Saudi visit shows Putin’s deepening Middle East influence

By Olesya Astakhova and Stephen Kalin

RIYADH (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin signaled Moscow’s growing Middle East clout on Monday by visiting Saudi Arabia for the first time in over a decade, buoyed by Russian military gains in Syria, strong ties with Riyadh’s regional rivals and energy cooperation.

Moscow accrued power in the Middle East in 2015 by sending troops to Syria, where it and Iran have been key backers of President Bashar al-Assad amid civil war, while the United States pulled back. Saudi Arabia sided with Syrian rebels.

On the eve of Putin’s trip, U.S. troops were abruptly retreating from northern Syria as Russian-backed government forces deployed deep inside Kurdish-held territory under a deal to help fend off a Turkish cross-border offensive.

Russia has also strengthened ties with both Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite Iran, which are locked in a decades-old contest for influence that veered towards open conflict after a recent spate of attacks on oil assets in the Gulf that Riyadh and Washington blame on Tehran. Iran denies the charges.

Tensions with Iran, which is locked in several proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, have risen to new highs after Washington last year quit a 2015 international nuclear accord with Tehran and re-imposed sanctions.

The Russian president, accompanied by his energy minister and head of Russia’s wealth fund, met King Salman at his palace along with de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, with whom Putin says he has friendly relations.

Deepening ties have seen non-OPEC Russia, once regarded as a rival in oil markets, join OPEC kingpin Saudi Arabia in forming an alliance known as OPEC+ to support crude prices by restraining output.

At a morning forum convening 300 Saudi and Russian CEOs, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman said OPEC+ countries were showing high commitments to the deal, and his Russian counterpart said there were no talks underway to change it.

Ahead of the visit, Putin, who offered to provide Russian defense systems to the kingdom after Sept. 14 attacks on its oil facilities, said he could also play a positive role in easing tensions with Tehran given good ties with both sides.

Any progress on long-mulled Saudi plans to purchase the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile systems would cause disquiet in Washington, which is sending 3,000 troops and additional air defense systems to Saudi Arabia.

U.S. President Donald Trump has resisted pressure to sanction Riyadh over human rights abuses, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, calling that a “foolish” move that would only benefit competitors Russia and China.

OIL AND INVESTMENTS

Asked about concerns Riyadh was cozying up to Moscow, Saudi Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Adel al-Jubeir said he saw no contradiction.

“We don’t believe that having close ties with Russia has any negative impact on our relationship with the United States,” he told reporters on Sunday. “We believe that we can have strategic and strong ties with the United States while we develop our ties with Russia.”

Russian and Saudi flags lined Riyadh streets ahead of Putin’s one-day visit, which includes an evening performance by Russia’s Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra. Putin then travels to the United Arab Emirates.

In meetings with Saudi leaders, the Russian president will discuss the OPEC+ pact, which has seen production cut by 1.2 million barrels per day since January.

The two sides are expected to sign more than $2 billion of deals, including a joint investment by state oil giant Saudi Aramco and Russia’s RDIF sovereign wealth fund.

RDIF head Kirill Dmitriev said a number of Russian investors were interested in a planned initial public offering of Aramco. The oil major could sell 1-2% through a local listing its chairman said would be announced “very, very soon”, ahead of a potential international offering.

Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Russia’s Gazprom is interested in cooperating with Saudi firms on natural gas.

Moscow, the world’s largest wheat exporter, made some progress in accessing the Saudi and Middle Eastern markets when the kingdom agreed in August to relax specifications for wheat imports, opening the door to Black Sea imports.

RDIF and Saudi Arabia’s SALIC plan to sign an agreement to jointly search for investment projects in Russia’s agricultural sector, a source told Reuters.

(Additional reporting by Maher Chmaytelli and Dahlia Nehme in Dubai and Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Lincoln Feast, William Maclean)

Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels drive on a street in the Turkish border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats
By Ellen Francis and Tuvan Gumrukcu

BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russia-backed Syrian forces wasted no time in taking advantage of an abrupt U.S. retreat from Syria on Monday, deploying deep inside Kurdish-held territory south of the Turkish frontier less than 24 hours after Washington announced a full withdrawal.

