Lebanon’s FM meets with UN, French and US envoys in bid to prevent full-scale war

People walk past the rubble of a building that was destroyed by previous Israeli bombardment in the village of Yaroun in south Lebanon near the border with Israel on June 21, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 22 June 2024

Lebanon’s FM meets with UN, French and US envoys in bid to prevent full-scale war

  • Lebanon counts on success of US diplomatic efforts to prevent full-scale war
  • Former ambassador to US tells Arab News: ‘No one has an interest in open war’

BEIRUT: Lebanon’s Foreign Affairs Minister Abdallah Bou Habib met with French Ambassador Herva Magro, the UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, and US Ambassador Lisa Johnson on Friday.

The minister reiterated Lebanon’s call for the full implementation of UN Resolution 1701.

Hennis-Plasschaert said there was “no inevitability (to wider conflict with Israel)” during her visit to UN peacekeepers in southern Lebanon.

Also on Friday, it was announced that German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will make shuttle visits to Lebanon, Israel, and the West Bank.

Concerned at the risk of Israel’s war on Gaza spreading across the region, US President Joe Biden sent his special envoy Amos Hochstein to embark on a new round of diplomacy last week. Hochstein called for “urgent” de-escalation during talks with Lebanon and Israel on Tuesday, informing both sides that “the threat of a full-scale war persists and must be avoided.”

It is widely believed in Lebanon that Hochstein convinced Israel to refrain from escalating its military actions against Lebanon for the time being.

In a meeting with visiting Israeli officials including National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer in Washington on Thursday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken underscored the importance of “avoiding further escalation in Lebanon and reaching a diplomatic resolution that allows Israeli and Lebanese families to return to their homes,” according to a statement.

According to his spokesperson, Matthew Miller, Blinken also stressed America’s “unwavering commitment to Israel’s security.”

During his talks in Beirut, Hochstein reportedly reassured Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati that Biden’s proposal for a ceasefire in Gaza was being viewed positively, and that Qatar was working to make it happen.

Hochstein also reportedly told Mikati that “things are under control and positive when it comes to the war between Lebanon and Israel.”

Former Lebanese Ambassador to Washington, Riad Tabbarah, described threats of war as a “mere outburst.”

He told Arab News: “Since military operations began on the southern front about nine months ago, the Lebanese have been hearing that war is coming, but it never arrives.

“During diplomatic negotiations, it is common for both sides to face pressure and threats,” he continued. “It appears that there are numerous and diverse negotiations happening behind the scenes, including discussions between the Americans and Iranians, as well as between the Americans and Hezbollah.”

Tabbarah acknowledged the recklessness of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and said the Israeli leader “has two options — either war or prison. And there is significant pressure on him, especially from the families of the hostages.”

Tabbarah noted that there are limits to what military action can achieve. “We still recall the time when former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon crossed those limits in 1982 when he set the Litani Line as his target. However, he went beyond that and reached Beirut. As a result, international powers united to bring him back to the Litani Line.

“No one has an interest in war,” he continued. “Americans, Europeans, and Iranians are working in the opposite direction. The general trend is to avoid escalating to open war.”

Military operations on the Lebanese front decreased significantly on Friday, although the outskirts of Naqoura in the western sector were targeted by Israeli artillery, causing a fire in a house. In the morning, an Israeli military raid targeted the town of Wazzani.

Hezbollah made a series of announcements about their operations, which were “focused on specific targets within the rules of engagement.”

Hezbollah attacked the sites of Ramtha and Samaka in the occupied Lebanese Kfar Shouba Hills, the Zabadin site in the occupied Lebanese Shebaa Farms, and carried out an air attack using drones on the Ras Al-Naqoura naval site, aiming at locations containing Israeli military personnel.

The Lebanese Ministry of Health said that, up to June 19, it has recorded a total of 1,774 casualties, including 432 fatalities, caused by Israeli attacks.


Sudan’s warring parties continue talks with UN envoy

Updated 6 sec ago

Sudan’s warring parties continue talks with UN envoy

GENEVA: Talks between a UN envoy and delegations from both warring parties in Sudan are continuing in Geneva this week, focused on humanitarian aid and protecting civilians, the UN said on Tuesday.

