There are growing indications that US airstrikes killed and injured dozens of Russian military contractors in northern Syria earlier this month. But in stark contrast to the death of a Russian pilot shot down by rebels in Syria In January, when the airman was hailed as a hero by the Defense Ministry, Moscow appears to wish this story would go away.
The Kremlin has downplayed reports of mass casualties, not named any of those who died and not said why they were there in the first place.
But families of the dead men are starting to ask questions. And details of just why the mercenaries were in the oil-rich region — and the target of their ill-fated operation — are starting to emerge.
On the night of February 7, a 500-strong force largely made up of the Russian contractors and a Christian militia loyal to the Syrian regime crossed the River Euphrates near Deir Ezzor, a Syrian city held by ISIS until the end of last year.
The Russians were working for a paramilitary company called Wagner, which has hundreds of contractors on the ground in Syria, helping both the Russian military and pro-regime forces.
The mission of that night’s operation remains unclear, but the forces were advancing towards a valuable oil and gas field, Coneco, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed militia that has been fighting ISIS in Syria.
When the pro-regime forces began shelling a base held by the SDF, the US responded with heavy airstrikes and artillery fire, which continued for about three hours.
US commanders tried to reach their Russian counterparts through what are known as deconfliction channels, to warn of their response. But by the time communications were established, the counterattack was underway.
Scenes of carnage
The results were devastating. The accounts of several of the Wagner contingent, as relayed to friends and family, speak of carnage as US commanders deployed AC-130 attack aircraft, helicopters and artillery in response to the attack.
Valery Shebayev, who visited some of the injured in a Moscow hospital, told CNN the group had been ordered to take what was described as a vacant oil field. But they had no air support. Shebayev, who belongs to a Cossack group from which Wagner draws some of its recruits, described what followed as “a massacre.”
Ruslan Leviev, an activist with the Conflict Intelligence Team in Moscow, a group that monitors Russian involvement in Syria, told CNN that while estimates of the number of varies, “we lean towards 20 to 30 of dead Russian citizens.”
The Russian government has declined to confirm the reports. On Thursday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova would only concede that five Russian citizens may have been killed.
Pressed by CNN about reports of a much higher casualty figure, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov tried to draw a line under the story on Friday. “We have no new information about this and we said everything we wanted to say on this matter,” he said.
Deadly encounter between US and Russia
This low-key response to contractors’ deaths is not unusual: Moscow prefers to portray its involvement in Syria as largely an air war with few boots on the ground.
But if the upper end of the casualty figures is confirmed, it would be the deadliest encounter between the US and Russia since the end of the Cold War. For its part, the US says it followed the deconfliction protocols. “The Russians professed that they were not aware when we called them about that force that had crossed [the Euphrates]. As it came closer they were notified when the firing began,” US Defense Secretary James Mattis said on February 11.
Among the families of the men who died, there is growing anger. Farkhanur Gavrilova, 67, from the central Russian village of Kedrovoye, lost her son, Ruslan. She only learned of his death from an acquaintance, with no official word from Wagner or the Russian authorities.
Gavrilova contrasted the fate of the Wagner men with state media coverage of Roman Filipov, the pilot shot down by rebels in Syria last month. “Are they not people too? They obviously went to fight, to help, even if it’s for the money it’s because of poverty, because there are no jobs,” Gavrilova told an online private network, Current Time.
Another of the dead was 51-year-old Vladimir Loginov. Like many contractors who have gone to Syria, he was a member of a Cossack group of ultra-nationalists who had also fought in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. The Baltic Cossack District said in a statement that Loginov was a Russian citizen who was killed in an “unequal battle.”
The pro-Assad Christian militia that was also involved in the attack appears to have suffered heavy losses. Earlier this week, there was a mass funeral for about 30 members of the militia — which often describes itself as the “ISIS hunters.”
Oil and money
The question remains why such a large force should have attempted such a dangerous — and disastrous — assault.
Leviev believes the attack on the SDF-held base was a terrible miscalculation, born out of a belief that the attention of the anti-regime forces, many of whom are Kurdish, would have been focused on an ongoing operation by Turkish forces against the Kurds around Afrin in northwest Syria.
“The pro-Assad forces thought the Kurds were distracted by what’s happening in Afrin, so [used] the opportunity and try to take control of the Coneco oil and gas factory. It looks like it was an independent initiative.”
But why would Wagner take such a risk to take control of the oil field?
Wagner is led by Dmitry Utkin, a former colonel in the Russian special forces who is under US sanctions for assisting pro-Russian separatists in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Utkin was once head of security for a Russian oligarch called Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has close ties to the Kremlin. Prigozhin was indicted by US Special Counsel Robert Mueller on Friday for funding the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-linked troll group accused of interfering in the 2016 US presidential election campaign by sowing discord online.
Prigozhin controls a network of Russian companies, including Concord Management and Consulting. Company records show that someone named Dmitry Utkin, the same name as the Wagner boss, is director general of Concord.
Prigozhin and Concord have denied being linked to Wagner. Concord said last year: “We do not have any information about this organization.”
Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who controls a network of companies including Concord.