Washington’s Kurdish former allies said they invited in the government troops as an “emergency measure” to help fend off an assault by Turkey, launched last week with “a green light” from President Donald Trump that the Kurds describe as a betrayal.

The Syrian government’s deployment on Monday is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his principal ally Russia, who gained a military foothold across the biggest swathe of the country that had been beyond their grasp.

Under their deal with the Kurds, government forces are poised to move into border areas from the town of Manbij in the west to Derik, 400 km (250 miles) to the east.

Syrian state media reported that troops had already entered Tel Tamer, a town on the strategically important M4 highway that runs east-west around 30 km south of the frontier with Turkey.

State TV later showed residents welcoming Syrian forces into the town of Ain Issa, which lies on another part of the highway, hundreds of km (miles) away. An SDF media official said he could not confirm these deployments.

Ain Issa commands the northern approaches to Raqqa, former capital of the Islamic State “caliphate”, which Kurdish fighters recaptured from the militants two years ago in one of the biggest victories of a U.S.-led campaign.

Much of the M4 lies on the southern edge of territory where Turkey aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria. Turkey said it had seized part of the highway. An official of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said clashes were ongoing.

U.S. STRATEGY CRUMBLES

The swift Syrian government deployments came as the strategy the United States has pursued in Syria for the past five years crumbled overnight. Washington announced on Sunday it was abruptly pulling out its entire force of 1,000 troops which had fought alongside Syrian Kurds against Islamic State since 2014.

A U.S. official said on Monday a diplomatic team working to help stabilize territory captured from Islamic State. U.S. troops were still on the ground but early phases of their withdrawal had started, the official said.

Two other U.S. officials have told Reuters the bulk of the U.S. pullout could be completed within days.

Sunday’s announcement of the U.S. retreat came just a week after Trump said he would shift a small number of troops out of the way near the border, allowing Turkey to attack the Kurds in what Kurdish officials branded a stab in the back.

Thousands of fighters from a Kurdish-led force have died since 2014 fighting against Islamic State in partnership with the United States, a strategy the Trump administration had continued after inheriting it from his predecessor Barack Obama.

Trump says he aims to extract the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East, in keeping with his view that Washington cannot be the world’s policeman. However, he has announced the Syrian retreat even as he has sent thousands of troops on a new deployment to Saudi Arabia.

His Syrian policy reversal allowed Turkey to launch a cross-border assault last week that sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing and the Kurds scrambling to find new friends.

“After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks,” senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said.

Jia Kurd described the new arrangement with Assad’s forces as a “preliminary military agreement”, and said political aspects would be discussed later.

The Kurds have led an autonomous administration across a wide stretch of north and east Syria. Assad aims to restore his government’s authority across all of Syria after more than eight years of war.

Another senior Kurdish politician, Aldar Xelil, called the pact with Damascus “an emergency measure”.

“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger,” Xelil said. “We are in contact with the Damascus government to reach common (ground) in the future.”

The biggest change for years in the battlefield of the world’s deadliest ongoing war, the developments create a potential new frontline hundreds of kilometers long between forces of Russia and Turkey and their Syrian allies and proxies.

The U.S. exit leaves Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, along with Assad’s other ally Iran, as Syria’s undisputed foreign power brokers.

Russia and Turkey have hammered out a fragile truce for the northwest, the only other part of Syria still beyond Assad’s grip. Both predicted they would avoid conflict as the area where they face each other is now set to spread across the breadth of the country.

“There are many rumors at the moment. However, especially through the embassy and with the positive approach of Russia in Kobani, it appears there won’t be any issues,” Erdogan said when asked about the prospect of confrontation with Russia. Kobani, on the Turkish border, is one of the first Kurdish-held cities where reports emerged of possible government deployment.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the suggestion that Russia could clash with Turkish forces. “We wouldn’t even like to think of that scenario,” he said.

