Iran vows to will keep military forces in Syria despite Israeli threats

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari looks on while attending Friday prayers in Tehran February 10, 2012. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran will keep military forces in Syria, the head of the elite Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday, defying Israeli threats that they might be targeted if they do not leave the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israeli forces would continue to attack Iranians in Syria and warned them “to get out of there fast, because we will continue with our resolute policy”.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

Rebuffing the threats, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Revolutionary Guards top commander, was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency that “the Islamic Republic of Iran will keep all its military and revolutionary advisers and its weapons in Syria.”

Jafari called Netanyahu’s threats “a joke”, and warned that the Israeli government “was playing with (a) lion’s tail.”

“You should be afraid of the day that our precision-guided missiles roar and fall on your head,” he said.

Iran and Russia have both backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a seven-year war against rebels and militants, and have sent thousands of soldiers to the country.

Israel, increasingly concerned that its enemy Iran may establish a long-term military presence in neighboring Syria, says it has carried out more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli warplanes carried out an attack on what he called an Iranian arms cache in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London with additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Where do the Kurds fit into Syria’s war?

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish-led militiamen ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory over Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The future of Kurdish-led areas of northern and eastern Syria has been thrown into doubt by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops who have helped to secure the region.

Amounting to about one-quarter of Syria, the area is the largest chunk of territory still outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.

Trump said on Wednesday the United States would withdraw slowly “over a period of time” and would protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters as Washington withdraws troops, but without giving a timetable.

Syrian Kurdish leaders fear Turkey will use the withdrawal as an opportunity to launch an assault.

As a result, they are in contact with Moscow and Damascus in the hope of agreeing with arrangements to protect the region from Turkey while also aiming to safeguard their political gains.

HOW DID THE KURDS EMERGE AS A FORCE?

The main Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), began to establish a foothold in the north early in the war as government forces withdrew to put down the anti-Assad uprising elsewhere. An affiliated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), secured the region.

Early in the conflict, their control was concentrated in three predominantly Kurdish regions home to roughly 2 million Kurds. Kurdish-led governing bodies were set up.

The area of YPG influence expanded as the YPG allied with the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State (IS), becoming the spearhead of a multi-ethnic militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

SDF influence widened to Manbij and Raqqa as IS was defeated in both. It has also reached deep into Deir al-Zor, where the SDF is still fighting IS.

Kurdish leaders say their aim is regional autonomy within a decentralized Syria, not independence.

WHY DOES TURKEY VIEW THEM AS A THREAT?

The PYD is heavily influenced by the ideas of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights. Ocalan has been in jail since 1999 in Turkey. He is convicted of treason.

The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Turkey says the PKK is indistinguishable from the PYD and YPG.

Turkey has a Kurdish minority equal to 15 to 20 percent of its population, mostly living in eastern and southeastern areas bordering Syria. Wary of separatistism, Turkey views the PYD’s Syrian foothold as a national security threat.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups do not hide Ocalan’s influence: they organized elections towards establishing a political system based on his ideas.

Turkey has already mounted two cross-border offensives in northern Syria as part of its efforts to counter the YPG.

Current map of Syria and controlled territories

Current map of Syria and controlled territories

FOR KURDS, IS ASSAD A FRIEND OR FOE?

Syria’s Baathist state systematically persecuted the Kurds before the war. Yet the YPG and Damascus have broadly stayed out of each other’s way during the conflict, despite occasional clashes. They also have been seen to cooperate against shared foes, notably in and around Aleppo.

The YPG has allowed the Syrian state to keep a foothold in its areas. The YPG commander told Reuters in 2017 it would have no problem with the Assad government if Kurdish rights are guaranteed in Syria.

But Damascus opposes Kurdish autonomy demands: the Syrian foreign minister last month said “nobody in Syria accepts talk about independent entities or federalism”.

Talks between the sides last year made no progress.

The Kurdish-led authorities are launching a new initiative aiming to put pressure on the government to reach a political settlement “within the framework of a decentralized Syria,” leading Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed said last week.

Analysts say the Kurds’ negotiating position has been weakened by Trump’s announcement.

WHAT WOULD AN ASSAD-KURD DEAL MEAN FOR THE WAR?

The territory held by Damascus and the Kurdish-led authorities accounts for most of Syria. A political settlement – if one could be reached, perhaps with Russian help – could go a long way to stitching the map back together.

