Israeli airstrikes in central Syria killed at least 11 government troops and militiamen late Tuesday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The strikes were the first carried out by Israel in Syria since 11 days of heavy fighting with the Hamas rulers of Gaza ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire on May 21, the Britain-based war monitor said.
“At least seven army soldiers and four National Defence Forces militiamen were killed,” Observatory chief Rami Abdul Rahman told AFP, adding that all of the dead were Syrian.
The Observatory said the strikes targeted air force positions near the village of Khirbet al-Tin on the outskirts of Homs, as well as an arms depot belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement.
The Israeli air force carried out Tuesday evening strikes in several regions of Syria, in the capital Damascus as well as in Homs, Hama and Latakia provinces, the Observatory said.
Syria’s state SANA news agency said there had been “explosions in Damascus” as Israeli forces carried out the raid from Lebanese air space.
It said air defences had been activated against the “Israeli aggression”, but said nothing about any casualties or damage.
The Israeli army, which rarely acknowledges individual strikes on Syria, declined to comment on “reports in the foreign media”.
Since civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes on Syrian territory, targeting government positions as well as allied Iran-backed forces and fighters of Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.
Israel has said repeatedly that it will not allow neighbouring Syria to become a launchpad for its arch-foe Iran.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his wife Asma have tested positive for Covid-19 after experiencing mild symptoms, the presidency said Monday.
“After experiencing mild symptoms that resemble… Covid-19, President al-Assad and first lady Asma Al-Assad took a PCR test, and the result showed that they are infected with the virus,” the presidency said in a statement.
“They are in good health and their condition is stable,” the statement added.
Syria on Friday condemned a deadly US air strike on Iran-backed militias in its far east as a bad omen from the administration of new US President Joe Biden.
The US said it carried out the strikes overnight at a Syria-Iraq border control point used by Iran-backed groups, destroying “multiple facilities” in retaliation for a spate of rocket attacks targeting its troops in Iraq.
A war monitor said at least 22 fighters were killed in the operation that struck three trucks loaded with munitions coming from Iraq near the Syrian frontier town of Albu Kamal.
It was the first US military action targeting such groups since Biden took office five weeks ago and came just as Washington had opened the door to resuming negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear programme.
“At President Biden’s direction”, the US raids targeted “infrastructure utilised by Iranian-backed militant groups in eastern Syria”, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said.
“These strikes were authorised in response to recent attacks against American and coalition personnel in Iraq, and to ongoing threats to those personnel.”
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strike killed at least 22 fighters from Iraq’s state-sponsored Hashed al-Shaabi paramilitary force.
The raid also destroyed border posts of the Hashed, an umbrella group that includes many small militias with ties to Iran, said the monitor.
Kirby said the location was used by Kataeb Hezbollah and Kataeb Sayyid al-Shuhada, two Iraqi pro-Iran groups operating under the Hashed.
Kataeb Hezbollah said one of its fighters was killed.
It identified him as Rahi al-Sharifi, and said he had been “stationed at the Iraqi-Syrian border to protect Iraq’s land and people from the gangs” of the Islamic State group.
-‘Bad sign’- Syria condemned the strike as “cowardly American aggression”.
“It is a bad sign regarding the policies of the new US administration which should adhere to international” norms, its foreign ministry said.
Iraq’s defence ministry denied the US had coordinated with it to conduct the strike, saying it only works together with the US-led coalition in the fight against IS.
Syria’s ally Russia also condemned the attack, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov questioning the Biden administration’s plans in Syria.
“It is very important for us to understand the United States’ strategic line on the ground,” he said.
The US action followed three rocket attacks on facilities in Iraq used by US and coalition forces fighting IS.
One of those strikes, on a military complex in the Kurdish regional capital Arbil on February 15, killed a civilian and a foreign contractor working with coalition forces, and wounded several US contractors and a soldier.
Last week, the Biden administration offered talks with Iran led by European allies as it seeks to salvage a 2015 nuclear deal, left on the brink of collapse after Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump withdrew from it.
But the new administration has also made clear it would not brook “malign activities” in the region by Iran.
