Israel sees Syrian army growing beyond pre-civil war size

An Israeli soldier rides an armoured vehicle during an army drill after the visit of Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohe

MEROM GOLAN, Golan Heights (Reuters) – Israel’s defense minister said on Tuesday that Syria was building up its ground forces beyond their pre-civil war size, an assessment that suggests President Bashar al-Assad’s army has recovered from a critical manpower shortage earlier in the war.

The Syrian military was hit by major defections in the first years of the conflict, which began in 2011, and by 2015 Assad acknowledged that “a shortfall in human capacity” meant the army could not fight everywhere for fear of losing vital ground.

Russia intervened militarily soon afterward to turn the tide of war and has been helping arm and train the Syrian army. Iran has also backed Assad, sending military advisers and allied Shi’ite militia from across the region to support his troops.

Pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict have also included local militias raised by the Lebanese Hezbollah with Iranian support, including the National Defence Forces.

“Across the way we see the Syrian military, which is not satisfied with just taking over all of Syrian territory but is expressly building a broad-based, new ground army that will return to its previous proportions and beyond,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of the Golan Heights.

Israel closely monitors the military capacity of Syria, an adversary against which it has fought three wars. It captured part of the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and has occupied it since.

With Assad now regaining control, Israel has voiced worry that he might defy a 44-year-old Golan demilitarisation deal that had stabilized their standoff.

An Israeli soldier is dressed-up playing the role of the enemy takes part in a army drill after the visit of Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

An Israeli soldier is dressed-up playing the role of the enemy takes part in an army drill after the visit of Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

In a Twitter statement, Lieberman said that Israel’s tanks, deployed on parts of the strategic plateau that it captured from Syria in a 1967 war, were “our crushing strike force and will know how to defend the border in any eventuality”.

In a May interview, Assad also said Syria had improved its air defenses with Russian help.

The Golan saw large tank battles in 1967 and the subsequent Israel-Syria war in 1973. Israel annexed its side of the Golan in 1981, in a move not recognized internationally.

In a July 19 briefing, the chief of Israel’s armored corps told reporters that while the number of Israeli tanks fielded was unlikely to grow, a new, improved tank model would be introduced in 2021.

(Writing by Dan Williams and Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)

Russia to deploy military police on Golan Heights

Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi speaks during a news briefing, with a map showing the territory of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria seen in the background, in Moscow, Russia August 2, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

By Denis Pinchuk and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will deploy its military police on the Golan Heights frontier between Syria and Israel, its defense ministry said on Thursday, after weeks of mounting volatility in the area.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sweeping away of rebels in southwestern Syria has worried Israel, which believes it could allow his Iranian backers to entrench their troops close to the frontier.

Underlining the tensions, Israel killed seven militants in an overnight air strike on the Syrian-held part of the Golan Heights, Israeli radio said on Thursday.

Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian defense ministry official, said that Russian military police had on Thursday begun patrolling in the Golan Heights and planned to set up eight observation posts in the area.

He said the Russian presence there was in support of United Nations peacekeepers on the Golan Heights who, he said, had suspended their activities in the area in 2012 because their safety was endangered.

“Today, UN peacekeepers accompanied by Russian military police conducted their first patrols in six years in the separation zone,” Rudskoi told a briefing for journalists in Moscow.

“With the aim of preventing possible provocations against UN posts along the ‘Bravo’ line, the deployment is planned of eight observation posts of Russia’s armed forces’ military police,” Rudskoi said.

He said the Russian presence there was temporary, and that the observation posts would be handed over to Syrian government forces once the situation stabilized.

The deployment of the Russian military police highlights the degree to which the Kremlin has become an influential actor in Middle East conflicts since its military intervention in Syria which turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.

Israel has been lobbying the Kremlin to use its influence with Assad, and with Tehran, to try to get the Iranian military presence in Syria scaled back.

Israel sees Iran, and Iran’s allies in the Hezbollah Shi’ite military, as a direct threat to its national security.

That message was conveyed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in Moscow last month, a senior Israeli official said.

Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons in Syria to a distance of 85 km (53 miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, TASS quoted a Russian envoy as saying on Wednesday, but Israel deemed the pullback inadequate.

(Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe, Richard Balmforth)

As some ‘White Helmets’ escaped Syria, most were left behind

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets holds a document at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

By Khalil Ashawi

MIZANAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Fearing for his life, Daman Ayed registered to be evacuated from Syria along with hundreds of other members of the White Helmets rescue service, hoping for a new life in Canada.

