As Daesh terror attacks continue, what explains the group’s resilience in Syria?

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Despite their territorial the militants continue to threaten communities across Syria. (AP)
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Relatives of a fighter of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who were killed in an attack claimed by the Daesh group in Manbij carry his coffin during a funeral on March 27, 2019. (AFP/File photo)
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Daesh’s territorial defeat in Syria was announced on March 23, 2019, after the Syrian Democratic Forces captured the extremist group’s last holdout in Baghouz, ending its reign of terror across the region, right. (AFP file)
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Kurdish female fighters of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gather during a celebration at the iconic Al-Naim square in Raqa on October 19, 2017, after retaking the city from Daesh fighters. (AFP)
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An image made available by Jihadist media outlet Welayat Raqa on June 30, 2014, shows Daesh fighters parading with a long-range missile on a street in the northern rebel-held Syrian city of Raqa. (AFP PHOTO / Welayat Raqa handout)
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Updated 24 August 2023

As Daesh terror attacks continue, what explains the group’s resilience in Syria?

  • Daesh has carried out thousands of attacks on military and civilian targets since its territorial defeat in 2019
  • Experts say the terror group has exploited geography and the wider conflict to maintain a continued presence

QAMISHLI, Syria: During the second week of August, the terror group Daesh carried out multiple attacks on Syrian regime soldiers in the governorates of Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, leaving dozens dead and more injured.

With attacks in Syria’s central and eastern regions only continuing to grow in frequency and severity, some may wonder whether the group was truly eliminated when its defeat was announced in 2019.

Saturday, March 23, 2019, was a joyous occasion for the men and women of the Syrian Democratic Forces, the multi-ethnic, US-backed force which led the ground war against Daesh in Syria, as well as the people living in the autonomous regions of northern and eastern Syria.

From Manbij to Kobani, from Raqqa to Hasakah and Qamishli, the streets of cities in Syria’s northeast were packed with people from all walks of life celebrating Daesh’s final defeat at the Battle of Baghouz.

File photo shows Daesh militants parading in the Syrian city of Raqa on June 30, 2014, at the height of their reign of terror in parts of Syria and Iraq. (Welayat Raqa handout photo via AFP)

Little did they know that despite the group’s loss of territory, it would go on to maintain bases both inside and outside of the country, which it still uses to carry out operations in Syria.

“(Daesh) uses different frameworks for the continuation of its extremist ideology,” Sardar Mullah Darwish, a Syrian Kurdish journalist and director of Aso News Network, told Arab News.

The group “relies on cells spread in different areas in the governorates of Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and southern Hasakah, and particularly in the Badia, where they are in areas that are not fully controlled by the coalition, the SDF, or even the armed forces of the regime and other military forces,” he said.

Darwish added that Daesh sustains itself via financial extortion, threatening wealthy residents and those working with international or local NGOs. He added that the use of motorcycles and the black veil known as the niqab are both ways in which the group attempts to camouflage itself among civilians.

A child stands by a bullet riddled wall in the northern Syrian city of Raqa, the former Syrian capital of the Daesh group, on August 21, 2019. (AFP file)

Daesh carries out attacks on both regime-held areas and regions held by the SDF. According to Darwish, these attacks are attempts “to show continued presence and strength.”

The divided nature of Syria complicates the response.

“What remains of the terrorist group’s remnants in our regions is limited to sleeper cells, and they are dealt with firsthand by our security and military forces in coordination and cooperation with the Global Coalition,” Abu Omar Al-Idlibi, commander of the SDF-aligned Northern Democratic Brigade, told Arab News.

“As for the rest of Syria’s geography, Daesh is still strong because it represents one of the reasons for the survival of the Syrian regime as well as a justification for the presence of its supporters, Russia and Iran.”

Al-Idlibi believes the presence of Daesh is used as a justification for Iran’s increasing military presence in Syria. Iranian-backed pro-regime militias, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Basij Forces, Harakat Hezbollah Al-Nujaba, Kataib Hezbollah (also known as Iraqi Hezbollah), the Badr Organization, the Abu Al-Fadl Al-Abbas militia, the National Defense Forces, Liwa Al-Quds, Liwa Fatemiyoun and Liwa Zeynebiyoun, are all deployed across areas where Daesh remains strongest.

