Reports: Israel launches airstrikes on Hezbollah in Syria

The Times of Israel reports: The Lebanese and Syrian media said Saturday that Israel Air Force warplanes have attacked targets in Syria linked to the Lebanon-based terror group Hezbollah. Reports varied, however, on the exact targets and location of the strikes.

According to a report on the Lebanese Debate website, six IAF jets carried out the strike over the Qalamoun Mountains region of western Syria, and targeted weapons that were headed for Hezbollah, Channel 10 said.

Syrian opposition groups, for their part, claimed Israeli planes had attacked targets in the Damascus area, in two strikes in areas where Hezbollah and pro-Assad forces were centered.

Syrian media, however, said that Israeli warplanes hit several Hezbollah targets in southern Syria.

Israel’s defense establishment declined to comment on the reports of the strikes, which would be the first since Russia boosted its involvement in the Syrian civil war. [Continue reading…]


A surgeon’s struggle to save the victims in a war the West failed to stop

Dr David Nott writes: In 2014, as in 2013, I worked in Aleppo in two hospitals in an opposition neighbourhood. Many of the medics had fled to Turkey and many hospitals had been bombed. The use of barrel bombs dropped by the Assad regime on civilian areas meant the largest proportion of patients admitted to the hospital were women and children. The nature of their injuries was such that often all we could do was try to make their final moments less painful. As a surgeon, I felt close to despair.

I came back to the UK and once again spoke about what was happening in Syria. I called it for what it was – a genocide perpetrated by Assad – but still was met with government apathy. There were efforts made by the US and UK to train some rebel groups and provide assistance to refugees; there was talk of humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones – but ultimately, without a protective military presence, such initiatives would never succeed.

It was vacillation on the part of the US and UK that emboldened not only the Assad regime but Putin too. The first Russian air strikes, against targets in the West of Syria, were an audacious attempt to shore up Assad’s Alawite heartland. They struck far from the Isil zones of control.

That Assad is an effective ally in the battle against Isil is a fiction repeated by many commentators. When the revolution commenced in 2011, Assad emptied Syria’s jails of radical Salafists, who went on to become Isil’s leaders and commanders. It suits Assad to have a villain against which he can defend his regime, and in Isil he has one that he has fed and watered to great effect.

The only way to win this war is to put boots on the ground, and that should have been done two years ago when there was an opportunity to help the Free Syrian Army and actively remove Assad from power and stem the rise of Islamic extremism. Instead there was a lack of insight and leadership from the West.

An oft-repeated line was that all the anti-government protagonists are equally extreme, equally impossible Western allies. I can say that from my experience that they are not. Towards the end of my time there in 2014, I went to visit a Catholic Church in Aleppo. There, having tea with the priest, were a group of Free Syrian Army fighters, their rifles slung across their chests as they chatted amicably. The Church had been protected by the Free Syrian fighters and the priest respected for the kindness he showed to many sick and dying people. In March this year, I was shocked to hear that this kindly priest had been killed. Not by supposed Islamist rebels intent on destroying all those of other religions; but by a barrel bomb dropped by one of Assad’s helicopters.

The West has so far abrogated its moral responsibility to the Syrian people and has paid a price not only in the hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees flocking to Europe’s shores but also in Putin’s audacious power play, so that we find ourselves in a situation where Russia, Iran and Hizbollah are leading this brutal dance. [Continue reading…]


Tehran and Moscow: a shaky alliance

Hanin Ghaddar writes: Fundamentally, Iran wants in Syria what is has in Lebanon — weak, ineffective state institutions incapable of making decisions without the approval of their patrons. As in Lebanon, Iran wants to indirectly control Syria’s state institutions and have access to the Golan in the same way it has access to South Lebanon through Hezbollah.

Of course Putin mainly wants to empower himself, but he needs the Syrian institutions to do so. Russia wants to preserve the Syrian state. Putin wants to prop Assad up simply because the state institutions — including the army and the security apparatus — are still linked to his regime. Putin is not investing in Assad per se, but rather in Syria’s institutions. That’s why Russia has only supplied weapons to the Syrian Army and wants all militias united under it.

