🌍 US strikes hit Iran-backed targets in Syria and Iraq

Plus: Gaza from above

Hi Intriguer. With everything going on, you might’ve missed that Friday was actually Groundhog Day - the old tradition immortalised in Bill Murray’s hit film about a cynical weatherman trapped in a time-loop.

And I can’t be the only one feeling a dash of that same time-looped cynicism as we dive into today’s briefing on US retaliatory strikes in the Middle East, carried out the very same day.

- Jeremy Dicker, Managing Editor

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TODAY’S NEWS

US Senate unveils new security bill. The $118B bill includes funding for Israel and Ukraine, while seeking to discourage migrants from crossing the southern US border. Despite being the result of bipartisan efforts, the bill isn’t guaranteed smooth progress through the Senate, with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticising its contents.

Bukele declares victory. El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele has taken to Twitter/X to announce his thumping victory in yesterday’s presidential election, claiming 85% of the vote (official confirmation is still pending). Bukele’s crackdown on crime has reduced violence in the country and made him one of the world’s most popular leaders, despite concerns about his methods.

Australian academic in China gets suspended death sentence. A Chinese court has handed down a suspended death sentence (effectively a life sentence) for Australian academic Yang Hengjun on espionage charges. Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong summoned the Chinese ambassador to lodge Canberra’s objections in the “strongest terms”.

Deadly Chile fires trigger worst natural disaster since 2010. At least 112 people have died as a result of the forest fires spreading along central Chile’s coastal areas. President Gabriel Boric has deployed the military and warned the country to brace for more bad news.

Samsung chief acquitted in court. A South Korean court has acquitted Samsung Executive Chair Lee Jae-yong of stock manipulation charges, allowing him to remain at the helm of the conglomerate. Lee was indicted on bribery and corruption charges in 2017, but later received a partial presidential pardon.

TOP STORY

US strikes hit Iran-linked targets in Syria and Iraq

Reported location of US strikes on Friday night

The US struck various targets across Syria and Iraq on Friday night (local time), in what President Biden described as the beginning of his response to the drone attack that killed three US troops the weekend prior.

The US strikes reportedly hit 85 targets at seven locations mostly along the Euphrates River - three in Iraq and four in Syria. They lasted around 30 minutes and included B-1 Lancer bombers flying 6,000km from their base in Texas.

Who were the targets?

They included facilities and positions used by Iran's Quds Force and affiliated groups. The Quds Force is part of Iran's Revolutionary Guard (the ideological guardian of Iran's 1979 revolution), and drives Iran's proxy strategy abroad.

What were the targets?

The sites reportedly included a range of logistical, storage, command, artillery, radar, and intel facilities.

Why Friday night?

President Biden approved this US response a week ago, and the Pentagon says the specific timing was shaped by local weather conditions.

Still, the apparent delay - plus days of foreshadowing - led to speculation this timing was part of a broader US calculus to hit the groups’ capabilities but slow the broader escalatory cycle.

Will these strikes have any impact?

There are mixed signals here. On the one hand, the specific group most likely responsible for the US casualties (Kataib Hezbollah) surprisingly announced last week it would cease its attacks on US forces in the region.

We say ‘surprising’ because these groups typically hype-up rather than play-down their role, as they compete for influence and resources among themselves.

But then again, this move becomes less surprising when you remember that:

  • Iran’s influence over this specific group is pretty clear, with an Iranian officer apparently even sitting on the group’s council

  • Iran has reportedly withdrawn its own senior officers from the area to minimise losses, and

  • Iran’s Quds commander has reportedly visited Baghdad to push other local proxy groups to tone down their attacks

So this all points to an Iranian effort to step back from the brink, in line with Iranian leaders’ statements that they’re not seeking war.

Still, on Friday, the leader of another group (Al-Nujaba) vowed it will continue to attack US forces until they leave the region and Israel ceases operations in Gaza.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

Two questions come to mind here.

First, what does this initial US response tell us about US intent?

It looks to us like a US effort to defang rather than dissuade these Iran-backed Shiite groups, which often channel and reflect long-standing local grievances. And the decision to send bombers from Texas looks like a US effort to de-link the US strikes from its own forces in the region, slowing the escalatory cycle.

Second, what about the broader region?

Here’s one way to think about that: hours after the B-1 bombers returned to Texas, another US aircraft touched down in the region with Secretary of State Blinken on board.

Making his fifth trip to the region since the Hamas attacks on Israel, Blinken’s return reflects a US understanding that - while US casualties won't go unanswered and more strikes are likely - ultimately, a political and diplomatic breakthrough will be key to finding a way out of all this.

Also worth noting:

  • Hamas leaders arrived in Cairo on Thursday for talks with Egypt’s spy chief on a possible prisoner exchange and pause with Israel.

  • The US and UK also led another round of strikes against 36 Houthi military targets across Yemen over the weekend, after the Houthis continued their attacks on civilian shipping last week.

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MEANWHILE, ELSEWHERE…

  1. 🇨🇳 China: The US and China launched a joint counter-narcotics working group on Thursday, tasked with stemming the manufacturing and trafficking of illicit synthetic drugs like fentanyl. Both capitals likely see this as a way to restore a degree of trust after a bumpy 2023.

  2. 🇵🇱 Poland: President Andrzej Duda has reiterated his country's support for Ukraine after copping a backlash for his comments doubting Kyiv’s ability to retake Crimea. Poland has been one of Ukraine’s staunchest backers since the beginning of the war.  

  3. 🇲🇾 Malaysia: A national pardon board has halved the 12-year prison sentence of former prime minister Najib Razak, who was convicted over the epic 1MDB corruption scandal. The news comes as critics question Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s commitment to tackling corruption.

  4. 🇪🇨 Ecuador: Russia has criticised Ecuador’s decision to hand over Russian-made military hardware to the US for use in Ukraine. It’s part of a swap proposed by the US, with Ecuador in turn receiving advanced U.S. equipment worth around $200M.

  5. 🇸🇳 Senegal: President Macky Sall has called off this month’s elections, citing an ongoing dispute around the eligibility of several opposition candidates. Sall has faced criticism for an opposition crackdown and has yet to announce a new election date, though he’s previously said he won’t run for a third term.

EXTRA INTRIGUE

🤣 Your weekly roundup of the world’s lighter news

  • Indian police have released a pigeon after it was revealed the bird was not a Chinese spy, but rather a fugitive Taiwanese racing pigeon. 

  • Thieves have stolen a 230kg (500lb) stuffed polar bear from a Canadian hotel. 

  • South Korea's food ministry has issued a warning not to eat fried toothpicks after a TikTok trend gained traction in the country, where toothpicks are often made out of corn or potato starch.

  • Thousands of Toronto residents lost power for hours on Thursday after a curious raccoon made contact with equipment at a utility station.  

  • And authorities in Scotland have managed to capture an escaped monkey with the help of some ol’ fashioned Yorkshire pudding.

MAP OF THE DAY

Credits: BBC.

New satellite imagery analysis conducted at two US universities suggests up to 61% of Gaza's buildings have been damaged or destroyed since October. The damage hasn’t spared Gaza’s oldest mosque, the Great Omari Mosque, which was originally built in the 7th Century on a site once home to a Byzantine church and (according to legend) an ancient Philistine temple.

DAILY POLL

Yesterday (Sunday), Parisians voted on whether to triple the parking fees for SUVs, in an effort to discourage their use in the city centre. Around 55% of folks backed the proposal, though turnout was only ~6%.

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Your two cents:

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