Abu Omar Al-Idlibi, commander of the SDF-aligned Northern Democratic Brigade. (AN Photo by Ali Ali)

Since its territorial defeat in Syria, Daesh has carried out more than 1,400 attacks on military and civilian targets across the country, resulting in the deaths of more than 3,000 people.

These statistics, sourced from publicly available datasets compiled by the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project, also show that more than 320 of these attacks were carried out even after the 2022 death of Daesh leader Abu Ibrahim Al-Hashimi Al-Qurayshi, the successor to Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.

According to the Monitoring and Documentation Department of the local North Press Agency, direct Daesh attacks claimed more than 262 lives across the country in the first half of 2023 alone, the majority of which were civilians.

In addition to this, the terror group kidnapped more than 160 people. A large number of the victims of Daesh attacks and kidnappings were truffle pickers, who resort to scouring vast, unsafe areas of the Syrian Badia in order to gather the lucrative fungi amid difficult economic conditions.

The Syrian Badia is a massive desert, covering more than half of the country’s territory and spanning eight of Syria’s 14 governorates. The region has a history of use by insurgent groups, having been used by the Iraqi resistance during the Iraq War from 2003 to 2011.

The Badia’s geography, a mostly vast and empty expanse of rocky desert with inhabited settlements few and far between, made it ideal for Daesh as a base of operations after its flight from Baghouz.

An image grab taken from a video made available by Jihadist media outlet Welayat Homs on July 4, 2015 shows 25 Syrian government soldiers kneeling in front of what appears to be children or teenagers wearing desert camouflage, in the ancient amphitheater in the city of Palmyra, ahead of being executed. (AFP/Welayat Homs handout photo/File)

The region’s proximity to the Iraqi border further added to its allure.

“This region was well known as an area controlled by smugglers, even before the Syrian war,” said Darwish. “The border crossing between the two countries has large gaps … and there is no control of military forces such as the regime, the SDF, or the Iraqi army, and so Daesh relies on this region for its activities.”

Darwish said Daesh had in recent years dug an extensive network of tunnels in the Iraqi-Syrian border region to aid in its smuggling operations between the two countries.

For the armed forces tasked with responding to the Daesh threat, these tunnels have proved a strategic headache.

“The geographical features of the region between Syria and Iraq have a great impact on the ease of movement by Daesh, especially in the areas under the control of Iran and its militias in Al-Bukamal and Al-Mayadeen, as these border areas are transit points for terrorist organizations and militias between Iraq and Syria,” said Al-Idlibi, the Northern Democratic Brigade commander.

Despite the large network of Iranian-backed, pro-regime militias deployed across central Syria, Al-Idlibi is doubtful that Damascus is serious about confronting Daesh remnants in the Badia.

“Daesh moves freely in the areas of the Syrian Badia … it has not been truly confronted in these areas due to the fact that they are under the control of the Syrian regime and its allies.”

At the end of 2019, Syrian regime forces were withdrawn from the Badia region to focus on Damascus’ new offensive aimed at retaking Idlib from the coalition of Syrian opposition and Islamist groups that held it. Although a ceasefire was declared in Idlib in 2020, the Badia had meanwhile become one of Daesh’s new havens in Syria.

A screen grab taken from a video released on July 1, 2014, shows Daesh militants parading on top of a truck on a street in the northern rebel-held Syrian city of Raqa. (AFP / Welayat Raqa handout/File)

“There are many vast and intertwined regions between the Syrian regime areas and Autonomous Administration (of North and East Syria) areas, with many natural crossings and land, and river routes,” said Al-Idlibi.

“This allows Daesh to move easily in order to infiltrate our areas in northern and eastern Syria … (Daesh) also finds support through sleeper cells present in our regions, and thus we see the terrorist group carrying out operations (here) from time to time.”