ALARM

The Turkish assault has drawn widespread international criticism and alarm that it could allow Islamic State fighters in Syria to escape Kurdish-run prisons and regroup.

Ankara says it aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia – the leading component of the SDF – which it views as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper indicated on Sunday that one factor behind the U.S. pullout was that the Kurds aimed to strike a deal with Russia and Syria. Hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had made precisely such a deal.

Turkey says it aims to form a “safe zone” in Syria to settle many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting. Erdogan said on Sunday that the operation would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east.

Turkey’s European allies have criticized the incursion, threatening to impose sanctions. Erdogan says Turkey will send Syrian refugees to Europe if the EU does not back the offensive.

The fighting has raised Western concerns that the Kurds would be unable to keep thousands of Islamic State fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

The region’s Kurdish-led administration said 785 Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped a camp at Ain Issa over the weekend. The British-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in the camp, said the number who escaped was smaller, around 100.

Trump, providing no evidence, tweeted on Monday that the Kurds might be releasing Islamic State prisoners deliberately to lure U.S. troops back. Escaped fighters were “easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly,” Trump said.

(This story restores dropped word “forces” in headline)

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S. accuses Syrian government of chemical weapon attack in May in Idlib

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the United Against Nuclear Iran Summit on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City, U.S. September 25, 2019. REUTERS/Darren Ornitz

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday that the United States had concluded the government of President Bashir al-Assad in Syria had used chlorine as a chemical weapon in an attack in May during a battle with insurgents in Idlib.

“The Assad regime is responsible for innumerable atrocities some of which rise to the level of war crimes and crimes against humanity,” Pompeo told a news conference in New York, where he has been attending the United Nations General Assembly.

“Today I am announcing that the United States has concluded that the Assad regime used chlorine as a chemical weapon on May 19,” Pompeo said.

The United States said in May it had received numerous reports that appeared consistent with chemical exposure after an attack by Syrian government forces in northwest Syria, but it had made no definitive conclusion as to whether they used chemical weapons.

The Trump administration has twice bombed Syria over Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons, in April 2017 and April 2018.

The United States, Britain and France launched airstrikes in April 2018 against what they described as three Syrian chemical weapons targets in retaliation for a suspected gas attack that killed scores of people in a Damascus suburb earlier that month.

Assad launched an offensive at the end of April this year on Idlib and parts of adjacent provinces, saying insurgents had broken a truce.

“This is different in some sense because it was chlorine… but know that President Trump has been pretty vigorous in protecting the world from the use of chemical weapons,” Pompeo said, said declining to say what the U.S. response could be.

Pompeo said Washington had also added sanctions on two Russian entities for providing fuel to the Syrian government. Russia supports Assad in the more than eight-year-long Syrian war.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Writing by John Irish; editing by Grant McCool)

Russian-led assault in Syria leaves over 500 civilians dead: rights groups, rescuers

FILE PHOTO: A street vendor sells toys next to rubble of damaged buildings in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – At least 544 civilians have been killed and over 2,000 people injured since a Russian-led assault on the last rebel bastion in northwestern Syria began two months ago, rights groups and rescuers said on Saturday.

Russian jets joined the Syrian army on April 26 in the biggest offensive against parts of rebel-held Idlib province and adjoining northern Hama provinces in the biggest escalation in the war between Syrian President Bashar al Assad and his enemies since last summer.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights,(SNHR), which monitors casualties and briefs various UN agencies, said the 544 civilians killed in the hundreds of attacks carried out by Russian jets and the Syrian army include 130 children. Another 2,117 people have been injured.

“The Russian military and its Syrian ally are deliberately targeting civilians with a record number of medical facilities bombed,” Fadel Abdul Ghany, chairman of SNHR, told Reuters.

Russia and its Syrian army ally deny their jets hit indiscriminately civilian areas with cluster munitions and incendiary weapons, which residents in opposition areas say are meant to paralyze every-day life.

