04/02/2024, 20.38
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Bishop Jallouf: Israel “has crossed every red line” in forgotten Syria

by Dario Salvi

The vicar of Aleppo expresses concerns after yesterday’s raid against the Iranian embassy in Damascus that killed General Mohammad Reza Zahedi. “Here too we have counted 35 dead in an attack that seems to have been coordinated with the rebels and terrorists who control Idlib,” said the prelate who thanks Pope Francis for citing Syria’s suffering in his Easter message. To survive, “people are constantly looking for a piece of bread,” said Maronite Archbishop Nassar.

Milan (AsiaNews) –  Mgr Samir Nassar, Maronite archbishop of Damascus, spoke to AsiaNews following yesterday's unconfirmed attack by Israel in the Syrian capital that killed at least 11 people.

For the prelate, “deadly" attacks like this risk making things worse in a country largely forgotten, where needs are huge and growing, in which "people are struggling to find a piece of bread, fuel, and all sorts of medicines to solve even the smallest of problems.”

The attack targeted General Mohammad Reza Zahedi, commander of the Quds Special Forces, a unit in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, responsible for supplying weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and his deputy, General Mohammad Hadi Hajriahimi.

Zahedi, a strong supporter of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, and his deputy were killed in an Israeli airstrike against Iran’s diplomatic mission in Syria, a first for the conflict-ridden region.

Damascus and Alep targeted

According to the Syrian Ministry of Defence, Israeli fighter planes struck the Iranian consulate in Mezzeh, western Damascus, from the occupied Golan Heights around 5 pm local time.

Syrian air defences shot down some missiles, but others got through, destroying “the entire building, killing and injuring everyone inside", the ministry added.

This follows other attacks by Israel in Syria, in the north, said Bishop Hanna Jallouf, a Franciscan who was appointed apostolic vicar of Aleppo last July.

"Here too we have counted 35 dead in an attack that seems to have been coordinated with the rebels and terrorists who control Idlib,” he said. “In many respects it appeared to be a joint operation between Israel and the rebels, because the Israeli missiles were followed by an offensive by the militants and this is a source of more concern.”

What is certain is that the raids of the last few days have put the international spotlight back on Syria, still reeling from a conflict that broke out 13 years ago, a war that is largely “forgotten" by most, as Pope Francis pointed out on Easter Sunday.

“After all these years, the world seems to have forgotten Syria, but there is still a war here. To this, we must add the devastation caused by the earthquake (6 February 2023),” Bishop Hannah Jallouf said. “We must thank the pontiff for focusing attention back on Syria, so peace and prosperity may return."

Yesterday's airstrike is one of hundreds of operations carried out by Israel in Syria, most of which have never been claimed or confirmed, even if the modus operandi appears clear and the Israeli government has done little to hide it.

“Now there is much more fear because this is the first time Israel has attacked a foreign embassy, which by definition is protected by international conventions, and it has thus crossed every red line.”

For the apostolic vicar of Aleppo, "Not even the terrorists have ever struck a diplomatic mission, in what appears to be a diversion to cover up the atrocities in Gaza. The fear is that it will continue, triggering even more serious reactions and consequences.”

For now, “Let us pray, with the pope, that the weapons will be silenced and that there will not be an escalation that overwhelms Lebanon and, in a domino effect, lead to a regional and world war."

Innocent victims

The latest reports from Gaza confirm the prelate's fears. Yesterday's attack in Damascus, in fact, was followed a few hours later by the news of the killing of at least seven employees of World Central Kitchen (WCK), a humanitarian NGO founded by chef José Andrés, who has several Michelin stars to his credit.

Following the attack, he suspended operations in the Palestinian territory. Famous in the United States for his business activity but also for his many charitable initiatives around the world, Andrés called on Israel to stop “this indiscriminate killing” and “using food as a weapon”.

The WCK team was travelling in two armoured cars with logos and had coordinated their movements with the Israeli military; nevertheless, the convoy was hit as it left the Deir al-Balah warehouse, after unloading over 100 tonnes of food aid that had arrived in Gaza via sea from Cyprus.

Meanwhile, Iranian leaders vowed revenge following the “unprecedented” attack on their diplomatic mission in Damascus, with the “same magnitude and harshness,” Iranian ambassador to Syria Hossein Akbari said.

In a statement carried by Syrian media, the Syrian Ministry of Defence said that, “the Israeli enemy launched an air attack from the direction of the occupied Syrian Golan”.

In Lebanon Hezbollah reacted immediately, harshly condemning the attack, calling it a “crime” that “will certainly not pass without the enemy receiving punishment and revenge”.

The Israeli army did not issue any statement after the operation, although it expressed great satisfaction with the success as it intensifies its raids against Iranian interests in Lebanon and Syria since the start of the war in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia also issued a harsh condemnation, reiterating “the Kingdom’s categorical rejection of targeting diplomatic facilities for any justification”.

In an attempt to avert reprisals against US targets and forces in the area, the United States said that it was not "involved”.

In a previous incident, the killing of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a drone attack in January 2020 in Baghdad elicited a response from Iran that included a series of attacks against US bases in Iraq, which did not, however, cause serious loss of life.

Israel among escalation and crisis

What happened yesterday in Damascus risks further inflaming the war and fuelling tensions, while death and destruction continue to haunt Palestinian civilians and aid workers in Gaza.

Israel itself seems to be upping the ante at home and abroad, with the risk of escalation, striking Hezbollah bases increasingly far from its borders, in the Beqa Valley or places further north, as well as border crossings between Iraq and Syria used by Iran to ship weapons to its allies in Lebanon.

In Israel itself, there are also worrying signs, starting with the approval in the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, of the so-called "anti-Al-Jazeera” law.

Under the law passed by the house, Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, who is back from hernia surgery and in full control, will have the power to close the offices of the media network, block its website, and seize its equipment.

Israel accuses Al-Jazeera of being a direct threat to national security because of some reports on the ongoing conflict in Gaza, a claim the network rejects.

For many, reporting by the Qatari media outlet is fundamental to expose the violence taking place and its impact on civilians, the latest being the "targeted" operation at the Shifa hospital that is likely to have caused hundreds of victims.

Noteworthy in Israel, the Knesset did not vote on imposing military service on young, ultra-Orthodox men, who have so far been exempted by law.

A recent Supreme Court ruling requires that they be drafted, starting a row that could do more to bring down Netanyahu's coalition government than the war in Gaza and the hostages in the hands of Hamas.

In fact, with only a four-seat difference between the ruling coalition and the opposition, three votes against a bill to continue the exemption by Defence Minister Yoav Gallant might be enough to trigger an early election, which is something that more and more Israelis want.


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