Syria Today – ISIS Kills 14 Soldiers; Israeli Strikes Eliminate Two Hezbollah Syria Veterans

Your daily brief of the English-speaking press on Syria.

A military bus in the Syrian desert was attacked by the Islamic State group on Tuesday, resulting in the death of at least 14 soldiers, as reported by a war monitor. This marks the second attack of its kind this year. Additionally, two high-ranking Hezbollah commanders were killed in Israeli airstrikes in southern Lebanon. Both are said to have played significant roles in the Syrian conflict.

IDF kills Hamas rocket commander in Syria

The Israeli army said it eliminated Hassan Akasha, a senior Hamas operative responsible for rocket launches from Syria.

Since Hamas launched its Oct. 7 operation, Akasha “directed Hamas squads that fired rockets from Syria,” tweeted IDF Spokesperson Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

“We will not allow terrorism from Syrian territory, and it [Syria] is responsible for any action that leaves its territory. We will continue to act against any threat,” added Hagari.

Akasha was killed in the southern Syrian town of Beit Jinn, west of Damascus. Monday’s statement did not say how he was killed.

Israel has reportedly hit hundreds of terror targets in Syria in recent years as part of an effort to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in the country, though it rarely confirms these strikes.

Israel has reportedly struck the Aleppo and Damascus airports multiple times in a bid to prevent Tehran from smuggling weapons via Syria to its terror proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Israel is currently carrying out an “unprecedented” wave of attacks on targets linked to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, Reuters claimed on Monday, citing six local sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

Assassinated Hezbollah commander had role in raid that sparked 2006 war, fought in Syria

The elite Hezbollah commander who was killed in an alleged Israeli airstrike in southern Lebanon Monday played a central role in some of the group’s most high-profile attacks, including a deadly 2006 cross-border raid that triggered the Second Lebanon War.

Wissam al-Tawil was described by the Iran-backed group as a “commander,” while a senior source in Lebanon told the Reuters news agency that he was a commander of Hezbollah’s elite Radwan forces and the most senior Hezbollah officer killed so far in the recent fighting along the border.

In Israel, unsourced reports in Hebrew media claimed that Tawil had recently become leader of the Radwan force, an elite unit within Hezbollah thought responsible for a number of skirmishes on the Israel-Lebanon border. However, Lebanon’s al-Meyadeen news outlet, considered closely linked to Hezbollah, said reports that Tawil was the commander of Radwan were false, without elaborating.

A security source told AFP that Tawil “had a leading role in managing Hezbollah’s operations in the south,” near the Israeli border.

In a statement posted to Telegram, Hezbollah said that Tawil had “led” operations against Israeli forces along the restive frontier, which since the Hamas-led terror onslaught on October 7 has seen near-daily skirmishes and cross-border strikes from both sides.

Israeli officials have been demanding for weeks that the Radwan force withdraw from the border area to allow tens of thousands of Israelis displaced by the fighting to return to their homes.

On Monday, Tawil was killed when an airstrike hit a car he was in, near his hometown of Khirbet Selm, some 10 kilometres (6 miles) from northern Israel. On Tuesday, Israel also killed Ali Barji, said to be the leader of Hezbollah’s drone force and to have played an active role in the war in Syria.

Islamic State Group Kills 14 Syria Soldiers

An Islamic State group attack killed at least 14 soldiers aboard a military bus in the Syrian desert Tuesday, a war monitor said, in the second such attack this year.

“At least 14 members of the regime forces were killed” and several others wounded “in a bloody IS attack on a military bus,” in the desert near the ancient city of Palmyra, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Last week, IS killed nine Syrian government troops and militiamen in an attack on military posts in the eastern desert, according to the British-based monitor.

The jihadist group continues to mount attacks on troops and other government targets from desert hideouts where its fighters regrouped after losing their last piece of territory in Syria in March 2019.

More than half a million people have been killed in the civil war which erupted in Syria in 2011 after Damascus brutally suppressed anti-government protests.

 Vigilante Actions Against Drug Trade in Syria’s Daraa Province

Syrian columnist Haid Haid published an article in the Middle East Institute, in which he argues that a vigilante war against drug trafficking in Daraa, Syria, is intensifying. A recent assassination of a 53-year-old man affiliated with Syria’s Military Intelligence Directorate, known for his involvement in drug trafficking, marks a notable shift in the nature of violence in the area. This incident is part of a broader trend of drug-related assassinations that began last year, with an estimated 70 to 150 people killed for their involvement in drug activities.