Unlike Tehran, Moscow is not interested in changing demography or in maintaining the Shiite/Alawite corridor. Moscow does not want to see Assad go and then be implicitly replaced by Soleimani. Assad must go eventually, but only after a stable political solution is secured. That’s why Russia went with Geneva I. [Continue reading…]


Iran’s generals are dying in Syria

Robin Wright writes: The Islamic Republic described the first men to die as a few young “volunteers” deployed to protect symbols of the faith. The numbers have escalated since then. In June, the Islamic Republic News Agency reported that more than four hundred volunteers from Iran, including Afghan refugees living in the country, had died in Syria so far. Iranian news agencies and social media are now rife with stories about senior officers killed in Syria on the war’s toughest front lines. Last week, Iran’s Fars News Agency reported that the death toll hit eight in just two days. The funerals have become major events, sometimes drawing thousands onto Tehran’s streets to escort the coffins to Zahra’s Paradise.

Iran has increasingly been forced to acknowledge its losses—including at least four generals in the past year—with some reports suggesting that twice that number have been killed since the intervention began. Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, who was killed on October 8th, was given a state funeral. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, personally called on Hamedani’s family to convey his condolences. Khamenei’s official Twitter account, in English, lauded the general for fulfilling his “martyrdom wish.”

Hamedani’s death was a setback for Iran—and possibly for Syria, too. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly, Syria’s regular Army has been halved since the war began, in 2011. Assad has increasingly relied on leaders in Iran to develop strategy, and counted on Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy force in Lebanon, to provide new fighters. Hamedani was the senior Iranian tactician in northern Syria, where the regime is simultaneously fighting Western-backed rebels, the Islamic State, a local Al Qaeda franchise, and smaller militias. Hamedani was a hero of the war with Iraq—the deadliest modern conflict in the Middle East—and his death was the most notable Iranian military loss since that war ended. [Continue reading…]


Russian-led offensive in Syria triggers new wave of refugees fleeing to Turkey

VOA reports: Turkish officials say 50,000 refugees have left the Syrian city of Aleppo and are heading to the border, but it remains unclear whether they will be allowed to enter Turkey after a hazardous journey dodging airstrikes and negotiating checkpoints manned by disparate rebel militias, including al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria.

For months now border gates have been officially closed to new refugees, and those fleeing are forced to pay smugglers to enter illegally – sometimes using tunnels to escape the killing fields.

The rich can bribe border-gate guards — the going rate is $700 per person — the poor may get across after paying smugglers $50 to $100 per person to sneak past Turkish border guards patrolling farm-fields and olive-tree orchards adjacent to the border.

Russian airstrikes and a Syrian army ground offensive mainly in the countryside to the south and east of the city of Aleppo have triggered the surge in Syrians heading for the border. Syria Turkmen Council President Abdurrahman Mustafa said he also estimates about 50,000 people have left the city and are picking their way down pot-holed roads, through checkpoints and past ruined villages to Turkey. [Continue reading…]


Iran backs Assad in battle for Aleppo with proxies, ground troops

The Washington Post reports: In a striking sign of Iran’s growing regional influence, a major assault on Syria’s most populous city is being coordinated by an Iranian military commander using Shiite forces from three countries to back President Bashar al-Assad’s beleaguered troops, militia officials said.

Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s elite Quds Force, has ordered thousands of Iraqi Shiite militia allies into Syria for the operation to recapture Aleppo, according to officials from three of the militias. The militiamen are to join Iranian troops and forces from Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia, the officials said.

Soleimani has been a frequent sight on the battlefields in neighboring Iraq, where he has been advising Iraqi forces fighting Islamic State militants. But the war there has stagnated, and the shift of the commander along with Iraqi militiamen and Quds Force members to Syria appears to signal a change in Iranian priorities. [Continue reading…]


Syria’s overlords

Iran’s General Qasem Soleimani is conspicuous by his absence on this billboard, but with a group of four it would be that much harder to make Assad look like the man at the top.


Across the Middle East, national and religious leaders fuel sectarianism

The New York Times reports: The Shiite leaders of Iran and the Sunni rulers of Saudi Arabia traded insults over the deaths of hundreds of Iranian pilgrims near Mecca. The government of Bahrain, long criticized for repressing the country’s Shiite majority, expelled the Iranian ambassador, after accusing Iran of shipping arms to Bahrain and trying to foment “sectarian strife.”

And a group of hard-line Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia, fired up by Russia’s intervention in Syria, issued a scathing sectarian call for holy war.

Events over the last few weeks have raised fears of an accelerating confrontation between the region’s Shiite and Sunni Muslims, with Saudi Arabia and Iran escalating their power struggle, extremists attacking Shiite mosques in the Persian Gulf and armed conflict aggravating religious differences in Iraq, Syria and now Yemen.