CNN has seen a copy of a contract between Evro Polis, and the Syrian regime, under which Evro Polis gets 25% of oil revenues from fields that are recovered from rebel control.
“It seems that on some level all Prigozhin’s financial assets overlap and he uses the money from them to fund projects like the troll factory, Wagner, Evro Polis and others,” Ruslan Leviev, the activist, says.
Essentially, Wagner does the fighting; Evro Polis gets the oil and gas. Coneco, the oil field near Deir Ezzor, is one of the most valuable still in rebel hands.
Efforts to reach Wagner, which has no registered office in Russia, were unsuccessful.
Despite the Kremlin’s reticence, and the total silence in Russia’s official media, the deaths in Syria are showing signs of impacting the election campaign in Russia, in which President Vladimir Putin is bidding for another six years in office. The vote is on March 18.
On Monday, liberal presidential candidate Grigory Yavlinsky said: “If massive Russian casualties took place, then relevant officials… must announce this to the country and find out who is responsible.”
So far, there is no indication that Russian authorities have any enthusiasm to do either.
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MOSCOW (Sputnik) – The Russian Foreign Ministry has confirmed the death of five Russian nationals in the US-led coalition’s strike in Syria, but their citizenship has yet to be verified.
“According to preliminary data, as a result of the armed conflict, the reasons for which are now being clarified, five people, presumably Russian citizens, could have been killed. There are also injured people, but all this requires verification — in particular, first of all, their citizenship — whether they are all citizens of Russia or other countries. I would like to stress once again that we are not talking about Russian servicemen,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told a briefing.
According to Zakharova, reports of hundreds of Russian citizens killed in the airstrike are “disinformation” by anti-government forces.
“Claims about the deaths of dozens and hundreds of Russian citizens are classic misinformation. There are not 400, not 200, not 100 and not ten [of them killed as a result of the US-led coalition’s airstrike],” she emphasized.
“Among the first to spread this information within their channels were Syrian anti-government militants, who for some reason took a photo of the surface of Mars, put on it an image of destroyed military equipment, perhaps even Ukrainian, dated June 2014.”
The spokeswoman emphasized that there were many people of different nationalities in Syria’s conflict zones.
“There is a large number of citizens from all regions of the world, including Russia and CIS countries, in the conflict zones. The purposes for their stay in war zones are different, including participation in hostilities,” Zakharova said, noting that it was hard to trace all of them.
US-Led Coalition’s Airstrike on Pro-Damascus Forces
Last week, US Central Command announced that the coalition conducted what it described as “defensive airstrikes” against pro-government forces near the Euphrates River as a response to an alleged attack against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) headquarters. The airstrikes have reportedly resulted in the death of at least 100 pro-government troops.Damascus has slammed the attack as “a new act of aggression that constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity,” while the Russian Defense Ministry said that the attack showcased that the real goal behind Washington’s “illegal military presence in Syria” was control over the country’s economic assets rather than defeating Daesh.
Later, media reports emerged, alleging that a large number of Russian “mercenaries” had been killed in airstrikes. So far, the death of one Russian citizen Kiril Ananyev from an activist group “Another Russia” has been reported by the organization’s coordinator.
MOSCOW — Four Russian nationals, and perhaps dozens more, were killed in fighting between pro-government forces in eastern Syria and members of the United States-led coalition fighting the Islamic State, according to Russian and Syrian officials.
A Syrian military officer said that about 100 Syrian soldiers had been killed in the fighting on Feb. 7 and 8, but news about Russian casualties has dribbled out only slowly, through Russian news organizations and social media.
Much about the attack and the associated casualties has been obscured in the fog of war. For reasons that remain unclear, Syrian government troops and some Russian nationals appear to have attacked a coalition position, near Al Tabiyeh, Syria.
The attack occurred in the vicinity of Deir al-Zour, a strategic, oil-rich territory that is coveted by the Syrians. Most of the fatalities were attributed to an American airstrike on enemy columns that was called in by American-backed Kurdish soldiers who believed they were under attack.
At no point, an American military spokesman said, was there any chance of direct conflict between United States and Russian forces.
“Coalition officials were in regular communication with Russian counterparts before, during and after the thwarted, unprovoked attack,” according to Col. Ryan S. Dillon, a spokesman for the American military. “Russian officials assured coalition officials they would not engage coalition forces in the vicinity.”
The Kremlin — seeking to play down its involvement in the fighting in Syria and seemingly hoping to avoid escalating tensions with the United States — has sidestepped questions about the episode, even as it faces rare criticism at home over its failure to acknowledge the deaths of Russians in Syria.
“We only handle the data that concerns Russian forces servicemen,” Dmitri S. Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said at a news briefing on Tuesday. “We don’t have data about other Russians who could be in Syria.”
The Kremlin said much the same about the nature of the forces in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2014, however, claiming they were volunteers and men on vacation, only to admit later that they were regular soldiers.
President Vladimir V. Putin has said at least three times since 2016 that combat operations in Syria were winding down, including once during a surprise visit to a Russian air base in Syria last December. Yet there are hundreds if not thousands of contract soldiers in Syria whom the Russian government has never acknowledged.