Haid quoted local sources as indicating a rising community-driven effort to combat the drug trade, a response to the regime’s apparent complicity and failure to address the issue. These targeted killings, though significant, are unlikely to fully eradicate the deeply entrenched drug-related activities in the region.

The victims, often linked to the Syrian regime and its intelligence agencies, are targeted in various ways, including shootings in residences and ambushes while in transit. The majority are affiliated with military intelligence, which controls a substantial portion of the drug networks in western Syria.

High-profile figures involved in drug trafficking, such as Mustafa al-Mesalmeh, have also been targeted. Al-Mesalmeh, also known as al-Kasem, was among 11 individuals sanctioned by the UK and the US for their role in Syria’s drug trade.

Additionally, the article says, that anti-drug operations have targeted facilities linked to Iran-backed militias, suggesting a broader scope of these vigilante actions.

The local populace’s growing frustration over the surge in drug consumption and the associated rise in crime has been a driving force behind these vigilante actions. Drugs like hashish, Captagon, and crystal meth are readily available, even in schools, indicating an aggressive push by traffickers.

Despite the regime’s promises, there has been little official action against these illicit activities. The Assad regime, benefiting from the drug trade financially and politically, has largely turned a blind eye, even as Arab states demand action against the drug trade as a precondition for normalizing relations.

Syria, particularly since the regime regained control over key border areas, has become a major producer of Captagon, turning its drug industry into a lucrative international enterprise.

The failure of both the Assad regime and former opposition factions to effectively tackle this issue has prompted local armed groups, including former opposition fighters now under the regime’s umbrella, to initiate anti-drug campaigns. However, these efforts have been inconsistent and sometimes perceived as pretextual or ineffective.

Amidst this backdrop, armed locals and former fighters have assumed the role of anti-drug vigilantes. Operating in organized groups, they carry out targeted assassinations to address the drug menace while avoiding direct confrontation with the regime.

While these vigilante actions have introduced a new dynamic in the fight against drug trafficking, they are unlikely to resolve the deep-seated issues fueling the drug trade in Daraa. The entrenched power and profit motives of the traffickers, coupled with the complexity of the local political landscape, suggest that these targeted killings may only add another layer of violence to the already unstable region.

 Israel Escalates Strikes on Iran-Linked Targets in Syria

Reuters reported that Israel has intensified its air strike campaign in Syria since October 7, specifically targeting Iranian arms transfers and air defense systems. This shift in strategy marks a departure from Israel’s previous approach, which involved firing warning shots before destroying targets. Now, the strikes are both deadlier and more frequent, directly targeting personnel and equipment without warning.

This escalation follows an incident on October 7 involving Hamas fighters entering Israeli territory, leading to Israeli bombing campaigns in Gaza and Lebanon. Since then, Israel has become less cautious about causing heavy casualties, particularly among Hezbollah members in Syria. In the past three months, these air strikes have killed 19 Hezbollah members in Syria, more than double the total for the rest of 2023. Additionally, over 130 Hezbollah fighters have been killed by Israeli shelling in southern Lebanon during the same period.

Israeli military officials have not responded directly to inquiries about the campaign but have indicated that these actions are retaliatory. Previously, Israel avoided inflicting high casualties on Hezbollah members to prevent retaliation from Lebanon. However, the recent spike in cross-border violence has led to a change in Israel’s tactics.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, acknowledged the loss of fighters in Syria, citing a shift in the dynamics of their engagement with Israel. The strikes have also affected Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria, with recent attacks resulting in the deaths of several members, including a senior adviser overseeing military coordination between Syria and Iran.

Additionally, the strikes have targeted infrastructure, such as air defence bases and equipment, significantly impacting Syria’s defensive capabilities. These actions convey a message to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about the consequences of allowing Iranian and Hezbollah weapon transfers and entrenchment.

Despite this escalation, the Syrian military, which relied on Hezbollah and Iran during its civil war, has not opened a new front against Israel. According to a Syrian intelligence officer, Syria is not seeking direct confrontation or open war with Israel. Assad has also reportedly been discouraged from supporting Hamas after receiving threats, presumably from Israel, delivered through the United Arab Emirates. However, the UAE denies these claims.

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