War has raged since April 2023 between the Sudanese regular army under Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, led by his former deputy Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s personal envoy for Sudan, Ramtane Lamamra, invited delegations from the army and the RSF for talks which began on Thursday.

The discussions are taking place under the so-called proximity format, whereby Lamamra is meeting separately with each delegation at a time, in different rooms. The two delegations are not scheduled to meet each other.

Lamamra and his team had several interactions with both delegations throughout the weekend, UN spokeswoman Alessandra Vellucci told a media briefing.

“The teams engaged intensively on the two key items discussed during these talks: humanitarian assistance and protection of civilians,” she said.

“The discussions are continuing this week.”

No end date has been scheduled. The two delegations are comprised of senior representatives of the warring parties and include humanitarian, security and military experts.

Why Damascus has failed to prevent repeated Israeli strikes on Iranian targets on Syrian territory

Updated 17 min 33 sec ago

Why Damascus has failed to prevent repeated Israeli strikes on Iranian targets on Syrian territory

  • Israeli air attacks on Syrian soil have increased in frequency since the outbreak of war in Gaza
  • Syrians fear being dragged into wider regional war as Israel attacks suspected Iran-backed targets

LONDON: Since the outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011, Israel has repeatedly struck military targets on the nation’s territory. These attacks have sharply increased in frequency since the Gaza conflict erupted last October, with Israel seemingly free to act with impunity.

Following the Oct. 7, 2023, Hamas-led attack that triggered the war in Gaza, Israel has mounted strikes against suspected Iran-backed targets on Syrian soil, leaving Syrians fearful that their country could be dragged into a wider regional conflagration between Israel and Iran.

A similar scene has been unfolding in neighboring Lebanon, where Israel and the Iran-backed Hezbollah militia have been exchanging cross-border fire since Oct. 8 last year, resulting in hundreds of fatalities and the mass displacement of civilians.

On Monday, a suspected Israeli drone strike on a car near the Lebanon-Syria border killed Mohammed Baraa Katerji, 48, a prominent Syrian businessman who had close ties to the government of President Bashar Assad, according to an Associated Press report quoting pro-government media and an official from an Iran-backed group.

A picture taken on January 21, 2019 shows Syrian air defense batteries responding to what the Syrian state media said were Israeli missiles targeting Damascus. (AFP)

The pro-government Al-Watan daily quoted unnamed “sources” as saying that Katerji was killed in a “Zionist drone strike on his car.” Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based opposition war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Katerji was apparently targeted because he used to fund the “Syrian resistance” against Israel in the Golan Heights, as well as his links to Iran-backed groups in Syria.

Israel rarely claims responsibility for such strikes on Syrian territory but has repeatedly given warning that it will not tolerate Iran gaining a military foothold there or using the country to transport advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Although Syrian air defenses and the Assad regime’s Russian allies have occasionally intercepted Israeli missiles over Syrian territory, they have failed to deter Israeli attacks on military installations and commanders of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.

Indeed, at least 19 senior officials of the IRGC’s extraterritorial Quds Force have been killed in suspected Israeli strikes since Oct. 7, including top-ranking officer Mohammad Reza Zahedi.

Rescue workers search in the rubble of a building annexed to the Iranian embassy a day after an air strike in Damascus on April 2, 2024. (AFP)

Israel’s ability to track high-profile targets and strike deep inside Syrian territory owes largely to its technological and military superiority and the comparative weakness of Syria’s defenses.

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, believes Israel has been attacking Syria for almost a decade simply because “Israel can.”

“Syria has no effective way to deter Israel from attacking it at will,” he told Arab News. “Israel has every incentive to destroy weapons sent to Syria from Iran or elsewhere, especially those that might end up strengthening Hezbollah.”

Charred cars lie in a parking lot in the aftermath of an Israeli strike in the neighbourhood of Kafr Sousse in Damascus, early on July 14, 2024. (AFP)

In late June, Israel reportedly struck multiple targets in southern Syria, including a pro-Iran service center and an IRGC stronghold in the Sayyida Zainab area south of Damascus, according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

SOHR said the suspected Israeli strike killed three people, including an elderly woman, and injured 11 others. State media cited a military source saying two people were killed and one soldier was injured. Syrian air defenses were activated but failed to repel the attack.