Both military personnel on the ground and civilian observers warn that the loosely held regime areas of the Syrian Badia are not the only stronghold for Daesh. Areas in the country’s north and northwest held by a coalition of militias known as the Syrian National Army, or SNA, have also served as a relatively safe area for Daesh militants for years.

“It has become an obvious fact that instability on the social, economic and subsistence level, as well as the spread of armed organizations, extremist ideology, inhumane and criminal practices, and the suppression of freedoms in the occupied areas controlled by the factions of the so-called (Syrian) National Army and terror group Al-Nusra Front, are what provide an incubator and required quagmire for the survival and existence of the leaders and emirs of terrorist organizations, foremost of which is the terror group Daesh,” Al-Idlibi added.

Officials of the Turkiye-backed opposition "Syrian National Army" opposition group led by Brigadier Adnan Ahmad, deputy chief of staff, hold a briefing meeting attended outside the village of al-Ghandurah northwest of Manbij in the north of Syria's Aleppo province on October 16, 2019, near the frontlines with Syrian Kurdish forces. (Aaref Watad/AFP)

Since 2019, coalition forces have carried out more than 13 air and drone strikes targeting Daesh in SNA-controlled areas, the latest of which killed a Daesh commander in a village near Jinderis, in the Afrin region, in April this year.

Furthermore, a 2021 report by Aso News Network compiled a list of 95 Daesh leaders among the ranks of SNA groups.

Darwish said that further research by Aso News Network uncovered information suggesting that the 2022 Daesh prison uprising in Hasakah, which claimed the lives of 121 SDF fighters and civilians, was supported by Daesh elements hiding out in SNA-held Ras Al-Ain.

The research also showed that several Daesh families had managed to escape the infamous Al-Hol camp and settle in Ras Al-Ain and neighboring Tal Abyad.

Members of an anti-terror unit of northeast Syria's Internal Security Forces, part of the SDF, are seen at a base in Qamishli. (AN Photo by Ali Ali)

General Michael Kurilla, commander of US Central Command, was in northeast Syria on Wednesday, where he visited the Al-Hol and Al-Roj Displaced Persons Camps and met with SDF officials to review the campaign to eliminate Daesh.

“The US, SDF, and the Global Coalition remain focused and committed on the enduring defeat of Daesh while addressing the humanitarian and security challenges at camps in northeast Syria,” Kurilla said in a statement. 

While the SDF and coalition continue to combat terrorism, the solution to the terrorism problem in Syria, says Al-Idlibi, is a political one.

“The real solution to rid Syria of terrorism once and for all lies in the need to implement a political solution in Syria, which was unanimously approved by the (UN) Security Council in 2015 via Resolution 2254,” said Al-Idlibi.

“The application of democracy is the ideal solution to eradicate the sources of extremism and terrorism … because tyranny and terrorism are inseparable and interdependent; they are the reasons for one another’s survival.”


Grammy-winning Iranian singer, awarded over Mahsa Amini protest anthem, sentenced to prison

Updated 2 sec ago

Grammy-winning Iranian singer, awarded over Mahsa Amini protest anthem, sentenced to prison