But as the violence flares and crosses borders, national and religious leaders seem as eager as ever to stoke the fires, mobilizing followers using implicit or naked sectarian appeals that are transforming political conflicts into religious struggles and making the bloodshed in the region harder to contain, scholars and analysts say.

“This is unprecedented, and we don’t have a road map,” said Rami Khouri, a senior fellow at the Issam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. “When political dynamics fail, people turn back to religion. We are in this terrible moment of transition where sect is very high in people’s minds.” [Continue reading…]


Russia paves way for Assad regime’s Iranian-backed advance on Aleppo

The Observer reports: After many scares and several false starts, the crucial battle for Syria’s second biggest city has begun.

For more than a year the southern edges of rebel-held Aleppo have been a wasteland. Regime soldiers have been fixed in their positions several kilometres from the battered city limits, while rebels have shored up defences on their side of the ruins.

Now, three weeks into Russia’s intervention in the Syrian war, there is movement on one of the conflict’s most static fronts. And weary opposition forces don’t like what they are seeing.

“The regime advanced six kilometres [on Friday] and they took three villages,” said Zakaria Malafji, a member of the Free Syrian Army inside Aleppo. “The Russians showered us with bombs even in the civilian areas. They want to clear everything so the regime tanks and even the soldiers on foot can advance.”

Pitched against the mix of Islamists and non-ideological rebels in the rubble is the strongest force that Bashar al-Assad has been able to call on at any point during the four-and-a-half-year war. An Iranian military brigade is stationed around 20km south, along with hundreds of Hezbollah fighters, Shia militias from Iraq and the Syrian Army.

A senior US official on Friday said the Pentagon estimated the Iranian strength at 2,000 officers and soldiers – Tehran’s largest contribution to a battle and a signal that it is no longer shy to acknowledge the fact that its troops are actively defending the regime.

Straight from a grinding battle in the mountains near Damascus, Lebanon’s Hezbollah has also travelled to Aleppo en masse. “Every one of the brothers I know has gone there,” said one resident of the Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, a Hezbollah stronghold. “This is the first time they’ve all disappeared like that. They’re even shortening their vacation times.”

Rebels inside Aleppo say they have the weapons and the stamina to keep their enemies from seizing the eastern half of the city they have controlled since July 2012. They say that large numbers of anti-tank missiles supplied by their allies – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the US – have reached them in recent days and warn that they have had three years to prepare their defences. [Continue reading…]


Iran and Hezbollah losing senior commanders in Syria at a rapid rate

The Daily Beast reports: With the aid of Russian airstrikes, Iranian-backed foreign fighters, and a combination of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regular and militia forces are on the march. Yet Iran and its proxies have taken some significant high-ranking casualties since the start of their recruitment and deployment drives to Syria.

These losses all serve to map out the current offensive being launched in the northwest of the country, including Idlib, Hama, and Aleppo. While other significant losses had been suffered in past engagements, deaths of key members were often more sporadic or concentrated on one group during a specific battle. If the goal is to secure an Assad-led coastal Syrian rump-state, it is coming at high cost to Assad’s Iranian ally.

The most well known of Tehran’s casualties was the 67 year old Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General, Hossein Hamedani. Announced as having been killed on October 9th, Hamedi was reportedly killed in Aleppo. Officially, he was described by the Iranians as a, “high-ranking military advisor” to Assad. But to write Hamedani off as merely an “advisor” would be the equivalent of referring to Napoleon as just, “a French general.” [Continue reading…]

In what appears to have been a morale-boosting effort, General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Qods Forces, has made an appearance in a location open to question, where soldiers took the opportunity to take selfies with the man widely viewed as the architect of the current Russian-led campaign.


Iran expands role in Syria in conjunction with Russia’s airstrikes

The Wall Street Journal reports: Iran is expanding its already sizable role in Syria’s multisided war in the wake of Russia’s airstrikes, despite the risk of antagonizing the U.S. and its Persian Gulf allies who want to push aside President Bashar al-Assad.

Politicians in the region close to Tehran as well as analysts who have been closely following its role in Syria say a decision has been made, in close coordination with the Russians and the Assad regime, to increase the number of fighters on the ground through Iran’s network of local and foreign proxies.

Experts believe Iran has some 7,000 IRGC members and Iranian paramilitary volunteers operating in Syria already.

Separate from the regular army, the IRGC was founded in the aftermath of the 1979 revolution as an ideological “people’s army” reporting directly to the supreme leader, Iran’s top decision maker.

