Israel: Unnatural Acts

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March 2, 2021: Recent Israeli airstrikes near Damascus (the Syrian capital) were apparently retaliation for the attack on an Israeli-owned ship in the Persian Gulf two days earlier. In the aftermath of the Damascus attacks the Syrian Internet saw a spike in anti-Iran messages. There has been a shift in Syrian public attitudes towards Iran as Iran moves in more of its Lebanese (Hezbollah), Afghan and local mercenaries to Syrian army bases around the capital and other areas where a lot of Assad supporters live. That is followed by truckloads of missiles and other weapons from Iran to be stockpiled for use against Israel. Several hundred times over the last few years Israeli airstrikes have destroyed these Iranian stockpiles, usually with few casualties on the ground and those tend to be Iranians or their mercenaries. Now the Iranians, or at least their Hezbollah veterans, are talking of the need to store these weapons in residential areas to use Syrian civilians as human shields to discourage Israeli air strikes. But the Syrians know how this works. The Israelis guided missiles do not cause a lot of civilian casualties. Instead, the Iranian missiles, rockets and explosives do that as they explode and that causes most of the civilian casualties. The Iranians see this as a plus as it is supposed to make the locals more anti-Israel. The Syrians see the Israelis attacking no matter what, even if Iran switches to the “human shields” approach, because otherwise those weapons will be used against Israeli civilians. This shift in public opinion against Iran is a problem for the Assad government because Iran has hundreds of “advisors” working within the Assad government and military. These Iranians report potential problems back to Iran or, rather, the IRGC (Islamic Revolution Guard Corps) that runs Iranian operations in Syria and Lebanon. If the Iranians suspect that the Assad government is considering switching sides and joining an Arab coalition that opposes Iran and considers Israel an ally, Iran could do a lot of damage to the Assad clan.

The IRGC also suspects Russia of working with Israel to broker a peace deal between the Assads and Israel. These suspicions increased three weeks ago when Russia brokered a deal with Syria to participate in an exchange with Israel that saw the return of two Syrian and one Israeli civilian who had crossed the border. Iran was not consulted and Russia refuses to reveal details. The Assads deny there were any hidden objectives. Iran did note that the deal also involved Israel reducing the prison sentence for a pro-Syrian Arab. And there were rumors that Israel would also help Syria obtain covid19 vaccine and so on. Rumors are rumors but the strain in Iran-Syria relations is real.

To make matters worse for Iran, Turkey and Israel are negotiating a deal to improve diplomatic and economic relations. The Turks have been increasingly hostile to Iran lately and that includes ignoring Iranian requests during the recent war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Turkey sent advisors, armed UAVs and Syrian mercenaries to help the Azeris score their first victory over Armenia in a three-decade long territorial feud. Iran was also unhappy with the fact that the Azeris gave credit to the many Israeli weapons that had purchased over the last decade. This included the Israeli Barak 8 anti-aircraft system which intercepted a number of Russia made ballistic missiles fired at Azerbaijan by the Armenians. One of those ballistic missiles was an Iskander, a recent Russian design that was supposed to be more difficult to detect and intercept. In short, Iran has reasons to be displeased at how its campaign in Syria is proceeding and how unhelpful, or even hostile, their allies have been.

This is not a new development. As far back as 2018 there were signs that Iranian allies in Syria were something of an unnatural act. Israel had made it clear that they will fight if Iran establishes a military presence in Syria. That was complicated by the fact that Iran had allies in Syria; Russia and Turkey, who were traditional enemies. In contrast Israel and the Gulf Arabs are not. What to do? Israel and Russia began trying to negotiate a deal to prevent a war between Iran and Israel over Iranian plans (already announced and underway) to establish bases in Syria and organize anti-Israeli forces for a final battle. For Israel any long-term Iranian presence in Syria was intolerable. Russia believed it could work out such a deal but many Israelis were skeptical and Iran declared that such a deal was not possible. When it comes to opposing Iran, Israel always had some very public backing from Russia despite the fact that this put Russia at odds with their two other allies in Syria. The Russians see the Israelis as a more powerful and reliable ally than the Turks or Iranians. Russia is also backing the Kurds in Syria and that is causing problems with Turkey. Recently Turkey had come to agree with Russia and is seeking to improve relations with Israel, even it that is at the expense of Iran.

