Posts Tagged ‘Bashar al-Assad’

Syria: Assad’s ties to ISIS are another reason US troops need to stay

August 13, 2018

A Daily Beast report last week on the horrors of a recent ISIS attack in Syria, and the Assad regime and Russia’s suspected role in it, offers fresh grounds for a continued US presence in the region.

The July 25 onslaught by 400 Islamic State fighters left 200-plus Druze dead, 200 more injured and several dozen others — women, teens, babies — kidnapped. A 19-year-old was later beheaded.

New York Post

Druze leaders, the report notes, believe the massacre was punishment by Bashar al-Assad for their turning down a request by Russian military officials to join regime troops and their Russian- and Iranian-backed allies in a hit on militants in Idlib. (The Druze want to remain neutral.)

As evidence of Assad’s complicity, Druze spokesmen point to regime moves just before the ISIS attack: Electricity and phone service cut off; troops withdrawn from checkpoints, giving the attackers ready access to Druze villages. Afterward, Assad also refused to send ambulances to help victims.

A government official even escorted ISIS fighters to kill Druze in their homes, a captured militant admits in a video.

Syrian dictator Assad has long claimed the now 7-year-old war is an effort to stop jihadi terrorists. But evidence shows he has actually often allied with ISIS.

The Druze now face threats from regime and ISIS fighters (several thousand are still active in Syria) and their Russian and Iranian allies. They’re seeking an international force to protect them, along with Yazidis, Christians and Kurds, much as US troops safeguard Kurds elsewhere in the area.

The putrid stew of bad actors — Iran, Russia, ISIS, other jihadis, Turks and the murderous Syrian regime itself — argues against Washington abandoning the area any time soon, despite President Trump’s hopes to do so.

Cede ground to the thugs, and the attack on the Druze will look like a picnic compared to what comes next.

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Israel minister welcomes Syria scientist killing — “He was engaged in developing chemical weapons and longer-range missiles capable of hitting Israel”

August 7, 2018

“People that talk of destroying Israel can expect that Israel will hear them.”

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Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz on Tuesday welcomed the killing of a leading Syrian weapons scientist but declined to comment on reports his government was behind the fatal bombing.

General Aziz Asbar, head of a Syrian government weapons research centre, was killed along with his driver when the bomb hit his car on Saturday, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The pro-government Al-Watan newspaper confirmed the killing in the central province of Hama.

Asbar headed the Maysaf research centre in Hama, which was hit by Israeli air strikes last month and in September last year, the Observatory said.

The New York Times on Monday quoted “a senior official from a Middle Eastern intelligence agency” as saying that Israel was behind the assassination.

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“We don’t of course comment on reports of this kind and I’m not going to comment now,” Katz told Israeli army radio.

“I can say that assuming the details of this man’s activities are correct and he was engaged in developing chemical weapons and longer-range missiles capable of hitting Israel, I certainly welcome his demise.”

An Israeli air strike targeted the research centre on July 22, Syrian state media and the Observatory reported. An Israeli military spokesman declined to comment.

A September 2017 strike caused damage to the centre, when fire broke out at a warehouse where missiles were being stored, the Observatory said.

Israel has carried out numerous strikes inside Syria since 2017, according to the Observatory, targeting government forces and their allies from Iran and Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

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Hezbollah fighters

Early 2017 marked the low point for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his country’s now seven-year-old civil war with his authority confined to just 17 percent of national territory.

A succession of victories since then over both the Islamic State group and various rebel factions has extended government control to nearly two-thirds of the country.



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Syrian children being treated for exposure to chemical weapons

Execution of Syria’s Rocket Scientist Aziz Asbar — Syria, Hezbollah, Lebanon, Iran All Point to Israel

August 7, 2018

Aziz Asbar was one of Syria’s most important rocket scientists, bent on amassing an arsenal of precision-guided missiles that could be launched with pinpoint accuracy against Israeli cities hundreds of miles away.

He had free access to the highest levels of the Syrian and Iranian governments, and his own security detail. He led a top-secret weapons-development unit called Sector 4 and was hard at work building an underground weapons factory to replace one destroyed by Israel last year.

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Aziz Asbar

On Saturday, he was killed by a car bomb — apparently planted by Mossad, the Israeli spy agency.

It was at least the fourth assassination mission by Israel in three years against an enemy weapons engineer on foreign soil, a senior official from a Middle Eastern intelligence agency confirmed on Monday. The following account is based on information provided by the official, whose agency was informed about the operation. He spoke only on the condition of anonymity to discuss a highly classified operation.