DUBAI: An Iranian singer who won a Grammy presented by US first lady Jill Biden has been sentenced to more than three years in prison over his anthem supporting the 2022 protests over the death of Mahsa Amini.
Shervin Hajjipour posted on Instagram on Friday, the same day that Iran held its parliamentary election, what appeared to be part of the judgment against him.
It said Hajjipour received a three-year, eight-month sentence on charges of “propaganda against the system” and “encouraging people to protest.” The court issued its sentence in part because it found he hadn’t properly expressed regret over publishing the song.
It also imposed a two-year travel ban and ordered him to create a song about “US crimes,” as well as make posts about those crimes online.
Hajjipour thanked his lawyers and his agent for their support.
“I will not mention the name of the judge and the prosecutor so that they don’t get insulted and threatened, because insults and threats are not in the religion of humanity,” he wrote. “Finally, one day we will understand each other. Until then.”
Hajjipour already had served some prison time, but was out on bail pending the court’s decision. It was unclear if he had already reported to serve his sentence.
Iranian state-run media, focused on the election Friday, didn’t note Hajjipour’s sentence. Iran’s mission to the United Nations in New York didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Hajjipour’s song “Baraye,” or “For” in English, begins with: “For dancing in the streets,” “for the fear we feel when we kiss.” The lyrics list reasons that young Iranians posted online for why they had protested against Iran’s ruling theocracy after Amini’s death in September 2022, allegedly for not wearing her mandated headscarf to the liking of security forces.
The protests quickly escalated into calls to overthrow Iran’s clerical rulers. A subsequent security crackdown killed more than 500 people, with more than 22,000 detained.
Jill Biden awarded Hajjipour the Grammy’s new song for social change special merit award during the ceremony last year.
“This song became the anthem of the Mahsa Amini protests, a powerful and poetic call for freedom and women’s rights,” Biden said at the ceremony. “Shervin was arrested, but this song continues to resonate around the world with its powerful theme: Women, life, freedom.”
Hajjipour’s sentencing comes as other activists, journalists and artists have faced arrest, imprisonment and harassment since the demonstrations. Among those imprisoned is Nobel Peace Prize laureate Narges Mohammadi.
The New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran condemned Hajjipour’s sentencing Friday, and demanded Iran immediately release him from the sentence.
“This blatant violation of Shervin’s rights to free speech and expression is a grave injustice and a clear affront to human rights principles,” the center said. “His imprisonment serves as a chilling reminder of the ongoing repression faced by artists, activists and dissenting voices in Iran.”

Calls for probe, ceasefire follow Israeli gunfire near aid convoy

Updated 01 March 2024

Calls for probe, ceasefire follow Israeli gunfire near aid convoy

  • “The Israeli army must fully investigate how the mass panic and shooting could have happened,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote on X
  • European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, also writing on X, said “every effort must be made to investigate what happened and ensure transparency”