March 1, 2021: In the south (Egyptian border) Israeli border guards detected and intercepted five smugglers from Egypt trying to bring 80 kg (176 pounds) of illegal drugs into Israel. There was no gunfire or casualties as there sometimes is when the smugglers try to shoot their way out of an arrest. The Israelis have modified their tactics to avoid gun battles on the border and this usually involves allowing the smugglers to get far enough into Israel that escape back into Egypt is no longer an option.

February 28, 2021: Israel carried out a several airstrikes against Iranian targets outside Damascus. The sound of the many explosions could be heard in Damascus. Hezbollah gunmen quickly set up checkpoints and restricted access to the bases that apparently suffered a lot of damage, in part because warehouses containing weapons and ammunition were hit, triggering secondary explosions with debris scattered over a wide area, including many fragments of Iranian made weapons.

February 26, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) an American airstrike, using two F-15E fighter-bombers, delivered seven smart bombs against an Iranian facility and largely destroyed it. There was at least one death and four wounded, The facility was built to support the Iraqi Kataib Hezbollah, an organization that is meant to become as powerful in Iraq as the original Lebanese Hezbollah has been since the 1980s in Lebanon. The U.S. holds Kataib Hezbollah responsible for recent rocket attacks on American bases and embassy in Iraq. Iran denies responsibility but the rockets used were made in Iran. The air strike was near the Al Bukamal crossing into Iraq. Iran is seeking to provide a safer environment for its Iraqi militias. Inside Iraq Kataib Hezbollah is subject to attack by security forces and pro-government militias. In eastern Syria the biggest threat is Israeli airstrikes and the occasional American one. For that reason the Americans warned Israel the day before that there going be U.S. airstrike, to ensure an Israeli airstrike was not scheduled to take place at the same target or another one in the area. The is the first American airstrike in Syria since a new U.S. government took power that had indicated it would no longer such American airstrikes in Syria.

In the Gulf of Oman, near the Iranian coast, the Helios Ray, an Israeli owned RO/RO (roll on, roll off) vehicle carrier ship was apparently hit by missiles or some kind of weapon. There were two holes visible above the waterline on each side an empty cargo deck of the 35 meter (112 foot) wide ship. There was no serious damage to the ship, that had made several strops in the Persian Gulf to unload new vehicles. After the attack the ship turned around and returned to Dubai to get the hull patched and the damage examined by weapons experts to determine the source of the attack damage. The ship was on its way to Singapore, a voyage that was to take about a week. Iran was suspected of causing the damage, which is similar to what earlier happened to other commercial ships in the area. Iran denies any responsibility, but they usually do for such blatant violations of maritime law.

February 22, 2021: In the south, off the Gaza coast, Israeli forces spotted an armed Hamas naval commando team trying to avoid detection by using a fishing boat to get close to the Israeli coast. The Israelis fired a missile to destroy the Hamas boats and later discovered that there were a dozen armed men on it.

February 19, 2021: Diplomats from Russia, Turkey and Iran met and agreed to back Syrian claims that continued Israeli air strikes violate the 1974 UN brokered ceasefire that halted the Israeli advance on Damascus after defeating the Syrian surprise attack to retake the Golan Heights during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In 1973 the Arabs believed their simultaneous attacks against Israeli forces in the north and south would push the Israelis out of the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan heights and possibly other Israeli territory as well. After some initial success the Israeli defenses held and counterattacks forced the Egyptians and Syrians to retreat in an effort to defend their capitals. The ceasefire agreements that halted the fighting on both fronts included Egyptian and Syrian pledges to not back covert terror attacks on Israel. As far as Israel is concerned the Iranian military buildup in Syria is a violation of the 1974 agreement and justifies the continued airstrikes against the Iranians. Syria protests that the airstrikes endanger commercial air traffic and Syrian civilians living near Iranian military facilities. Russia and Turkey are unlikely to do anything to block Israeli airstrikes because Israel, Turkey and Russia all want Iran to get out of Syria but only Israel can admit it openly.