But it would not mark the end of the war.

Anti-Assad insurgents, though defeated across much of Syria by the government and its allies, still have a foothold in the northwest stretching from Idlib through Afrin to Jarablus. Turkey has troops on the ground in this area.

The rebels include Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army groups and jihadists.

Enmity runs deep between the YPG and these groups.

For the YPG, one priority is recovering Afrin from the rebels who seized it in a Turkey-backed offensive last year.

Assad also wants Turkey out as he vows to recover “every inch” of Syria.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Stay or go? Syrian refugees face a life-changing choice

A Syrian refugee girl stands near luggage of Syrian refugees returning to Syria, in Beirut, Lebanon, December 6, 2018. Picture taken December 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – As the bus pulled out of a Beirut car park heading for Damascus, Ahmed Sheikh waved from the window, excited, he said, to be returning home to Syria after years as a refugee in Lebanon.

Sheikh and his two sons are part of a steady trickle of refugees going back as the Syrian government tightens its grip on areas it controls and the prospect of new fighting recedes.

But not everyone wants to go home just yet. While Beirut says 90,000 Syrians have returned this year, more than a million remain in Lebanon, including many who fear reprisals or army conscription, or whose homes were destroyed in the war.

In a refugee camp in northern Lebanon, Abu Ibrahim recalled how government shellfire had obliterated his hometown, saying it was too dangerous to return to Syria while Bashar al-Assad remains president.

Whether the millions of refugees outside Syria, like Sheikh and Abu Ibrahim, will return to areas where fighting has ended is becoming a pressing issue in the country and abroad.

Assad now controls most of Syria and the front lines appear stable for now between government territory and two big enclaves in the north and east still outside Damascus’ control.

The refugees’ fate is important to Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan, which have each buckled under the strain of hosting so many, but also to Europe, where the refugee crisis has caused political ructions. It will play a critical role in shaping Syria’s own gradual economic recovery too.

About half Syria’s pre-war population fled after war broke out in 2011, 6.3 million of them as refugees abroad and 6 million displaced in their own country. Many were forced to flee numerous times.

About a million remain in Lebanon, 3.6 million in Turkey and nearly 700,000 in Jordan, the UNHCR said. One million Syrian children have been born in exile as refugees since the crisis began.

The agency said on Tuesday that up to 250,000 Syrian refugees were expected to go home next year, while around 37,000 returned in 2018, a figure its officials say may not be complete.

GOING HOME

For Sheikh, 46, the decision to return came after a legal problem in Lebanon. His residency permit had expired and he faced a large fine. Police told him he would not have to pay if he agreed to return to Syria.

Still, with the war calmer, he was happy to be going. “There is security here, but living conditions are hard. There is not much work and everything is very expensive,” he said.

He had fled Aleppo with his family in late 2012 after rebels there threatened him, accusing him of links with the government.

A Syrian refugee walks on crutches at a refugee camp in Akkar, northern Lebanon, November 27, 2018. Picture taken November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

A Syrian refugee walks on crutches at a refugee camp in Akkar, northern Lebanon, November 27, 2018. Picture taken November 27, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

In Syria, he owned a bakery and later worked in Lebanon as a baker after making the long, circuitous journey through war-ravaged Syria with his wife and five children.

But he will not go back to his old Aleppo district, ruined in the fighting. He and his sons will stay with his sister in Manbij, which is controlled by local U.S.-backed forces.

His wife and three daughters will not return to Syria yet. The young women have married and had children while in Lebanon.

Returning is complicated. Syrian security checks on those who seek to come back can take weeks. Not all are approved. Important documents may have been lost. Young children may have no passport at all.

The Lebanese and Syrian governments have organized numerous returns for groups of refugees who register to go back. Sheikh’s return was one of these.

As he got on his bus, another family group hugged and cried – some staying, some going. A father looked through the window at his wife and disconsolate child who were returning to Syria while he stayed on to work in Lebanon.

STAYING ON

Abu Ibrahim, by contrast, swears he will not take his wife and three children back. He is haunted by the carnage of an early battle that destroyed Baba Amr, their neighborhood of Homs, which they fled by night as bullets sang overhead.

He had a workshop there, repairing televisions. His parents lived nearby, as did his 11 siblings with their families. People in Baba Amr were close-knit. “Everyone used to know each other,” he said.

