Last week was mostly business as usual for the Middle East until the weekend came along. On Saturday, Israel’s military announced that it had carried out a “large-scale” aerial attack inside Syria, after back-and-forth clashes overnight in which an Iranian drone was shot down in Israeli territory and an Israeli F-16 was downed by Syrian antiaircraft fire. The attacks and counterattacks mark the first time that Israel and Syria have engaged in direct combat since the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Israel and the United States placed blame for the incident on Iran’s malevolent role in the Syrian Civil War. Not surprisingly, Iran dismissed Israel’s claims that the drone was Iranian or that Iran was involved in the attack in any way. Its Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasemi called the claims “ridiculous,” according to Reuters, and, in fact, Iran denies having conventional armed forces in Syria. Qasemi went on to say, “Iran only provides military advice to Syria based on the request of the country’s legitimate government.” Israel and Syria both justified their rights to defend their territory. Meanwhile, Lebanon’s National News Agency reported that an errant anti-aircraft missile “fired by the Israeli enemy” fell in a Lebanese citrus grove and says the Lebanese government will file a complaint with the United Nations Security Council over Israel’s use of its airspace to launch attacks on Syria. Though Israeli air strikes in Syria are not unusual the loss of an Israeli fighter jet marks a serious escalation in the 7-year-conflict that many erroneously assumed would begin to subside following the defeat of the Islamic State. Rather, UN Human Rights Commissioner Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein said the past week was one of the bloodiest in Syria since the conflict began in 2011 – with at least 277 civilian deaths reported.
In other news last week:
- On Monday, Lebanon said a wall Israel intends to build along their border marks a violation of Lebanese sovereignty during a meeting of Lebanese and Israeli military officers chaired by U.N. peacekeepers. Disagreement over the wall and Lebanon’s plans to explore for offshore oil and gas in disputed maritime waters have elevated tensions between Israel and Lebanon, which is home to the powerful Iran-backed Shi‘ite group Hezbollah. The Israeli army has previously said the construction work is being done on sovereign Israeli territory. Lebanon has an unresolved maritime border dispute, one among many of its disagreements, with Israel over a triangular area of sea of around 860 sq km (330 square miles) that extends along the edge of three of five blocks Lebanon put to tender early last year.
- On Wednesday, Minister of Youth and Sports for Morocco, Rachid Talbi El-Alami, announced the country is prepared to bid to host the 2026 World Cup. With soccer being one of the most treasured games in the region, Morocco is ready to invest an estimated $1 billion to celebrate and organize the competition for the international soccer community. If selected amongst the three known competitors, who are bidding as a single host — the United States, Mexico and Canada — Morocco will be the second Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup, following Qatar who holds the bid for 2022. FIFA is set to vote on the bids June 13, 2018. Neighboring Algeria has also joined the list of African countries expressing their full support for Morocco’s bid.
- An overnight airstrike by the United States on February 8th killed nearly 100 pro-government fighters in Syria. This act came with criticism by the Syrian government describing it as a “massacre”. A a media network, known to be loyal to the government, reported the United States killed “local people.” The perception of events and escalation of division between the Syrian and United States governments, including their allied support, is alarming for the fact the country is already on the brink of the most severe humanitarian crisis since the conflict began in 2011. The United Nations called for a cease-fire in Syria on February 6th, prior to the U.S. airstrike, emphasizing a one month period is needed to provide the nearly 3 million people with aid and humanitarian support to prevent a catastrophe.
- And, lastly, no one seems quite how to deal with the large numbers of captured foreign ISIS fighters. The United States would prefer to see foreign fighters repatriated to their countries of origin for prosecution, a senior Pentagon official said on Sunday. The issue received renewed attention when U.S. officials said the predominantly Kurdish and U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had captured two of four militants known as the “Beatles” for their English accents. A U.S. official said the United States is in talks with the British about an appropriate course of action but there is no cohesive policy on what to do with the militants detained by the SDF. The large number of former fighters mixing in detention facilities often crammed with prisoners could lead to a proliferation of militant views and deeper radicalization, officials have said. The other concern is that detention facilities in Syria are reaching capacity: at one point, SDF forces were capturing 40 to 50 Islamic State fighters a day. Katie Wheelbarger, the principle deputy assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs, said “The capacity problem is very real … I think they are willing to hold them as long as we need. (But) if they continue to capture them at the rates that they are, their facilities are eventually going to be full.” At this time there are no plans to bring them to the United States or Guantanamo Bay.