meanwhile, denied that there was any disagreement with Russia over a buffer zone, saying these reports were baseless, and he did not know where they were coming from.

According to the report in Asharq al-Awsat, Shoigu told Israeli officials that the 40-km.

demand was unrealistic and that Iranian and Hezbollah troops have not approached the border since Russian troops entered Syria, saying that therefore the request was “exaggerated” and “superfluous.”

Israeli officials have repeatedly voiced concerns over the growing Iranian presence on its borders and the smuggling of sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah from Tehran to Lebanon via Syria, stressing that both are redlines for the Jewish state.

Hours before Shoigu landed in Israel on Monday, IAF jets destroyed a Syrian antiaircraft missile battery stationed some 50 kilometers east of Damascus that had fired on Israeli planes in Lebanese airspace earlier that morning.

Israel and Russia implemented a deconfliction mechanism over Syria in 2015 to prevent accidental clashes between the two militaries. And while Russia was updated about the incident in real time, according to the Israeli sources quoted by Asharq al-Awsat, the incident overshadowed the meeting and caused some tension between the officials.

According to the report, Shoigu considered it a “dangerous hostile operation that almost caused a severe crisis.”

Liberman will leave on Wednesday night for a four-day visit to the United States to meet with his American counterpart, James Mattis. During their previous meeting the two defense chiefs discussed issues such as the ongoing civil war in Syria and the threats posed by Iran, and it is believed that Liberman will ask Mattis for the US to act against Iran’s growing entrenchment in Syria.

NETANYAHU TO RUSSIAN DEFENSE MINISTER: ISRAEL WON’T ALLOW IRANIAN PRESENCE IN SYRIA

 

Israel will not allow a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told visiting Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on Tuesday, a day after Israel destroyed an SA-5 anti-aircraft battery in Syria that fired on IAF planes over Lebanon.

Both Russia and Iran are key backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

According to the Prime Minister’s Office, most of the meeting dealt with Iranian efforts to set up a permanent military presence in Syria. “Iran needs to understand that Israel will not allow that,” Netanyahu told Shoigu.

The Iranian nuclear deal and US President Donald Trump’s recent decision to decertify it were also discussed. Netanyahu repeated Israel’s position – if the deal is not changed, Iran will acquire a nuclear arsenal within eight to ten years.

Following Trump’s announcement last week, Russia said there was no place in international diplomacy for aggressive rhetoric, and that Trump’s effort was doomed to fail.

Russian media quoted Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin as saying after the meeting that the two leaders “expressed confidence that the meetings held on Israeli soil will give an additional impetus to the development of Russian-Israeli cooperation.”

Fomin also said they discussed their countries’ shared rejection of antisemitism, falsification of World War II history, and the belittling of the USSR’s decisive contribution to the victory over Nazi Germany.

Shoigu welcomed a law passed by the Knesset on July 27 officially declaring Victory in Europe Day on May 9 as a national holiday, to be commemorated by special programs in the Knesset, the cabinet, schools and the IDF.

Diplomatic officials have said Israel’s recognition of the Red Army’s crucial role in defeating the Nazis has played an important role in the development of strong Israel-Russian ties, as Moscow feels its part in the defeat of the Nazis – and its sacrifice – has been badly downplayed by the West.

In 2012, Israel dedicated a monument in Netanya to the Red Army’s defeat of the Nazis, one of the only countries outside the former Soviet bloc to have done so.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, who is hosting the visit and met his Russian counterpart on Monday, also took part in the Netanyahu-Shoigu meeting, after visiting Yad Vashem with Shoigu beforehand.

During his meeting with Liberman on Monday night, Shoigu said the Russian operation in Syria was “nearing completion,” but stressed there were many issues that still needed to be addressed.

“I would like to talk about the situation in Syria. Our operation is going to be finished there and there are a few issues that require [an] urgent solution.

And prospects for further development of the state of affairs in Syria need to be discussed too,” he was quoted as saying by the Russian website Sputnik.

Moscow’s military intervened on behalf of Assad in September 2015. Since then, Israeli and Russian officials have met regularly at the highest levels to discuss the deconfliction mechanism set in place to ensure that Israeli and Russian forces do not accidentally clash over Syria.