The attack took place on Saturday night in Masyaf, where Syria’s military research organization maintains one of its most important weapons-development facilities. It quickly prompted finger pointing at Israel by both Syria and Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based Islamic militant group whose fighters have played a major role in the Syrian civil war on the side of President Bashar al-Assad.

By David M. Halbfinger and Ronen Bergman
The New York Times

The wreckage of a building described by the Syrian Information Ministry in an April press tour as part of the Scientific Studies and Research Center compound. Credit Louai Beshara/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In this case, the accusations were well founded: The Mossad had been tracking Mr. Asbar for a long time, according to the Middle Eastern intelligence official.

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Qassim Suleimani

The Israelis believed that Mr. Asbar led the secret unit known as Sector 4 at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. He was said to have free access to the presidential palace in Damascus and had been collaborating with Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, commander of Iran’s Quds Force, and other Iranians to begin production of precision-guided missiles in Syria by retrofitting heavy Syrian SM600 Tishreen rockets.

A shot from a video purporting to show a Tishreen missile being test fired. (Screenshot/YouTube)

Mr. Asbar was also working on a solid-fuel plant for missiles and rockets, a safer alternative to liquid fuel.

An official from Syria and Iran’s alliance, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to Western journalists, said he believed Israel had wanted to kill Mr. Asbar because of the prominent role he played in Syria’s missile program even before the current conflict broke out in 2011.

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Iran backed Houthi rebels in Yemen fire an Iranian ballistic missile into Saudi Arabia

Under Israeli law, the prime minister alone is authorized to approve an assassination operation, euphemistically known as “negative treatment” within the Mossad. Spokesmen for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.

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Iran militia in Syria

Mr. Lieberman, however, earlier in the day dismissed suggestions in the Syrian and Lebanese news media that Israel was behind the blast, which also killed Mr. Asbar’s driver.

“Every day in the Middle East there are hundreds of explosions and settling of scores,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 News. “Every time, they try to place the blame on us. So we won’t take this too seriously.”

As one of the directors of Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center, Mr. Asbar had for years been active in the Assad regime’s chemical-weapons production program, working mainly in Al Safir, outside of Aleppo, and in the city of Masyaf, west of Hama, farther to the south. He was also involved in coordinating Iranian and Hezbollah activities in Syria, according to the intelligence official.

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Syrian children being treated for exposure to chemical weapons

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Top spy official says Mossad behind killing of Syrian rocket chief

The official quoted in The New York Times Tuesday said that Israel had been tracking Azbar for years, and had wanted to assassinate him over his prominent role in Syria’s weapons program even before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. He said it was the fourth time in three years the Mossad has assassinated an enemy weapons engineer in a foreign country.

Israel has been blamed for the killing of several scientists in recent years, including two Hamas engineers in the last 18 months.

A Hamas rocket scientist was shot dead by gunmen in Malaysia in April and a drone engineer was killed in Tunisia in December 2016. Hamas blamed the Mossad for both deaths.

Inspector General of Royal Malaysian Police Mohamad Fuzi Harun, right, shows two images of suspects in the killing of a Hamas man during a press conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Monday, April 23, 2018. (AP)

Israel does not usually comment on reports of its alleged military operations in Syria but has repeatedly warned it would work to keep advanced weapons out of Hezbollah terrorists’ hands and has vowed to stop Iran establishing a military presence in the country.

On Tuesday, Gilad Erdan who heads the Public Security and Strategic Affairs ministries declined to comment on Israel’s involvement in Azbar’s killing, but said it was “a good thing” that he was dead.

Strategic Affairs Minister Gilad Erdan attends a committee meeting in the Knesset, on July 2, 2018. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“We obviously do not comment on these kinds of reports — neither confirming nor denying them — but we can talk about the man himself, who was responsible for putting high quality weapons in the hands of some bad people, and so we can say that the fact he is no longer with us is a good thing,” he told Israel Radio when asked about the New York Times report.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday sought to downplay the possibility of Israeli involvement.

“Every day in the Middle East there are hundreds of explosions and settling of scores. Every time they try to place the blame on us. So we won’t take this too seriously,” he told Hadashot News.

An insurgent group calling itself the Abu Amara Brigades claimed responsibility for the operation. The group has previously claimed attacks targeting officials and militia commanders inside government territory.

In April 2017, the Trump administration placed sanctions on hundreds of CERS employees following a chemical attack on the Syrian rebel-held city of Khan Sheikhoun that killed dozens of civilians, including children.