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets is seen at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets is seen at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

But the 20-year-old was not among the several hundred people who were spirited out of the country last weekend over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and into Jordan. When the list of names approved for evacuation arrived, his was not on it.

“They told us at midnight that the names had come. We were surprised how many names had not been approved,” said Ayed. Only two of the people working at his rescue center were on the list.

Instead, he joined thousands of other people boarding buses for opposition territory in northwest Syria under the terms of the rebels’ surrender to the government.

Many of the rescue workers and their families originally supposed to join the evacuation were not able to reach the frontier because of fighting, the White Helmets said.

Of about 800 people, including about 250 White Helmets, along with 550 family members, in the plans, only about 100 rescue workers and about 300 relatives were able to cross through the Golan Heights and Jordan.

However, other White Helmets, including Ayed, were never cleared for evacuation. “We sent these lists…and some names were refused and some names were accepted,” said Ammar al-Selmo, a White Helmet working at the group’s headquarters in Turkey.

Britain, Canada and Germany were among the countries that offered resettlement and helped to arrange the evacuation.

Asked why some White Helmets were not included in the evacuation plans, a British Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: “This was a response to a specific and urgent situation”.

“We have worked, alongside our partners, to use our diplomatic channels to evacuate the maximum number of White Helmets and their families as was possible in an extremely constrained security context.”

German officials declined to comment.

Ayed, who has arrived in the northwest along with his parents and younger brother, said he still sees leaving Syria as his best hope of surviving the war.

“Regarding our departure for Canada, I consider it the only solution to save our lives,” he said.

People internally displaced from Deraa province walk near their belongings at a temporary camp at Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

People internally displaced from Deraa province walk near their belongings at a temporary camp at Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

IDENTIFICATION PAPERS

The northwest is the last major area still held by rebels. Idlib faces frequent bombardment and President Bashar al-Assad has said it is now his target.

Rescue workers with the White Helmets, which operates only in opposition-held parts of Syria, are at great risk if captured by the government, Ayed said.

“Our fate is worse than that of army defectors,” he said.

Assad has accused the White Helmets of being an al Qaeda front, and his government says they fabricated chemical weapons attacks as a pretext for Western air strikes.

The group, which receives funding from Western governments, says it is a civilian rescue organization that works under bombardment to pull people from the rubble.

Adding to his fear of capture by Assad’s forces, Ayed said when the army advanced into his district of the southwest this month, it seized paperwork at the White Helmets base.

“The most important thing is the names and identities of the volunteers, and our special identification cards. This is what damages us the most. The papers and the names were not destroyed, but stayed as they were and are in the hands of the regime,” he said.

SHELLING

Assad has crushed one center of the rebellion after another in recent years and last month turned to the opposition stronghold straddling Deraa and Quneitra provinces in the southwest.

Air strikes were followed by ground attacks and offers of surrender in return for safe passage to northwestern Syria for any who refused to come back under government control.

Ayed, who said he has been a White Helmet for 16 months, was based in Lajat, the first rebel area in Deraa to come under attack.

As the army closed in, it shelled the White Helmets center and the rescue workers fled before it was captured, he said. Its 30 staff split up, heading for different parts of the remaining rebel territory.

Some sought refuge in towns that were later captured by the government. “They were surrounded and their fate is unknown,” he said.

Ayed and his family ended up in Quneitra, near the frontier with the Golan Heights, the last patch of rebel ground in southwest Syria to surrender to the government.

He worked at the White Helmets center there for several weeks. Then one evening all its rescue workers were called in for an urgent meeting.

They were told to submit their names for evacuation through Israel and Jordan with the prospect of resettlement in Canada, he said. When the names came back, Ayed was not among them.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Andrew MacAskill in London; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Pro-Assad villages evacuated in deal with Syrian insurgents

A fighter loyal to President Bashar al Assad and a child are seen in a bus as they are evacuated from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two pro-government villages in northwestern Syria were evacuated on Thursday, state television said, in an agreement between the Damascus government and insurgents who had laid siege to them for several years.

In exchange, the government was due to release hundreds of prisoners from its jails. Pro-Damascus TV stations said at least 20 buses carrying “militants” released from jail had crossed into rebel-held territory under the agreement.