Shoigu also said because of the current situation in the Middle East, he hoped his visit and the talks would help to “better understand each other” and contribute to strengthening ties between the armed forces of the two countries.

“As terrorist activities in the world have been increasing, the international community needs to stay united in the struggle against this evil,” he said.

Neither leader directly addressed Monday’s incident in Syria, though the IDF confirmed that the Russians were informed about the launch and retaliatory strike.

ROCKET ATTACKS ON ISRAEL FUEL FEARS OF ISIS PIVOT FROM SYRIA TO EGYPT

 

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the two rockets launched from Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula that landed in the south’s Eshkol Regional Council late on Sunday night.

This is the first time since May that such an incident has occurred.

“While dodging a Jewish aircraft flying over the Wilaya (Sinai Peninsula), the Mujahedin fired 2 Grad rockets at the Jewish Council (Eshkol),” the ISIS affiliate in Sinai wrote in the claim on Amaq, the group’s news site. It also claimed several other deadly attacks against the Egyptian military in the tumultuous province.

Residents reported hearing explosions shortly after the sirens sounded late on Sunday night as the rockets landed in open territory, causing no damage or injuries.

The Egyptian military has been engaged in an extensive military campaign against Islamic State terrorists in Sinai who are centered around Rafah, as well as in el-Arish, Bir Abd and Sheikh Zuweid.

As the war against Islamic State in Syria appears to be drawing to a close, Israeli intelligence officials fear that many ISIS fighters might choose to go to the Sinai Peninsula and join the group’s affiliate there, which – despite its small size – is considered by many to be one of the most effective ISIS branches carrying out numerous deadly attacks on Egyptian security forces.

Israel shares a 240-km. border with the Sinai, and Jerusalem and Cairo share an interest in the fight against the insurgents in the desert peninsula.

According to Islamic State, Israel has carried out strikes against its positions.

According to Oded Berkowitz, regional director of intelligence – Africa division at MAX-Security Solutions, foreign press have reported that Israel is helping the Egyptian military against terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula.

Earlier on Sunday, several Egyptian military checkpoints were attacked by Islamic State insurgents, killing six soldiers and wounding another 37. According to Egyptian authorities quoted by Reuters, the checkpoints in northern Sinai were attacked by some 100 ISIS terrorists using car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades and other light weapons.

According to Berkowitz, the rise in attacks against Egyptian military personnel is due to the increased pressure felt both by ISIS in Iraq and Syria as well as its Sinai affiliate.

“When cornered and desperate they turn to more extreme measures.

Essentially, if six months ago, Wilayat Sinai was fighting to expand its territory and area of operations in Sinai, today they are fighting for their survival there,” Berkowitz told The Jerusalem Post.

Following the attack, Egypt announced that it would not be reopening the Rafah border crossing with the Gaza Strip as planned. The crossing was supposed to be reopened between Monday and Thursday following the reconciliation deal reached between Hamas and Fatah last week.

The border crossing, which is a lifeline to many Gazans seeking to leave the blockaded Hamas-run enclave, has been more or less closed since the ouster of former Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Gisha, an Israeli Human Rights organization, the border crossing was open for only 32 non-consecutive days in 2015 and 42 non-consecutive days in 2016.

The Islamic State group affiliate was previously known as the al-Qaida linked Ansar Beit al-Maqdis until it pledged allegiance to ISIS in November 2014. While the jihadist group does not consider Israel its principal target, and incidents along the Israel- Egypt border are rare, there have been several attacks – some deadly.

In April, the government decided to close its side of the Taba border crossing between Eilat and Egypt in light of concerns of terrorist attacks targeting tourists in the volatile Sinai region.

The Counter-Terrorism Bureau said Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz made the decision following consultations with Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, citing “the intensifying activities” of ISIS terrorists in the Sinai region in recent months as well as the severity and seriousness of the threat of an attack.

A few months earlier, the group claimed responsibility for a rocket barrage fired from the Sinai towards Israel’s resort city of Eilat. The Iron Dome missile system intercepted three projectiles, while a fourth landed in open territory in February. There were no casualties, but four people were treated for shock.