Another CERS facility near Damascus was bombed by US, British and French forces in April after another chemical attack.

The Syrian regime has been accused of dozens of gas attacks that have killed hundreds of civilians during the war, even after it said it was giving up its stockpile.


Syrian paper blames Mossad for killing top missile expert

August 6, 2018

Reports say Aziz Azbar, blown up by bomb in his car, was an expert in rocket systems, in charge of improving the range and accuracy of the Assad regime’s Scud missiles

File: A screen capture from a video purporting to show the Syrian Army firing a Scud missile (image capture: YouTube)

File: A screen capture from a video purporting to show the Syrian Army firing a Scud missile (image capture: YouTube)

A pro-government Syrian paper on Sunday accused the Israeli Mossad of being behind the killing of a top research director at a military agency linked to Syria’s chemical weapons program.

The al-Watan newspaper reported on its website that Aziz Azbar, of the Scientific Studies and Research Center, died in a blast targeting his car Saturday night, in Syria’s Hama province

It said Israel was suspected of carrying out the attack. Israeli officials, past and present, refused to comment on the accusations. There was no official comment from Syria either.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman sought to downplay the possibility of Israeli involvement.

“Every day in the Middle East there are hundreds of explosions and settling of scores. Every time they try to place the blame on us. So we won’t take this too seriously,” he told Hadashot News.

An insurgent group calling itself the Abu Amara Brigades claimed responsibility for the operation. The group has previously claimed attacks targeting officials and militia commanders inside government territory.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the Syria war through local contacts, also reported Azbar’s death. It said he specialized in developing rocket systems at the center’s Masyaf facility in Hama.

Aziz Azbar (via Facebook)

Israel’s Hadashot TV news said Sunday night he was in charge of a project improving the range and accuracy of the regime’s Scud missiles.  Reports have also indicated an Iranian missile operation at the site.

During the first Gulf War, Iraq fired dozens of the Russian-made missiles at Israel.

At the outset of the war Syria was believed to have had some 200 Russian and North Korean made Scuds, and several hundred more of a locally produced version. It is not clear how many they have now.

The Israeli TV news report described him as “a person of the utmost interest to Israel” and said he had close ties to the Assad regime.

Azbar’s driver was also killed in the blast, according to al-Watan and the Observatory.

Hadashot said the bomb was placed in the headrest of his car seat. The same method was used to kill Hezbollah global terror chief Imad Mughniyeh, who was reportedly killed in a joint US, Israeli operation in 2008.

Israel has been blamed for the killing of several scientists in recent years, including two Hamas engineers in the last 18 months.

A Hamas rocket scientist was shot dead by gunmen in Malaysia in April and a drone engineer was killed in Tunisia in December 2016. Hamas blamed the Mossad for both deaths.

Images showed hundreds of people attending Azbar’s funeral on Sunday in Syria.

Western and Israeli intelligence agencies have long linked the SSRC to Syria’s chemical weapons program.

In April, the US, Britain and France carried out joint airstrikes against the center’s Damascus facilities in response to an alleged chemical weapons attack by government forces near the capital.

Israel is believed to be behind airstrikes targeting the center’s facilities in Masyaf last month and last September. Israel has been carrying out strikes inside Syria to prevent advanced weapons transfers to the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, an ally of the Syrian government.

Israel has also vowed to prevent Iran from set up a permanent presence in Syria, including missile factories.

A still from a video purportedly showing an strike on a facility near Masyaf, Syria on July 22, 2018. (screen capture: Twitter)

Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview with Russia’s state-controlled NTV television channel in June that his government had gotten rid of all its chemical weapons in 2013 and that allegations of their use were a pretext for invasion by other countries.

A UN investigative body determined that the government had used the nerve agent sarin in an aerial attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun in April 2017 that killed about 100 people and affected about 200 others.

The US leveled sanctions against 271 employees of the SSRC less than three weeks after the attack, saying the agency was responsible for “developing and producing non-conventional weapons and the means to deliver them.” Azbar was not on the list of targeted individuals.

A rescue worker carrying a child following an alleged chemical weapons attack in the rebel-held town of Douma, near Damascus, Syria, on April. 8, 2018. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

The US and its allies also blamed government forces for a sarin gas attack on the suburbs of Damascus in 2013 that killed around 1,000 people.

The US government first leveled sanctions against the agency in 2005. France, the EU and the U.K. also have imposed sanctions on the SSRC.