February 18, 2021: Russia quietly brokered a prisoner exchange between Syria and Israel. The exchange did not involve terrorists, spies or soldiers but rather civilians who had crossed the border by accident or derangement. Israel got back a young woman who crossed over in early February for unspecified reasons. Israel released two shepherds who accidently crossed in to Israel.

February 17, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) another Israeli airstrike hit an Iran base occupied by Syrian troops and Iranian mercenaries. There were at least 57 fatalities, including 17 Syrian army troops, sixteen Iraqi militiamen, and eleven Afghan mercenaries.

February 15, 2021: Egypt reported that they disrupted a major smuggling operation based in Gaza that had been using four smuggling tunnels and a network of criminal gangs in Egypt to handle details on the Egyptian side of the border. Shutting down the four tunnels halted the exit of over 3,500 people from Gaza as well as the movement of weapons and consumer goods into Sinai. Hamas taxes these smuggling operations and that has been a major source of income for the Islamic terrorist group.

February 13, 2021: Turkish diplomats are once again discussing reviving relations with Israel. Talk of Turkish-Israeli rapprochement has cropped up four or five times in the last three years but it didn’t happen. In May 2018 Israel and Turkey expelled each other’s ambassador. The Turks objected to an Israeli operation that killed several dozen Palestinians in Gaza. Turkey also objected to the U.S. decision to move its embassy to Jerusalem. In Turkey president Erdogan portrayed himself as a protector of Palestinians. At one time Turkey and Israel were functionally allies, particular in defense technology and sharing intelligence. Don’t expect a rapid thaw. But Turkish media note that Israel’s El Al airline now flies a route to Istanbul. The Tel Aviv-Istanbul route was suspended for ten years. Turkish and Israeli media both credit the Abraham Accords (Israeli-Arab rapprochement) with nudging Turkey.

February 12, 2021: In the south (Egyptian border) an Israeli soldier was wounded by gunfire coming from inside Egypt. Along most of the border the major security problem is armed smugglers and in this case the source of the gunfire was a battle between Egyptian border police and smugglers trying to cross into Israel. So far this year Israeli-Egyptian cooperation on their border has detected and disrupted twenty smuggling attempts. In 2020 there were sixty interceptions. Israeli troops often intercept smugglers but the smugglers rarely shoot back. Sometimes smugglers or Islamic terrorists will deliberately fire from inside Egypt. When the smugglers try to get into Israel with their contraband, they realize that discovery means they must hustle back to Egypt and hope for the best. The Israeli troops are connected to a battlefield Internet type system that instantly alerts headquarters and other Israeli troops nearby when there is an incident like this and the smugglers remaining inside Israel cannot hope evade the Israeli reaction. Egyptian police are also alerted and respond in an effort to catch up with the smugglers before they are able to escape. Once back inside Egypt the smugglers, usually Israeli or Egyptian Bedouins, will often fire on Egyptian forces in an effort to escape. Indie Israel that is more difficult because the Israelis continually patrol the border with UAVs and will sometimes send those UAVs into Egypt when the Egyptians request such assistance. Egyptian cooperation with Israel has been going far longer than cooperation with the Sinai tribes. The animosity between the tribes and the Egyptian government is ancient, as in thousands of years old. The current arrangement was the result of the tribes persuading the Egyptians that cooperation against ISIL was possible if the Egyptians made their police and soldiers halt their abusive attitude towards the tribal population. The agreement has worked so far, but there are doubts that it will survive once ISIL is eliminated.

During a conference in Athens, Greece, Turkey accused Greece of slandering Turkey. This got a mixed reaction from other attendees that included representatives from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, France, Bahrain and Cyprus. The meeting, named the Philia (Friendship) Forum, was called to address economic and security issues in the eastern Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf and Europe. There was a special focus on the Balkans. Turkey contends Greece is trying to create an alliance whose goal is denying Turkey its economic rights in the Mediterranean. Greece and Turkey have disputes over maritime boundaries and offshore resource rights. The deep issue is divided Cyprus where the Turkish Army and the United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus have been deployed since 1974.

February 11, 2021: In eastern Syria (Deir Ezzor province) another airstrike hit a convoy of trucks carrying Iranian weapons as it passed through the Iraqi Al Bukamal crossing into Syria. There were several large explosions, made possible by the munitions carried in the trucks. The attacking aircraft could not be identified but were believed to be Israeli and part of a campaign to cripple Iranian efforts to build up a large force in Syria that would be capable of launching thousands of guided and unguided rockets into Israel.