When protesters marched in 2011, he joined them, though he did not take up arms, and by early 2012, protests had given way to war.

In a fierce assault on Baba Amr, the army shelled his street, which faced the front line. His building took a direct hit, wounding him and his son. A nephew disappeared, presumed among the hundreds killed.

When the bombardment abated, they left by night, braving sniper fire to cross the fields. “The children couldn’t take it anymore,” he said.

In a new neighborhood, as the army advanced again, he witnessed summary shootings. The family kept on moving, before paying money to cross into Lebanon.

Abu Ibrahim’s old house and his neighborhood are now rubble – a military zone controlled by army checkpoints. His siblings scattered during the fighting. None stayed in Syria.

In Lebanon, he still fixes electrical goods, going house to house on a motorbike with his toolkit. He makes little money and sees no future there.

But he is alarmed by rumors among the refugees in Lebanon that some who have returned were abused or killed, which Damascus denies. In Syria, his oldest boy, now 16, would soon face conscription. His two-year-old daughter lacks a proper birth certificate or passport.

“I will never go back unless the regime is changed, and especially Bashar al-Assad,” he said.

He wants to go to the West, a journey few manage. Of the million Syrians in Lebanon, only a small number have gained permission to relocate there as refugees.

Others attempt the dangerous sea crossing to Cyprus. In September a boat sank, drowning a child whose family could not face a return to their homeland.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Editing by Giles Elgood)

U.S. to oppose U.N. Golan resolution, wins Israeli praise

FILE PHOTO - Israeli kids play next to an Israeli flag next to the Israeli Syrian border at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States said it would oppose on Friday for the first time an annual resolution at the United Nations calling on Israel to rescind its authority in the occupied Golan Heights, drawing praise from Israeli officials.

The Golan Heights form a buffer between Israel and Syria of about 1,200 square km (460 square miles). Israel captured most of it from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. It annexed the territory in 1981, a move not recognized internationally.

FILE PHOTO - A general view shows the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

FILE PHOTO – A general view shows the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The United States has abstained in previous years on the annual “Occupied Syrian Golan” resolution, which declares Israel’s decision to impose its jurisdiction in the area “null and void”, but Washington’s U.N. envoy Nikki Haley said it would vote against the resolution in Friday’s vote.

“The United States will no longer abstain when the United Nations engages in its useless annual vote on the Golan Heights,” she said in a statement on Thursday.

“The resolution is plainly biased against Israel. Further, the atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone.”

Her comments came after the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said in September that he expected Israel to keep the Golan Heights in perpetuity, in an apparent nod towards its claim of sovereignty over the territory.

Since early in Donald Trump’s presidency, Israel has lobbied for formal U.S. endorsement of its control of the Golan. Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, breaking with other world powers, though his national security adviser John Bolton told Reuters in August a similar Golan move was not under discussion.

In the past two years, Trump has twice ordered U.S.-led air strikes against targets in Syria in response to what Washington called the use of chemical weapons against civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Israeli officials praised the U.S. move.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called it “extremely important”, saying on Twitter that “no sane person can believe that it (the Golan) should be given to Assad & Iran”.

Tehran has supported Assad during the civil war and Israel has been warning against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.

Israel has closely monitored the fighting in Syria, where just across the Golan frontier battles have raged in clear view.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Plight of stranded Syrians worsens as food blocked

FILE PHOTO: Syrian refugees wait to board a Jordanian army vehicle after crossing into Jordanian territory with their families, in Al Ruqban border area, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria, and Iraq, near the town of Ruwaished, 240 km (149 miles) east of Amman September 10, 2015. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed/File Photo

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Thousands of Syrians stranded on Jordan’s border with Syria are running out of food as routes leading to their camp are closed by the Syrian army and Jordan is blocking aid deliveries, relief workers and refugees said on Thursday.

The Syrian army has tightened its siege of the camp, in Rukban, near the northeastern Jordanian border with Syria and Iraq, preventing smugglers and traders from delivering food to its 50,000 inhabitants, mostly women and children.

“More than a week ago the Syrian regime cut all the routes of supplies towards the camp. There are now only very small amounts of food that smugglers bring,” Abu Abdullah, the head of the civil affairs council that runs the camp, told Reuters.