US-backed forces in Syria say ‘final’ battle for Raqqa is on

BEIRUT (AP) — The US-backed Kurdish-led forces fighting Islamic State militants in Syria said on Saturday that they are waging the “final” battle to uproot the extremists from the northern city of Raqqa, once the de facto capital of the militant group.

This final battle could take hours or days, said Mustafa Bali, the spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

Losing Raqqa, in many ways the symbol of IS’ caliphate, would be yet another blow to the militant group and its reign of terror in the region as its strongholds crumble one after another in Iraq and other parts of Syria.

IS militants are desperately fighting in a number of neighborhoods in the city, Bali said.

“They are still able to fight but they will no longer determine the fate of the battle,” Bali said. “Our forces are waging the final phase of the battle of the presence of Daesh in Raqqa. We have not decided if this battle will last hours, days or weeks.” Daesh is the Arabic term for IS.

Over the past days, mediation efforts by local tribesmen and the local civil council have secured the release of a number of civilians from Raqqa. A local council official, Omar Alloush of the Raqqa Civilian Council, told The Associated Press on Friday that 100 IS fighters surrendered to U.S.-backed forces.

US officials have said that only surrender, not a negotiated withdrawal for IS, would be accepted.

Hundreds of terrified civilians have been filmed fleeing toward the Syrian Democratic Forces from the last remaining neighborhoods held by IS in Raqqa ahead of the anticipated final battle for Raqqa between SDF and IS. Earlier this week, US officials said an estimated 4,000 civilians are believed still trapped in the city.

A new video that emerged Friday shows desperate, terrified residents emerging from destroyed districts, some of them collapsing on the ground in exhaustion as they arrive, in haunting scenes reflecting their years-old ordeal.

Militants seized Raqqa in 2014, the first city to fall under the full control of the extremist group. It has since become synonymous with IS’ rule of terror in the region, with civilians punished in public killings over the slightest perceived offense — videotaped slayings that have shocked the rest of the world. It was also from Raqqa, which became a destination for foreign fighters from around the world, that many of IS attacks in the West were plotted.

The latest battle for Raqqa began in June, with heavy street-by-street fighting amid intense U.S.-led coalition airstrikes and shelling. The battle has dragged on in the face of stiff resistance from the militants and civilians trapped in the city.

On Saturday, the SDF said they seized the al-Nahda neighborhood in Raqqa’s western sector. A day earlier, IS carried out an offensive on SDF forces near the city’s main hospital, an IS fortified headquarters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group with activists on the ground, said negotiations over the fate of foreign fighters who remain in Raqqa have delayed the final push to regain control of the city.

SDF officials deny there are talks to evacuate IS fighters.

RUSSIA: ISIS OPERATES NEAR US BASE IN SYRIA UNHINDERED

 

MOSCOW – Russia accused the United States on Wednesday of allowing Islamic State to operate “under its nose” in Syria, saying Washington was letting the militant group move about freely in an area abutting a US military base.

The allegations, made by Russia’s Defense Ministry, center on a US military base at Tanf, a strategic Syrian highway border crossing with Iraq in the south of the country.

Russia says the US base is illegal and that it and the area around it have become “a black hole” where militants operate unhindered.

The United States says the Tanf facility is a temporary base used to train partner forces to fight against Islamic State. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Robert Manning on Tuesday said Washington remained committed to killing off Islamic State and denying it safe havens and the ability to carry out strikes.

But Major-General Igor Konashenkov, a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry, said Moscow wanted to know how around 300 Islamic State militants in pickup trucks had passed through the US-controlled area and tried to block the highway between Damascus and Deir al-Zor used to supply Syrian forces.

He said the US had not yet given an explanation.

“We suggest the American side also explain about another incidence of their ‘selective blindness’ towards militants operating under their nose,” Konashenkov said in a statement.

He said about 600 militants based in a refugee camp in the US controlled area had driven en masse to a former customs post called Tafas on the Syrian-Jordanian border earlier this month and seized food and medical supplies meant for locals.

“You don’t need to be an expert to now forecast an attempt to rupture the peace agreement in the southern de-escalation zone,” said Konashenkov.

“We issue a warning. All responsibility for sabotaging the peace process will lay exclusively with the American side.”

