Lebanese Christian civil war foes shake hands, make up after 40 years

FILE PHOTO: Samir Geagea, leader of the Christian Lebanese Forces, speaks during an interview with Reuters at his home in the Christian village of Maarab in the mountains overlooking the seaside town of Jounieh, October 31, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Christian rivals from the Lebanese civil war, Samir Geagea and Suleiman Frangieh, shook hands with each other on Wednesday, marking a formal reconciliation to end more than four decades of enmity.

Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF) political party, and Frangieh, head of the Marada party, have been foes since the early days of the 1975-1990 civil war.

The two parties had armed militias during the conflict that battled against each other. The war, which drew in regional powers, included fighting between the country’s main sects and rival factions within those sects.

The men, both Maronite Christians, met to reconcile at the seat of the sect’s Patriarch Bechara al-Rai in Bkerki, north of Beirut. They shook hands with Rai and then with each other after several failed reconciliation attempts over the years.

Geagea has been accused of leading a raid in 1978 on the home of Frangieh’s father, Tony Franjieh, a rival Maronite Christian chieftain, who was killed with his wife, daughter, and others. Geagea has said he was wounded before reaching Frangieh’s house and did not take part himself.

This is the second rapprochement of recent years between civil war Maronite Christian rivals.

In January 2016 Geagea endorsed then presidential candidate Michel Aoun for the Lebanese presidency, ending his own rival candidacy for the position, which must be held by a Maronite Christian under Lebanon’s sectarian power-sharing system.

Geagea and Aoun, who fought each other in the 1975-90 civil war, have been on opposite sides of the political divide since Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon in 2005.

President Aoun is a political ally of the Iran-backed Shi’ite group Hezbollah, whereas Geagea is a staunch opponent of the group. Frangieh is a close ally of Syrian President and Hezbollah ally Bashar al-Assad.

Tony Frangieh, Suleiman’s son, said the reconciliation was a good thing for all Lebanese and was not connected to any presidential aims.

“We are looking forward to the future by achieving this reconciliation,” he told Lebanese broadcaster al-Jadeed at the ceremony.

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington, Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Trump warns Syria not to ‘recklessly attack’ Idlib province

FILE PHOTO:A general view taken with a drone shows part of the rebel-held Idlib city, Syria June 8, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah/File Photo

By David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies Iran and Russia not to “recklessly attack” Syria’s rebel-held Idlib province, warning that hundreds of thousands of people could be killed.

“The Russians and Iranians would be making a grave humanitarian mistake to take part in this potential human tragedy. Hundreds of thousands of people could be killed. Don’t let that happen!” Trump wrote in a tweet.

A source has told Reuters that Assad is preparing a phased offensive to regain Idlib.

The northern province and surrounding areas are the last major enclave held by insurgents fighting Assad, who has been backed by both Russian and Iranian forces in Syria’s seven-year-old civil war. They are home to some three million civilians.

Trump has sought better relations with Russia since taking office in 2017 but the United States has been unable to rein in Moscow’s military and diplomatic support for Assad.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday said Washington views any government assault on Idlib as an escalation of Syria’s war, and the State Department warned that Washington would respond to any chemical attack by Damascus.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote on Twitter late on Monday: “All eyes on the actions of Assad, Russia, and Iran in Idlib. #NoChemicalWeapons”

Iran called for militants to be “cleaned out” of Idlib, as it prepared for talks with Syria and Russia about confronting the last major enclave held by rebels opposed to Assad.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Damascus to discuss plans for an upcoming summit between the leaders of Iran, Russia and Turkey, which Tehran will host on Sept. 7 to discuss Idlib, Iran’s Fars news agency reported.

Turkey, which has long supported anti-Assad rebels, has cooperated with Russia and Iran on talks over Syria in recent years and has troops in the Idlib region on an observation mission.

Last week, Iran’s defense minister traveled to Damascus and signed an agreement for defense cooperation between the two countries with his Syrian counterpart.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Why Yemen is at war?

A pro-Houthi police trooper stands past a patrol vehicle in the Red Sea port city of Hodeidah, Yemen June 14, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The battle for the western Yemeni port of Hodeidah could be an important milestone in the three-year civil war. But analysts say the conflict is so complex that even a decisive outcome there might not bring peace.

Why is Yemen so divided?