“The camp is a balloon that could explode at any moment because of hunger, sickness and lack of aid … if the situation continues like this there will be real starvation,” he added by phone.In the last three years, tens of thousands of people have fled to the camp from Islamic State-held parts of Syria that were being targeted by Russian and U.S.-led coalition air strikes.

Rukban is located near a U.S. garrison in southeastern Syria at Tanf on the Iraqi-Syrian border. The camp falls within a so-called deconfliction zone set up by the Pentagon with the aim of shielding the Tanf garrison from attacks by pro-Assad forces.

Damascus says the U.S. forces are occupying Syrian territory and providing a safe-haven in that area for rebels it deems terrorists.

Jordan has since the start of the year blocked any aid deliveries to the camp over its frontier and says now that the Syrian government had recovered territory around the camp, it could not be made responsible for delivering aid.

LIVES AT RISK

With Damascus intransigent, U.N. aid agencies have been pressing Jordan to let in urgent deliveries to stave off more deaths, aid workers and diplomatic sources said.

The U.N. children’s agency UNICEF warned on Thursday that without “critical action” by parties to the conflict to “allow and facilitate access” the lives of thousands of children in the camp were at risk.

“The situation for the estimated 45,000 people – among them many children – will further worsen with the cold winter months fast approaching, especially when temperatures dip below freezing point in the harsh desert conditions,” Geert Cappelaere, UNICEF regional director for Middle East and North Africa, said in a statement.

Already two more infants died in the last 48 hours, Cappelaere added. Relief workers inside the camp say a woman also died this week.

Jordan wants the United Nations and Russia to put pressure on Damascus to give the written authorizations needed to allow supplies into Rukban from Syrian government-held territory.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said recently that his country, already burdened with hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, could not be made responsible for delivering aid to the camp.

Western diplomatic sources believe the siege of the camp is part of a Russian-backed Syrian government effort to put pressure on Washington to get out of Tanf.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry, William Maclean)

Russia to give Syria S-300 air defense after accusations against Israel

FILE PHOTO: Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket system move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow May 4, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

By Polina Nikolskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia announced on Monday it will supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks against strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow blamed Israel for indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military plane in Syria.

Last week’s crash, which killed 15 Russian service members, had forced Moscow to take “adequate retaliatory measures to increase the safety of Russian military fighting international terrorism in Syria,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Monday in a televised address.

“A modern S-300 air defense missile system will be transferred to the Syrian armed forces within two weeks,” he said. The system will “significantly increase the Syrian army’s combat capabilities,” he said.

Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government, has said Syria shot the IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target. Russia blamed Israel for creating dangerous conditions that caused the crash.

Israel, which has struck Syria scores of times during the seven-year war, said after the incident that it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them. It has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria.

Krelmin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on a conference call that the decision to supply the weapons was “not directed at any third country”. “Russia needs to increase safety of its military and it should be clear for everyone,” he said.

But he also repeated Moscow’s accusations that Israel was to blame for the crash: “No doubt that according to our military experts, deliberate action by Israeli pilots was the reason for the tragedy and this cannot but harm our (Russia-Israeli) ties.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s office explicitly linked the Russian decision to supply the weapons to the air crash: “President Putin held Israel responsible for bring down the plane and informed President Assad that Russia will develop Syria’s air defense systems,” the Syrian presidency said.

Shoigu said Russia will equip Syrian anti-aircraft units with Russian tracking and guidance systems in order to identify Russian aircraft.

Russia in April had hinted that it would supply the S-300 to Assad’s government despite Israeli objections.

The missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military, but since modernized and available in several versions with different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Israel says its air strikes on Syria are not a threat to Russia’s ally Assad, but that it must carry them out to halt arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. It has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capability.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow and Ellen Francis in Beirut,; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Denis Pinchuk, Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Peter Graff)

Syria’s Idlib spared attack, Turkey to send in more troops

FILE PHOTO: People inspect the damage at a site hit by airstrikes in the rebel-held city of Idlib, Syria February 7, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Tulay Karadeniz and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Turkey will send more troops into Syria’s Idlib province after striking a deal with Russia that has averted a government offensive and delighted rebels who say it keeps the area out of President Bashar al-Assad’s hands.

The deal unveiled by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan on Monday will create a new demilitarized zone from which “radical” rebels must withdraw by the middle of next month.