THE MIDDLE EAST QUAGMIRE: ISRAEL’S STRATEGY ON IRAN, SYRIA & UNDOF

 

WHEN IT comes to Iran and Syria, Israel’s policy has three dimensions: grand strategy, strategy and tactics.

Its strategy on Iran’s nuclear program was recently expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his meeting in Washington on the eve of the Jewish New Year with US President Donald Trump and in his speech at the UN General Assembly in New York.

Netanyahu called for the nuclear deal between the great powers and Iran to be torn up or radically changed. The agreement, which was reached in July 2015 after years of tough negotiation, has six main partners: the US, the UK, Russia, China, France and Germany.

The deal is a unique achievement. In an era in which the world is sliding back into cold tension and conflict areas – especially North Korea, Syria and Ukraine – the six powers managed to reach a consensus on how to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Though the deal will expire after 10 years (less than eight years from now), it has held Iran back from reaching the nuclear bomb within three months to at least one year.

Seasonal reports by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), supported by Israel, the US and other intelligence communities, show that so far Iran is honoring its agreements.

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Still, the deal is far from perfect. For example, IAEA inspectors don’t have access to military sites where, some suspect, forbidden nuclear R&D work is being conducted. Israeli intelligence agencies together with its American, British, German and other counterparts are constantly on the lookout for the slightest deviation from the deal on the part of Iran.

Since irritating then-US president Barack Obama by acting behind his back to press Congress to cancel the nuclear deal, Netanyahu has been silent on the matter. He did so because he didn’t want to risk losing the generous US annual military assistance package of $3.8 billion for 10 years. He also realized that the nuclear deal could not be canceled or amended.

But after Trump hinted that he might demand changes to the deal, Netanyahu broke his silence and jumped at the opportunity, trying to persuade him to cancel the deal during their meeting in New York.

The US president has until October 15 to decide whether to sanction the deal or challenge it. If he does challenge it, Congress can cancel the deal and impose more sanctions on Iran.

It’s hard to know what the unpredictable Trump will decide. He has already called it the “worst deal ever” and even promised “surprises.”

But it won’t be that easy to roll back the deal. In Israel, there is a growing gap between the political echelon led by Netanyahu and supported by most cabinet ministers and the security establishment. And even among the security chiefs, there is disagreement.

While Mossad chief Yossi Cohen sides with Netanyahu, Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot and Military Intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Herzl Halevi are much more cautious. They believe alternatives to the current deal could be worse.

These differences of opinion are echoed in the US between Trump, and his secretaries of state and defense, supported by their military and intelligence chiefs.

But even if Trump has the upper hand and demands to amend the deal, the likelihood of it actually happening is slim. Even if the US pulls out from the agreement, the other five signatories will remain, as with the Global Climate Treaty. By abandoning the nuclear deal, the US would further weaken the international consensus – whatever is left of it.

The ramifications for Israel are even more dangerous. If the US and/or other parties revoke the deal, Iran may very well do the same. Indeed, there are hawkish voices in Iran calling on it to jump ship.

In such a scenario, we may well find ourselves once again in the reality of three to four years ago of war threats – with one big exception. Unlike then, this time Iran may actually rush to assemble the bomb and join the exclusive nuclear club, which consists of the five big powers, as well as Israel, India, Pakistan and North Korea.

The Iranian temptation to do so is huge. It is envious of North Korea, which under its nuclear weapon umbrella is flashing its middle finger to the world.

If nuclear Iran forces Netanyahu to develop his strategy, its military presence in Syria will remain a strategic challenge.

The civil war in Syria is far from over. It’s already clear that Iran (together with Russia), which saved the Bashar Assad regime, is emerging as the big winner. Here, too, life isn’t going to be easy for Israel.

Israel demands that in the long run, if a diplomatic solution to return Syria to normalcy is reached, it will include the withdrawal of all foreign forces. This demand is supported by Russia and the US. However, the Syrian predicament is very complex. A long-term diplomatic deal is not on the horizon.

To accomplish the goal that all foreign forces leave Syrian soil, it needs the Turkish military to comply as well. But Turkey is reluctant to withdraw its forces as long as Syrian Kurds do not abandon their hope to have a Kurdish territorial entity along the Turkish border.