February 10, 2021: In Egypt (central Sinai) 19 ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) gunmen attacked local Tarabin tribesmen twice in the last 48 hours, killing seven, wounding two and kidnapping one. The tribesmen belonged to the UST (Union of Sinai Tribes) a pro-government force that cooperates with the security forces in finding and eliminating Islamic terrorists in Sinai. In the last year the army/UST alliance has reduced ISIL capabilities in northern Sinai, causing many members, or at least their families, to surrender to avoid starvation. Now it appears ISIL is moving the surviving personnel of its “Sinai Province” to new bases in central Sinai. It was two weeks before ISIL took credit for these attacks on the Tarabin, but the tribes already suspected who did it because unknown armed men had been detected. To make their new bases viable ISIL has to obtain some cooperation from the locals and the recent violence was ISIL’s way of saying; “cooperate or else”. This violent persuasion approach backfired in northern Sinai and ISIL appears to have no new techniques to try in central Sinai. These Islamic terrorists are desperate and not afraid to die although feuding with fellow Moslems does not help with recruiting and fund raising. The tribes consider ISIL a murderous menace and not worth doing any business with.

February 9, 2021: In Egypt the main crossing to Gaza at Rafah was reopened “indefinitely” or at least until the recent agreement, brokered by Egypt, between Fatah, which controls the West Bank and Hamas, which rules Palestinian Gaza, fails. The agreement has both sides putting aside their feud and once more holding elections to select one government for both West Bank and Gaza Palestinians. While Fatah is dominant in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, there are partisans of Fatah and Hamas in both areas and if the election result is contested by either party there will be more violence, some of it directed at Israelis. The success of this agreement is in doubt but reunification of the Palestinian government is seen as a positive move. The renewed access to Rafah is another source of income for Hamas, which “taxes” people and goods coming and going. The tax is higher on illegal operations. While Egyptian border guards check everyone going in or out, their main goal is to catch known criminals or Islamic terrorists. With enough cash and connections someone in Gaza can exit illegally and seek a better life elsewhere, preferably in in country not run by Moslems.

February 2, 2021: In the north ( Golan Heights) there was another Israeli airstrike against Iranian forces across the border in Quneitra province. Like so many recent Israeli airstrikes this was targeting Iranian rockets or missiles being moved to Lebanon or firing positions near the Israeli border.

February 1, 2021: Israeli media revealed that Israel, the U.S. and the UAE cooperated in disrupting Iranian plans to bomb their embassies in an unnamed East African country. The three nations have been threatened by Iran and cooperate in alerting each other when Iranian operations like this are detected. East African nations are also aware of this threat because in the past Islamic terrorists have carried out such attacks, and killed more locals than foreign embassy staff. The Iranian advance team included one member that had a European passport and dual citizenship. The team had a list of objectives which included confirming data about the three embassies, their security measures and local resources the bomb delivery team could use. The Iran threat is dangerous because there are systematic, not spontaneous with these attacks. Several of the advance team members were arrested and others are being sought.

January 31, 2021: In the West Bank a Palestinian attempting to attack Israelis with a knife was shot dead by a nearby soldier.

January 29, 2021: In northern India (Delhi) a crude bomb went off outside the Israeli embassy. A letter left nearby said the bomb was revenge for the death of Iranian terrorism chief Qassem Soleimani, killed by an American Hellfire missile as he and associates departed Baghdad airport in January 2020. The letter claimed that this attack was just the beginning. Throughout 2020 Iran has openly sought to strike back at the United States or Israel but has been unsuccessful. Israeli embassy security had been increased over the last few weeks but the Israelis would not make public what they believed the threat was. This Delhi bombing was obviously inspired by the death of Soleimani and Iranian calls for revenge, but it is unlikely Iran was directly responsible. Iran and India are trading partners and generally on good terms. Iran sees India as a friendly neighbor while Pakistan is distrusted by India and Iran. Indian police are seeking two men security camera video shows in the area about the time the bomb was left outside the embassy and detonated. India has an even closer relationships with Israel, which supplies more and more modern weapons India needs to modernize its forces.

 

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