Damascus also welcomed the agreement but vowed to continue its efforts to recover “every inch” of Syria. Iran, Assad’s other main ally, said “responsible diplomacy” had averted a war in Idlib “with a firm commitment to fight extremist terror”.

The agreement has put a halt to a threatened Syrian government offensive. The United Nations had warned such an attack would create a humanitarian catastrophe in the Idlib region, home to about 3 million people.

The Idlib region and adjoining territory north of Aleppo represents the opposition’s last big foothold in Syria. Assad has recovered most of the areas once held by the rebels, with decisive military support from Iran and Russia.

But his plans to recover the northwest have been complicated by Turkey’s role on the ground: it has soldiers at 12 locations in Idlib and supplies weapons to some of the rebels.

Erdogan had feared another exodus of refugees to join the 3.5 million already in Turkey and warned against any attack.

In striking the deal, Russia appears – at least for now – to have put its ties with Turkey ahead of advancing the goal of bringing all Syria back under Assad’s rule.

Analysts cautioned that implementation of the deal faced big challenges, notably how to separate jihadists from other rebels – a goal Ankara has been struggling to achieve for some time.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said the “moderate opposition” would keep its weapons and the “region will be cleared of radicals”. Turkey would “make additional troop deployments” and its 12 observation posts would remain.

The deal was “very important for the political resolution in Syria”. “If this (Idlib) had been lost too, there would be no opposition anymore,” he said.

Mustafa Sejari, a Free Syria Army (FSA) official, told Reuters the deal “buries Assad’s dreams of imposing his full control over Syria”. The spokesman for the opposition Syrian Negotiations Commission expressed hope that a government offensive was now off the table for good

Yahya al-Aridi told Reuters by telephone it was a “victory for the will for life over the will for death”.

The Syrian government, in a statement published by state media, said it welcomed any agreement that spared blood. It also said the deal had a specific timeframe which it did not detail.

“I see it as a test of the extent of Turkey’s ability to implement this decision,” Ali Abdul Karim, Syria’s ambassador to Lebanon, said in an interview with Lebanon’s al-Jadeed TV. “We do not trust Turkey … but it’s useful for Turkey to be able to carry out this fight to rid these groups from their weapons.”

“CATASTROPHE” AVERTED

Moscow said the deal “confirmed the ability of both Moscow and Ankara to compromise … in the interests of the ultimate goal of a Syrian settlement by political and diplomatic means”.

The European Union said the agreement must protect civilians and allow aid access.

Germany welcomed the deal but noted that past deals in Syria had not been implemented. “Anything that helps to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib is good,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said during a visit to Romania.

The demilitarized zone will be monitored by Russian and Turkish forces, the countries’ leaders said.

But neither Russia nor Turkey have explained how they plan to differentiate “radically-minded” rebels from other anti-Assad groups. It was also not immediately clear how much of the city of Idlib fell within the zone.

Putin said the decision was to establish by Oct. 15 a demilitarized area 15–20 km (10-12 miles) deep along the contact line between rebel and government fighters.

Idlib is held by an array of rebels. The most powerful is Tahrir al-Sham, an amalgamation of Islamist groups dominated by the former Nusra Front – an al Qaeda affiliate until 2016.

Other Islamists, and groups fighting as the Free Syrian Army banner, are now gathered with Turkish backing under the banner of the “National Front for Liberation”.

The area is also the last major haven for foreign jihadists who came to Syria to fight the Alawite-led Assad government.

FOREIGN FIGHTERS

Putin said that, at Erdogan’s suggestion, by Oct. 10, all opposition heavy weapons, mortars, tanks, rocket systems would also be removed from the demilitarized zone.

Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe, said it was unclear how Turkey and Russia would be able to separate radical fighters from other rebels.

The hope is that Syrians “will be more inclined to be part of a demilitarization effort” while foreign fighters “have nowhere to go”, he said.

While it is premature to call the agreement a triumph for Turkey, he said: “it does give Turkey more room to implement this more peaceful vision on the ground and pre-empt an attack on Idlib that could have major and disastrous effects on Turkey”.

