News Digest — 1/15/20

IDF Kills Three Iranian Fighters Near Damascus, Says Syria

Syria’s air defenses confronted an aerial “aggression” from Israel that targeted an air base in the country’s center late Tuesday (14th), state media reported, quoting a military official.

The official quoted by the state news agency SANA said the alleged Israeli strike targeted the T-4 air base in Homs province shortly after 10 p.m. local time.  The official said the attack caused material damage to the base by four rockets that landed in the targeted area.

According to a Reuters report on Wednesday (15th), three fighters in Iranian-backed militias were eliminated in the strike and a number of others were injured, based on information supplied by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

There is no immediate Israeli comment.  Israel has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Syria over the past years but it rarely comments on what it targets.

Israel is widely believed to have been behind airstrikes mainly targeting Iranian and Hezbollah forces in Syria that have joined the country’s war, fighting alongside the government.  Iran directs a number of terror proxies throughout the region, which threaten sovereign nations and undermine the governments of host countries.

The strike on Tuesday (14th) comes during heightened tensions after the recent escalation between the US and Iran, Damascus’ main ally in the region.

A US airstrike in Baghdad killed Iran’s top general earlier in January.  General Qassem Soleimani was the main architect of Iran’s policy of regional aggression and was critical to the Syrian director of Bashar Assad’s forces in the country’s civil war, supplying thousands of fighters who fought alongside Syrian troops.

Known as the “Butcher of Damascus” Assad is widely believed to have carried out chemical attacks on his own people, hundreds of thousands of whom have perished during the nation’s bloody civil war.

Russia announced late last year that it had delivered the S-300 air defense system to Syria, which was used Tuesday night (14th) to intercept several Israeli missiles.  Russia, too, is a key ally of Assad, and its intervention in the civil war, beginning in 2015, helped turn the tide in Assad’s favor.   



Lebanese Protesters Back In The Streets Following Brief Lull

Following a brief lull, Lebanese protesters returned to the streets, blocking several roads around the capital, Beirut, and other areas of the country on Tuesday (14th) in renewed rallies against a ruling elite they say has failed to address the economy’s downward spiral.  Protesters burned tires and blocked three main highways leading to the capital from the south, east and north, bringing traffic to a standstill. School and university students took part in some of the protests and hundreds marched down main highways, raising Lebanese flags and blasting rallying songs through loudspeakers.

The protesters returned to the streets after several weeks of calm, following the designation of Hassan Diab as prime minister in mid-December.  The lull was partly due to the holidays followed by soaring regional tensions between the US and Iran that eclipsed the protesters in Lebanon and Iraq demanding sweeping political change.

In downtown Beirut, dozens rallied outside the Central Bank, chanting against the governor and his financial policies.

Lebanon is facing its worst economic crisis in decades, with the local currency plummeting against the dollar, losing over 60% of its value over the last weeks while sources of foreign currency have dried up.  Meanwhile, banks have imposed informal capital controls limiting withdrawal of dollars and foreign transfers in the country, which relies heavily on imports of basic goods.

Panic has set in among residents who fear their deposits are in danger.  Nationwide protests for three months have failed to pressure politicians to form a new government to institute drastic reforms.

Diab, the designated prime minister, has so far failed to form an emergency government amid political divisions and jockeying for power.  Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned in late October.

Nationwide protests began in mid-October, denouncing years of government mismanagement and corruption, demanding the political elite step down.



UK, France And Germany Trigger Clause To Impose Sanctions On Iran

In response to Iran’s continuing violations of the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have triggered a clause in the agreement that paves the way for future sanctions on Iran if deemed necessary.

The “dispute resolution” clause can be triggered by any party which believes that a signatory on the deal is not upholding its commitments.  The complaint is then handled by the Joint Commission, the members of which are Iran, Russia, China, Germany, France, Britain, and the European Union, which were all part of the negotiations leading to the deal.  The US withdrew from the pact in 2018.