GAZA STRIP, Palestinian Territories: World leaders on Friday called for an investigation and a ceasefire nearly five months into the Gaza war, a day after dozens of desperate Palestinians were killed rushing an aid convoy.
Israeli troops opened fire as Palestinian civilians scrambled for food aid during a chaotic incident Thursday which the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry said killed more than 100 people in Gaza City.
The deaths came after a World Food Programme official had warned: “If nothing changes, a famine is imminent in northern Gaza.”
The Israeli military said a “stampede” occurred when thousands of Gazans surrounded the convoy of 38 aid trucks, leading to dozens of deaths and injuries, including some who were run over.
An Israeli source acknowledged troops had opened fire on the crowd, believing it “posed a threat.”
Gaza’s health ministry called it a “massacre” and said 112 people were killed and more than 750 others wounded.
The fatalities helped push the total number of Palestinian war dead in Gaza to 30,228 mostly women and children, according to the ministry’s latest toll.
Overnight Thursday-Friday 83 people were killed in strikes, the ministry said.
The war began on October 7 with an unprecedented Hamas attack on southern Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, Israeli figures show.
Israel’s military says 242 soldiers have died in Gaza since ground operations began in late October.
“The Israeli army must fully investigate how the mass panic and shooting could have happened,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock wrote on social media platform X.
Her French counterpart Stephane Sejourne said: “there will have to be an independent probe to determine what happened,” and Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani urged Israel “to protect the people in Gaza and to rigorously ascertain facts and responsibilities.”
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, also writing on X, said “every effort must be made to investigate what happened and ensure transparency.”
The head of Libya’s Presidential Council, Mohamed el-Manfi, appealed for “an urgent investigation” by the United Nations Security Council into the “unprecedented crime.”
US President Joe Biden — whose country provides billions of dollars in military aid to Israel — said Washington was checking “two competing versions” of the incident.
Aerial footage of the incident made clear “just how desperate the situation on the ground is,” a US State Department spokesman said. Washington was pushing Israel to allow in more aid, he said.
The Gaza City aid incident came with talks progressing toward a ceasefire, but would now complicate those efforts, Biden said.
The White House later said it had asked Israel to probe the “tremendously alarming” deaths. Deputy press secretary Olivia Dalton said the event “needs to be thoroughly investigated.”
Qatar’s foreign ministry condemned “in the strongest terms the heinous massacre committed by the Israeli occupation” and called for “urgent international action” to halt the fighting in Gaza.
Further afield, in South America, Colombian President Gustavo Petro announced the suspension of arms purchases from Israel after the “genocide” in Gaza City.
While the situation is particularly acute in Gaza’s north, Gazans are struggling for food, water and medical care throughout the territory including in far-south Rafah where around 1.4 million people have sought refuge from fighting elsewhere.
Israel is threatening to send in troops against Hamas fighters in Rafah.
Information conflicted on what exactly unfolded in Gaza City.
A witness, declining to be named for safety reasons, said the violence began when thousands of people rushed toward aid trucks, leading soldiers to open fire when “people came too close” to tanks.
Israeli army spokesman Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari said the military had fired “a few warning shots” to try to disperse a “mob” that had “ambushed” the aid trucks.
“Thousands of Gazans” swarmed the trucks, “violently pushing and even trampling other Gazans to death, looting the humanitarian supplies,” he said.
When the crowd got too big, he said the convoy tried to retreat and “the unfortunate incident resulted in dozens of Gazans killed and injured.”
Aerial images released by the Israeli army showed what it said were scores of people surrounding aid trucks in the city.
Ali Awad Ashqir, who said he had gone to get some food for his starving family, told AFP he had been waiting for two hours when trucks began to arrive.
“The moment they arrived, the occupation army fired artillery shells and guns,” he said.
Hagari denied Israeli forces carried out any shelling or strikes at the time.
Looting of aid trucks has previously occurred in northern Gaza, where residents have taken to eating animal fodder and even leaves to stave off starvation.
The chief of the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said no UN agency had been involved in Thursday’s aid delivery, and called the incident “another day from hell.”
Among its war aims, Israel says it is fighting to bring home 130 hostages captured by militants on October 7 who remain in Gaza, including 31 presumed dead.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come under increasing pressure over the captives.
On Friday relatives and supporters of the hostages rallied outside the US embassy branch in Tel Aviv in a call for help to secure their release.
At another protest in the city on Thursday night, Alon Lee Green, 36, said things were at a crossroads.
“It’s either we are going into an eternal war that will never stop,” he said, “or we’re going to a diplomatic agreement, an Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

WHO says Gaza health system ‘more than on its knees’

Updated 01 March 2024

WHO says Gaza health system ‘more than on its knees’

  • WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva: “All the lifelines in Gaza have more or less been cut”
  • “The food supplies have been cut off deliberately. Let’s not forget that”

GENEVA: People in the Gaza Strip are risking their lives to find food, water and other supplies such is the level of hunger and despair amid the unrelenting Israeli assault, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
“The system in Gaza is on its knees, it’s more than on its knees,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva. “All the lifelines in Gaza have more or less been cut.”
Lindmeier said this had created a “desperate situation,” as seen on Thursday, when more than 100 people seeking humanitarian aid in Gaza were killed.
Gaza health authorities said Israeli forces shot dead the Palestinians as they waited for an aid delivery. Israel blamed the deaths on crowds that surrounded the aid trucks, saying victims had been trampled or run over.
“People are so desperate for food, for fresh water, for any supplies that they risk their lives in getting any food, any supplies to support their children, to support themselves,” Lindmeier said.
While aid is reaching southern parts of the Gaza Strip, it is too slow to avert a hunger crisis even there. Aid barely makes it to northern areas that are further from the main border crossing and only accessible through more active battle fronts.
“The food supplies have been cut off deliberately. Let’s not forget that,” Lindmeier said.
Israel has said the failure to get enough aid into Gaza to meet humanitarian needs is due to UN distribution failures.
A senior UN aid official told the UN Security Council on Tuesday that one quarter of the population of Gaza is one step away from famine and widespread famine could be “almost inevitable” without action.