They were deployed both to help keep the official cost down and to avoid reports of casualties, especially with a March presidential election in Russia fast approaching. Even though the Kremlin enacted a law during the Ukraine crisis in 2015 to make battlefield casualties a secret, the funerals for regular soldiers killed in combat need to be more official than those for mercenaries, and are thus difficult to hide.
And some individual Russians have begun speaking out. Aleksandr Ionov, a Russian businessman working in Syria offering security and other services, said he estimated after conversations with associates in several private military organizations that more than 200 Russians might have been killed.
Mr. Ionov said not all those killed were Russian: Some of the paid fighters came from other countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. “More than 200 is the current estimate, we cannot know the exact number yet, but most of them were Russian,” he said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Ionov said he was speaking out because he wanted any Russians who were killed to be officially recognized for their sacrifice.
“The truth has to be told,” he said. “If people died, then this should be recognized and respects should be paid to people who fought against terrorists.”
He called on the government to give a fuller version of events, adding, “People are outraged because they want to know the truth.”
Mr. Ionov was not the only one speaking out about Russian fatalities. Aleksandr Averin, a member of the Other Russia nationalist party, confirmed that Kirill Ananiev, a party member who left for Syria about a year ago, had been killed in the airstrike, noting that there were other “substantial losses.”
“I can confirm that Kirill died on Feb. 7 in Syria, near the Euphrates River, as a result of a strike by the American coalition,” Mr. Averin said in an interview, adding that he was aware of “substantial losses” suffered by “paramilitary structures with ties to Russia.” He refused to elaborate.
Another victim, Vladimir N. Loginov, 51, died “in an unequal fight on Feb. 7 in the area of Syria’s Deir al-Zour,” according to a statement published online by his paramilitary organization.
“He died, heroically defending our motherland in the far reaches against the invasion of maddened barbarians,” the group, the Baltic Cossack Union in Kaliningrad, said in the statement.
In another case, Lubava Kocheva, a woman from central Russia, said in a brief online chat that two of her male friends in Syria, Igor Kosoturov and Stanislav Matveev, also died on Feb. 7.
“We don’t know anything, whether they will bring them or not,” said Mrs. Kocheva, 41, referring to the men’s corpses. “This is very difficult and frightening.”
The names of most of the victims identified so far were first reported by the Conflict Intelligence Team, a group of Russian investigative bloggers. The exact circumstances of their deaths could not be established by The New York Times.
The Russian Defense Ministry, which supports the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, in the continuing civil war, said none of its servicemen had been involved in the clash and that only 25 pro-government Syrian insurgents were wounded. It took pains to distance itself from the battle.
“The reason for the incident was lack of coordination between the reconnaissance movements of the Syrian insurgents and the Russian operative command,” the ministry said in its statement on Thursday.
The number and exact nature of private Russian security firms operating in Syria is unclear, although there have been persistent reports in the Russian news media that some militiamen who fought on the side of the Russian-backed separatists in the war in eastern Ukraine later deployed to Syria.
The main Russian paramilitary contracting organization is the Wagner Group, known by the nickname of the retired Russian officer who leads it. The group has been operating in Syria in various capacities, including protecting some oil fields, according to multiple reports in the Russian news media. Its relationship with the Kremlin is murky and unconfirmed, but its leaders have reportedly received awards in the Kremlin and its mercenaries are trained at the Russian Defense Ministry’s facilities.
Grigory A. Yavlinsky, a veteran Russian opposition politician who is a candidate in next month’s presidential election, called on Tuesday for Mr. Putin to disclose the number of Russians who had died in Syria.
“I demand an explanation as to why Russian nationals take part in ground military operations in Syria, despite the statements by the president and defense minister that Russian military formations will be withdrawn from this country,” Mr. Yavlinsky said in a statement. “I also think there needs to be a public report about relations with the U.S., as there is a growing threat of an accidental or deliberate direct military clash between Russia and America.”
The official Kremlin stance is that its military deployment in Syria is now centered on two permanent bases, one for Russia’s air force and one for its navy, there by invitation from the Syrian government.
Russian political analysts said that the country’s reluctance to confirm that its citizens had died as a result of a United States-led airstrike was actually a sign that Moscow did not want to further worsen the already fractured bilateral relations with Washington.
“This is a very rare case, where the positions of Russia and the U.S. got closer,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, a think tank in Moscow. “No one wants to take steps that will do irreparable damage to the already broken Russia-U.S. relations.”
Correction: February 13, 2018
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article incorrectly described an account by a Syrian military officer. He said that about 100 Syrian — not Russian — soldiers died in fighting on Feb. 7 and 8.
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A plane waits on the runway at London City Airport.
(CNN) London City Airport will remain closed through Monday after a World War II bomb was discovered by construction workers in the nearby Thames River a day earlier.
After the discovery of the unexploded bomb near King George V Dock on Sunday, the airport canceled all flights and put an exclusion zone in place, airport Chief Executive Robert Sinclair said in a statement.
“I recognize this is causing inconvenience for our passengers,” Sinclair added, saying that the airport is “cooperating fully with the Met Police and Royal Navy and working hard to safely remove the device and resolve the situation as quickly as possible.”
The airport said it is “hoping to resume normal operation” on Tuesday, according to a tweet from the airport’s official account, and urged all passengers due to fly to contact their airlines for further information.
