Israel launches major air strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Israel launched an air attack against Iranian-linked targets in Syria near the main border crossing to Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday, one of the biggest strikes yet in a campaign that has escalated in the Trump administration’s final weeks.

Israel has been stepping up strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, part of aggressive posture adopted before President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week in what could bring a reassessment of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran.

Syrian news agency SANA and Syrian state media said Israel had struck sites in Al Bukamal, the Syrian city that controls the border checkpoint on the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. The highway is part of the main over ground supply route linking Iran to its proxy fighters in Syria and Lebanon.

The Syrian reports also said Israeli strikes had hit areas in Deir al Zor province, where Iranian-backed militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fighters have a heavy presence.

Two residents in the regional capital Deir al Zor City told Reuters they could hear the distant sound of huge explosions, apparently from arms depots destroyed in the raids.

Israel’s military did not immediately comment. Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli government minister, told Israeli radio he would not discuss the specific reports, but that Israel hit Iranian targets in Syria “whenever our intelligence dictates it and according to our operational capability.”

The United States has a small number of troops at Tanf, a base in Syria near Al Bukamal, the main city struck by Wednesday’s Israeli raid. Western intelligence sources say Israel’s stepped up strikes on Syria in the last few months are part of a shadow war approved by the Trump administration.

Israel’s Defense Force Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said last month that missile strikes had “slowed down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria” adding they had hit more than 500 targets in 2020.

Israel has said its goal is to end Tehran’s military presence, which Western intelligence sources say has expanded in Syria in recent years.

A regional intelligence source said the targets included Syrian security compounds inside Al Bukamal and Deir Zor, while in the past raids had struck only the cities’ outskirts.

The latest raids were notable for having hit “advanced weaponry and weapons depots … in a large combat arena,” the regional intelligence source said.

Iran’s proxy militias led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah now hold sway over vast areas in eastern, southern and northwestern Syria, as well as several suburbs around Damascus. They also control Lebanese-Syrian border areas.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Suleiman al Khalidi in Amman; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. imposes fresh sanctions on Syria in push for Assad to end war

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Tuesday slapped fresh sanctions on Syria, targeting its central bank and blacklisting several people and entities in a continued effort to cut off funds for President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

The latest action, building on sanctions imposed on Syria earlier this year, marked another round in a U.S. campaign to push Assad’s government back into U.N.-led negotiations to end the country’s nearly decade-long war.

In a statement, the U.S. Treasury Department said the new sanctions add two individuals, nine business entities and the Central Bank of Syria to Washington’s Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons List.

The U.S. State Department also designated Asma al-Assad, the British-born wife of the Syrian president, accusing her of impeding efforts for a political resolution to the war, and several members of her family, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement. Asma al-Assad was previously hit with sanctions in June.

Millions of people have fled Syria and millions more have been internally displaced since a crackdown by Assad on protesters in 2011 led to civil war with Iran and Russia backing the government and the United States supporting the opposition.

Syria has been under U.S. and European Union sanctions that have frozen foreign-held assets of the state and hundreds of companies and individuals. Washington already bans exports to Syria and investment there by Americans, as well as transactions involving oil and hydrocarbon products.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis and Lisa Lambert Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Mark Heinrich)

Vienna gunman rampaged alone, intelligence was fumbled: Austrian minister

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Large quantities of mobile phone footage have confirmed that the jihadist who killed four people in a rampage in Vienna on Monday was the only gunman, but Austria fumbled intelligence on him, Interior Minister Karl Nehammer said on Wednesday.

Austria arrested 14 people aged 18 to 28 on Tuesday in connection with the attack and is investigating them on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization, he said. But it would also have to investigate its own actions, he added.

“Before the terror attack began, according to the information currently available, some things also went wrong,” Nehammer told a news conference.

In July, neighboring Slovakia’s intelligence service had handed over information suggesting the attacker had tried and failed to buy ammunition there, Nehammer and a top ministry official, Director General for Public Security Franz Ruf, said.

“In the next steps evidently something went wrong here with communications,” said Nehammer, who called for the formation of an independent commission to examine the errors made.

After receiving the tip-off from Slovakia, Austria’s domestic intelligence agencies at the federal and provincial level made the necessary checks and sent questions back to Bratislava, Ruf said.

“It’s up to the commission to clarify whether the process went optimally and in line with the law,” he said when pressed on what had gone wrong.

The gunman, who was shot dead by police within minutes of opening fire on crowded bars on Monday evening, was a 20-year-old with dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. Born and raised in Vienna, he had already been convicted of trying to reach Syria to join Islamic State and had spent time in jail.