Yemen’s internal splits have festered for years. North and south Yemen united into a single state in 1990, but separatists in the south tried to secede from the pro-union north in 1994.

Their forces were swiftly beaten, and more power and resources flowed to the northern capital of Sanaa, angering many southerners.

Former president Ali Abdullah Saleh had ruled north Yemen since 1978 and the unified state after 1990. But he alienated many Yemenis. His relatives controlled core parts of the army and economy, and critics said corruption was rife.

In the far north, some of the Zaydi sect of Shi’ite Islam also chafed. Zaydis had ruled northern Yemen until the 1962 revolution, but their heartland was now impoverished. In the late 1990s, some Zaydis formed the Houthi group, which fought Yemen’s army and grew friendly with Iran.

Though allied to Saleh, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Sunni Islamists were also gaining strength, particularly under General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, who built a power base in the army.

Taking advantage of factional rivalries, jihadist fugitives set up al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), one of the group’s most powerful wings, and began staging attacks.

How did ‘Arab Spring’ protests lead to war?

When mass protests broke out in 2011, some of Saleh’s former allies turned on him. The army split between units loyal to Saleh and those who followed Ahmar. Separatists rallied in the south. The Houthis seized more areas. AQAP attacks increased.

After a year of crisis, including a bombing that nearly killed Saleh, Yemen’s Gulf neighbors persuaded him to step down, but he stayed in Yemen.

Deputy president Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi was elected in 2012 to a two-year term to oversee a democratic transition. A “National Dialogue” meeting of all Yemen’s opposing groups began hashing out a new constitution.

But despite the dialogue, things were falling apart.

Hadi was widely seen as weak and his administration corrupt. Saleh’s allies in the army and government undermined the transition. AQAP set up a mini-state and hit Sanaa with ever bloodier bombings.

In 2014, the Houthis seized Sanaa with help from army units loyal to Saleh, forcing Hadi to share power. When the National Dialogue proposed a federal constitution, both Houthis and southern separatists rejected it for blunting their new-found sway.

The Houthis arrested Hadi in early 2015, but he escaped and fled to Aden. The Houthis pursued him, battling loyalists of the transitional government.

Days later, Saudi Arabia entered the war on Hadi’s side, backed by a coalition of Arab allies, to prevent Iran from gaining influence via the Houthis on its border and to preserve the Gulf-brokered transition.

They plucked Hadi from Aden and took him to Riyadh, notionally preserving his internationally recognized government and the democratic transition plan.

Why was there deadlock for so long?

The crisis was now a war between two unstable coalitions.

The Houthis and Saleh were old enemies jointly ruling the populous highlands and Red Sea coast.

Hadi had no personal power base, but became a nominal figurehead for southern separatists, tribes in the northeast, Sunni Islamists and army remnants loyal to Ahmar.

Internal rivalries even emerged in the coalition set up by Saudi Arabia to back Hadi. Riyadh and its main ally, the United Arab Emirates, differed over local allies and tactics.

The Houthis and Saleh’s forces were driven from Aden and its environs in south Yemen, and from central Marib and the desert area to its east in 2015. Years of military stalemate followed.

The Houthis held most of the easily defended highlands. They also held the flat Red Sea coast and its port of Hodeidah – the last entry point for supplying northern Yemen.

The coalition kept up intense air strikes, aiming to split the Houthis and Saleh. They imposed a partial blockade to stop Iran arming the Houthis, something it denies doing. But despite this pressure, U.N.-backed talks went nowhere.

How have internal divisions played out?

Then, last year Saleh finally abandoned his Houthi allies, hoping to cut a deal and regain power for his family. But he was killed fleeing Sanaa in December, 2017.

His loyalists turned on the Houthis, helping the advance toward Hodeidah that culminated in this week’s assault.

Divisions widened on the other side too. The UAE supported separatists in the south who sometimes clashed with fighters backed by Saudi Arabia.

In the north, the Saudis brought in Ahmar to command forces around Marib – a red flag for the UAE because of his connection to the Muslim Brotherhood, its biggest bugbear.

Meanwhile, the death toll from air strikes and the near famine aggravated by the partial blockade prompted international outrage, making it harder for Gulf states’ key Western allies to maintain military aid.

If the Hodeidah fighting lasts long, causing big coalition casualties and an outcry over a humanitarian catastrophe, the Houthis may hope the advance will fail.

