Archive for June 4, 2019

Syria: Iran is not leaving, despite U.S. and Israeli pressure

June 4, 2019

Source: Syria: Iran is not leaving, despite U.S. and Israeli pressure – Middle East – Jerusalem Post

The report seeks to downplay rumors that an upcoming US, Israel and Russia trilateral meeting in Israel would examine Iran’s presence in Syria.

BY SETH J. FRANTZMAN
 JUNE 4, 2019 15:28
Forces loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad carry the national flag as they ride on motorcycle

A Syrian official told Russian media that there are no plans for Iran to reduce its troop levels in the country, even if the US and Israel seek to offer Russia a deal.

Speaking to Izvestia and later reported in Russia’s TASS news agency, the report seeks to downplay rumors that an upcoming US, Israel and Russia trilateral meeting in Israel would examine Iran’s presence in Syria.

Last week, the US and Israel said there would be a trilateral meeting with Russia this month. Reports emerged that there were discussions about a possible Trump administration suggestion that the US could accept the Assad regime in exchange for reduction of Iranian forces and influence in Syria.

Asharq Al-Awsat reported the rumors Monday, but a US official told The National in Abu Dhabi that Washington flatly denied the report.

The US officially opposes the Bashar al-Assad regime and US President Donald Trump has launched airstrikes against the regime and harshly criticized it for human rights violations, including recent bombing in Idlib.

Trump has also accused Iran of attacking Idlib, via its forces in Syria. US-Iran tensions rose this month as the US also accused Tehran of threats in the Gulf and Iraq.

Israel has called on Iranian forces to leave Syria and recent airstrikes in Syria, two of which Israeli Defense Forces released information about, have occurred over the last week since May 27.

Syria claimed that Israeli struck its T-4 airbase where Iranians are suspected to be present.

Syria’s chairman of the Syrian Parliamentary Committee told Izvestia in Russia that “Damascus has no intention of turning away Iran’s military assistance or demanding an Iranian troop withdrawal.”

The Russian report notes that “Washington and Tel Aviv intended to offer a deal to Moscow and Damascus.” The deal would legitimize Assad and remove sanctions as long as the Iranian presence was reduced.

Vitaly Naumkin, Director of the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Russian Academy of Science also threw cold water on the news. Russia will not harm relations with Iran for the “sake of a doubtful deal with the Americans,” TASS reported.

In addition Syria says that it will not bargain regarding Iran’s presence. The US sanctions are a violation of Syria’s rights.

“Washington is not in a position to tell a sovereign state whose troops it may or may not host. The Iranian troops are deployed to our country based on our government’s official request and will leave Syria when it is necessary,” the lawmaker pointed out, TASS said.

But Syria is willing to have talks with western countries. Although the report did not mention this, Syria wants massive investment to rebuild the country after eight years of war and the displacement of eleven million people. Turkey occupies northern Syria and a US-led coalition supports the Syrian Democratic Forces which control eastern Syria.

Russia also wonders if the US and Israel are prepared to make “positive actions” regarding Syria, the report notes. “The recent bombing of Syrian military facilities near Quneitra and an air base near Hama did not happen at the same time by chance but were part of the same campaign,” an expert told Russian media.

This is a thinly veiled accusation against Jerusalem, but it comes as part of the generally amicable relations between Moscow and Israel. While Russia has critiqued Israeli airstrikes in the past, it has also indicated that foreign forces should leave Syria.

However Moscow’s stance is often cloaked in opacity. Russia said it would supply the Syrian regime with the S-400 last September after Syrian air defense downed a Russian place during an Israeli air strike near Latakia.

There are other issues involved as well. Radio Farda reported over the weekend that Russia was not willing to sell Iran the S-400 air defense system.

It is already selling it to Turkey and has shopped it around the Middle East. Russia has also denied reports of a deal with the US regarding Venezuela and a withdrawal of Russians from the South American nation.

These reports should be read as brinkmanship designed to elicit a response from either Moscow or Washington, to test the waters of what might happen on all these files that Moscow and Washington are dealing with.