Moscow says its forces and the Syrian army are fending off terror attacks by al Qaeda militants whom they say hit populated, government-held areas, and it accuses rebels of wrecking a ceasefire deal agreed last year between Turkey and Russia.

Last month U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said the Russian-Syrian joint military operation had used cluster munitions and incendiary weapons in the attacks along with large air-dropped explosive weapons with wide-area effects in populated civilian areas, based on reports by first responders and witnesses.

Residents and rescuers say the two-month-old campaign has left dozens of villages and towns in ruins. According to the United Nations, at least 300,000 people have been forced to leave their homes for the safety of areas closer to the border with Turkey.

“Whole villages and towns have been emptied,” said Idlib-based Civil Defence spokesman Ahmad al Sheikho, saying it was the most destructive campaign against Idlib province since it completely fell to the opposition in the middle of 2015.

On Friday, 15 people, including children, were killed in the village of Mhambil in western Idlib province after Syrian army helicopters dropped barrel bombs on a civilian quarter, the civil defense group and witnesses said.

The heads of 11 major global humanitarian organizations warned at the end of last month that Idlib stood at the brink of disaster, with 3 million civilian lives at risk, including 1 million children.

“Too many have died already; even wars have laws” they declared, in the face of multiple attacks by government forces and their allies on hospitals, schools, and markets, the U.N.-endorsed statement said.

Last Thursday an aerial strike on Kafr Nabl hospital made it the 30th facility to be bombed during the campaign, leaving hundreds of thousands with no medical access, according to aid groups.

“To have these medical facilities bombed and put out of service in less than two months is no accident. Let’s call this by what it is, a war crime,” Dr. Khaula Sawah, vice president of the U.S.-based Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, which provides aid in the northwest, said in a statement.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Leslie Adler)

Satellite images show fields in northwest Syria on fire

A satelite overview image of Kafr Nabudah that shows damaged and destroyed buildings, Idlib Province, Syria May 26, 2019. Picture taken May 26, 2019. Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – New satellite images show fields, orchards and olive groves burning in northwest Syria, where the army has waged an assault against rebels in their last major stronghold.

Government air strikes, backed by Russia, have focused on the south of Idlib province and nearby parts of Hama, uprooting nearly 250,000 people. The bombing has killed 229 civilians and injured 727 others, according to the UOSSM medical charity.

In the photos by satellite imagery provider DigitalGlobe Inc, plumes of dark smoke rise from the countryside around al-Habeet village in Idlib and the small town of Kafr Nabouda in Hama.

The before and after images, collected at the start and end of last week, show patches of scorched earth, fields blackened by fire, and clusters of destroyed buildings. Some of the fires appear to be still burning.

The civil defense in the northwest, a rescue service in opposition territory, said on Monday that government warplanes had been pounding crop fields in Idlib, setting them on fire.

Syrian state news agency SANA said on Tuesday that militants had shelled villages in the northern Hama countryside, damaging houses and burning wheat fields.

While al-Habeet is in the hands of insurgents, government forces recaptured Kafr Nabouda on Sunday, the third time it changed hands in the latest fighting. State media said the army seized it from Tahrir al-Sham, formerly the Nusra Front until it broke away from al Qaeda.

The army onslaught in the northwest over the past month marks the most intense escalation between President Bashar al-Assad and his insurgent enemies since last summer.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Syria; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Doctors go underground as Syrian government attacks rebel northwest

A general view of the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, seen in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

By Amina Ismail

BEIRUT (Reuters) – In part of northern Syria’s last rebel enclave, doctors have pulled back into cave shelters to treat the wounded and protect their patients from a government offensive that has hit health centers and hospitals.

The assault began in late April with air strikes, barrel bombs and shelling against the southern flank of the enclave, centered on Idlib province and nominally under the protection of a Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreed more than eight months ago. Limited ground advances have additionally taken place this week.

“The makeshift hospitals are very primitive,” Osama al-Shami, a 36-year-old doctor, told Reuters from the area. “We can barely save lives with the equipment we have and many of the injured die because of the lack of resources and equipment.”