Metropolitan Police and the Royal Navy were deployed to the scene to examine the bomb and have confirmed it as a “500 kg (1102 pounds) tapered end shell measuring approximately 1.5 meters (4.9 feet),” according to a police statement issued Monday. “The timing of removal is dependent on the tides, however, at this stage we estimate that the removal of the device from location will be completed by tomorrow morning.”
The Royal Navy implemented the 214-meter exclusion zone to “ensure that the ordnance can be safely dealt with whilst limiting any risk to the public,” the police statement said.
In an effort to minimize the disruption, officers are going to homes within the exclusion zone to make residents aware of any safety arrangement put in place, the statement added.
London City is an international airport located in the borough of Newham in East London. The area was heavily industrial and highly populated during WWII. The Royal Docks, where the runway is now located, were a main entry point on the Thames for goods and commerce.
The airport, which is much smaller than London Heathrow Airport, caters to business travelers heading to destinations in the UK, Europe and the United States.
CNN’s Hilary McGann contributed to this report.
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Israeli soldiers survey the border with Syria from a military post in the Golan Heights, following a series of aerial clashes with Syrian and Iranian forces in Syria, on February 10, 2018. (Flash90)
On Thursday, the International Crisis Group think tank and advocacy firm warned in a new comprehensive report that Israel and Iran (plus its proxies) were barreling toward open conflict in Syria.
Those prescient warnings came true — in part, at least — throughout Saturday morning, beginning shortly before 4:30 a.m., with the violation of Israeli airspace by a drone that the Israeli military says was piloted by an Iranian operator from an airfield that Tehran had taken control of months before, with Syrian permission.
Israeli jets conducted reprisal raids in Syria, during which one of the F-16 fighter planes was apparently hit by shrapnel from an exploding anti-aircraft missile and crashed in northern Israel, in what appears to be the first downing of an Israeli plane since 1982.
The aircraft’s pilots bailed out; one of them was seriously injured.
A picture taken in the northern Israeli Jezreel Valley on February 10, 2018, shows the remains of an Israel F-16 that crashed after coming under fire by Syrian air defenses during attacks against ‘Iranian targets’ in the war-torn country. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)
Air force jets then completed a second set of retaliatory strikes. In the two rounds, the Israeli military said, its aircraft targeted several Syrian air defense systems as well as four Iranian positions in the country.
This was the first time Israel publicly acknowledged conducting airstrikes against Iranian-held locations in Syria, though not the first time it had done so, according to foreign reports.
In the aftermath of the Saturday morning clash, Israeli, Syrian and Iranian politicians released tough, threatening statements aimed at one another. The United States backed Israel’s right to self-defense. Russia called for calm on all sides, but singled out Israel for violating Syrian sovereignty with its strikes, while conspicuously ignoring the Iranian drone’s airspace violation.
The aerial exchange thrust what had previously been a long-simmering but largely quiet conflict into the international spotlight and raised concerns that this bout will be the first of many clashes — and, in the nightmare scenario, the start of a full-fledged war across Syria, Lebanon and northern Israel.
I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll see such an event, but for the time being both sides will restrain their responses
However, the prevailing belief among Israeli defense analysts is that Saturday’s events were not the prelude to open war, but the beginning of an extended period of increased tension, which is liable to see additional clashes.
“I don’t think it’s the last time we’ll see such an event, but for the time being both sides will restrain their responses,” Sima Shine, a career defense official and current senior researcher at Tel Aviv’s Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told reporters on Sunday.
IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot (L) attends a briefing with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman (R) in response to the escalation of tensions along the northern border on February 10, 2018. (Ariel Harmoni/Defense Ministry)
She added, during the phone briefing organized by the Media Central group, that escalation is in neither side’s best interest.
Amos Yadlin, a former fighter pilot and Military Intelligence chief, described Saturday as the “most significant day of fighting” in what Israel describes as its “campaign between wars,” often referred to in Hebrew by its acronym, Mabam.
“Despite the containment of the incident, the campaign is expected to continue,” Yadlin said.
In its report, released two days before Saturday’s flareup, the Crisis Group laid out how this campaign between Israel and the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis has developed and how it can be prevented from escalating further.
The organization tracks the current tensions to the Syrian regime’s battlefield victories over the past two and a half years, which it has achieved in large part due to support from the Russian military, which has provided significant air power since September 2015.
These have opened the Iran-led axis to shift toward preparing for a future conflict with Israel.
Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation
According to the think tank, Russia is also the only entity able to prevent such a bloody war, having emerged from the Syrian civil war as the region’s sole remaining superpower after the United States dramatically scaled back its involvement in the conflict.
“Only Moscow is in a position to mediate a bolstering of the deescalation agreement. Unless it does, the rules of the Syrian game are likely to be worked out through attack and response, with risk of escalation,” according to the report.
In this photo released by an official website of the office of the Iranian Presidency, Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, right, shakes hands with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2017. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)
The group outlines three main issues that need to be addressed: the presence of Iranian and Shiite forces near the Israeli Golan Heights; the construction of Iranian military infrastructure in Syria; and ensuring any clashes that do take place remain confined to Syria.
