Hermes 900.
The new Hermes 900, in use by the Israel Air Force. Photo by Elbit Systems
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Haaretz's latest analyses on the Middle East: New enemies across Syrian border (Amos Harel)

See Wednesday's Middle East Updates

11:49 P.M. The Syrian army announced on Thursday that it had begun a wide-scale operation in the Quneitra region, by the Israeli border in the Golan Heights, in order to regain control of the area lost to rebel forces. According to reports in Syria, forces loyal to President Bashar Assad have taken control of several towns in the region. The force plans to continue its activities in the area and retake the border crossing with Israel over the next few days. Early on Thursday morning the Syrian air force attacked rebel strongholds in the area.

6:57 P.M. The Islamic State group killed more than 150 troops captured in recent fighting for a string of military bases in northeastern Syria, shooting some and slashing others with knives in the past 24 hours in the latest mass killing attributed to the extremists, activists said Thursday.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that many of the soldiers killed were rounded up Wednesday in the arid countryside near the Tabqa airfield, three days after Islamic State fighters seized the base. The government troops were among a large group of soldiers from the base who were stuck behind the front lines after the airfield fell to the jihadi fighters. (AP) Read the full article here.

5:18 P.M.  The United Nations says 43 peacekeepers have been detained by an armed group in Syria during fighting and 81 other peacekeepers are trapped.

The office of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says the peacekeepers were detained early Thursday on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights during a "period of increased fighting between armed elements and the Syrian Arab Armed Forces."

The statement says another 81 peacekeepers are "currently being restricted to their positions in the vicinity of Ar Ruwayhinah and Burayqah." (AP)

2:34 P.M. Syrian activists say government warplanes are targeting rebels near the country's frontier with Israel in the Golan Heights, a day after opposition fighters captured a crossing point there.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Syrian airstrikes struck several areas near the border in Quneitra province, including the village of Jaba. The Local Coordination Committees activist group also reported government airstrikes.

The Observatory says heavy clashes were raging between the rebels and Syrian military in Jaba and the surrounding countryside.

White plumes of smoke set off by exploding mortar rounds could be seen on Thursday from the Israeli side of the Golan. The sound of small arms fire could be heard echoing in the background. (AP)

2:22 P.M. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has taken the oath of office as Turkey's first popularly elected president, a position that will keep him in the nation's driving seat for at least another five years. Erdogan is scheduled to appoint Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, his designated successor as prime minster and loyal ally, to form a new government later on Thursday.

Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics for a decade and won Turkey's first direct presidential elections on Aug. 10. He has indicated he wants to transform the presidency from a largely ceremonial post into a more powerful position and his expected to hold sway in the country's running. (AP)

1:30 P.M. Gunmen opened fire on a Lebanese army position at the border with Syria on Thursday near a town seized by Islamist insurgents earlier this month, triggering an exchange of fire, a security source said.

The confrontation occurred in the mountainous border zone just outside the town of Arsal, which was held for five days by militants including fighters affiliated to Islamic State in an incursion that resulted in deadly battles with the army.

The militant forces withdrew on August 7, taking with them 18 captive soldiers and 15 policemen. The five-day battle marked the biggest spillover to date of the Syrian civil war into Lebanon. Dozens of people were killed, including 18 soldiers.

Overnight, the Lebanese army shelled militant positions in the same area. There was no immediate information on casualties. (Reuters)

11:10 A.M. Islamic State militants have torched an oilfield in northern Iraq in a bid to block advancing Kurdish forces, the Kurdish military says. The field is located in the militant-held area of Zumar, which the Kurdish Peshmerga troops are preparing to wrest back from the jihadists, according to the military. (DPA)

10:12 A.M. The Arabic-language Al-Mayadin TV channel reported yesterday that an Israeli Hermes drone crashed in the vicinity of Baghdad Airport. According to Al-Mayadin, the cause of the crash is unclear, and Iraqi military officials have made no comment. An FNA correspondent in Baghdad reported that security officials at the U.S. Embassy rushed to the crash site to salvage the remains of the drone.

9:41 A.M. A Sinai-based militant group said on Thursday it had beheaded four Egyptians, accusing them of providing Israel with intelligence for an airstrike that killed three of its fighters. Four headless corpses were found in the Sinai Peninsula earlier this month, security sources said -- the first time that any decapitations had been made public in Egypt. The men had been abducted by gunmen two days earlier while driving in the town of Sheikh Zuwaid, which is just a few kilometers from the Gaza Strip.

In a video released on Twitter, Egypt's most dangerous militant group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, said the four men had been spying for Israel's Mossad spy agency. Armed men in black masks stood over the kneeling captives as one of the militants read out a statement. Minutes later, the four men had their heads cuts off. (Reuters) Full article

9:40 A.M. Recep Tayyip Erdogan is taking the oath of office as Turkey's first popularly elected president, a position that will keep him in the nation's driving seat for at least another five years.

Erdogan is stepping down as prime minister and being installed as president on Thursday in a ceremony to be attended by scores of foreign dignitaries. He is scheduled to appoint Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, his designated successor, to form a new government later in the day.

Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for a decade, has indicated he wants to transform the presidency from a largely ceremonial post into a more powerful position. Erdogan has ruled over Turkey as prime minister since 2003 following three successive electoral victories. He won Turkey's first direct presidential elections on August 10. (AP)

7:44 A.M. French President Francois Hollande said on Thursday that opposition forces fighting Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq should have the support of the West, adding that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad could not be an ally to fight jihadists. "Assad is not a partner in the struggle against terrorism," he said in a speech, calling him the ally of the jihadists. "There is no choice to be made between two barbarisms."

In a text provided ahead of Hollande's speech to an annual conference of French ambassadors, the president also added: "To fight Islamic State, the international community must also arm opposition forces who are fighting it." Hollande said France would increase its support to Iraqi groups and reiterated calls for an international conference to help coordinate international action against Islamic State. (Reuters) 

5:58 A.M. The German army has sent six soldiers to northern Iraq to coordinate German civilian and military aid packages. The non-combat unit started its mission at the general consulate in Erbil on Wednesday, the army said.

The German government has said it will provide arms to Kurdish forces fighting Islamic militants in the region, although Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly said no combat troops would be sent to Iraq. The soldiers are to assist in the delivery of packages consisting of civilian and military supplies in coordination with the Iraqi government and Kurdish local authorities. (DPA)

1:23 A.M. Syrian jets shelled rebel positions near a border crossing close to the Golan Heights that was seized by rebels in some of the heaviest clashes in the strategic area this year, rebels and residents said on Thursday.

Al Qaida's Syria wing Nusra alongside moderate rebel groups who had launched the attack early on Wednesday on the border post were "holding ground" despite the heavy bombardment, according to a source in the Islamist Beit al Maqdis brigade, whose fighters were involved in the fighting.

Abu Iyas al Horani, a spokesman for another rebel group operating in the area, said at least six rebels were killed in the latest spillover of violence in the area that lies almost 20 kilometres west of the town of Quneitra, the main urban center, which is under state control.

The crossing is monitored by the United Nations, which oversees traffic between the two enemy countries, but the distance between the two warring adversaries' posts is some 200 meters. (Reuters) Full article