“Iran and Hezbollah have no answer to Israel’s technological superiority,” said Landis. “Syria’s air force is in shambles, its anti-aircraft missiles are inadequate, and Russia does not want to alienate Israel, which could easily seek revenge against Russia by helping Ukraine.”

The Israel Defense Forces saw its arms expenditure increase by more than 200 percent — from $1.8 billion in September to $4.7 billion in December 2023 — according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

People gather outside a buildling reportedly targeted by Israeli air strikes in the Kafr Sousa district of the Syrian capital Damascus on February 21, 2024. (AFP)

Moreover, the US provides Israel with $3.8 billion in annual military aid, making it the IDF’s biggest arms supplier. Second to the US is Germany, which sold Israel $326.5 million worth of arms last year alone.

Calls by several UN rights experts and pro-Palestine activists for an arms embargo on Israel have fallen on deaf ears. Even a case brought by Nicaragua to the International Court of Justice to halt Germany’s arms sales to Israel was rejected in April.

Mohammed Al-Basha, a senior Middle East analyst at the research network Navanti Group, agrees with Landis that “Syrian government and Hezbollah aircraft defense and anti-aircraft capabilities are limited.”

People inspect damage in the aftermath of an Israeli air strike that hit the medieval Citadel of Damascus on February 19, 2023. (AFP)

He told Arab News: “These capabilities are generally quite restricted and likely concentrated around key targets, such as Damascus.”

He added that the Syrian government and Hezbollah “primarily receive their air defense systems from countries like Russia, Iran, and possibly China.

“While Syria may have had some capacity to counter missile attacks five years ago, as evidenced by their response to a strike by US President Donald Trump’s administration … it is now likely that Russia is prioritizing these resources for its own conflicts in Ukraine, South Ossetia, and potentially Transnistria.”

Members of the Syrian army deploy in the Al-Rashidin 1 district, in Aleppo’s southwestern countryside, on February 16, 2020. (AFP)

On April 14, 2018, the US, UK, and France fired more than 100 missiles at three government sites in Syria, claiming these were chemical weapons facilities. Russia said Syrian air defenses downed at least 71 incoming cruise missiles.

Whatever the condition of Syria’s air defenses today, Al-Basha stressed that “Israel’s air capabilities are almost certainly more advanced than those of the Syrian government and Hezbollah.”

While Syria may lack the means to meaningfully retaliate against Israel, the same cannot be said for Iran and its regional proxies, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthis in Yemen, and Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi in Iraq — groups that collectively make up the “Axis of Resistance.”

On July 9, Hezbollah retaliated for the killing of a bodyguard of its leader Hassan Nasrallah by firing dozens of rockets into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, killing two people, according to Israeli police. 

A billboard with pictures of late Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi (L) and Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad stands on the road leading to Damascus International Airport on May 3, 2023. (AFP)

Earlier that day, the bodyguard’s vehicle had been hit with an Israeli shell in Syrian territory on the Damascus-Beirut highway, Reuters reported.

The killing of senior Hezbollah commander Mohammed Nasser in southern Lebanon on July 3 also did not go unpunished. The following day, the militia said it launched more than 200 rockets and a swarm of drones at 10 Israeli military sites.

War-shattered Syria, by contrast, appears to Israel as a soft target.

Syrian-Canadian analyst Camille Alexandre Otrakji told Arab News that by targeting Syria, Israel “strategically targets both the broader resistance camp and Syria specifically.

Syrian fighters from the Turkish-backed National Liberation Front (NLF) fire a missile against regime positions on May 13, 2019 in the rebel-held northern part of Syria’s Hama province. (AFP)

“Israel is attempting to weaken the overall capabilities of the resistance camp, with Syria being a relatively safe target compared to other regional resistance actors,” he said.

“If Israel targets non-state actors in Lebanon, Yemen, or Iraq, it would likely face retaliatory attacks. Unlike Syria, these actors are not constrained by international agreements, complicating their decision to retaliate against Israel.”

The Baathist regime itself, however, has also long been considered a sworn enemy by Israel.

Pointing out that Syria’s army “has been significantly weakened” by 13 years of civil war, Otrakji said Damascus “faces a more challenging situation,” and “its close allies are not all supportive of a decision to escalate toward military confrontation with Israel.”