The more than 100,000-strong force controls a vast military, economic and security power structure in Iran and is in charge of proxies across the region. Its paramilitary organization, the Basij, was the lead force in the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in 2009.

Since late 2012 Iran has played a lead role in organizing, training and funding local pro-regime militias in Syria, many of them members of Mr. Assad’s Alawite minority, a branch of Shiite Islam. Experts believe they number between 150,000 and 190,000—possibly more than what remains of Syria’s conventional army.

What’s more, some experts estimate 20,000 Shiite foreign fighters are on the ground, backed by both Shiite Iran and its main proxy in the region, the Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah.

About 5,000 of them are new arrivals from Iraq in July and August alone, said Phillip Smyth, a researcher at the University of Maryland. He said this figure was compiled through his own contacts with some of these fighters, flight data between Baghdad and Damascus as well as social media postings. “It looks like it was timed out to coincide with the Russian move,” Mr. Smyth said. [Continue reading…]


Foreign intervention escalates: Iranian troops arrive in Syria for ground offensive backed by Russia – sources

Reuters reports: Hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria in the last 10 days and will soon join government forces and their Lebanese Hezbollah allies in a major ground offensive backed by Russian air strikes, two Lebanese sources told Reuters.

“The (Russian) air strikes will in the near future be accompanied by ground advances by the Syrian army and its allies,” said one of the sources familiar with political and military developments in the conflict.

“It is possible that the coming land operations will be focused in the Idlib and Hama countryside,” the source added.

The two sources said the operation would be aimed at recapturing territory lost by President Bashar al-Assad’s government to rebels.

It points to an emerging military alliance between Russia and Assad’s other main allies – Iran and Hezbollah – focused on recapturing areas of northwestern Syria that were seized by insurgents in rapid advances earlier this year.

“The vanguard of Iranian ground forces began arriving in Syria: soldiers and officers specifically to participate in this battle. They are not advisors … we mean hundreds with equipment and weapons. They will be followed by more,” the second source said. Iraqis would also take part in the operation, the source said. [Continue reading…]


Hezbollah joins Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq in ‘4+1 Alliance’

NOW reports: A leading pro-Hezbollah daily claimed on Tuesday that the party has joined a new counter-terror alliance with Moscow and that Russia will take part in military operations alongside the Syrian army and Hezbollah.

Al-Akhbar’s editor-in-chief Ibrahim al-Amin wrote that secret talks between Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq had resulted in the birth of the new alliance, which he described as “the most important in the region and the world for many years.”

“The agreement to form the alliance includes administrative mechanisms for cooperation on [the issues of] politics and intelligence and [for] military [cooperation] on the battlefield in several parts of the Middle East, primarily in Syria and Iraq,” the commentator said, citing well-informed sources.

“The parties to the alliance are the states of Russia, Iran, Syria and Iraq, with Lebanon’s Hezbollah as the fifth party,” he also said, adding that the joint-force would be called the “4+1 alliance” – a play on words referring to the P5+1 world powers that negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran.

The Al-Akhbar article came hours after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly reached an agreement with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow over the latter country’s major military build-up in Syria. [Continue reading…]


Western superiority and Arab denial

Saudi commentator and academic Khaled al-Dakheel writes: Most Arabs and Muslims will not grant that the West’s civilization is superior. They will admit that it is more technologically or materially advanced, but they deny that the West has achieved any cultural or ethical advance or superiority. There is a half-deliberate, half-incidental disregard for the West’s political and legal achievements, which are sometimes dismissed by referring to the contradictions that seem to undermine their foundation. This is abundantly clear when we hear acknowledgements of the West’s tremendous industrial capabilities alongside descriptions of its cultural decadence and lack of moral discipline. Most currents and schools of thought in the Arab world agree on this point, even if they differ in their explanations, descriptions and details. None of them have ever asked themselves: Could a decadent and morally undisciplined culture have provided the basis for tremendous industrial capabilities? Maybe for this reason time will show that the Arab-Islamic attitude toward the West is mistaken in its outlook, justifications and conclusions. This attitude reveals that the Arab-Islamic perspective (with the possible exceptions of Malaysia and Indonesia) continues to be in thrall to a past that could only ever be resurrected through destructive means. But its error is even more dangerous than that, because it expresses a civilizational impotence and exhaustion more than it expresses any coherent political stance, civilizational vision, or alternative civilizational project. The greatest evidence of the incoherence and injustice of this vision is that you find Baathists, Nasserists, Sunnis, Shiites, Christians, Salafis, Muslim Brotherhood, nationalists and leftists all joining together to mock the West, deride its ethical incoherence and despise or disregard its political achievements. This comes at a high cost, because it does not reflect a real consensus as much as it represents an empty opportunism void of political substance and the least amount of moral probity.