If, after a designated period of time, the matter is not resolved through various procedures, the complaint can be taken to the UN Security Council which can call for a vote to impose sanctions on Iran.

“We have therefore been left with no choice, given Iran’s actions, but to register today our concerns that Iran is not meeting its commitments under the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and to refer this matter to the Joint Commission under the Dispute Resolution Mechanism, as set out in paragraph 36 of the JCPOA,” the three European countries said in a joint statement on Tuesday (14th).  

“We call on Iran to participate constructively in the negotiation process that is now beginning,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in a statement on Tuesday (14th).



German Police Arrest Islamist Terror Cell Said To Be Targeting Berlin Synagogue

German police carried out raids on suspected Islamists and made arrests across the country early Tuesday (14th) over allegations they were plotting an attack, Berlin officials said.

German authorities are on high alert for Islamist threats to Europe’s most populous country, which has in recent years suffered several attacks.

“On suspicion of planning a serious violent act endangering the state, search warrants are being executed in Berlin, Brandenburg, North Rhine-Westphalia and Thuringia,” the Berlin attorney general’s office said via Twitter.

The alleged militants of Chechen origin, are aged between 23 and 28 and “suspected of having scouted locations for a possible Islamic attack,” Berlin police said in a statement.

“The suspicions were prompted by pictures found on the cellphone of one of the suspects during a routine police check,” it added.

German news magazine Spiegel said the suspects may have had a synagogue in Berlin in their sights after video material of the building was found.

The suspects also allegedly scouted out several shopping centers as possible targets, said the magazine

Some 180 officers took part in the raids, confiscating cash, hard drives and knives.

Germany’s deadliest attack was a truck rampage at a Berlin Christmas market in 2016, which killed 12 people.

Since then, German authorities have thwarted nine attacks believed to have radical Islamist motives.

Germany security services estimate that there are around 11,000 Islamic radicals in Germany – of them some 680 are deemed particularly dangerous and capable of causing violence – a five-fold increase since 2015.

An anti-Semitic bloodbath was narrowly averted in October when an armed assailant tried to blast his way into a synagogue in Halle, Germany where scores of worshipers were attending services on Yom Kippur – the holiest day in Judaism.

Unable to break through a locked door, the gunman went on a rampage in nearby streets, killing two people and wounding two others.

Meanwhile, 150 potentially dangerous Islamic radicals are being detained by Germany for various offenses, according to security services. 



Jeopardy! Says Question On Bethlehem Church Shouldn’t Have Aired

Popular television game show “Jeopardy” said Monday (13th) that a question about the location of the Church of the Nativity was included in last Friday’s (10th) broadcast in error.

The question prompted an uproar among pro-Palestinian Arabs after the show refused to accept “Palestine” as an answer for the location of the church. 

“In the process of taping this clue, ‘BUILT IN THE 300s a.d., THE CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY’ we became aware that the clue was flawed as written and that determining an acceptable response would be problematic,” the show said in a statement quoted by NBC News.

“In accordance with our rules and in the interest of fairness, we voided the clue and threw it out,” the statement added.

The contestants’ scores were restored to what they had been before the clue came up, and the outcome of the game was not affected, the show said.

“Unfortunately, through human error in post-production, the uncorrected version of the game was broadcast.  We regret the error, and we will make every effort to ensure this never happens again,” the statement from the show added.

The controversy began after contestant Katie Needle answered the question about the location of the church in Bethlehem as “What is Palestine?”

Host Alex Trebek’s response, a decisive “no,” set off a wave of controversy.  Another contestant, Jack McGuire, answered “What is Israel?” and the $200 was added to his score.

Bethlehem, where the church is located, has been under the control of the Palestinian Authority since the Oslo Accords in 1993.    

In 2012, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee approved a PA bid to place the church in Bethlehem on its list of sites of World Heritage in danger.