An image released on May 10, 2018 reportedly shows Syrian air defense systems intercepting Israeli missiles over Damascus’ airspace. (AFP)

He added: “Syrians legitimately claim that Damascus is the world’s oldest continuously inhabited capital. With comparable validity, they also assert that Syria holds the oldest continuously inhabited position within the resistance axis.

“Since 1947, Syria has frequently opposed Israeli and American initiatives in the Middle East with varying degrees of intensity.

“In a CIA analysis document titled ‘Israel: Perceptions of Syria,’ declassified in 2011 and obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, CIA analysts noted that ‘Israelis, both in and out of government, view Syria as Israel’s most determined enemy.’

“The document further states, ‘Most Israelis foresee an extended period of internal unrest in Syria after Assad leaves the scene … the Israelis believe it would weaken Syria’s position in the region and force the successor regime to turn inward.’”

Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad listening to army soldiers in Al-Habit on the southern edges of the Idlib province on October 22, 2019. (AFP)

Otrakji argues that “although Israel cannot deploy its full military might to achieve its long-term goal of creating a power vacuum in Syria, it can pursue this objective gradually.”

He explained that “this slow-paced approach appears to be welcomed by the international community, serving as an additional means to pressure Syria’s leadership into making further compromises.”

While Israel is expected to continue mounting attacks on Syrian territory, Landis of the University of Oklahoma does not foresee Syria becoming the primary battlefield in Israel’s shadow war with Iran.

“Syria will not be the main battlefield, but Israel will strike any arms depots or manufacturing sites in Syria that may resupply Hezbollah,” he said.

“If Iran tries to reinforce Hezbollah through Syria, Israel will be sure to attack Syria in an effort to stop arms from reaching Lebanon.”


Arab Parliament speaker in Washington to discuss key issues with World Bank chief

Updated 38 min 27 sec ago

Arab Parliament speaker in Washington to discuss key issues with World Bank chief

  • Al-Asoumi will also talk about the role that the World Bank can play in development and humanitarian issues

CAIRO: Arab Parliament Speaker Adel Abdulrahman Al-Asoumi will discuss the challenges faced by women and children in the occupied Palestinian territories with President of the World Bank Ajay Banga during a visit to Washington DC.

Al-Asoumi will also talk about the role that the World Bank can play in development and humanitarian issues.

Al-Asoumi, who arrived in the US at the invitation of the World Bank president, will also discuss ways for the bank to support development projects in the Arab world.

The visit’s agenda includes extensive meetings with World Bank officials, a number of executive directors, heads of various sectors, and representatives of Arab countries at the World Bank.

The visit will conclude with an expanded meeting of the Arab Parliament delegation, with the World Bank chief to put the final touches on a joint action plan between the two parties, especially those related to women, youth and children.

Israeli army attacks kill five Lebanese in 24 hours, including two women

Updated 16 July 2024

Israeli army attacks kill five Lebanese in 24 hours, including two women

  • Hezbollah responds by shelling Kiryat Shmona; warns of ‘severe response’ if Israel launches large-scale war in Lebanon
  • A Hezbollah member and his 2 sisters died on Monday night in an attack on their home, and 2 people on a motorcycle were killed on Tuesday by a drone attack

BEIRUT: Israel continued to target Hezbollah members on Tuesday with attacks by combat drones, less than 24 hours after a member of the party and his two sisters were killed in an air assault on their home in the town of Bint Jbeil.

On Tuesday afternoon, an Israeli drone launched a missile at a motorcycle on the Khardali road, a strategic route connecting the Nabatieh area to Marjayoun, killing two people.

An eyewitness said: “The motorcycle was carrying two persons, and when several citizens tried to approach the targeted motorcycle, it was subjected to a second airstrike with a guided missile.”

On Monday evening, Israeli warplanes had conducted intense raids on the towns of Bint Jbeil, Kfarkela, Mays Al-Jabal and Marwahin, destroying several homes and causing significant damage.

One of the strikes hit the home of Amer Jamil Dagher and his sisters, Taghreed and Fawzia, in Bint Jbeil, destroying it and killing all three, who were said to be in their 40s and 50s.