This attitude brings together such disparate figures as Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, the leader of the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, al-Nusra Front leader Abu Muhammed al-Julani, head of the Change and Reform bloc Michel Aoun, and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who is incidentally also the Secretary-General of the Arab Socialist Baath Party – Syria Region). Ranged alongside them are other figures who have since left this world, such as Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad, Abdel Nasser, Abd al-Karim Qasim, Abdul Salam Arif, and many more. They are also joined by Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood sheikhs and sheikhs from various other schools of thought. Lately Houthi leader Abdel Malik al-Houthi has joined the list as well. What is striking – and significant – is that whereas they concur in this coarse opportunism, they disagree on everything else. They are engaged in brutal, bloody clashes on the battlefields of religious wars in Iraq and Syria, fighting on the basis of a sectarianism that they have no shame in avowing. [Continue reading…]


Beirut’s youth tell the elite: You stink!

Joyce Karam writes: The absurdity of the scene in downtown Beirut yesterday is in portraying the protests to be just about the trash collection crisis, while in reality they are about everything else that led to the largest waste mismanagement scandal in Lebanon’s history.

Thousands are protesting and vowing to “topple the regime” not just because the garbage collection has run amok, but due to Lebanon’s political stagnation crippling the country in the last four years. Beirut is constantly in a crisis-mode, and right now Lebanon has had no President for over a year, its parliament has casually renewed its own term twice, and its government of “rivals” is excelling in shortsightedness, and promoting narrow interests at the expense of the public good. The country also has over a million Syrian refugee, and Hezbollah is fighting with more than 5000 members in Syria.

Self-infatuation and hubris are allover Lebanese politics. Parliamentarians and policymakers are frequently busy analyzing and commenting on larger global events while turning a blind eye to the day to day problems . Everyone is a nuclear expert when it comes to the Iran deal negotiations, or a counterterrorism one if it’s the rise of ISIS or the fate of the Syrian war, while rubbish consumes the capital, and traffic chaos is allover the country. Even Donald Trump is more likely to come up in a conversation than discussing a plan or a vision to explore Lebanon’s potential gas resources, traffic congestion or tackle the question of armed militias. Hezbollah’s weaponry is now forgotten while the presence of ISIS and Nusra in border towns is being accepted as a fait accompli. [Continue reading…]


Tehran may be planning a foreign policy reversal

Hassan Hassan writes: In many ways, Iran’s behaviour in the region over the past five years has been an exception to its usual rule. The narrow sectarian politicking that has shaped much of its foreign policy since 2011 has given it a deeper foothold in its western neighbourhood. But that has also limited its influence in other areas and may well undercut the full potential of its regional standing.

The question is: will the nuclear deal lead to a shift in Iranian foreign policy towards the pre-2011 model?

For decades, Tehran was able to build influence and alliances in the region beyond the sectarian prism. Some of those alliances were often counterintuitive, such as the close ties with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood in general. Other examples include the deep links with Syria’s religious establishments in Damascus and Aleppo, and so-called leftists and ­anti-imperialists throughout the region. More importantly, the brief alliance in 2006 with Qatar to rival the regional bloc led by Saudi Arabia provided Iran with huge strategic potential.

That legacy led Iran to boldly embrace the Arab uprisings in 2011. It labelled them as Islamic awakenings akin to its 1979 Islamic revolution, and it promptly reached out to the burgeoning forces of change. The uprisings presented a rare opportunity for Iran to enter the region after a decade of resistance by many of the Arab world’s traditional regimes.

Had it had its way, Tehran would have spread its arms across the region much deeper and wider. But it did not – for two reasons. The first one was the conscious decisions it has taken in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Yemen. It helped Bashar Al Assad in the military campaign to tackle the political crisis facing his regime and stepped up its military and political support for Shia groups in the wider region.

The second reason for Tehran’s sectarian drift was largely imposed on it. The situation in which its proxies have found themselves, from Yemen to Lebanon, caused Iran to back them at any cost. [Continue reading…]


Former Argentine president on trial for bombing cover-up

The Associated Press reports: On the home page of Argentina’s largest Jewish community center is a counter that keeps track of the “days of impunity” since a bomb ripped through the organization’s central building, causing it to collapse and leaving 85 dead amid the rubble.