Earlier this month, Putin publicly rebuffed a proposal from Erdogan for a truce when the two met along with Iran’s president at a summit in Tehran. Iran also welcomed the agreement.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Beirut and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Thomas Balmforth in Moscow, Michelle Martin in Germany, Daphne Psaledakis, Alissa de Carbonnel in Brussels; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by William Maclean)

Turkey talking to all sides in Syria conflict for Idlib ceasefire: minister

FILE PHOTO: A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal//File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk and Tom Perry

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey said on Friday it was talking to all parties in the Syrian conflict to prevent a government offensive on Idlib ahead of talks between Russian and Turkish leaders, who support rival sides in the looming battle for the rebel-held region.

Ankara failed last week to win agreement for a ceasefire from Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s main backers, but there has been a recent lull in air strikes and a pro-Damascus source indicated a ground attack may not be imminent.

Rebels also said some pro-Assad forces had left frontlines in northwest Syria in recent days.

Turkey has reinforced a dozen military posts inside the Idlib region, which lies across its southern border and is controlled by Turkey-backed rebels and jihadist fighters, trying to forestall a government assault.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had also contacted foreign ministers of several countries and was in touch with “all actors in Syria”.

“We are making an effort for a ceasefire in Idlib,” he said, repeating Turkey’s call for targeted operations against jihadist militants, including the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, instead of an indiscriminate onslaught.

“We are ready to cooperate with everyone to fight terrorist organizations. But killing everyone – civilians, women, children – like this in the name of fighting terrorist organizations is not right and is not humane,” he said on a visit to Pakistan.

GRAPHIC: Syria’s Idlib assault – https://tmsnrt.rs/2NHAqh3

The United Nations has warned that an offensive in Idlib could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe in an area where 3 million people live. Turkey, already hosting 3.5 million Syrians, says it cannot take in another wave of refugees.

RUSSIA TALKS

President Tayyip Erdogan will hold talks in Russia on Monday with Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syrian crisis, 10 days after similar talks in Tehran, Turkish and Russian officials said.

Despite the deadlock at the Iran meeting, calm has largely prevailed in northwest Syria this week following a wave of air strikes which killed several dozen people and generated speculation of an imminent ground offensive.

A pro-Assad source in Syria said: “There is patience and repositioning currently. The operation is not canceled, but we have time.”

A second source, an official in the regional alliance that supports Assad, said there was a “political tug of war” over Idlib, accompanied by air strikes on militants from Tahrir al-Sham.

Two rebel sources in the northwest said some government forces have been observed withdrawing from frontlines in the Hama region, which adjoins Idlib, this week.

“It appears that the Russians and the Assad regime have temporarily looked the other way,” said one of the sources, Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Ezza rebel group. He added that several hundred pro-Assad forces had withdrawn from frontlines in the northern Hama countryside.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm mostly prevailed again on Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would keep bombing militant targets in Idlib if need be, but would also open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee, the Interfax news agency reported.

Lavrov, who was speaking in Berlin, was cited as saying that the Russian air force would strike what he called terrorist weapons-making facilities as and when it found out about them, but would also encourage local reconciliation deals.

Putin also discussed the situation Idlib with members of Russia’s Security Council on Friday, telling them he was concerned by militant activity there, the RIA news agency cited the Kremlin as saying.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Dominic Evans and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

U.N. shares locations of Idlib hospitals and schools, hoping to protect them

FILE PHOTO: A man watches as smoke rises after what activists said was an air strike on Atimah, Idlib province March 8, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N. officials have notified Russia, Turkey and the United States of the GPS coordinates of 235 schools, hospitals and other civilian sites in the Syrian province of Idlib, in the hope the move will help protect them from being attacked.

“We share these coordinates so there is no doubt that a hospital is a hospital,” Panos Moumtzis, U.N. regional humanitarian coordinator for the Syria crisis, told a briefing.

“We would like to see civilians not targeted, hospitals not bombed, people not displaced.”

An estimated 2.9 million people live in Idlib, the last major stronghold of opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. Syrian government and Russian warplanes began air strikes last week in a possible prelude to a full-scale offensive.

Four hospitals in Hama and Idlib have been hit by air strikes in the past week, constituting “serious attacks” that violate international law, Moumtzis said. “A hospital is a hospital and has to be respected by all on the ground.”

Moumtzis called on all warring sides to ensure that civilians in Idlib were able to move freely in any direction to flee fighting or bombing, and for aid workers to have access to them.

He quoted a Russian official as telling a humanitarian task force meeting in Geneva on Thursday that “every effort to find a peaceful solution to the problem is being made”.