The Crisis Group has also been working directly with Russia to try to persuade it to accept the role of mediator between Israel, Hezbollah, Iran and Syria.
“And we are seeing some traction with Russian officials,” Ofer Zalzberg, a senior Jerusalem-based analyst for the group and one of the report’s authors, told The Times of Israel last Wednesday ahead of the document’s publication.
The recipe for disaster
As Syrian dictator Bashar Assad vanquishes the remaining pockets of resistance in the country, the Israeli concern is that his allies — Iran, Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shiite militias — will be freed to focus on establishing positions along the Israeli border from which to antagonize the Jewish state, as well as permanent naval and air bases to bring in more advanced weaponry and conduct attacks.
Israel has designated these issues to be “red lines,” which it will not allow to be violated, and has said it will take military action if they are.
In its report, the Crisis Group warned that if the Iranian axis presses on with these efforts and Israel retaliates in kind, there is significant potential for escalation or even a large-scale war that could destabilize the entire region.
Israeli security forces inspect damage to a house after a Katyusha rocket attack by Hezbollah from southern Lebanon in the northern Israeli town of Nahariya, July 15, 2006. (Pierre Terdjman / Flash90)
The military assessments of what a war between Israel and Hezbollah would look like are chilling: Hezbollah launching over 1,000 rockets and missiles at Israeli cities and strategic sites each day, along with attempted infiltrations of Israeli communities along the Lebanese border. Israel conducting wave after wave of airstrikes against Hezbollah infrastructure, which the terrorist group has embedded deep inside civilian areas, ensuring significant noncombatant deaths, as well as large-scale IDF ground force maneuvers in southern Lebanon.
Zalzberg said a major part of the problem is that there are no established “rules of the game” between Israel and Iranian proxies in Syria, as there are in Lebanon, where Israel has been fighting Hezbollah off-and-on for decades.
That means the “rules” will be sorted out through back-and-forth, tit-for-tat clashes like Saturday’s. But this is a perilous path, fraught with opportunities for miscalculation and resulting in unintended casualties on both sides.
For instance, Israeli officials often refer to the “proverbial kindergarten” — the type of target that if hit, even accidentally, would prompt Israeli citizens to demand harsh and swift reprisals. As Iran and Hezbollah lack civilian targets in Syria, their equivalent might be a case of significant casualties from an Israeli airstrike, which would forced them to retaliate.
This is a current concern, following Saturday’s exchange, as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a watchdog group, reported that at least six pro-regime fighters — including both Syrians and foreign nationals — were killed in Israel’s strikes and that “the death toll is expected to rise because there are some people in critical situation.”
Zalzberg added the potential for escalation in Syria is driven higher by the fact that different sides do not have a clear grasp of one another’s goals and viewpoints, citing a year’s worth of interviews by the Crisis Group with officials in Jerusalem, Tehran, Beirut, Amman, Moscow and Washington.
The report and its authors argue that it is ultimately in Russia’s best interest to avoid an all-out war between Israel and the Lebanon-based, Iran-backed Hezbollah, which would have the potential to completely destabilize the region.
Unlike in the 2006 Second Lebanon War between Israel and Hezbollah when the fighting was primarily limited to northern Israel and southern Lebanon, the view of both Israeli and Hezbollah officials is that the next conflict between the two groups would also include fighting in Syria.
Israeli artillery howitzers fire on Hezbollah targets at the Israeli-Lebanese border on July 18, 2006. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
“A massive campaign by Israel will do enormous damage to [Damascus and its backers’] achievements, perhaps even destabilizing the regime itself,” the report noted.
According to Zalzberg, this is not a desirable situation for Russia, as Moscow would like to see Assad regain near-total control over Syria.
The analyst noted that this is at odds with Iran, which wants to see Assad in power, but does not necessarily want to see him becoming too powerful, preferring instead to have Syria controlled by a coalition, similar to Lebanon, so that its Shiite militias could play a more significant role in the country.
Russia and only Russia
Moscow’s active support for Assad and his other main supporters, Iran and Hezbollah, has left Israeli officials decidedly wary of their Russian counterparts.
The Crisis Group report quotes an unnamed Israeli Foreign Ministry official as saying of the Russians, “It’s hard to trust them. They tell us they are not selling weapons to Hezbollah, but we know for a fact that they do. Their policies are cynical. They are not an enticing mediator.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, shakes hands with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during an event marking International Holocaust Victims Remembrance Day at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Center in Moscow, January 29, 2018. (Vasily MAXIMOV/AFP)
Yet there is an understanding among some in Israel that, while not enticing, Russia is the only mediator that has significant leverage over Iran and Hezbollah.
Israel has already had to maintain a close, if uneasy, relationship with Moscow due to its involvement in the region.
After Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jets that had invaded its airspace, Moscow installed an S-400 missile defense system in Syria. With the system, one of the world’s most advanced anti-aircraft batteries, Russia can monitor the overwhelming majority of Israel’s active airspace, including Israeli military flights.
Or, as one Israeli official told the Crisis Group, “A fly can’t buzz above Syria without Russian consent nowadays.”