Israel’s media has mistakenly reported in the past that Moscow would ask Iran or Hezbollah to leave Syria and reports have surfaced of Russian guarantees to Israel about keeping Iran away from the Golan ceasefire lines.

Since 2016, reports have also emerged of tensions between Russia and Iran in Syria, including tensions on the ground between different parts of the Syrian army and paramilitary forces that the countries work with. The full details of all these reports never clearly emerge and Moscow, Tehran, Damascus prefer it that way.

On Tuesday Syria’s regime media SANA reported that it is working on a friendly agreement with Iran. The Syrian soccer team will soon play the Iranians.

At the same time SANA says that Syria and Russia “affirmed their intention to develop cooperation in various fields,” in a meeting between Syrian Presidential Affairs Minister Mansour Azzam his Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Yury Borisov.

If those two reports are an indication of the relative interests of Damascus it is that Damascus realizes Russia is the more important ally. Iran is more important for people-to-people relations on the ground.

 

Iran calls US sanctions ‘economic war,’ says no talks until they are lifted

June 4, 2019

Source: Iran calls US sanctions ‘economic war,’ says no talks until they are lifted – www.israelhayom.com

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif rebuffs Washington’s offer to hold talks without preconditions, accusing U.S. of “economic terrorism.” “War and talks – with or without preconditions – don’t go together,” he says.

A day after Washington suggested it could hold talks without preconditions if Iran changed its behavior, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif posted a video clip of a woman saying the prosthetic leg her son needs is sanctioned to Twitter.

He tweeted: “#EconomicTerrorism against Iran targets innocent civilians. Like this little boy, whose heartbroken mother can’t get him prosthetic legs as he grows. They’re sanctioned.”

Reuters could not verify the authenticity of the video.

“This is @realDonaldTrump’s ‘economic war’. And war and talks – with or without preconditions – don’t go together,” Zarif added in the tweet.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday that Washington was prepared to engage with Tehran without pre-conditions on its nuclear program, but first needed to see the country behave like “a normal nation.”

Tensions between the two foes have escalated in the past month, a year after the United States pulled out of the 2005 Iran nuclear deal.

 

In wake of Golan attack, Israel makes it clear Iran cannot hide in Syria 

June 4, 2019

Source: In wake of Golan attack, Israel makes it clear Iran cannot hide in Syria – www.israelhayom.com

The alleged Israeli strike on Iranian assets in Syria sends the message that the Islamic republic cannot hide behind its regional proxies, and that its activities remain highly exposed to Israeli intelligence and firepower.

At this time, no group has claimed responsibility for the firing of two rockets at Israel’s Mount Hermon on Saturday night from Syria, but it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to view Iran, or one of its proxies, as the prime suspects.

The Iranian radical axis possesses both the ability and the motivation to conduct such an attack.

Israel’s alleged responses included a significant air strike on Iranian assetswithin the T-4 airbase, in central Syria, and deadly strikes on President Bashar Assad regime’s military.

Israel sent the message that Iran cannot hide behind its regional proxies and that its activities remain highly exposed to Israeli intelligence and firepower. It also reiterated that Assad will continue to pay a price for Iran’s aggression.

The Islamic republic has spent years creating proxy terrorist organizations throughout the Middle East, including in Syria. This gives it an ability to attack and pressure its enemies on their own doorstep, far from Iran’s own borders, while maintaining a facade of deniability. The “anonymous” firing of two rockets on Saturday appears to fit this pattern well.

Tens of thousands of Shi’ite militia members – made up of Iraqis, Afghans and others – are active in Syria. They are armed, trained and funded by Iran, and are also under its command.

Iran has tried to recruit Syrians, who live near the Israeli border, into Iranian-organized terror networks. In addition, Hezbollah – Iran’s powerful Lebanese proxy – is a part of this picture. Hezbollah has repeatedly tried to turn southern Syria into a forward operating base against Israel.

In addition to all of these efforts, Iran has tried to build up its own direct military capabilities in Syria.

In response, Israel uses its advanced intelligence and precision airstrike capabilities to disrupt the threats as they form.