Syria has been in a civil war since state security forces cracked down on demonstrations calling for Assad’s ouster in 2011. At least 400,000 people have been killed and more than 11 million people displaced in the violence.

Russia to deploy military police on Golan Heights

August 2, 2018

Russia will deploy military police on the Golan Heights frontier between Syria and Israel and set up eight observation posts, Interfax news agency reported on Thursday, citing the Russian Defence Ministry.

“With the aim of preventing possible provocations against UN posts along the ‘Bravo’ line, the deployment is planned of eight observation posts of Russia’s armed forces’ military police,” Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Defence Ministry official was quoted as saying by Interfax.

Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and their Russian and Iranian allies have largely defeated anti-government rebels in south-west Syria, bringing pro-government forces closer to the frontier with Israel.

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Russian Military Police

The prospect that Iranian forces, and members of the Shi’ite Hezbollah militia, are in proximity with the border in the area of the Golan Heights has prompted warnings from Israel, which sees Iran as a threat to its national security.

Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons in Syria to a distance of 85 km (53 miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, TASS quoted a Russian envoy as saying on Wednesday, but Israel deemed the pullback inadequate.

Rudskoi was also quoted as saying that a UN peacekeeping force on the Golan Heights between Israel and Syria that was stopped in 2012 could be resumed.

UN peacekeepers accompanied by Russian military police patrolled the area for the first time in six years on Thursday, Rudskoi said.

Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe


Russia, Syria and Ukraine — What does Putin Want From Trump

August 1, 2018

Russia wants to use the gains it made in Syria as a bargaining chip with the US on Ukraine and the economic sanctions.


It's likely that Syria was a key topic in the one-on-one meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russia's Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, writes Kabalan [Reuters]
It’s likely that Syria was a key topic in the one-on-one meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, writes Kabalan [Reuters]

We may never know what was really discussed in the one-on-one meeting between US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the Helsinki summit. Yet, it is becoming increasingly clear, and for many good reasons, that Syria was a key topic at the meeting. In fact, among all the issues that overshadow the relationship between Washington and Moscow (i.e. Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, the conflict in Ukraine, NATO expansion, etc.), Syria is perhaps the easiest to come to terms with.

Following the defeat of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, and except for the desire to contain Iran, the United States does not have many real interests in Syria. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, it has resisted pressure and temptation to intervene. It was only after the fall of Mosul, the declaration of the Caliphate, and the expansion of ISIL that the US decided to step in. Even then, US war efforts remained strictly limited to the fight against ISIL and Washington was careful not to slip into the Syrian civil war.

President Trump has repeatedly stated that he does not want to keep a military presence in Syria after the defeat of ISIL. Yet, he also stated that he would like to see Iran’s military presence in Syria reduced and its regional influence curtailed. The only way to reconcile these two objectives, withdrawing from Syria and containing Iran, is through cooperation with Russia.

A possible trade between the two great powers seems therefore possible, wherein the US and its regional allies (Israel and the Arab Gulf States) would cease attempting to undermine the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (and thereby accepting Russia’s domination in Syria) in exchange for forcing Iran out. Ideally, the Syria-for-Iran deal should make everyone happy, except Iran of course. Russia, according to several media reports, is willing to cooperate in Syria; but only as a first step towards addressing more fundamental differences with Washington. Indeed, Russia’s intervention in Syria has much broader objectives than merely keeping Bashar al-Assad in power.

Surprising move

After more than two decades of withdrawing from the world stage and turning its back on the Middle East, Russia took almost everyone off guard with its September 2015 military intervention in Syria. Indeed, President Putin had pursued aggressive foreign policies elsewhere (Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014). Yet, these ventures were seen as very much defensive. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO was expanding eastward with little regard for Russia’s security interests. For Putin, the possibility that Georgia and Ukraine would become members in a new wave of NATO expansion was very real; and he, therefore, had to act swiftly.

Syria was in a different category. It was Russia’s first post-Cold War power projection outside the territories of the former Soviet Union. Taking advantage of the US’ war fatigue, the Syrian crisis presented Putin with the opportunity to overcome the “trauma” of the collapse of the Soviet Union and reestablish Russia as a world power.

Russia has succeeded in preserving the regime of Bashar al-Assad and preventing a victory by the US-backed opposition, but the motives behind Russia’s military intervention in Syria go beyond the internal dynamics of the Syrian conflict. It was first and foremost about Russia’s international standing and geopolitical interests. Russia has, in fact, used Syria as a launching pad to reassert itself on the international arena and attempt to change the unipolar nature of the post-Cold War international system. Iran was an important tool towards achieving that end.