Hezbollah mourned their deaths and they were buried on Tuesday afternoon in their hometown, 18 people from which have been killed since fighting in southern Lebanon began on Oct. 8.

The Israeli army said it had “targeted Hezbollah infrastructure in several areas in southern Lebanon on Monday night to eliminate threats.”

Hezbollah said it responded to the attacks by “shelling the Kiryat Shmona settlement with dozens of Falaq and Katyusha rockets.”

Meanwhile, Israeli forces also shelled the outskirts of Deir Mimas and the town of Yohmor Al-Shaqif, along the Litani River.

Lebanese Civil Defense teams and paramedics from Hezbollah and the Amal Movement reportedly worked through the night fighting fires in forests alongside the river caused by Israeli phosphorus shells.

Hezbollah said it had targeted a “gathering of Israeli enemy soldiers around the Pranit barracks opposite the Lebanese border town of Rmeish,” “spy equipment at the Al-Raheb site” and “Al-Samaqa site in the occupied Kfarchouba hills.”

MP Mohammed Raad, the head of Hezbollah’s parliamentary bloc, threatened Israel with “a severe response if the Israeli army launches a large-scale war in Lebanon.”

He added: “The Israeli army knows this. We know the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, and it knows we know its weaknesses.”

Raad urged the “enemy to stop its evil against Lebanon and Gaza; we are ready to cease fire on the Lebanese front if the aggression on Gaza stops and the enemy will comply with this.”

Israeli drone strike along Lebanon-Syria border kills Syrian businessman close to the government

Updated 16 July 2024

Israeli drone strike along Lebanon-Syria border kills Syrian businessman close to the government

  • Mohammed Baraa Katerji was killed when a drone strike hit his car near the area of Saboura, a few kilometers inside Syria
  • Strike came as Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have been exchanging fire on an almost daily basis since early October

BEIRUT: An Israeli drone strike on a car Monday near the Lebanon-Syria border killed a prominent Syrian businessman who was sanctioned by the United States and had close ties to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, according to pro-government media and an official from an Iran-backed group.
Mohammed Baraa Katerji was killed when a drone strike hit his car near the area of Saboura, a few kilometers or miles inside Syria after apparently crossing from Lebanon. Israel’s air force has carried out hundreds of airstrikes in recent years, mainly targeting members of Iran-backed groups and Syria’s military. But it has been rare to hit personalities from within the government.
The strike also came as Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group have been exchanging fire on an almost daily basis since early October, after the start of the Israel-Hamas war.
An official from an Iran-backed group said that Katerji was killed instantly while in his SUV on the highway linking Lebanon with Syria. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.
The pro-government Al-Watan daily quoted unnamed “sources” as saying that Katerji, 48, was killed in a “Zionist drone strike on his car.” It gave no further details.
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based opposition war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that Katerji was killed while in a car with Lebanese license plates, adding that he was apparently targeted because he used to fund the “Syrian resistance” against Israel in the Golan Heights, as well as his links to Iran-backed groups in Syria.
Israel, which has vowed to stop Iranian entrenchment in its northern neighbor, has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets in government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years, but it rarely acknowledges them.
The US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, sanctioned Katerji in 2018 as Assad’s middleman to trade oil with the Daesh group and for facilitating weapons shipments from Iraq to Syria.
The US Treasury declined Associated Press requests for comment. The sanctions imposed on Katerji were authorized under an Obama-era executive order issued in 2011 that prohibits certain transactions with Syria. A search of the OFAC database indicates that the sanctions were still in effect against Katerji and his firm at the time of his death.
OFAC said in 2018 that Katerji was responsible for import and export activities in Syria and assisted with transporting weapons and ammunition under the pretext of importing and exporting food items. These shipments were overseen by the US­ designated Syrian General Intelligence Directorate, according to OFAC.
It added that the Syria-based Katerji Company is a trucking company that has also shipped weapons from Iraq to Syria. Additionally, in a 2016 trade deal between the government of Syria and IS, the Katerji Company was identified as the exclusive agent for providing supplies to IS-controlled areas, including oil and other commodities.
Katerji and his brother, Hussam — widely referred to in Syria as the “Katerji brothers” — got involved in oil business a few years after the country’s conflict began in March 2011. Hussam Katerji is a former member of Syria’s parliament.