This came as a shocking blow to the Israeli Air Force, which had, until then, enjoyed aerial superiority in the region, and required Jerusalem and Moscow to set up a hotline to prevent any potential conflicts between the two militaries.
Israel has also worked diplomatically with Russia to secure a buffer zone around the southwestern Syrian border, in which Hezbollah and other Iran-backed Shiite militias would not be allowed to maintain a presence.
In this photo released on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017 by the Syrian official news agency SANA, Syrian government forces stand next to a bus which is waiting to evacuate Syrian rebels and their families from Beit Jinn village, in the southern province of Daraa, Syria. (SANA via AP)
The border area has naturally been of significant concern for Israel, which is loath to see Hezbollah set up military positions along the Golan Heights to join the significant infrastructure it has already put in place in southern Lebanon.
Last month, the Syrian military, with some assistance from Shiite militias, regained control over the area of Beit Jinn, or Beit Jann, which is located just 13 kilometers (8 miles) from Israel’s Mount Hermon ski resort.
Though it is currently focused on retaking the area of Idlib in northwestern Syria, this coalition is likely to soon focus its attention on the Quneitra and Daraa regions, near the Israeli border.
Though Israel secured its buffer zone for that area this summer, the Crisis Group report notes that it would be relatively easy for these groups to get around the restriction, “for instance by integrating the fighters into the Syrian army or simply having them don its uniforms.”
The advocacy group argues that before the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis moves toward the southwest, Russia should work to negotiate an agreement between it and Israel.
There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives
The Crisis Group notes that Israel’s insistence that Iranian and Iran-backed troops stay out of southern Syria will be the most difficult to negotiate, as Hezbollah and the Shiite militias would not be inclined to accept it and could easily cheat by disguising themselves as Syrians.
However, the authors say this could be resolved by getting Russia to agree to prevent Iran from setting up the types of infrastructure most concerning to Israel, like a seaport through which the Islamic Republic could carry out attacks against Israeli natural gas fields, an airport to transport weapons to Hezbollah, or a factory for the production of precise missiles.
“There is still time for Russia to try to broker a set of understandings to prevent a confrontation, protecting both its investment in the regime and Syrian, Israeli and Lebanese lives,” the Crisis Group wrote.
As most folks know, the Winter Olympics are being staged in South Korea right now. South Korea’s President, Mr. Moon appears to be being ‘played’ for a fool by the Kim family of North Korea during these games. There is a small athletic delegation from the North that are participating as we speak. Among the non-athletes of the North’s delegation is the sister of Kim Jung Un, the mass murdering vicious Dictator self-proclaimed ‘Living God’. The out of touch with reality President of South Korea has welcomed the visitors from the North with open arms. Personally I do not have a problem with allowing the athletics from the North to participate, but it should be under their own flag. Mr. Moon decided that instead of South Korean athletics and the Country of South Korea using the South Korean Flag they are using a ‘unification’ flag and allowing the North Koreans to participate as part of a ‘one Korea’ team. Thus many athletics from the South who have spent many years working their selves half to death to make their Country’s Olympic Team got ‘bumped’ off the team so the unqualified North members could take their place. I say unqualified because to become a member of a country’s team you must have gone through many different qualifying events and either winning them or placing very, very high in those contest. The North’s athletics did none of these things, they were just handed the spots by the insistence of the South Korean President. Now if in team events ‘South Korea’ is able to win a metal, North Koreans also get that metal to take back home for Kim Jung Un to brag about.
Enough of the Olympic’s part of this article, now down to the meat of what I am writing to you about tonight. Kim Jung Un’s sister at the direction of her brother has offered President Moon an invitation to visit him in North Korea. The North Korean delegation has been putting on what has been widely referred to as a ‘charm’ campaign this past two months. Mr. Kim of North Korea has widely made it known that he wants the two Korea’s to be ‘unified’, yet the unification is to be under his command with himself as the one and only Leader of the Korean Peninsula. Folks, this is something that the extreme majority of the citizens of South Korea do not want to ever see happen.
What is going on is very obvious. The UN has put a lot of sanctions on the Kim government because of their missile program and the firing of ICBM’s as well as their Nuclear Program that Mr. Kim says he will never ever give up. A ‘show’ of Mr. Kim’s intentions was obvious when the North Koreans asked the South Korean government to give them the fuel that would be needed for the ship the North Korean delegation was going to use to make the very, very short trip to the South. Kim is playing the poor, poor pitiful me song and dance trying to get pity from the South Koreans and from the UN. For years the people of North Korea have been starving to death as the very fat Kim Jung Un who just keeps getting fatter and fatter himself. If Kim Jung Un can get the very liberal President Moon to start sending food and oil to the North, that would be a huge win for Mr. Kim. If Mr. Kim can convince the very liberal and gullible President Moon to break the UN sanctions all together, then Russia and China would do the same. What if Mr. Kim can play sweet toward Mr. Moon and could convince him to throw the American military forces out of South Korea and to quit doing military exercises with the U.S. and to quit allowing U.S. ships to use South Korean Ports. It is obvious that the next thing would be the North Korean Army storming the South Korean’s thus unifying the Peninsula under Mr. Kim’s control. Of course this is if Mr. Kim cannot convince President Moon to do this voluntarily. Let’s all give this ongoing situation about 100 days, lets say until June 1st to see how this all shakes out. Another option of course would be if Mr. Kim gets President Moon up North and lets him know if the two Countries do not unite as one that he (Mr. Kim) will nuke the South ‘off the map’. Lets see what the History Books will be saying about this next 100 days. As a very dear old friend of mine used to say, “we shall see, what we shall see”.