The insurgents, dominated by the jihadist Tahrir al-Sham, describe the offensive as an invasion while the government accuses the rebels of violating the deal.

President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to take back every inch of Syria and the enclave including Idlib is the last big bastion of the rebellion that flared against him 2011.

The United Nations said last year that half of the region’s 3 million inhabitants had fled their homes, and the bombing has now caused a new wave of displacement.

More than 150,000 had left since April 29, The U.N. said on Tuesday, with bombs falling on over 50 villages, destroying at least 10 schools and hitting at least 12 health centers.

Under the bombs, medics are turning back to tactics used at other times in the eight-year war, moving patients into shelters under buildings or hacked into the ground. Some are opening up their houses as temporary health centers, said one surgeon.

But they are getting overwhelmed and Shami said several wounded children had died in his arms.

“One of them was a nine-year-old child who had a head and a chest injury and was severely bleeding. We tried to resuscitate him but he died within 15 minutes. There are no blood banks nearby or an equipped operating theater,” he said.

FRENCH, BRITISH CONCERNS

A war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that, in the latest escalation of fighting and bombardments, 188 people including 85 civilians had been killed since April 30.

France’s President Emmanuel Macron said on Tuesday he had “grave concerns” over the escalation of violence in Syria including the strikes on hospitals.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the offensive a “flagrant violation of the ceasefire agreement”.

Backed by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, Assad has retaken most of Syria.

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold the country’s northeast quarter, while control of the northwest is divided between jihadist groups and rebel factions supported by Turkey.

The current government offensive is focused on the southern flank of the rebel enclave.

On Wednesday, the Syrian army advanced into the town of Kafr Nabouda, rebels and a military media unit run by Assad’s ally Hezbollah reported.

The Observatory said fighters of Tahrir al-Sham – an incarnation of the former al-Qaeda affiliate the Nusra Front – launched a suicide attack against the army, detonating a bomb in an armored vehicle.

Rebels said heavy fighting continued at the town – close to where Shami is running his makeshift clinic – while the Hezbollah media unit said the army had gained complete control of it.

(Reporting By Amina Ismail, writing by Angus McDowall; editing by John Stonestreet)

U.S. offers $10 million reward for information to disrupt Hezbollah finances

FILE PHOTO: A man holds a Hezbollah flag at Meis al-Jabal village in south Lebanon, December 9, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The United States on Monday offered a reward of up to $10 million for information that could help disrupt financing of Hezbollah, the armed Shi’ite group backed by Iran.

The announcement by the U.S. Department of State’s Rewards for Justice Program comes amid growing concerns by Washington about Hezbollah’s growing role in the Lebanese government.

Hezbollah’s regional clout has expanded as it sends fighters to Middle East conflicts, including the war in Syria, where it has fought in support of President Bashar al-Assad.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Tom Brown)

Tunisia says to coordinate Arab response to U.S. move on Israel, Golan

Flags are pictured before a preparatory meeting between Arab foreign ministers ahead of the Arab summit in Tunis, Tunisia March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

TUNIS (Reuters) – Tunisia will coordinate with fellow Arab countries to contain any fall-out from the U.S. decision to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui said on Friday.

He was speaking to a meeting of Arab foreign ministers on the eve of the annual Arab League summit, hosted this year by Tunisia and likely to focus on Washington’s Golan decision and its earlier move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“We will work with fellow Arab countries and the international community to contain the expected repercussions of this decision in the various regional and international forums,” Jhinaoui told the meeting in Tunis.

He did not elaborate, but Arab countries want Washington to retract its decision and stop other countries following suit.

Arab states, which consider the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war as occupied Syrian land, have condemned last week’s decision by U.S. President Donald Trump to recognize the plateau as Israeli territory.

Trump also angered Arabs by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv last year.

But a person familiar with the matter said Washington’s Golan and Jerusalem decisions did not appear to have blocked behind-the-scenes security contacts developed in recent years between Israel and the United States’ Gulf Arab allies over their common enemy, Iran.