To press the Kurds to do so is not in the cards at the moment. The US and even Russia need them as “boots on the ground” to finish off ISIS. Indeed, the Kurds have proven to be the most effective force in the war. It won’t be easy to persuade them to allow their aspirations, enveloped in blood, sacrifice and heavy casualties, to evaporate into thin air.

But even if the Turks do eventually leave Syria, there is no guarantee that the Iranians will follow suit. At the moment, Iran has 3,000 military advisors in Syria; its Shi’ite “volunteers” (practically mercenaries) from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan number 9,000 and Lebanese Hezbollah another 8,000. That’s a big contingent to be reckoned with. They, too, have invested blood and sacrifice, and want to reap the dividends of war.

Iran wants a land corridor from Tehran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. It aspires to construct a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean shores, and it wants to get as close to the Israeli and Jordanian borders as possible.

The Iranian presence in Syria is a red line that Israeli leaders say they will not tolerate. Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman have made it clear, both publicly and in messages to Russia and the US, that they will not allow Iranian troops or their Shi’ite allies to cross a line 60 kilometers from the Israeli border.

There is no guarantee that such a demand will be achieved but it is possible. After all, with its allies and proxies in Syria (Kurds, Druze and moderate rebel groups), Israel holds at least one important key to the Syrian gates: It can raise hell and sabotage any future deal by using its military force to prolong the war. Russia knows it. Assad knows it. And even the Iranians understand it.

In the meantime, the Israeli-Syrian border has, for the most part, been quiet. The dozen or so breaches of the status quo were usually unintended fire between the Syrian army and various rebel groups that spilled over into Israeli territory. In each case, the Israeli artillery or fighter jets retaliated against Syrian army positions. On rare occasions, Syrian jets or Hezbollah drones that flew close to the border were downed by the Israel Air Force or its anti-aircraft batteries. Israeli policy was and remains to preserve its sovereignty, to maintain peace and tranquility along the border areas, and to punish any group that violates it.

Furthermore, Israel took advantage of the chaos of the Syrian war by reportedly carrying out around 100 attacks against weapons shipments from Iran via Syria to Hezbollah. In all incidents, the Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah swallowed their pride, contained the damage and casualties and did not respond.

Last July, Russia, Jordan and the US declared a cease-fire near the triangular borders of Israel, Syria and Jordan. All groups present in the declared zone – the Syrian army and all the rebel groups as well as ISIS and al-Qaida – are respecting the cease-fire, and Russian military police are authorized to supervise it.

Though the agreement was achieved without direct Israeli participation in the talks, Israeli security officials operated behind the scenes and conveyed their needs and concerns to the various parties involved.

The arrangement, however, is fragile. Israel and Syria are emerging from the quandary with at least one common interest: to get rid of the 1,000-strong ISIS force in the triangular borders and to restore the old order.

In 1974, after the Yom Kippur War, Israel and Syria signed the Disengagement Agreement, which was sanctioned by UN Security Council resolutions. The agreement created a buffer zone inside Syria ranging from 500 meters to 100 kilometers, with military limitations on both sides.

To monitor the disengagement of forces, a special UN peace-keeping force called UNDOF (United Nations Disengagement Observer Force) was created.

At its peak, UNDOF was comprised of 1,500 people from dozens of nations. But during the Syrian civil war, after some UNDOF personnel were kidnapped by rebels and some killed, the size of the force was reduced, and UNDOF evacuated its positions in Syria and took shelter in the safety of Israel. Effectively, UNDOF became a force on paper.

In recent weeks, though, UNDOF has been returning. Backed by Israel and Syria, UNDOF Commander Maj.-Gen. Jai Shanker Menon recently visited Tel Aviv and met with military attachés of various Western countries, encouraging them to reinstate or send their troops back to UNDOF.

If UNDOF does manage to restore its capabilities, it can be said that even if Israel finds it strategically difficult to achieve its goals, at least tactically it will move forward.

Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at http://www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman

 

TURKISH MILITARY VEHICLES ENTER SYRIA’S IDLIB

 

BEIRUT – Turkish military vehicles crossed the Syrian border into Idlib on Sunday, a local resident and a local rebel said, after Ankara announced an operation by rebel groups in the area, which is controlled by rival jihadist alliance Tahrir al-Sham.