Russia-Iran understanding

From the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Russia lent political and diplomatic support to the Assad regime. Russia interpreted the Arab Spring revolutions as a western conspiracy aimed at destabilising the region. Off course, no Russian embracing this view could say why the US would want, for example, to undermine reliable allies, such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, or Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia. Regardless, that was the view of the Russian ruling elite and became more defendable when the Arab Spring reached the shores of the anti-western regimes of Libya and Syria.

Despite that, for Mr Putin, military intervention was not on the table until the summer of 2015 when Bashar al-Assad and his Iran-backed forces seemed to have been defeated. With Afghanistan still very much alive in Russian memory, Putin decided to provide air cover, but no boots on the ground, to tilt the balance in favour of Assad.

In July 2015, Tehran sent General Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Brigade, to Moscow to discuss the details of the Russian intervention in Syria. Before that, Iran was hopeful that the nuclear deal, signed earlier that month, and improved relations with the Obama administration would help ease the pressure on al-Assad. That proved wrong. Turkey and Saudi Arabia increased their support for the Syrian opposition as US restrictions were eased after the signing of the Iran nuclear deal. Russia agreed to the Iranian request and the two countries formed an effective couple in the Syrian war. Iran provided manpower on the ground and Russia provided firepower from the air. The concerted Russia-Iran efforts changed the dynamics of the Syrian conflict militarily and politically.


So far, Russia views Iran as an important partner in its Syria venture, without which the whole idea of military intervention would not have been contemplated. Iran helped Russia achieve common objectives, including defeating the Western-backed rebellion in Syria, preventing Turkey and the Arab Gulf states from winning the war in Syria, and taking revenge for what Putin believes a master deception plan by the west to intervene in Libya and remove a Russian ally.

Having accomplished all that with the help of Iran, the interests of the two allies started to diverge. Russia wants to use its Syrian gains as a bargaining chip with the US to get to the most fundamental issues: Ukraine and the economic sanctions. Iran wants to enhance its military presence in Syria as a deterrence to prevent a possible US or Israeli attack against it.

As the US and Israel show more determination to force Iran out of Syria, Putin’s role becomes more crucial. If he chose to cooperate, Iran’s position would become untenable. If he decides to hold on to his alliance with Iran, Washington and Tel Aviv’s efforts to roll Iran’s influence back are more likely to fail. Clearly, Putin is holding the key to this issue. Right now, he does not seem interested in an Iran-for-Syria deal. He seems willing to fall in line with the US and Israel’s agenda only if the formula is transformed into an Iran for Ukraine deal. Until he can get there, Iran will stay in Syria even if a few kilometres away from the borders with Israel.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

Al Jazeera

Russia-U.S. Syria Deal Hits Trouble as Post-Summit Tensions Grow — Did Trump Get Taken By Putin?

July 28, 2018
  • Moscow accuses Washington of going back on its commitments
  •  Israel raises demands over limits to Iranian role in Syria
Trump, left, shakes hands with Putin during a news conference in Helsinki on July 16. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

One of the main deals announced between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump at their summit last week in Helsinki — coordinated steps to help stabilize the situation in Syria — is already running into trouble.

Facing a storm of criticism in Washington of their meeting, the two leaders touted the agreement to reduce Iran’s role in the war-torn nation and step up efforts to bring back refugees as a tangible result of their cooperation. But the Syria efforts have stumbled in the aftermath of the summit, amid recriminations between the U.S. and Russia and pressure from Israel for more limits on Iran’s influence.

This week, Moscow accused the U.S. of sabotaging the deal. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and a top general set off on an emergency diplomatic tour Monday to Israel, Germany and France to try to get the effort back on track. U.S. officials so far have provided little detail of what was discussed in Helsinki, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Wednesday confirmed the outlines of the understandings on Syria.

The difficulties in implementing them highlight the challenges for the Kremlin’s efforts to engineer a settlement in Syria that balances the interests of all the conflicting factions, from President Bashar al-Assad and his Iranian backers to Israel and the U.S. The furor in Washington over Trump’s handling of the summit, including a push in Congress for new sanctions on Russia, has only complicated the effort.