– ‘Unambiguous message’ – Although Kataeb Hezbollah did not claim responsibility for the attacks, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said it was behind them.
“We’re confident in the target we went after. We know what we hit,” he said.
“We are confident that the target was being used by the same Shia militia that conducted the strikes” against US interests in Iraq, he added.
Iran is believed to be searching for an opportunity to avenge the US assassination of top general Qasem Soleimani one year ago.
Soleimani, a senior Revolutionary Guards commander, was Iran’s key liaison to its allies in Iraq and Syria, and elsewhere in the region.
He was killed in a US drone strike just as he arrived in Baghdad for meetings with top Iraqi officials.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday the US would “hold Iran responsible for the actions of its proxies that attack Americans” but would not “lash out” and risk destabilising Iraq.
Kirby also called Thursday’s strike “proportionate”.
“The operation sends an unambiguous message: President Biden will act to protect American and coalition personnel,” he said.
“At the same time, we have acted in a deliberate manner that aims to de-escalate the overall situation.”
Nicholas Heras, of the Institute of the Study of War, said other diplomatic interests were also at play.
“The Biden administration is in the process of seeking out a way to show the Israelis that it is willing to do more against Iran and its proxy groups in the region, especially in Syria,
Syria has authorised the use of Russia’s Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, its embassy in Moscow said Monday.
The country is the latest to approve the Russian vaccine, named after the Soviet-era satellite. Sputnik V was registered in August before clinical trials were underway, which left experts wary.
But leading medical journal The Lancet published results showing the jab to be safe and 91.6 percent effective.
“The Syrian Arab Republic has completed all registration procedures for the Russian Sputnik V vaccine against the coronavirus infection and allowed its use on its territory,” the Russian TASS news agency cited the Syrian embassy as saying in a statement.
More than 30 countries have approved the vaccine, according to the Russian Direct Investment Fund, which financed its development.
Syria in December also signed on to the World Health Organisation’s Covax initiative to procure vaccines.
The WHO, together with the UN children’s agency UNICEF and Gavi, will support Syria in acquiring jabs to initially cover at least three percent of the population and aim for 20 percent by the end of the year.
Syria has recorded 15,179 coronavirus infections and 998 fatalities from the virus in government-held areas.
Territories under Kurdish control in the country’s northeast have recorded nearly 8,600 cases and 311 deaths, while the rebel-held northwest has reported 21,121 infections and 408 fatalities.
Russia backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the country’s long-running civil war.
A wave of airstrikes by government ally Russia killed at least 21 Islamic State group jihadists in the Syrian desert over the past 24 hours, a monitor said Saturday.
The 21 were killed in at least 130 airstrikes “carried out over the past 24 hours by the Russian air force targeting the Islamic State group” in a vast area stretching from the central province of Homs to the border with Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The raids, which continued into Saturday, follow a series of IS attacks Friday on government and allied forces that killed at least eight members of a pro-Damascus militia, the Britain-based monitor said.
More than half of the slain jihadists were killed in strikes on the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, near the Iraqi frontier, according to the Observatory.
Russian raids in the desert region generally “target small groupings of IS militants as well as their vehicles”, said Rami Abdul Rahman, who heads the Observatory.
“It is a difficult operation for the Russians because there are no fixed positions for IS fighters who are always on the move,” he told AFP.
In recent months, the vast desert, known in Arabic as the Badia, has been the scene of increasingly frequent fighting between the jihadists and government forces backed by Russian airpower.
The region provides a “safe haven” for jihadists planning attacks on government forces and other rivals, the United Nations said in a report published this month.
IS overran large parts of Syria and Iraq and proclaimed a cross-border “caliphate” in 2014 before multiple offensives in the two countries led to its territorial defeat.
The jihadists continue to launch attacks, mostly in the Badia.
IS retains some 10,000 active fighters in Iraq and Syria, although the majority are reported to be in Iraq, the UN says.
Since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, more than 387,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes.
Israeli night raids targeting arms depots and military positions in eastern Syria killed at least seven Syrian soldiers and 16 allied fighters, in the deadliest raids since 2018, a war monitor said Wednesday.