Tunisia currently holds the rotating presidency of the Arab League and is vying for one of the rotating non-permanent seats on the United Nations Security Council.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria and Arab East Jerusalem from Jordan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed both in moves not recognized internationally.

SAUDI SEES IRANIAN THREAT

Saudi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Assaf told the gathering that Saudi Arabia considered the Palestinians’ quest for statehood in Israeli-occupied territory – peace talks have been stalled for five years – to be the central cause for all Arabs.

But Assaf singled out what he described as the Iranian threat as the main challenge facing Arabs, calling for action to confront Tehran.

“One of the most dangerous forms of terrorism and extremism is what Iran practices through its blatant interference in Arab affairs, and its militias…the Revolutionary Guards in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, which requires cooperation from us to confront it,” he said.

Iran has denied posing any such threats.

Assaf said Arabs needed to work to stop Iran’s ballistic missile programme, saying the Islamic Republic was supplying Yemen’s Houthi movement with rockets to attack Saudi cities.

Saudi Arabia is leading a Sunni Muslim coalition that intervened in 2015 in Yemen’s war against the Houthis to restore the internationally recognized government ousted from power.

Assaf also voiced Saudi support for Syria’s territorial integrity and a political solution to its war based on dialogue between the opposition and government but said a unified Syrian opposition should emerge before the start of any dialogue.

Syria’s membership of the Arab League had been suspended since the country descended into violence in 2011 after Arab Spring protests.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government, backed by Russia and Iran, has regained control over most of the country after years of fighting that has killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Five sources told Reuters last month that the United States has been lobbying Gulf states to hold off restoring ties with Syria, including the UAE which has moved closer to Damascus to counter the influence of its rival Iran.

(Reporting by Maher Chamytelli in Dubai and Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Sami Aboudi; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syria vows to recover Golan as Trump policy shift draws criticism

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers stand on tanks near the Israeli side of the border with Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel May 9, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian government vowed to take back the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as its allies and enemies alike condemned U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday for moving to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the territory seized in war.

Trump’s statement on Thursday marked a dramatic shift in U.S. policy over the status of a disputed area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East conflict and annexed in 1981 – a move not recognized internationally.

Against this backdrop of hostility toward the U.S. move, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo landed in Beirut on Friday after visiting Israel. He is expected to raise pressure on the government to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah.

Trump’s declaration is the latest U.S. step to fuel anger in the region, both in states that are hostile to Israel and others that have relations with it and are allied to the United States.

It follows the U.S. recognition in December 2017 of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a decision that also drew international criticism as the city’s disputed status remains at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Russia, an ally of President Bashar al-Assad with forces in Syria, said Trump’s comments risked seriously destabilizing the region, and it voiced hope the statement was just declaratory.

Iran, Assad’s main regional ally and which also has forces in Syria, condemned the statement as illegal and unacceptable.

“The personal decisions of Trump…will lead to crisis in the region,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman said.

Turkey, a U.S. ally and an adversary of Damascus, also said the move had brought the Middle East to the edge of a new crisis and the legitimization of the occupation of the Golan Heights could not be allowed.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Trump for his gesture “at a time when Iran seeks to use Syria as a platform to destroy Israel”. It could help Netanyahu in the midst of a tough re-election battle, analysts said.

The Syrian government said the Golan was an “indivisible” part of Syrian territory and recovering it “via all means guaranteed by international law is still a priority”.

It said United States with its “stupidity and arrogance” had no right to decide the fate of the area and any move to recognize Israeli sovereignty over it was “an illegal action with no impact”.

After remaining calm for decades since a 1974 armistice monitored by U.N. peacekeepers, Golan re-emerged as a flashpoint for regional tensions during the Syrian war. Last May, Israel accused Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of launching a rocket salvo into its territory from the Syrian side of the truce line.

Israel, which has mounted numerous air strikes against what it has called Iran-backed targets in Syria, has demanded Russia keep forces allied to Tehran away from the boundary.

