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)

Iranian commander threatens Israel’s destruction if it attacks

EDITORS' NOTE: Reuters and other foreign media are subject to Iranian restrictions on leaving the office to report, film or take pictures in Tehran. Hossein Salami, deputy head of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, speaks during Tehran's Friday prayers July 16, 2010. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

DUBAI (Reuters) – A senior Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander on Monday threatened Israel with destruction if it attacks Iran, state media reported.

The comments by Brigadier General Hossein Salami, deputy head of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, followed an Israeli attack on Iranian targets in Syria last week – the latest in a series of assaults targeting Tehran’s presence there in support of President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“We announce that if Israel takes any action to wage a war against us, it will definitely lead to its own elimination and the freeing of occupied (Palestinian) territories,” Salami said, quoted by state television.

Iranian officials have previously said Tehran, which does not recognize Israel, would respond swiftly to any Israeli attack.

Israel backed U.S. President Donald Trump’s move to back out of the 2015 international deal on Iran’s nuclear program and welcomed Washington’s reimposition of sanctions on the country.

Israel sees Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs as a threat to its existence. Iran says its nuclear work is for peaceful purposes only.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel strikes in Syria in more open assault on Iran

What is believed to be guided missiles are seen in the sky during what is reported to be an attack in Damascus, Syria, January 21, 2019, in this still image taken from a video obtained from social media. Facebook Diary of a Mortar Shell in Damascus/Youmiyat Qadifat Hawun fi Damashq/via REUTERS

By Angus McDowall and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel struck in Syria early on Monday, the latest salvo in its increasingly open assault on Iran’s presence there, shaking the night sky over Damascus with an hour of loud explosions in a second consecutive night of military action.

Damascus did not say what damage or casualties resulted from the strikes. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said 11 people were killed. Syria’s ally Russia said four Syrian soldiers had died and six were wounded.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the air raid had mostly targeted Iranian forces, but also hit Syrians helping them. “We will strike at anyone who tries to harm us,” he said.

The threat of direct confrontation between arch-enemies Israel and Iran has long simmered in Syria, where the Iranian military built a presence early in the nearly eight year civil war to help President Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Israel, regarding Iran as its biggest threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied militia, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

With an election approaching, Israel’s government has begun discussing its strikes more openly and has also taken a tougher stance towards Hezbollah on the border with Lebanon. It said a rocket attack on Sunday was Iran’s work.

The Israeli shift comes a month after U.S. President Donald Trump unexpectedly announced a sudden plan to pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, a move long sought by Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies. Trump’s decision shocked American allies in the region and was opposed by top U.S. officials including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in response.

The Israeli military said its fighter jets had attacked Iranian “Quds Force” targets early on Monday, including munition stores, a position in the Damascus International Airport, an intelligence site and a military training camp. Its jets then targeted Syrian defense batteries after coming under fire.

It followed a previous night of cross-border fire, which Israel said began when Iranian troops fired an Iranian-made surface-to-surface missile from an area near Damascus at a ski resort in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Syria said it was Israel that had attacked and its air defenses had repelled the assault. Syria had endured “intense attack through consecutive waves of guided missiles”, but had destroyed most “hostile targets”, state media quoted a military source as saying.

The Russian defense ministry said Syrian air defenses, supplied by Russia, had destroyed more than 30 cruise missiles and guided bombs, according to RIA news agency.

In Tehran, airforce chief Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh said Iran was “fully ready and impatient to confront the Zionist regime and eliminate it from the earth”, according to the Young Journalist Club, a website supervised by state television.

Assad has said Iranian forces are welcome to stay in Syria after years of military victories that have brought most of the country back under his control. Just two big enclaves are still outside Assad’s grip, including the area Trump plans to exit.

Netanyahu, who is hoping to win a fifth term in the April 9 election, last week told his cabinet Israel has carried out “hundreds” of attacks over recent years.

“We have a permanent policy, to strike at the Iranian entrenchment in Syria and hurt whoever tries to hurt us,” he said on Sunday.

“EVERY LAST BOOT”

The Israeli military distributed footage of what it said were missiles hitting the Syrian defense batteries, as well as satellite images showing the location of the alleged Iranian targets. Syrian state media showed footage of explosions.

In a highly publicized operation last month, the Israeli military uncovered and destroyed cross-border tunnels from Lebanon it said were dug by Hezbollah to launch future attacks.

Israel last fought a war with Hezbollah, on Lebanese soil, in 2006. It fears Hezbollah has used its own role fighting alongside Iran and Assad in Syria to bolster its military capabilities, including an arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel.

Tensions have also risen with Israel’s construction of a frontier barrier that Lebanon says passes through its territory.

Washington has sought to reassure allies it still aims to eject Iran from Syria despite pulling its own troops out. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who visited the region this month, has vowed to expel “every last Iranian boot” from Syria.

Israel has sought reassurances from Moscow that Iranian forces in Syria would not be a threat. Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said the missile fired at the ski resort was launched from “an area we were promised the Iranians would not be present in”.

 

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut, Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Nick Macfie and Raissa Kasolowsky)

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)