The Israeli air force carried out more than 18 strikes against multiple targets in an area stretching from the eastern town of Deir Ezzor to the Iraqi border, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The raids killed seven Syrian soldiers and 16 non-Syrian militia fighters whose nationalities were not immediately known, the Britain-based monitoring group said.
Paramilitaries belonging to the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and the Fatimid Brigade, which is made up of pro-Iranian Afghan fighters, operate in the region, the Observatory said.
The raids also wounded 28 troops and militiamen, some of them critically.
The Israeli military did not immediately comment.
Observatory head Rami Abdul Rahman called the Israeli raids the “deadliest since June 2018” when strikes on the same region killed at least 55 pro-government fighters, including Iraqis as well as Syrians.
In November, similar raids on eastern Syria killed at least 19 pro-Iran militia fighters, the monitor said.
The Syrian state news agency SANA reported the latest strikes but gave few details.
“At 1:10 am (2310 GMT Tuesday), the Israeli enemy carried out an aerial assault on the town of Deir Ezzor and the Albu Kamal region,” SANA said, citing a military source.
“The results of the aggression are currently being verified,” it added.
It was the second wave of Israeli raids in Syria in less than a week.
The last strikes on January 7 targeted positions in southern Syria and in the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus, killing three pro-Iran fighters.
Israel routinely carries out raids in Syria, mostly against targets linked to Iran in what it says is a bid to prevent its arch foe from consolidating a foothold on its northern border.
Israel hit around 50 targets in Syria in 2020, according to an annual report released in late December by the Israeli military.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes on Syria since civil war broke out in 2011, targeting Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces as well as Syrian government troops.
Israel rarely acknowledges individual strikes but has done so when responding to what it describes as aggression inside Israeli territory.
The war in Syria has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced millions more since it erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests.
Israeli warplanes struck Syria Wednesday, hitting Iranian targets and killing 10 Syrian and foreign fighters in what the Israeli army called a retaliatory attack after explosive devices were found near one of its bases on the occupied Golan Heights.
The airstrikes came hours before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to land in Israel for talks including on Iran, in what was likely to be his last visit to the staunch American ally before President Donald Trump leaves office.
An Israeli army statement said its fighter jets had overnight hit “military targets belonging to the Iranian Quds Force and the Syrian armed forces”. The elite Quds Force is the main foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The targets included “storage facilities, headquarters, and military compounds” as well as “Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries,” it said.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the strikes had killed three of its soldiers and wounded another.
The monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 people were killed, including foreign fighters as well as Syrian soldiers.
The foreigners included five fighters who were “likely Iranian and belonging to the Quds force” as well as two pro-Iran fighters of undetermined nationality, the Britain-based monitor said.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes on Syria since civil war broke out there in 2011, targeting Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces as well as government troops.
– Retaliatory strikes –
The Jewish state rarely acknowledges individual strikes but has done so when responding to what it describes as aggression inside Israeli territory.
Israel’s military said it had discovered improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on its side of the armistice line on the Golan Heights on Tuesday.
“We are talking about three connected Claymore anti-personnel charges that were planted close to an IDF position,” army spokesman Jonathan Conricus told reporters Wednesday.
“This was another attempt led by Iranian Quds forces. The actual planting of the IEDs was by Syrian locals but the guidance, instruction and control was by Iranian Quds forces,” he said.
Most Arab residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights retain Syrian citizenship, having spurned the offer of Israeli papers.
Conricus said Israel had carried out retaliatory strikes against eight separate targets inside Syria, from the armistice line on the Golan all the way to the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus.
He said they included three Iranian command centres — a headquarters in the Damascus airport, a Quds Force base in the headquarters of Syria’s seventh army division, and a “secret military site which served as a hosting facility for senior Iranian delegations”.
“We hope now that the message is clear — that it is unacceptable that the Syrian regime allows and tolerates and facilitates the use by Iranian forces of Syria as a launchpad for attacks against Israel.”
Israel and Syria, still technically at war, have a border along the Golan Heights, which the Jewish State has occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967.