Close to 7,000 people – civilians and fighters – were due to leave the loyalist Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province. They were ferried out in a convoy of buses through rebel-held territory to nearby government-held territory in Aleppo province, state TV footage showed.

A commander in the regional alliance that backs Damascus said insurgents in Idlib were still holding around 1,000 of the evacuees near the crossing on Thursday night.

Footage broadcast by al-Manar TV, which is run by the pro-Damascus Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, showed buses arriving at a government checkpoint in al-Eis, east of the two villages, earlier in the day. Many had smashed windscreens – Al-Manar’s reporter said they had been pelted with rocks as they drove through rebel areas.

A separate convoy of buses was shown crossing from al-Eis into rebel-held territory. Al-Manar’s reporter at the scene said they were carrying detainees released under the deal.

Population transfers have been a common feature of the seven-year war, mostly at the expense of Assad’s opponents.

Rebels and civilians have been bussed out of their home towns to insurgent territory in the north as government troops advanced, backed by Russian and Iranian forces. The opposition has decried this as a systematic policy of forced displacement, or “demographic change”, to get rid of Assad’s opponents.

People are seen as they are evacuated from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

People are seen as they are evacuated from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Assad has vowed to recover the entire country, and Idlib province is the last major insurgent-held part of Syria. The Syrian army and its allies are now waging a rapidly advancing campaign against rebels in the southwest, the other major area where Assad’s enemies were holding out.

The conflict, which has killed half a million Syrians and driven 11 million from their homes, has long had a sectarian dimension. Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, while most Syrians are Sunni Muslims.

Shi’ite militias backed by Iran have deployed from across the region to help Damascus against the mainly Sunni rebels.

More than 120 buses arrived at the Shi’ite villages on Wednesday to take out the residents and fighters. Ambulances left first, ferrying out the sick to a government checkpoint. State-run al-Ikhbariya TV said 10 ambulances carrying a number of people in critical condition left the villages.

Opposition sources said officials from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition spearheaded by Syria’s former al-Qaeda offshoot, had negotiated the swap with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

A commander in the regional alliance that backs Assad and an Islamist rebel source familiar with the secret talks said that Turkey was also involved in the process, which builds on a deal from last year that was not fully implemented.

The evacuees were due to include Alawites taken hostage by rebels when they overran Idlib more than three years ago, the commander said.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Hesham Hajali in Cairo; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Larry King)

Israel warns Syrians away from frontier as Assad closes in

People wave white cloths next to the refugee tents erected near the border fence between Israel and Syria from its Syrian side as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the Israeli Syrian border July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

GOLAN HEIGHTS/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of Syrians approached the Israeli frontier on the Golan Heights on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to seek help or sanctuary from a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, before turning back after a warning from Israeli forces.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have arrived near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the past month, fleeing a rapidly advancing offensive which has defeated rebels across a swathe of territory near Jordan and Israel.

“Go back before something bad happens. If you want us to be able to help you, go back,” an Israeli army officer on the Israeli side of a frontier fence told the crowd in Arabic through a megaphone. “Get a move on.”

The offensive has triggered the single biggest displacement of the war, with several hundred thousand people uprooted. Both Israel and Jordan have said they will not allow Syrians to cross into their territory.

Israel, which seized the Golan in the 1967 Middle East War, has given humanitarian aid to refugees in encampments close to a 1974 Israeli-Syrian disengagement line. Many of the displaced are sheltering within the disengagement zone that is monitored by a U.N. force.

The Syrians who approached the frontier fence stopped some 200 meters (yards) away, before an Israeli soldier told them to leave.

People walk towards the border fence between Israel and Syria from its Syrian side as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the Israeli Syrian border July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvu

People walk towards the border fence between Israel and Syria from its Syrian side as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the Israeli Syrian border July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

“You are on the border of the State of Israel. Go back, we don’t want to hurt you,” the soldier shouted in Arabic through a loudspeaker at the crowd, live Reuters TV footage showed.

The crowd, which included women and children, then walked back slowly towards the refugee encampment. Some stopped mid-way and waved white cloths in the direction of the Israeli frontier.

The Russian-backed offensive has advanced swiftly, unopposed by President Bashar al-Assad’s foreign adversaries. The United States, which once armed the southern rebels, told them not to expect it to intervene as the attack got underway last month.