On Thursday, 7,689 days since the 1994 attack on the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, former President Carlos Menem, a former top judge and several others will go on trial for allegedly derailing the investigation.

Prosecutors have accused Iranian officials of being behind the bombing. But no one has been convicted in this South American country’s worst terrorist attack, which many Argentines believe has come to symbolize an inept and corrupt justice system that operates at the whims of politicians and can be bought off.

“After 21 years of no justice, deception and defrauding the families (of victims), we hope that the truth will emerge about everyone who plotted to cover up and derail the investigation,” said Olga Degtiar, whose son was killed in the blast.

The 13 facing charges include two former prosecutors, a former top intelligence official, former police officers, a Jewish community leader and a mechanic who owned the truck carrying the explosives. The charges carry between three and 15 years.

The trial, expected to go on for months, will focus on how and why Menem and the others might have wanted to bury the initial investigation. Testimony will likely delve into geopolitics of the 1990s, and even into Menem’s Syrian ancestry and how that might have influenced him. [Continue reading…]


Operation Hannibal: Why Israel risks killing its own soldiers rather than see them get captured

Dan Ephron writes: On the morning of August 1, 2014, during the broadest Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip in years, a squad of Hamas fighters emerged from a shaft in the ground near the town of Rafah and ambushed three Israeli soldiers. The Israelis, members of an elite reconnaissance unit from the Givati Brigade, had been searching for a tunnel in the area, one of a network that the militant group Hamas had built under the Palestinian territory in recent years. In humid 80-degree heat, a firefight ensued that killed two of the Israelis and one of the Palestinians. It lasted less than a minute.

The war in Gaza, which had raged for three weeks by then and claimed the lives of dozens of Israelis and some 1,500 Palestinians, seemed to be tapering off. The ambush near Rafah would have gone down as one more skirmish. But as the surviving Palestinians retreated, they did something that would turn that Friday into the bloodiest day of the summer and embroil Israel in a possible war-crimes ordeal that reverberates even now: They dragged the third Israeli, Lieutenant Hadar Goldin, with them underground.

The sound of the gunfire drew other Israeli soldiers to the site, including Lieutenant Eitan Fund, the reconnaissance unit’s second-in-command. What Fund saw when he got there — bodies on a sandy road and an opening in the ground a few feet away — filled him with dread. Dead soldiers were disturbing enough, but for Israel, a missing fighter was about the worst possible outcome of any battlefield engagement. The last time Hamas had seized a soldier was in 2006: Corporal Gilad Shalit’s captivity lasted five years and set off a searing national trauma.

Fund, who was 23, had come to know Goldin during an officers’ training course. The two had also studied at the same religious seminary in the West Bank before their service. Fund radioed the details to his brigade commander, Col. Ofer Winter, and asked permission to take a squad underground. Winter instructed the lieutenant to drop a grenade and lower himself in. He then announced over the radio the start of a controversial procedure that Israel deploys when a soldier is taken captive: “Hannibal, Hannibal.”

To the military in the United States and around the world, Israel serves as a kind of laboratory for battle tactics, especially those involving counterinsurgency. Its wars with guerrilla groups like Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah — four in the past nine years — are pored over for the lessons they hold and the questions they raise. The story of Hadar Goldin raises one question in particular: How far should a modern military go to prevent one of its own from being captured?

For the United States, the answer has centered mostly on technology. Today’s American troops go into battle with portable computers and GPS devices, including a system known as Blue Force Tracking that allows commanders in Humvees to “see” their forces in the arena. Ground troops are also monitored by satellites and drones. This combination of new technologies has produced a staggering drop in battlefield captives in Afghanistan and Iraq compared with previous wars. But the risks of combat remain great: U.S. Army Sergeant Salvatore Giunta became the first living Medal of Honor recipient in the war in Afghanistan, in part, for rescuing a comrade being dragged away by the Taliban during an ambush in 2007.

Israel has its own technology, of course, but it supplements those tools with a tactic the army revived in the aftermath of the Shalit ordeal — code word Hannibal — that calls for a massive use of force when a soldier is captured. Two Israelis familiar with the wording of the classified procedure described it to me as measured and restrictive. But from conversations with others, including more than a dozen Israelis in and out of uniform, it’s clear that soldiers often interpret it as something less nuanced—a kind of signal from commanders that a dead Israeli fighter is better than a captured one. Fund seemed to share that interpretation. As he entered the shaft, he told one of his squad members: “If you see something, open fire, even if it means killing Hadar or wounding Hadar.” [Continue reading…]