Iran has been a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime throughout the civil war that erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests and has killed more than 380,000 people.
– Pompeo visit –
The airstrikes came hours before Pompeo was to land in Israel, for talks on Iran that are likely to focus on Israeli fears of a softer policy towards Iran after the Trump administration hands over to Democrat Joe Biden in January.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called Trump his country’s strongest-ever ally in the White House, has heaped praised on the administration for its hardline approach towards Iran.
Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic has included sanctions and scrapping of the nuclear deal agreed between Tehran and world powers during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Israeli experts have said Netanyahu is concerned that the president-elect, Obama’s former vice president, will seek to re-engage Iran diplomatically, possibly by restoring the 2015 nuclear deal Trump pulled the US out of.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdellatif al-Zayani was also due in Israel for the first visit by a senior official of the Gulf Arab state since it signed a normalisation deal with Israel on September 15.
The deal was condemned as a betrayal by Iran and its regional allies.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, a stalwart of Bashar al-Assad’s regime who held his job through a decade of conflict and several reshuffles, died Monday at the age of 79.
The veteran diplomat, who had been foreign minister since 2006, started his career in the diplomatic service in 1964.
In 2012, a year after Syria’s deadly conflict started, he was also made deputy prime minister.
The government announcement did not specify the cause of his death but his health was understood to be deteriorating for some time.
His last public appearance was at the end of last week in Damascus for the opening of a conference on refugee returns. He looked weak and was helped into the hall by two men.
In press conferences, he was known for his mocking stances against the West, which he accused of conspiring to start Syria’s conflict.
He was targeted by US sanctions as early as August 2011, less than six months after the eruption of protests demanding regime change — demonstrations that the Syrian authorities brutally repressed.
Muallem has “continued to beat this drum of international conspiracy and has attempted to cover up the regime’s horrific activities by making claims that terrorists or others were responsible,” Washington said at the time.
During more than half a century in the foreign service, he held posts in Tanzania, Saudi Arabia, Spain and the United Kingdom, among other countries.
He was appointed ambassador to Romania in 1975, five years after Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez came to power.
Muallem was Syria’s envoy in Washington throughout the 1990s and also led Damascus’ peace talks with Israel during that same period.
UN-backed talks on a new constitution for Syria resumed in Geneva on Thursday after Swiss health authorities gave the green light despite four delegates testing positive for Covid-19.
The discussions, aimed at rewriting the war-torn country’s constitution, were put on hold almost as soon as they started on Monday when the test results came through.
UN envoy Geir Pedersen, who is moderating the tentative talks between representatives of President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the opposition and civil society, has voiced hope they could pave the way towards a broader political process.
His office said in a statement that “following additional testing and further medical and expert advice regarding four earlier positive tests for Covid-19”, Swiss authorities had determined the meeting could go ahead at the UN Palais des Nations. They resumed at 2:00 pm (1200 GMT).
The committee members — 15 each from the government, the opposition and from civil society — were tested for the new coronavirus before they travelled to Geneva, and were tested again on arrival in the Swiss city.
The positive second tests were found among delegates who arrived from Damascus, opposition negotiations leader Hadi al-Bahra told a virtual press briefing on Tuesday.
One opposition delegate, one from civil society and two representing the government, tested positive, he said.
Pedersen said further testing in recent days “indicates that the earlier positive cases do not pose any risk,” adding though that “out of an abundance of caution”, the talks would proceed at the UN “only with those who have tested negative.”
He stressed strict precautions would be followed during the talks.
The discussions had been scheduled to wrap up Friday, but Pedersen said the plan now was to extend the talks into Saturday.
He said committee delegates seemed eager to resume dialogue as “a signal of the importance of this process.”
He hailed a “constructive” first meeting on Monday, and said delegates appeared keen to have “substantive discussions” for the remainder of the week.
The Constitutional Committee was created in September last year and first convened a month later.
Disagreement on the agenda prevented a second round of planned talks from taking place in late November. The pandemic has delayed them ever since.
The United Nations has been striving for more than nine years to nurture a political resolution to Syria’s civil war, which has killed more than 380,000 people and displaced more than 11 million.