All of those arrested in Austria have a “migration background”, Nehammer said. Vienna police chief Gerhard Puerstl added that some were dual citizens of Bangladesh, North Macedonia, Turkey or Russia.

Neutral Austria, part of the U.S.-led Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS formed in 2014, has for years seen jihadist attacks as its biggest security threat and warned of the danger posed by foreign fighters returning from Iraq or Syria or their admirers.

At the end of 2018, the authorities knew of 320 people from Austria who were actively involved or had wanted to participate in jihad in Syria and Iraq. Of these, around 58 people were thought to have died in the region and 93 to have returned to Austria. Another 62 were prevented from leaving the country.

Nehammer repeated criticism of a deradicalization program, saying the gunman had “perfectly” fooled the program to reintegrate jihadists into society.

LONE GUNMAN

Members of the public had handed in more than 20,000 mobile phone videos that the authorities analyzed before coming to the conclusion that there was only one gunman, Nehammer said, putting an end to lingering confusion on that point.

Switzerland has also arrested two men in connection with the attack. Its justice minister said the two were “obviously friends” with the gunman.

Ruf said Austria was in contact with Switzerland and another country that he declined to identify over the investigation.

North Macedonia said on Tuesday three people were somehow involved in the attack and all had dual Austrian and North Macedonian citizenship. It identified them only by initials.

Monday’s attack drew international expressions of support for Austria, which had been spared the deadly militant attacks that have hit other European countries in the past decade.

President Emmanuel Macron of France, which has suffered two deadly attacks recently amid Islamist anger over the publication of satirical caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad, will visit Vienna next Monday, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s office said.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Michael Shields; Writing by Michael Shields and Francois Murphy; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Gareth Jones)

Alleged Islamic State militants known as ‘Beatles’ headed to U.S. to face charges

By Mark Hosenball

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Two alleged Islamic State militants known as the ‘Beatles’ will arrive in the United States on Wednesday to face trial on U.S. charges for their alleged involvement in beheadings of American hostages in Syria, the U.S. Department of Justice said.

The alleged militants, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, have been in U.S. military custody abroad since they were captured in 2019. They grew up in Britain and were UK citizens, but the British government withdrew their citizenship.

The pair are suspected of membership in a four-strong Islamic State cell known as the ‘Beatles’ because of their British accents. The group is alleged to have detained or killed Western hostages in Syria, including U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.

“These charges are the product of many years of hard work in pursuit of justice for our citizens slain by ISIS. Although we cannot bring them back, we can and will seek justice for them, their families, and for all Americans,” Attorney General William P. Barr said in a statement.

In order to secure British help in obtaining evidence on the pair, Barr agreed that U.S. prosecutors would not seek the death penalty in any cases against them and would not carry out executions if they were imposed.

The pair were held in Iraq by the U.S. military for around a year and are now in FBI custody, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers told a news conference.

“As for their ringleader, Mohamed Emwazi (infamously known as Jihadi John), he faced a different type of American resolve – the mighty reach of our military, which successfully targeted him in an airstrike several years ago,” Demers said.

FBI Director Christopher Wray said Islamic State is still trying to radicalize people in the United States and elsewhere.

“Their goal is to motivate people to launch attacks against Western targets wherever they are, using any means available,” Wray said.

Wray and Demers said the support of the British government was critical to moving the investigation and prosecution forward.

The families of Foley, Kassig, Mueller and Sotloff welcomed the news.

“James, Peter, Kayla and Steven were kidnapped, tortured, beaten, starved, and murdered by members of the Islamic State in Syria,” they said in a joint statement.

“Now our families can pursue accountability for these crimes against our children in a U.S. court.”

If convicted, Kotey and Elsheikh could face up to life in prison. The two are expected to appear in federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, on Wednesday afternoon, officials said.

(Reporting by Mark Hosenball and Idrees Ali; Editing by Mary Milliken and Rosalba O’Brien)

U.N. war crimes experts urge Turkey to rein in rebels in Syria

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Turkey must rein in Syrian rebels it supports in northern Syria who may have carried out kidnappings, torture and looting of civilian property, United Nations war crimes investigators said on Tuesday.

The panel also said transfers of Syrian nationals detained by the opposition Syrian National Army to Turkish territory for prosecution may amount to the war crime of unlawful deportation.

In a report covering the first half of 2020, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said assassinations and rapes of civilians by all sides, marked by “sectarian undertones”, were on the rise in the conflict that began in 2011.

“In Afrin, Ras al Ain and the surrounding areas, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army may have committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture and rape,” panel chair Paulo Pinheiro told a news briefing.

“Turkey should act to prevent these abuses and ensure the protection of civilians in the areas under its control,” he said.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties during military operations in Syria.

Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides in Syria. Russia, along with Iran, supports President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Turkey backs rebels trying to oust him. Turkey seized control of the border town of Ras al Ain last year in an offensive to push back Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, which Ankara views as a terrorist group.

Turkey wields influence as it funded, trained and allowed the rebel force known as the Syrian National Army to enter Syria from Turkey, panelist Hanny Megally said.

“Whilst we can’t say Turkey is in charge of them and issues orders and has command control over them, we think that it could use its influence much more to bring them into check and certainly to pressure them to desist from the violations being committed and to investigate them,” he said.

Investigations carried out so far by the Syrian National Army are insufficient, even as violations increase, he added.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

COVID-19 can wipe out health care progress in short order: WHO

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 90% of countries have seen ordinary health services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with major gains in medical care attained over decades vulnerable to being wiped out in a short period, a World Health Organization survey showed.

The Geneva-based body has frequently warned about other life-saving programs being impacted by the pandemic and has sent countries mitigation advice, but the survey yielded the first WHO data so far on the scale of disruptions.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on essential health services is a source of great concern,” said a report on the study released on Monday. “Major health gains achieved over the past two decades can be wiped out in a short period of time…”

The survey includes responses from between May and July from more than 100 countries. Among the most affected services were routine immunizations (70%), family planning (68%) and cancer diagnosis and treatment (55%), while emergency services were disturbed in almost a quarter of responding countries.

The Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, was most affected followed by the African and Southeast Asian regions, it showed. The Americas was not part of the survey.

Since COVID-19 cases were first identified in December last year, the virus is thought to have killed nearly 850,000 people, the latest Reuters tally showed.

Researchers think that non-COVID deaths have also increased in some places due partly to health service disruptions, although these may be harder to calculate.

The WHO survey said it was “reasonable to anticipate that even a modest disruption in essential health services could lead to an increase in morbidity and mortality from causes other than COVID-19 in the short to medium and long-term.” Further research was needed.

It also warned that the disruptions could be felt even after the pandemic ends. “The impact may be felt beyond the immediate pandemic as, in trying to catch up on services, countries may find that resources are overwhelmed.”

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

UK court lifts bar on evidence transfer over Islamic State ‘Beatles’

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted a bar which prevented the government from giving evidence to U.S. authorities about an alleged Islamic State execution squad, nicknamed “the Beatles”, after reassurances were given that the men would not face the death penalty.

The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking the extradition of Britons Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who are accused of the killing and torture of Western hostages in Syria.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said last week that U.S. prosecutors would not seek the death penalty against the men or carry out executions if they were imposed, an issue which had been a stumbling block for Britain handing over captured militants.

In March, Britain’s Supreme Court had ruled that data protection laws meant Britain could not provide material to the United States or other foreign countries in cases which could lead to a death penalty. That decision followed legal action brought by Elsheikh’s mother, Maha El Gizouli.

The British courts imposed a block on the transfer of evidence while her case was ongoing. But the Supreme Court said it had released an order on Wednesday which formally ended El Gizouli’s action and thus ended the legal prohibition.

“The order concludes the proceedings in the Supreme Court, which means that the stay or the stop on providing material to the U.S. government is removed,” a court spokeswoman said.

There was no immediate response from Britain’s Home Office (interior ministry).

Kotey and Elsheikh are being held by the U.S. military in an unidentified overseas location after they were captured in 2019 but Barr said it was becoming untenable to continue to hold them.

The pair were members of a four-strong Islamic State unit that was known as the Beatles because they were English speakers.

They are alleged to have detained or killed Western hostages, including U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.

One member, Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John”, was believed to have been killed in a 2015 U.S.-British missile strike.

The U.S. Justice Department wants Britain to turn over evidence it has on Kotey and Elsheikh to allow them to be tried in the United States.

Barr had said if Britain did not turn over the material by Oct. 15, the United States would turn over the men for prosecution in the Iraqi justice system.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Hezbollah leader says Israel turns attention to hitting missile-making sites in Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday that Israel is now concentrating its attacks in Syria on missile-manufacturing sites.

Israel has conducted many raids inside Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. It sees the presence of Hezbollah and its ally Iran there as a strategic threat.

The heavily armed Lebanese Shi’ite movement has played a vital role in the war, helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reclaim much of the country.

In rare comments on Israeli attacks in Syria, Nasrallah said that with Assad firmly in control, Israel has turned its attention more recently to striking Syrian targets for precision missile manufacturing seen as a threat.