The Syrian side was held by rebel forces for years until pro-government forces recovered it in July.

U.S. OFFICIAL: ISRAEL “COULD NOT GIVE UP THE GOLAN”

Jason Greenblatt, a senior White House adviser, said “under any conceivable circumstance, Israel could not give up the Golan”. “To do so would endanger Israel’s very existence,” he wrote on Twitter.

But Fouad Mundhir, a Syrian whose village is in Israeli-occupied Golan, said Trump was “canceling the will of an entire nation”. “You say you are carrying the flag of democracy, okay, Mr. Trump, have you taken into account the will of the people of the Golan?” he told Reuters in Jaramana, near Damascus.

In the Golan itself, Druze villager Sheikh Mahmoud Nazeeh, also rejected the move.

“Trump can make his statements and say he wants to make the Golan part of Israel. But we know this will stay Syrian land,” the 70-year-old said.

The European Union said its position on the status of the Golan Heights was unchanged and it did not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the area.

Germany said any change in borders should be “done through peaceful means between all those involved”, while France said it did not recognize the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights and any recognition was contrary to international law.

The Arab League, which suspended Syria in 2011 after the start of its civil war, said Trump had paved “the way for official American recognition” of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan and called this “completely beyond international law”.

Egypt, which made peace with Israel in 1979, said it still considers the Golan as occupied Syrian territory.

Israel says Syria’s civil war has reaffirmed the need to keep the plateau – coveted for its water resources and fertile soil – as a buffer zone between Israeli towns and the instability of its neighbor.

In Lebanon, Pompeo is expected to flag U.S. concerns about Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah’s growing role in government: the group has three cabinet ministers and together with its allies controls more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats.

The United States is a major donor to the Lebanese army but its allies, including the Sunni Muslim Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, have been weakened as Iran’s role has deepened through Lebanon, Iraq and Syria and Saudi influence has receded.

Washington has reintroduced sanctions on Iran and imposed new financial sanctions on Hezbollah which Lebanon’s Hezbollah-aligned president, Michel Aoun, said on Thursday were hurting all Lebanese.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelaty in Cairo/Tom Perry in Beirut, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow, and Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Yousef Saba in Cairo, Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Robin Emmot in Brussels, Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

‘Get out of Syria,’ Iran tells U.S.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaks during his visit to the shrine of the founder of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, south of Tehran, Iran, January 30, 2019. Official President website/Handout via REUTERS

By Babak Dehghanpisheh

GENEVA (Reuters) – Senior Iranian figures said on Wednesday that Syria was a top foreign policy priority and American troops should withdraw, as planned by U.S. President Donald Trump.

“Whether they want to or not, the Americans must leave Syria,” Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was reported as saying.

There are fears in the West that Trump’s plan to extricate about 2,000 soldiers from Syria will cede influence to Tehran, which has backed President Bashar al-Assad in the nearly eight-year war, and also allow Islamic State militants to regroup.

“Now 90 percent of Syrian soil is under the control of the government and the rest will soon be freed by the Syrian army,” Velayati added during a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, according to the Tasnim news agency.

President Hassan Rouhani told Moualem that peace in Syria was a priority. “One of the important regional and foreign policy goals of the Islamic Republic is the stability and complete security of Syria,” Tasnim quoted him as saying.

“And establishing normal conditions in Syria and the return of the people of this country to their normal lives.”

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 over Syria.

Separately, Rear-Admiral Mahmoud Mousavi, a deputy commander of the regular armed forces, said on Wednesday that Iran plans to extend the range of its land-to-sea missiles beyond 300 kilometers (186 miles), according to the Fars news agency.

Iran has expanded its missile program, particularly its ballistic missiles, in defiance of opposition from the United States and expressions of concern by European countries.

Tehran says the program is purely defensive.

The European Union said on Monday it was gravely concerned by Iran’s ballistic missile launches and tests and urged it to stop activity that deepens mistrust and destabilizes the region.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)