Promises ‘Not Fulfilled’

The U.S. “has not fulfilled its own promises” made in Helsinki to remove opposition forces to enable a buffer zone on Syria’s border with Israel, the Russian Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday. The Defense Ministry accused the U.S. of sabotaging the agreement after a senior American commander, General Joseph Votel, said that his country’s military won’t cooperate with Russian forces beyond a de-confliction hotline to avoid unintended clashes.

Moscow is counting on U.S. help to bring an end to the fighting in the region, a precondition to bringing back refugees. That issue was a key one on the agenda in Lavrov’s meetings this week, as the Kremlin sought to get European governments to help fund reconstruction in Syria in return for Russian commitments to return Syrians displaced by the war to their homes.

To limit Iran’s role, Russia had proposed a 100-km (60-mile) buffer zone on the Syrian side of the border that would be off limits to Iranian forces and their allies. But Israel is demanding further protections, including the removal of long-range Iranian missiles from Syria and limits on weapons supplies, according to media reports in Israel and Russia. The Jewish state, which has carried out frequent strikes on Iranian-backed targets inside Syria, has stepped up military action in the area.

Israel understands that any Russian promises won’t be enough to contain Iran, said Major-General Amos Gilad, a recently retired Israeli Defense Ministry official. “We need to tackle their hostile capabilities beyond any given buffer zone. They have capabilities like unmanned aerial vehicles and long-range missiles, and so we must take action against all these threats.”

Iran Leverage

Russia’s ability to pressure Iran into concessions is limited, according to officials in Moscow.

After seven years of conflict in which Iran has devoted huge human and financial resources to prop up Assad, “the Iranians most likely won’t go, they’ve paid too high a price already,” said Frants Klintsevich, a member of the Russian upper house of parliament’s defense and security committee.

Even the 100-kilometer zone is “unrealistic” because Iran at the most will agree to remove its troops, though not its military advisers or militia fighters from the area, said Yury Barmin, a Middle East expert at the Russian International Affairs Council, a research group set up by the Kremlin. “In the south, Iran has embedded its people with Syrian army units — this is not something that Russia can control,” he said.

A compromise is possible if Israel admits it’s impossible to roll back Iran completely in Syria, said Nikolay Kozhanov, a Middle East expert at the European University at St. Petersburg who served as a Russian diplomat in Tehran from 2006-2009. “If not, Iran will use rockets to attack Israeli infrastructure and Israel has a green light from Moscow for bombing raids on Syrian territory.”

Israel launches U.S.-backed missile “David’s Sling” against Syrian threat

July 23, 2018

Israel launched its newest air defense system on Monday on the Syrian frontier, where Damascus’s Russian-backed forces have been routing rebels, as Moscow sent envoys for what it called “urgent” talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

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David’s Sling

Netanyahu planned to meet Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and its armed forces chief, General Valery Gerasimov, later in the day, a visit the Israeli leader said was arranged last week at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Israel is on high alert as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regains ground from rebels in the southwest of the country, bringing his forces close to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In a sign of high tensions, Israel launched two David’s Sling interceptor missiles at rockets which it said fell inside Syrian territory and were part of the internal fighting there.

It was Israel’s first operational use of the mid-range David’s Sling, which is jointly manufactured by U.S. firm Raytheon Co (RTN.N). The incident triggered sirens in northern Israel and on the Golan, sending many residents to shelters.

An Israeli source briefed on the David’s Sling activation said the interceptor missiles were launched following an initial assessment that the two incoming Syrian SS-21 rockets would hit the Israeli side of the Golan. When Israeli sensors realized they would land on the Syrian side, David’s Sling was given an abort order for the interceptors to self-destruct in mid-air.

The source requested anonymity as the Israeli military had yet to carry out a formal investigation. Asked if the United States were apprised of the incident, the source said: “I’m sure that will happen in the future, as there are joint interests.”

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem referred inquiries to the Pentagon, which did not immediately respond.

Netanyahu held talks with Putin in Moscow on July 11 amid Israeli concern that Assad, an old foe, may defy a 1974 demilitarization deal on the Golan or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah allies to deploy there.

Russia has said it wants to see the separation of forces on the frontier preserved. Lavrov’s deputy, Grigory Karasin, told Russian media the foreign minister’s trip was “urgent and important”.

Netanyahu, in broadcast remarks, said he would tell the envoys that “Israel insists on the separation of forces agreement between us and Syria being honored, as they were honored for decades until the civil war in Syria broke out”.

He also reaffirmed “Israel will continue to act against any attempt by Iran and its proxies to entrench militarily in Syria”.

Syrian state television said on Sunday an Israeli air strike hit a military post in the city of Misyaf in Syria’s Hama province but caused only material damage. The Israeli military declined comment.