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In a further response, the IDF “targeted Iranian targets in Syria”, according to the military. The mission deep inside Syrian territory was successfully completed, it said.
After coming under Syrian anti-aircraft fire, the F-16’s two crew members ejected and were later taken to hospital. One of them was “severely injured as a result of an emergency evacuation”, the IDF said.
All five crew on board – including a female flight mechanic – were killed in that incident.
Alert sirens sounded in areas of northern Israel and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights because of Syrian anti-aircraft fire.
Residents reported hearing a number of explosions and heavy aerial activity in the area near Israel’s borders with Jordan and Syria.
Syrian state media quoted a military source as saying that the country’s air defences had opened fire in response to Israeli “aggression” against a military base on Saturday, hitting “more than one plane”.
What did Israel do next?
Israel launched its second wave of strikes in Syria. Eight of the Syrian targets belonged to the fourth Syrian division near Damascus, IDF spokesman Jonathan Conricus said.
All the Israeli aircraft from this sortie returned safely.
“Syrians are playing with fire when they allow Iranians to attack Israel,” the spokesman warned.
He added that Israel was willing to exact a heavy price in response but was “are not looking to escalate the situation”.
Meanwhile Iran and the Tehran-backed Hezbollah movement in Lebanon – which are allied with the Syrian government – dismissed reports that an Iranian drone had entered Israeli airspace as a “lie”.
Russia expressed “serious concern” over the Israeli air strikes and called for all sides to show restraint.
What is the Iranian presence in Syria?
Iran is Israel’s arch-enemy, and Iranian troops have been fighting rebel groups since 2011.
Tehran has sent military advisers, volunteer militias and, reportedly, hundreds of fighters from its Quds Force, the overseas arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
It is also believed to have supplied thousands of tonnes of weaponry and munitions to help President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and the pro-Iranian Hezbollah, which is fighting on Syria’s side.
Tehran has faced accusations that it is seeking to establish not just an arc of influence but a logistical land supply line from Iran through to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A powerful new element
Analysis by BBC’s diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus
For years Israel has been striking at weapons stores and other facilities in Syria with a single goal – to disrupt and, as far as possible, to prevent advanced Iranian missiles being delivered to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Syria has often been the conduit for these shipments, but the changing balance of power there, with the Assad regime’s survival bolstered by Iranian help, has introduced a powerful new element – a direct Iranian role in the crisis.
A picture taken from the Rafah border of the southern Gaza Strip with Egypt shows smoke billowing in Egypt’s North Sinai on July 8, 2017. (AFP/Said Khatib)
Israeli drones, fighter jets, and helicopter gunships have carried out more than 100 airstrikes against Islamist terrorists in the Sinai, in a bid to help Egypt deal with the jihadist insurgency in the peninsula, the New York Times reported Saturday.
Israel was forced to take action, with the blessing of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, as Egypt struggled to deal with the violent uprising that has killed hundreds of Egyptian security forces and civilians, the report said.
While security coordination between Jerusalem and Cairo is known to be close, the ties are still unpopular in Egypt, despite nearly three decades of peace. In order to keep the cooperation quiet, the Israeli aircraft are often unmarked and sometimes use indirect routes in a bid to cover up the origin of the strikes, the report said.
The report said Sissi had kept the Israeli strikes secret, only letting a small group of military and intelligence officials in on the cooperation, and has kept northern Sinai a closed military area, barring reporters from the region.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in New York on September 19, 2017 (Avi Ohayun)
Israeli and Egyptian officials refused to confirm or comment on the report, which the paper said was based on interviews with seven current or former British and American officials involved in Middle East policy, all speaking on condition of anonymity.
The report quoted American officials as saying that Israel’s air campaign has played a decisive role in enabling the Egyptian armed forces to gain an upper hand against the jihadists.
According to the US sources, Israel began its airstrikes following the capture of a north Sinai town by the Islamists and the downing of a Russian charter jet over Sinai in October 2014 that killed 224 people. They said Israel has had a string of successes in killing the terrorist leaders.
In the wake of the Israeli strikes, the Islamists slowed their advance and switched their attention to softer targets like attacking mosques and churches, the report said.
However, Israel has complained to the US that Egypt is not upholding its end of the agreement, and that Cairo was supposed to follow up on the airstrikes by sending ground forces into the region.
Russian Federation Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, left, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, February 1, 2018. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
A delegation of senior Russian security officials visiting Israel this weekreportedly sought to dissuade Jerusalem from striking Iranian and Hezbollah weapons facilities in Syria and Lebanon.
According to the London-based Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, quoted by Israel’s Channel 10 news, the purpose of Wednesday’s visit, headed by Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev, was Moscow’s desire to discourage Israeli intervention across the border, Channel 10 news reported.