A witness on the Syrian side of the Golan frontier said the sound of bombardment was drawing ever nearer. The United Nations said last week up to 160,000 Syrians had fled to Quneitra province, some in close proximity to the Golan area.

GOVERNMENT FORCES CELEBRATE

Syrian state TV broadcast from a hilltop captured from rebels on Monday and overlooking the Golan frontier. Government fighters waved rifles and held aloft pictures of Assad as they celebrated on camera from the location, al-Haara hill.

“We will liberate all Syria,” said one of the soldiers.

Israel has threatened a harsh response to any attempt by Syrian forces to deploy in the disengagement zone, complicating the government offensive as it draws closer to the frontier.

Israel does not want its enemies Iran and Hezbollah, both allies of Assad, to move forces near its border. Iran-backed Shi’ite forces including Hezbollah have been critical to Assad’s advances.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking alongside U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, cited the need to restore the situation along the Golan borders to the state that prevailed before the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressing Putin to rein in Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria.

Hezbollah-controlled al-Manar TV said the Syrian army had captured one of the last rebel-held areas in Deraa province, al-Aliyeh.

At least 14 people, including five children and some women, were killed when government forces bombarded the nearby village of Ain al-Tineh 10 km (6 miles) from the Golan frontier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

(This story has been refiled to remove extraneous words in final paragraph)

(Reporting by Rami Amichay and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Angus MacSwan)

Netanyahu to Putin: remove Iran from Syria, Assad safe from Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during their meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia July 11, 2018. Yuri Kadobnov/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russia on Wednesday that Israel does not intend to threaten Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule and asked Moscow to work to remove Iranian forces from Syria, an Israeli official said.

“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” the official, who requested anonymity, quoted Netanyahu as telling Putin during a meeting in Moscow.

Russia was already working to distance Iranian forces from areas of Syria near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and had proposed that they be kept 80 km (50 miles) away but this fell short of Israel’s demand for a full exit, the official said.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Israel shoots down Syria drone; Netanyahu to meet Putin

FILE PHOTO: Israeli soldiers look at the Syrian side of the Israel-Syria border on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel shot down a drone that flew in from Syria on Wednesday, the Israeli military said, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow to for talks with Damascus’s biggest ally about a Syrian advance near the volatile frontier.

A Patriot missile launched to intercept the drone, which set off air-defense sirens on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and nearby Jordanian border, the military said in a statement. It was the second such incident in the area in as many months.

The drone “infiltrated the Israeli border from Syria”, the Israeli military statement said, without immediately elaborating on whether the shoot-down took place over the Golan. Israel captured much of the strategic plateau in the 1967 war with Syria and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally.

An Israeli security source said police were scouring the Sea of Galilee, at the Golan foothills in northern Israel, for possible debris.

Israel has been on high alert as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces advance against rebels near the Golan and Jordan. Israel worries that he could deploy troops or allow his Iranian and Hezbollah allies to set up emplacements near Israeli lines.

Russia is Assad’s big-power backer in the 7-year-old civil war. Netanyahu traveled to Moscow on Wednesday for talks with President Vladimir Putin, who in the past has turned a blind eye to Israeli strikes on Iranian and Hezbollah targets in Syria while making clear Russia does not want Assad’s rule endangered.

“We will discuss Syria, we will discuss Iran, we will discuss Israel’s security needs,” Netanyahu told reporters before departing. “I very much appreciate the direct, unmediated and excellent contact that I have with the Russian president.”

Israel has threatened to open fire at any Syrian government forces that try to deploy in a demilitarized Golan buffer zone set up under a 1974 U.N.-monitored armistice.

But on Tuesday, Israel also signaled openness to eventual ties with Syria under Assad, a tacit acknowledgment that he was re-consolidating power as he beats back the rebels.

Under Assad family rule, Syria held direct negotiations with Israel in the United States in 2000 and indirect talks mediated by Turkey in 2008, discussions predicated on a full or partial return of the Golan.

Netanyahu’s government has made clear it would not now cede the plateau and has been lobbying for U.S. recognition of Israel’s claim of sovereignty there.

On June 24, Israel’s military said it launched a Patriot missile at an incoming drone from Syria, which turned away unscathed. A Syrian commander said the drone was engaged in local operations.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

Assad, aided by Russia, poised to snuff out ‘cradle’ of revolt

FILE PHOTO: A woman holds a Syrian flag in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad is poised to snuff out the Syrian rebellion in the place it first began more than seven years ago, as rebels enter talks with his Russian allies on withdrawing from Deraa city or accepting a return of state authority.