Stopping Iran’s entrenchment in Syria has become a top Israeli goal. The Israeli Air Force has, in recent years, shifted into a high operational tempo to keep up with the constantly changing threat. The main mission, in Syria and beyond, is to stop the Iranian axis build-up.

This has frustrated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and its overseas black-ops unit, the Quds Force, commanded by the notorious Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Iran’s plans have run into constant “problems” in the form of hundreds of Israeli preventative strikes, including some in recent months, according to international media reports. The reports said Israeli strikes destroyed valuable Iranian targets, like missile-production facilities and weapons warehouses, killing Iranian personnel in the process.

The mysterious rocket attacks on Saturday night, therefore, could be seen as an Iranian attempt to deter Israel from taking more such action.

Another motivation could be the increasing economic pressure that Iran is under, due to punishing American sanctions. The closer Iran comes to the economic crisis, the more willing it is to activate its proxies and destabilize the region.

Recent examples of this trend include the sabotage of oil tankers at a UAE port, the explosive drone attacks launched by Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen against oil facilities in Saudi Arabia and a rocket attack on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. Saturday’s projectile attack from Syria seems could fit this pattern.

In addition, May 31 marked Iran’s “Quds Day,” held on the last Friday of Ramadan. This day is marked by rallies held in Iran and by Shi’ite communities abroad who are loyal to Tehran. Its defining message an ideological and fundamentalist religious commitment to Israel’s destruction.

The rocket attacks from Syria seem too close to Quds Day to be a coincidence. This year’s Quds Day was filled with threats by Iranian officials – not only against Israel but also against pro-U.S. Sunni Gulf states and the United States itself.

Israel’s first response to Saturday’s attack was to extract a painful price from the very regime that Iran worked so hard to save. Israeli aircraft struck a number of military targets belonging to Assad’s military, including artillery batteries, a number of observation and intelligence posts, and an SA-2 surface-to-air missile battery.

The IDF released a statement saying it “holds the Syrian regime accountable for every action taken against Israel and will firmly operate against any activity from within Syrian territory against Israel.”

Israel’s message is that Iran cannot hide behind its regional proxies and that the Assad regime will pay the price for Iran’s actions. This response should give Iran pause for thought since Assad’s survival is a key Iranian strategic interest. It is also a key interest of Russia, which is trying to keep Iran’s activities under some level of check to prevent the outbreak of a wider conflict.

In January this year, the Iranians tried to pull off a similar, more brazen attack. They fired a mid-range missile from the outskirts of Damascus at Mount Hermon, which was intercepted by Israeli air defenses right over the heads of winter skiers.

In response, the Israeli Air Force launched three waves of airstrikes that targeted Iranian sites in and around Damascus, as well as Syrian air-defense batteries that fired on the Israeli fighter jets.

Iran’s attack at that time was motivated, according to Israeli assessments, by a desire to stop Israel from hitting its troops and bases in Syria. That initiative failed.

The Lebanese front

Meanwhile, in neighboring Lebanon, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah used a Quds Day speech to state that “American intelligence knows that every war that erupts will not remain inside Iranian borders, but will spark a fire in the region. Israel and Saudi Arabia will pay the price.”

This threat likely came from Tehran rather than from Beirut. The mysterious rocket attacks fit Nasrallah’s warning. His message is that Iran’s axis should be seen as a single network and that Iran will activate its proxies if it becomes involved in any escalation with the United States.

That means that a U.S.-Iranian conflict will trigger an Israeli-Hezbollah conflict.

Still, Nasrallah has no appetite for a war at this time. His lackluster response to the IDF’s destruction of a series of Hezbollah tunnels, dug into northern Israel from Lebanon, are evidence of this.

On May 30, the IDF completed the destruction of Hezbollah’s largest and key tunnel.

In any future conflict, Hezbollah’s plan was to “infiltrate Israel through the attack tunnel into Israeli communities near the border in order to harm civilians as part of its war plans,” the IDF said.

Hezbollah invested “the most resources and efforts” into this tunnel, which was designed to allow terrorists to stay inside for a prolonged period of time.

So far, Israel and the Iranian axis have kept this conflict at bay. It remains unknown how much longer this will continue to be the case.

This article is reprinted with permission from JNS.org.