Also on Sunday, hundreds of Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families fled advancing government forces and slipped over the border into Jordan with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

Damascus on Monday condemned the evacuation as a “criminal operation” undertaken by “Israel and its tools”.[L5N1UJ2FC] The Russian embassy in Israel tweeted that the White Helmets were “militants”, linking them with Syria’s Islamist-led insurgents.

Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk in Moscow; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Matthew Mpoke Bigg


Officials’ Stark Warnings on Russia Diverge From White House View

July 23, 2018

Clashing assessments raise a question ahead of the next Trump-Putin summit: Can the U.S. formulate a coherent Russia policy?

FBI Director Christopher Wray, left, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are among the U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials whose recent stark warnings on Russia election-meddling diverge from White House statements. The two men testified before the House Judiciary Committee on June 28.
FBI Director Christopher Wray, left, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are among the U.S. law-enforcement and intelligence officials whose recent stark warnings on Russia election-meddling diverge from White House statements. The two men testified before the House Judiciary Committee on June 28. PHOTO: ALEX WONG/GETTY IMAGES

As the administration prepares for another summit meeting between President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, there is division within the U.S. ranks over Moscow’s intentions and whether the two sides will be able to cooperate on a range of issues including the conflict in Syria.

Mr. Trump has expressed hopes of working more closely with Russia in Syria, where Moscow has played a central role in cementing President Bashar al-Assad’s power. The administration raised the issue with Mr. Putin’s government during and after their meeting in Helsinki last week.

But the U.S. general overseeing the fight against Islamic State expressed doubt about deepening cooperation with the Russian military. “I’ve watched some of the things that Russia has done, it does give me some pause,” Gen. Joseph Votel said in an interview en route to Afghanistan.

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Gen. Joseph Votel

Gen. Votel heads the U.S. Central Command, which also oversees U.S. military operations in the Middle East, including Syria, where Russian has been carrying out air strikes to help Mr. Assad’s forces reclaim territory from Syrian rebels.

A parade of top officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Justice Department and intelligence agencies, as well as U.S. lawmakers, have issued warnings in recent days about Russian interference in U.S. elections. Mr. Trump and others in the White House say they have raised concerns about interference, and are focusing on other issues.

The skepticism has frustrated Russian officials who had hoped for an opening between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin to see eye-to-eye on thorny regional issues, terrorism and arms control.

Seeking to capitalize on the Helsinki meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday about potential cooperation in Syria and demanded the release of Russian citizen Maria Butina, who was arrested last week and charged with failing to register as a foreign agent. Mr. Lavrov called the accusations against her “fabricated.”

A statement from the U.S. State Department on Sunday said the men discussed Syria, counterterrorism and business-to-business ties but made no mention of Ms. Butina.

Before last week’s the Helsinki summit, Syria was seen as a potential area of cooperation between the two countries, especially since the U.S. is no longer providing covert support to Syrian rebels opposed to Mr. Assad. Mr. Trump has said he would like to eventually remove the approximately 2,000 U.S. troops in the country.

The White House’s paramount concern in Syria has been finding a way to evict Iranian forces. National Security Adviser John Bolton voiced hopes earlier this month that Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin might work together to scale back Iran’s role.

But no agreement to reduce Iran’s role was announced in Helsinki. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats expressed skepticism at the policy symposium that Russia would help.

“We have assessed that it’s unlikely Russia has the will or the capability to fully implement and counter Iranian decision and influence,” Mr. Coats said at the Aspen Security Forum. “It’s a big country. There are a lot of hot spots there. Russia would have to make significantly greater commitments from a military standpoint, from an economic standpoint. We don’t assess that they are keen to do that.”

Mr. Trump has said little about the Helsinki summit, including Syria. Russian officials said they are preparing to set up a working group with the U.S. to focus on getting Syrian refugees back home.

In his interview, however, Gen. Votel outlined the pitfalls of seeking to a closer military relationship with Moscow in Syria.

At present, the U.S. military maintains regular consultations with its Russian counterparts to avoid inadvertent confrontation in Syria—what the Pentagon calls “deconfliction.”

“I don’t see anything that we ought to be doing militarily right now beyond what we are currently doing,” he said.

“They have supported a regime that has pretty brutally attacked their people,“ Gen. Votel explained. ”They’ve actively worked to make sure that the Syrian regime wasn’t held to full accountability for their use of chemicals.”