The United Nations is working 24/7 to ensure delivery of shelter, food and other assistance if, as feared, hundreds of thousands of people flee, he said.

“In no way am I saying we are ready. What is important is that we are doing our maximum to ensure a level of readiness,” Moumtzis said. “As humanitarians, while we hope for the best we are preparing for the worst.”

An estimated 38,300 people have fled hostilities in Idlib this month, U.N. figures show. About 4,500 of them have returned to their homes following a slight calming, Moumtzis said, calling it a “barometer”.

At least 33 people have been killed and 67 wounded in aerial and ground-based bombing, according to a partial U.N. toll from Sept. 4-9.

Moumtzis said he was going to Turkey for talks with government officials and to oversee preparations for stepping up cross-border aid deliveries to Idlib, where the U.N. is providing supplies to two million people.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Russia starts biggest war games since Soviet fall near China

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their meeting on the sidelines of the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia September 11, 2018. Mikhail Metzel/TASS Host Photo Agency/Pool via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia began its biggest war games since the fall of the Soviet Union on Tuesday close to its border with China, mobilizing 300,000 troops in a show of force that will include joint exercises with the Chinese army.

China and Russia have staged joint drills before but not on such a large scale, and the Vostok-2018 (East-2018) exercise signals closer military ties as well as sending an unspoken reminder to Beijing that Moscow is able and ready to defend its sparsely populated far east.

Vostok-2018 is taking place at a time of heightened tension between the West and Russia, and NATO has said it will monitor the exercise closely, as will the United States which has a strong military presence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Russia’s Ministry of Defence broadcast images on Tuesday of columns of tanks, armored vehicles and warships on the move, and combat helicopters and fighter aircraft taking off.

In one clip, marines from Russia’s Northern Fleet and a motorized Arctic brigade were shown disembarking from a large landing ship on a barren shore opposite Alaska.

This activity was part of the first stage of the exercise, which runs until Sept. 17, the ministry said in a statement. It involved deploying additional forces to Russia’s far east and a naval build-up involving its Northern and Pacific fleets.

The main aim was to check the military’s readiness to move troops large distances, to test how closely infantry and naval forces cooperated, and to perfect command and control procedures. Later stages will involve rehearsals of both defensive and offensive scenarios.

Russia also staged a major naval exercise in the eastern Mediterranean this month and its jets resumed bombing the Syrian region of Idlib, the last major enclave of rebels fighting its ally President Bashar al-Assad.

CLOSER CHINA-RUSSIA TIES

The location of the main training range for Vostok-2018 5,000 km (3,000 miles) east of Moscow means it is likely to be watched closely by Japan, North and South Korea as well as by China and Mongolia, both of whose armies will take part in the maneuvers later this week.

Analysts say Moscow had to invite the Chinese and Mongolian militaries given the proximity of the war games to their borders and because the scale meant the neighboring countries would probably have seen them as a threat had they been excluded.

The exercise – which will involve more than 1,000 military aircraft, two Russian naval fleets, up to 36,000 tanks and armored vehicles and all Russian airborne units – began as President Vladimir Putin held talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping in the Russian port city of Vladivostok.

Relations between Moscow and Beijing have long been marked by mutual wariness with Russian nationalists warning of encroaching Chinese influence in the country’s mineral-rich far east.

But Russia pivoted east towards China after the West sanctioned Moscow over its annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region in 2014 and trade links between the two, who share a land border over 4,200 km long, have blossomed since.

Russia broadcast footage of some of 24 helicopters and six jets belonging to the Chinese air force landing at Russian air bases for the exercise. Beijing has said 3,200 members of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) will join in.

Some experts see the war games as a message to Washington, with which both Moscow and Beijing have strained ties.

“With its Vostok 2018 exercise Russia sends a message that it regards the U.S. as a potential enemy and China as a potential ally,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, a former Russian army colonel and director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank.

“China, by sending a PLA element to train with the Russians, is signaling that U.S. pressure is pushing it towards much closer military cooperation with Moscow.”

Putin, who is armed forces commander-in-chief, is expected to observe the exercises this week alongside Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, who is overseeing them.

Shoigu has said they are the biggest since a Soviet military exercise, Zapad-81 (West-81) in 1981.

(Editing by David Stamp and Alison Williams)