He denied that Israeli airstrikes have pushed either Hezbollah or Iran to retreat from Syria, calling Israel’s insistence that they have done so “imaginary victories”.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in April that the Israeli military was working to drive Tehran out of Syria.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Jon Boyle and Angus MacSwan)

Syrian air force behind chemical attacks, investigation team finds

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria August 29, 2013.

By Anthony Deutsch

(Reuters) – Syrian Arab Air Force pilots flying Sukhoi Su-22 military planes and a helicopter dropped bombs containing poisonous chlorine and sarin nerve gas on a village in the country’s western Hama region in March 2017, a new team at the global chemical weapons watchdog concluded in its first report.

The special investigative unit was established by members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2018 to identify perpetrators of illegal attacks. Until now the OPCW had only been authorised to say whether chemical attacks occurred, not who perpetrated them.

Officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its military backer Russia have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and accuse insurgents of staging attacks to implicate Syrian forces.

Syria’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment and there was no immediate reaction from Damascus to the report. In Moscow the Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) said more than 100 people were affected by the attacks, carried out on March 24, 25 and 30 in 2017 in the town of Ltamenah.

According to the ITT report, the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Air Force dropped M4000 aerial bombs containing sarin on the town and a cylinder containing chlorine on a hospital. The raids were conducted from the Sharat and Hama air bases, it said.

“Military operations of such a strategic nature as these three attacks only occur pursuant to orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces,” it said.

While individuals were identified by the OPCW investigators, their names have been redacted from the report, which was to be circulated to the OPCW’s 193 member states on Wednesday.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators … were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force,” OPCW team leader Santiago Onate-Laborde said.

The OPCW’s identification team is not a judicial body and it will be up to OPCW’s members, the U.N. Secretary General and the international community to “take any further action they deem appropriate and necessary”, OPCW chief Fernando Arias said.

An attack on the Syrian town of Douma led U.S. President Donald Trump to carry out missile strikes on Syrian government targets in April 2018 with the backing of France and Britain.

Created in 1997, the OPCW was initially a technical body to enforce a global non-proliferation treaty. It has become the focus of diplomatic conflict between Syria and Russia on one side and the United States, France and Britain on the other.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations in New York; Editing by Jon Boyle, William Maclean)

Without soap or sanitizer, Syrian refugees face coronavirus threat

By Walid Saleh and Laila Bassam

AKKAR, Lebanon/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian refugee Mohamed al-Bakhas is doing his best to protect his family from coronavirus by keeping their camp as clean as he can. But without enough soap or the money to buy sanitizer or face masks, there is only so much he can do.

“They gave us an awareness session and one bar of soap each, but this is not enough,” said Bakhas, 40, referring to aid workers who visited his camp in northern Lebanon this week.

“We ask for disinfectants, sanitizers for the camp. We are a big group,” said Bakhas, who fled to Lebanon from Homs in Syria eight years ago and lives with his wife and child.

Lebanon has recorded 149 cases of coronavirus. Four people have died from the virus so far.

No cases have been recorded yet among Syrian refugees, who number around 1 million of Lebanon’s population of 6 million.

As Lebanon’s public health system struggles with the outbreak, the government is worried about the virus spreading to camps for both Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

Health Minister Hamad Hassan said refugee health care was a responsibility shared by the state and United Nations agencies but he said the international community had been slow to react to the crisis.

“The international community with its U.N. agencies is a bit late in putting plans, thinking about establishing a field hospital or supporting the health ministry so that it can carry out its obligations toward its people: Lebanese society in addition to the Palestinian and Syrian brothers,” Hamad said.

The UNHCR refugee agency said efforts to fight the spread of coronavirus to refugee communities had started early on.

Awareness campaigns and the distribution of hygiene materials were underway and preparations were being made for additional hospitalization capacity that may be needed.

“We are all working around the clock,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, communications officer at UNHCR in Lebanon.

Given the high population density of the camps, Hamad noted the difficulties of maintaining personal hygiene and said the spread of coronavirus was a real danger.

Field hospitals would allow for the isolation and treatment of the infected.

“The international community and U.N. institutions must without delay prepare the ground to save these communities in case the virus spreads among them,” he said.

Lebanon was grappling with a financial and economic crisis before coronavirus hit. The government is appealing for foreign aid for its public health system.

Coronavirus poses a host of new difficulties to refugees who have been struggling in poverty for years in Lebanon.

With water mostly trucked to their camps, refugees do not have enough for regular handwashing, relief workers say.

As it currently stands, accessing health care can also be a big problem: if refugees need to go to hospital, they cannot afford the ride or pay for treatment.

“We are exploring all options including setting up additional facilities in existing hospitals or separate field hospitals…its likely that a combination of both will be needed,” Abou Khaled said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)