“These are not things that give me great confidence that just by stepping over into the next level of coordination that things are going to be fine. I don’t,” Gen Votel continued. “It’s Russia. Let’s not forget that it’s Russia.”

Before the Helsinki summit, Russia pushed the U.S. to close an American base in southern Syria, where Iran is looking to open a corridor to shuttle weapons to its allies in Lebanon. It remained unclear if Mr. Trump had discussed closing the base in exchange for Mr. Putin’s help in containing Iran’s influence in Syria.

But Gen. Votel said he is opposed to closing the base, known as Al Tanf, which has been used to train Syrian militants battling Islamic State.

Another wild card that could complicate U.S.-Russia relations as a summit approaches is the possibility of more sanctions, which some in Congress have brandished if there is more Russian election interference.

While Russia had hoped that Mr. Trump’s election would lead to an easing of sanctions, a law passed last year by Congress and signed by Mr. Trump, along with existing executive orders, mandate punitive measures in response to Kremlin election interference, cyber attacks and military interventions in Ukraine and Syria.

The new law, Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or Caatsa, was invoked after special counsel Robert Mueller in February obtained indictments against several Russian companies and citizens for their alleged involvement in election interference. In that instance, the Treasury Department sanctioned the defendants.

The July 13 indictment of 12 officers from cyber units in Russia’s military-intelligence agency provided Treasury officials with information on additional Kremlin-linked actors with which to take similar action.

“Congress has provided important tools to hold Russia accountable for its meddling,” said Rep. Ed Royce, the California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The administration needs to use them to the fullest extent.”

Write to Michael R. Gordon at

Appeared in the July 23, 2018, print edition as ‘Trump, Aides Diverge Further on Russia.’


Assad’s Syrian Forces Pounding Opposition Near Israel’s Golan

July 21, 2018

At least thirty major air and artillery strikes target a dozen kilometers of ISIS-held positions near the Golan in Syria as refugees flee fighting.

 JULY 21, 2018 13:19




The Syrian area of Quneitra is seen in the background as an out-of-commission Israeli tank parks on a hill, near the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria, in the Golan Heights.. (photo credit: BAZ RATNER/REUTERS)


The Syrian regime and its Russian backers launched widespread air and artillery strikes against ISIS-held positions next to the Golan on Saturday.

Over the last 24 hours the Syrian regime launched an offensive against the ISIS affiliate that holds a section of the southern Golan in Syria. Since 2015 ISIS was able to attract hundreds of followers to a group called Jaysh Khalid bin-Walid and take over a dozen villages near the southern Golan and Jordan. Until this year they skirmished with the Syrian rebels but after the rebels retreated from a Syrian regime offensive earlier this month ISIS has been fighting the Syrian regime. Initially the Syrian regime and its Russian backers focused on defeating the rebels near Dara’a and Quneitra in southern Syria. However on Friday the rebels indicated they would accept a “reconciliation” agreement with Damascus.

On Saturday morning ISIS detonated a car bomb in the town of Hayt. The Syrian regime launched a dozen air and artillery strikes in the morning against areas along the border with Israel, including the villages and towns of Tasil, Saidah, Sahyun and Shabraq. Puffs of smoke and explosions could be heard in the distance from the Golan Heights. By early afternoon the Syrian regime had increased its air and artillery strikes, targeting ISIS positions along the entire frontline of a dozen kilometers. Explosions and clouds of smoke from the strikes could be seen far in the distance and within two kilometers of the 1974 ceasefire line. In three hours at least thirty air strikes were clearly audible.

At Tel Saqi, site of a 1973 battle, tourists and locals watched the airstrikes in the distance. Some were oblivious to the complexities of the war on the other side and surprised to find themselves next to a war zone. Other locals said they had been here since the 1970s and recalled the 1973 war. They debated whether it would be good to have Bashar al-Assad’s regime back at the border after seven years in which instability and a multiplicity of groups have occupied areas of the Golan border. These have included moderate Syrian rebels as well as extremists like ISIS. However the Israeli side of the border next to ISIS has been quiet for almost two years since a skirmish in 2016.

On Saturday as the Syrian regime offensive unfolded dozens of Syrians gathered near the border in tents. They are a trickle of the tens of thousands who have clustered near Quneitra and other points along the ceasefire line in the last weeks. With the offensive hitting the previously quiet ISIS-held areas the civilians are increasingly fleeing to the border. Despite the fighting the border area was still open to tourists and there was no visible emergency on the Israeli side or along the fence.