Government forces backed by Russia have seized most of Deraa province in the campaign that got underway last month and on Monday encircled rebel-held parts of Deraa city and seized the entire Jordanian frontier that was once in opposition hands.

Assad, whose control was once reduced to a fraction of Syria, now holds the largest chunk of the country with crucial help from his Russian and Iranian allies.

Deraa was the scene of the first anti-Assad protests that spiraled into a war now estimated to have killed half a million people. The conflict has driven over 11 million people from their homes, with some 5.6 million Syrian refugees in neighboring states alone and many more in Europe.

Rebels in Deraa are due to hold talks with Russian officers on Tuesday, a spokesman for the rebels, Abu Shaimaa, said. The talks were due to take place in the town of Busra al-Sham.

Some are seeking evacuation to opposition-held areas of the north while others are negotiating to remain as a local security force, he said.

“Today there is a session with the Russians over the forced displacement,” he said in a text message, referring to the expected evacuation of a yet-to-determined number of rebels to opposition areas of the northwest at the border with Turkey.

A pro-Syrian government newspaper, al-Watan, said “the coming hours will be decisive on the level of ending the chapter of terrorism in Deraa city”.

As Assad pushes for outright military victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace settlement to the conflict.

The north and much of the east however remain outside his control and the presence of U.S. and Turkish forces in those areas will complicate further advances for Damascus.

“EXTREMELY SCARED”

Government forces began thrusting into Deraa province last month. Heavily outgunned rebels surrendered quickly in some places as the United States, which once armed them, told opposition forces not to expect its intervention.

Deraa rebels agreed to a wider ceasefire deal brokered by Russia last Friday and to surrender the province in phases. Syrian and Russian forces then took control of the main crossing with Jordan, which has been in rebel hands since 2015.

On Monday, government forces extended their control all the way along Deraa province’s border with Jordan up to a pocket of territory held by Islamic State-affiliated militants, severing a once vital opposition lifeline to Jordan.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said army helicopters dropped leaflets on the rebel-held town of al-Haara saying “there is no place for militants”.

The government offensive is expected to turn next to nearby rebel-held areas of Quneitra province, at the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The offensive has triggered the biggest single displacement of civilians in the war, uprooting more than 320,000 people. Large numbers of people have moved again in the few days since the ceasefire was agreed, some returning to their villages.

Rachel Sider, Syria advocacy and information adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council, said displaced people had been crossing back to areas that are subject to the agreement “because the expectation is that now there is a ceasefire that is holding, that will be the most stable and safe place”.

“But we also know that people still feel extremely scared. They are not very clear about who is in control of the places that they are from. We have seen a lot of confusion amongst people who are trying to make a decision about their families’ safety and their future,” she said.

Tens of thousands of displaced people are still thought to be sheltering in the Tel Shihab area of Deraa province, and many more are at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

(The story corrects to show talks over fate of rebels in Deraa city are being held in Busra al-Sham, not Deraa city itself.)

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel threatens ‘harsh response’ to any Syrian forces in demilitarized Golan

People walk near the Israel-Syria border line as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 7, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel threatened a “harsh response” on Monday to any attempt by Syrian forces advancing against southern rebel areas to deploy in a Golan Heights frontier zone that was demilitarized under a 44-year-old U.N. monitored truce between the neighboring foes.

Syrian government forces backed by Russia have launched an offensive in the southern Deraa province and are widely expected to move on rebel-held Quneitra, which is within a part of the Syrian Golan covered by the armistice.

Israel worries that Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad could let its enemies Iran and Hezbollah move forces into the area, giving them a foothold near its border. Tehran and the Lebanese group both back Assad in the complex conflict.

“For our part we will sanctify the 1974 disengagement agreement, and there too we will insist that every last letter be abided by, and any violation with meet a harsh response from the State of Israel,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told his parliamentary faction in broadcast remarks.

Assad’s conduct in southern Syria is expected to come up in talks in Moscow on Wednesday between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia, whose 2015 intervention in the Syrian civil war turned the tide in Assad’s favor, has largely turned a blind eye to repeated Israeli air strikes in Syria targeting suspected Iranian or Hezbollah emplacements and arms transfers.