Both sources said the vehicles traveled under escort from Tahrir al-Sham, whose fighters accompanied them along a road. However, the jihadists and the Turkish military had earlier exchanged fire in a nearby area.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces would launch an operation in Idlib and warned that Turkey would not allow “a terrorist corridor” near its borders.

The operation follows a deal between Turkey and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s allies Russia and Iran to impose a “de-escalation” zone in Idlib and surrounding areas to reduce warfare there, an agreement that did not include Tahrir al-Sham.

Reuters witnesses, the local resident and local rebel, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the Turkish military and Tahrir al-Sham exchanged fire near the village of Kafr Lusin in Idlib early on Sunday.

The clashes involved Tahrir al-Sham firing on a Turkish bulldozer removing sections of a border wall and Turkish artillery returning fire, the local resident and rebel and the Reuters witness said.

Idlib and neighboring parts of northwest Syria represent the country’s biggest and most populous rebel stronghold, home to more than two million people, many of them refugees from other regions.

Rebel groups taking part in the operation — part of the Euphrates Shield campaign that Turkey has backed with armor and troops in another part of Syria to the east of Idlib since last year — said on Saturday they expected it to start very soon.

Tahrir al-Sham said any incursion into Idlib would “not be a picnic” for its enemies.

Tahrir al-Sham is spearheaded by the former Nusra Front, which was al Qaeda’s Syrian branch until last year, when it changed its name and broke formal allegiance to the global movement founded by Osama bin Laden.

It has been a formidable military force since early in the conflict, often fighting alongside other rebel groups, but since early this year it has battled them as it tried to gain control over areas including Idlib.

Turkey has been one of the biggest supporters of rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the six-and-a-half-year war, but its focus has moved from ousting him to securing its own border.

Israel considered attacking Syria crematorium – report

Israel reportedly considered bombing crematoria created by the Syrian regime to burn and conceal the bodies of murdered political prisoners, but decided against it so as not to irritate the Americans or the Russians and avoid escalation on the northern border.

“A country that lost millions of its people to crematoria cannot stand by when it happens to another people a few dozens of kilometers from our border,” and when most of the world “stands by and remains silent — exactly as it did 70 years ago,” a senior figure involved in the discussions was quoted by the Israel Hayom daily as saying Sunday.

In May, the Trump administration accused the Syrian government of carrying out mass killings of thousands of prisoners and burning the bodies in a large crematorium outside of the capital.

The State Department said it believed that some 50 detainees were being hanged daily at Saydnaya military prison — known as ‘the slaughterhouse’ — about 45 minutes north of Damascus. Many of the bodies, it said, were then burned in the crematorium.

The department released commercial satellite photographs showing what it described as a building in the prison complex that was modified to support the crematorium. The photographs, taken over the course of several years beginning in 2013, did not definitely prove the building was a crematorium, but did show construction consistent with such use.

At the time, the Israeli interior minister, opposition lawmakers and Jewish groups demanded military action to stop the alleged atrocities.

Confidential talks were held on the possibility, according to the Israel Hayom report.

In the end, however, Israel decided to continue its policy of non-intervention in the conflict while the US restricted itself to calling on Russia to stop the abuses.

The Bashar Assad regime rejected the crematoria claim as a “Hollywood story,” aimed at justifying US intervention in the six-and-half-year civil war.

Top Hezbollah commander killed fighting IS in Syria

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon’s terror group Hezbollah says one of its top commanders has been killed while fighting Islamic State militants in Syria.

The 44-year-old Ali Al-Hadi Al-Ashiq is the latest fatality for the Shiite group that has fought alongside Syrian government forces in the civil war next door since 2012.

Hezbollah said on Wednesday that he was killed fighting IS in the central desert of Palmyra on Monday.

Hezbollah sent thousands of fighters to Syria, helping government forces in major battlefields victories against armed opposition and Islamic militants.

More than 1,000 Hezbollah fighters have been killed there.

Al-Ashiq, also known by his nickname Alhaj Abbas, was among the first Hezbollah commanders sent to Syria and he took part in the key battle in al-Qusair, near the Lebanese border.

He also fought against Israel.