The Russian delegation, which also included deputy ministers, army generals and intelligence officers, held talks with Israel’s National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat as well as heads of Israel’s National Security Council and top military, defense and intelligence officials.
Patrushev himself met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israel has been negotiating with the United States and Russia, the main brokers in Syria, to keep Iran-backed Shiite militias and the Hezbollah terrorist group away from the border.
Netanyahu, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and others have all said that Israel’s policy is to target shipments of advanced weaponry, including accurate long-range missiles, that are heading to or in the possession of Hezbollah. Foreign media reports have attributed dozens of airstrikes on Iranian-linked targets in Syria to Israel.
Last week’s visit by the Russian officials came on the heels of Netanyahu’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss Iranian military entrenchment in the region.
A satellite image showing the results of an alleged Israeli airstrike on a reported Iranian base being set up outside Damascus, from December 4, 2017. (ImageSat International ISI)
Netanyahu said his meeting with Putin focused on Iran, with the prime minister saying if Tehran continues to try and deepen its influence in Syria, Israel would work to “stop it.”
“The question is: Does Iran entrench itself in Syria, or will this process be stopped. If it doesn’t stop by itself, we will stop it,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters during a telephone briefing.
“We also spoke about Lebanon, which is becoming a factory for precision-guided missiles that threaten Israel. These missiles pose a grave threat to Israel, and we will not accept this threat,” he added.
Netanyahu said that the weapons factories are currently “in the process of being built” by Iran. Israel is determined to do whatever is necessary to prevent those two developments, Netanyahu said.
Danny Danon told the Security Council that Iran controls 82,000 fighters in Syria, including 9,000 members of Hezbollah, 10,000 Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, and another 60,000 Syrians.
Danon urged member states not to “allow Iran to continue funding worldwide terror, pursue its dangerous internal arms buildup, and grow its military presence abroad.”
The news today out of Kabul Afghanistan is both sad and sickening. The Islamic murder group who calls themselves the Taliban had one of their members drive an ambulance into a highly populated facility that was loaded with explosives and blew himself up. The saddest part is that this child of Satan has killed at least 95 innocent people along with himself. Just in this past week in Afghanistan there was an attack on a hotel that left 22 people dead, this attack was claimed by another Islamic murder group that call themselves ISIS. There was even an attack on an NGO group called Save The Children, I am not sure of the death toll in that attack nor which Demonic group took ‘credit’ for it.
According to the CIA Fact Book the U.S. government has spent over 2 Trillion American tax payer dollars in Afghanistan since 2001, my question is, for what? Have the American soldiers along with other Allied soldiers killed thousands of Taliban fighters plus some from other groups fighters, yes. Have many hundreds of ‘Western’ soldiers been killed and wounded, yes. Have at least a few thousand innocent civilians been killed in Afghanistan since 2001, yes. Yet for many years, including right up till now, the government of Afghanistan and the U.S. Government has been trying to have talks with the Taliban to create a ‘shared government’. A government where leaders of the Taliban will join with the civilian Government to mesh into one and form as one. The U.S. Government has been trying to broker this deal for at least ten years now, folks, the whole concept is insane. These attempts are no more than an attempt at ‘saving face’ for the U.S. Government via giving them a ‘way out’ of this quagmire. The Taliban, if they really had an interest in ‘sharing’ governance of Afghanistan they could have done this years ago. The current Leaders of the Civilian government know very well that if the Taliban is welcomed in they will quickly turn on the civilians and murder them all. Another question I have to bring up is about that 2 trillion dollars, where did it all go? Two trillion dollars could have totally and completely rebuilt the entire infrastructure of the U.S., so, where has all of that money gone? To me it seems that the majority has gone toward military actions, planes, tanks, bombs, soldiers and the such. I have heard reports several times that about 90% of the civilians in Afghanistan don’t even have one change of clothes, why folks? If we wanted to win the hearts of the civilians of the country we should have invested a whole lot of that money in their infrastructure, making sure they all had electricity, clean water, sanitation, a reliable food chain and jobs.
Whether the location is Afghanistan, Sudan, Nigeria, Libya or the Gaza Strip it is my belief that there is only one way that the world will ever be rid of ‘Islamic Terrorism’ and that is if the believers of Islam shut it down themselves. I know it has been the case for about 1,400 years that the Islamic faith has had a lot of infighting between their two main factions, the Sunni’s and the Shiite’s and that during this 1,400 years there have probably been as many or more Muslim and Persian people killed as there have been of Westerners killed. One would think that at some point this madness would stop but there appears to be no end of the innocent bloodshed being stopped. It is my belief that there is only one way that there can ever be an end to this madness and that is if the believers of Islam themselves decide that they have had enough. The ‘innocent’ family members, if they are indeed innocent must turn in their own family members and their own Iman if they are preaching hate and violence. Groups like President Abbas of the PLO and the leaders of Hamas must stop giving prize money to the families of ‘Martyr’s’ who kill other people. This theology is morally sick, the people of Islam themselves must shut it down because the Western World can not do it on their own. Until the rest of the world sees that the extreme mass majority of the Islamic believers are doing exactly this, how can the rest of the world believe that the extreme mass majority of Islamic believers are not complicit in this evil?
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