But diplomats on both sides say Russia has made clear that it would oppose any Israeli action endangering Assad’s rule.

On Sunday night, Syria said its air defense repelled an Israeli sorties against the T4 air base in Homs province, where seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel died in an April 9 attack that Damascus and Tehran also blamed on Israel.

Israel, in keeping with its customary reticence on such operations, declined all comment.

“Regarding yesterday – I read about it in the newspapers today and I have nothing to add,” Lieberman said on Monday.

“Perhaps just one thing, that our policy has not changed. We will not allow Iran’s entrenchment in Syria and we will not allow Syrian soil to be turned into a vanguard against the State of Israel. Nothing has changed. There is nothing new.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Toby Chopra and Andrew Heavens)

Russian jets hit Syrian south, U.N. urges Jordan to open border

Syrian army soldiers stand as they hold their weapons in Deraa, Syria, July 4, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dark smoke rose over areas held by Syrian rebels near the border with Jordan on Thursday as President Bashar al-Assad’s Russian allies unleashed heavy air strikes and government forces sought to advance on the ground.

The UNHCR refugee agency urged Jordan to open its borders to Syrians who have fled the fighting, saying the total number of displaced now stood at more than 320,000, with 60,000 of them gathered at the border crossing with Jordan.

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Smoke rises in Deraa area, Syria in this handout released on July 4, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS

Assad aims to recapture the entire southwest including the frontiers with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Jordan. The area is one of the last rebel strongholds in Syria after more than seven years of war.

With no sign of intervention yet by his foreign foes, government forces seem set for another big victory in the war after crushing the last remaining rebel bastions near Damascus and Homs.

State television footage showed giant clouds of smoke towering over fields, rooftops and a distant industrial area, accompanied by the sound of occasional explosions.

After four days of reduced bombardment, intense air strikes resumed on Wednesday following the collapse of talks between rebels and Russian officers, brokered by Jordan.

“The Russians have not stopped the bombardment,” Bashar al-Zoubi, a prominent rebel leader in southern Syria, told Reuters in a text message from the Deraa area, the focus of the government offensive.

“The regime is trying to advance and the clashes are continuing.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, monitoring the war through what it describes as many sources on the ground, said there had been 600 air strikes in 15 hours, extending into Thursday’s early hours.

State media said government forces had captured the town of Saida, some 10 km (six miles) east of Deraa city. A rebel command center said on Twitter government attempts to storm the town were being resisted after it was struck with “dozens of Russian air raids”, barrel bombs and rocket barrages.

The two-week-old attack has taken a chunk of rebel territory northeast of Deraa city, where some rebels surrendered.

The Observatory said 150 civilians have been killed.

ASSAD IN ASCENDANT

For the president, the Deraa campaign holds out the prospect of reopening the Nassib crossing with Jordan, a vital trade artery. Once Deraa is captured, the campaign is expected to move into the Quneitra area closer to the Golan frontier.

Recovering the frontier with the Golan Heights is also important to Assad, reestablishing his status as a frontline leader in the conflict with Israel, which sent reinforcements to the Golan frontier on Sunday.

State TV said Thursday’s bombardment had targeted the southern parts of Deraa, a city long split between rebels and the army, and the towns of Saida, al-Nuaima, Um al-Mayadan and Taiba.

Its correspondent said the army aimed to drive southwards through the area immediately east of Deraa city, where rebel territory narrows to a thin corridor along the Jordanian border.

This would split the territory in two.

The army has been trying for days to reach the Jordanian border in the area immediately west of Deraa, but had not succeeded in attempts to storm an insurgent-held air base there, the rebel command center Twitter account said.

Fleeing civilians have mostly sought shelter along the frontiers with Israel and Jordan, which is already hosting some 650,000 Syrian refugees. Both countries have said they will not open their borders, but have distributed some supplies inside Syria.

Southwest Syria is a “de-escalation zone” agreed last year by Russia, Jordan and the United States to reduce violence.

Near the start of the government’s offensive, Washington indicated it would respond to violations of that deal, but it has not done so yet and rebels said it had told them to expect no American military help.

For the anti-Assad rebels, losing the southwest will reduce their territory to a region of the northwest bordering Turkey and a patch of desert in the east where U.S. forces are stationed near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Assad now controls most of Syria with help from his allies, though a large part of the north and east is in the hands of Kurdish-led militia backed by the United States.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall and Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Roche)