Hamas, other Palestinian groups stress ‘unity’ at Moscow talks

Updated 01 March 2024

Hamas, other Palestinian groups stress ‘unity’ at Moscow talks

  • Meeting in Moscow brought together Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and other Palestinian groups for talks on the war in Gaza and an eventual post-war period.

Ramallah: Palestinian factions including rivals Hamas and Fatah said on Friday they would pursue “unity of action” in confronting Israel after representatives met at Russia-hosted talks.
The meeting in Moscow on Thursday brought together Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and other Palestinian groups for talks on the war in Gaza and an eventual post-war period.
It came on the heels of the resignation of the Palestinian Authority government, which is led by Fatah and based in the occupied West Bank.
Outgoing prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh called for intra-Palestinian consensus as he announced the resignation, and some analysts said the development could pave the way for a government of technocrats that could operate in the West Bank and Hamas-run Gaza after the war.
Arab and Western leaders have been pushing for reforms to the Palestinian Authority as they discuss possible reconstruction efforts.
A statement on Friday by the Palestinian factions represented in Moscow said there would be an “upcoming dialogue” to bring them under the banner of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO).
Thursday’s “constructive” talks saw agreement on points including the need for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza and the creation of a Palestinian state, the statement said.
While Hamas and Islamic Jihad are considered “terrorist” entities by Western powers, the PLO is internationally recognized as representing Palestinians in the Palestinian territories and diaspora.
Discussions in recent years about integrating Hamas into the PLO have ended in failure.
In recent years, Moscow has strived to maintain good relations with all actors in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including Fatah and Hamas.
Russia’s relations with Israel have become strained amid Moscow’s criticism of Israeli actions in Gaza and rejection of a Palestinian state.
The war in Gaza was triggered by Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel that resulted in the deaths of about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
At least 30,228 people, mostly women and children, have been killed in Israel’s retaliatory military offensive in Gaza, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.

Israeli strike in Syria kills Iran Guard, two others: reports

Updated 01 March 2024

Israeli strike in Syria kills Iran Guard, two others: reports

  • Three violent explosions shook the center of Banias during the dawn strike on a villa that sheltered “a group affiliated with Iran“
  • Iran’s official news agency IRNA later said Reza Zarei, a member of the IRGC’s navy, had been “killed at dawn today by the usurping Zionist regime"

BEIRUT: An Israeli strike in Syria on Friday killed an Iranian Revolutionary Guard and two other people, reports said, in the third consecutive day of Israeli attacks on Syria.
Three violent explosions shook the center of Banias, on Syria’s Mediterranean coast, during the dawn strike on a villa that sheltered “a group affiliated with Iran,” said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor.
A building was destroyed, killing the Iranian and two other non-Syrians who were with him, said the Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources inside Syria.
Iran’s official news agency IRNA later said Reza Zarei, a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ navy, had been “killed at dawn today by the usurping Zionist regime.”
The government-controlled city of Banias is home to an oil refinery with Iranian tankers docking at its port.
On Thursday, Israel killed a Hezbollah fighter in a strike on Syria, close to the Lebanese border, the Observatory said, hours after similar attacks.
Israel has launched hundreds of air strikes on targets in Syria since civil war broke out in 2011. The strikes have mainly targeted Iran-backed forces including militants from Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement as well as Syrian army positions.
Iran is a key political, military and financial backer of the Assad government, and has sent military advisers and volunteers to bolster its forces.
Tehran says it has deployed forces in Syria at the invitation of Damascus, but only as advisers.
The strikes have increased since Israel’s war with Palestinian militant group Hamas began on October 7.
Israel rarely comments on individual strikes but has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran to expand its presence in Syria. Iran backs Assad’s government and Hezbollah, which supports Hamas.
Syria’s war has claimed the lives of more than half a million people and displaced millions since it broke out in March 2011 with Damascus’s brutal repression of anti-government protests.