If the Houthis are driven out and lose all ability to keep supply lines open, they might lose the war. But there is no guarantee the victors could put aside their own divisions and build a real peace.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Russia, Iran and Turkey struggle to find common ground on Syria

Syrian and Russian soldiers are seen at a checkpoint near Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria March 2, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Parisa Hafezi and Ezgi Erkoyun

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Three foreign powers who have shaped Syria’s civil war – Iran, Russia and Turkey – will discuss ways to wind down the fighting on Wednesday despite their involvement in rival military campaigns on the ground.

The leaders of the three countries will meet in Ankara for talks on a new constitution for Syria and increasing security in “de-escalation” zones across the country, Turkish officials say.

The Syria summit brings together two powers which have been President Bashar al-Assad’s most forceful supporters, Iran and Russia, with one of his strongest opponents, Turkey.

Cooperation between the rival camps raised hopes of stabilizing Syria after seven years of conflict in which 500,000 people have been killed and half the population displaced.

But the violence has raged on, highlighting strategic rifts between the three countries who, in the absence of decisive Western intervention, hold Syria’s fate largely in their hands.

Syria’s army and Iran-backed militias, with Russian air power, have crushed insurgents near Damascus in eastern Ghouta – one of the four mooted “de-escalation zones”.

Turkey, which sharply criticized the Ghouta offensive, waged its own military operation to drive Kurdish YPG fighters from the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin. It has pledged to take the town of Tel Rifaat and push further east, angering Iran.

“Whatever the intentions are, Turkey’s moves in Syria, whether in Afrin, Tel Rifaat or any other part of Syria, should be halted as soon as possible,” a senior Iranian official said.

Iran has been Assad’s most supportive ally throughout the conflict. Iran-backed militias first helped his army stem rebel advances and, following Russia’s entry into the war in 2015, turn the tide decisively in Assad’s favor.

A Turkish official said Ankara will ask Moscow to press Assad to grant more humanitarian access in Ghouta, and to rein in air strikes on rebel-held areas. “We expect … Russia to control the regime more,” the official told reporters this week.

RIFTS OVER ASSAD

Ankara’s relations with Moscow collapsed in 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane but have recovered since then – to the concern of Turkey’s Western allies.

Turkey was one of the few NATO partners not to expel Russian diplomats in response to a nerve agent attack on a former Russian agent which Britain blamed on Moscow – an allegation which Turkey said was not proven.

Improved political ties have been reflected in Turkey’s agreement to buy a Russian missile defence system and plans for Russia’s ROSATOM to build Turkey’s first nuclear power plant.

Turkey has also expanded relations with Iran, exchanging visits by military chiefs of staff, although its deepening ties with Tehran and Moscow have not translated into broader agreement on Syria’s future.

Iran remains determined that Assad stay in power, while Russia is less committed to keeping him in office, a regional diplomat said. Turkey says Assad has lost legitimacy, although it no longer demands his immediate departure.

At a meeting in Russia two months ago, boycotted by the leadership of Syria’s opposition, delegates agreed to set up a committee to rewrite Syria’s constitution and called for democratic elections.

Turkey says Wednesday’s meeting will discuss setting up the constitutional committee, humanitarian issues and developments in Syria’s northern Idlib region, which is under the control of rival rebel factions and jihadi groups, and where Turkey has set up seven military observation posts.

“There are issues where all three countries have different policies in Syria,” another Turkish official said. “In this regard, an aim is to find middle ground and create policies to improve the current situation.”

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara, Writing by Dominic Evans, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Saudi-led air strike kills 12 civilians, including seven children: medics

Morgue workers sort plastic bags containing bodies of an airstrike victims in Hodeida, Yemen April 2, 2018. REUTERS/Abduljabbar Zeyad

HODEIDAH, Yemen (Reuters) – An air strike by the Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen killed 12 civilians including seven children in the coastal city of Hodeidah on Monday, medics and a witness said.

Medics and a civilian who saw the wreckage said the air strike had destroyed a house in the al-Hali district, where displaced civilians from other provinces were settled.

The 12 victims were all from the same family, they said.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition told Reuters: “We take this report very seriously and it will be fully investigated as all reports of this nature are – using an internationally approved, independent process. Whilst this is ongoing, it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

Hodeidah is home to the impoverished country’s biggest port from where most of the humanitarian aid reaches millions of civilians on the brink of famine. The operation of port, controlled by the Iran-aligned Houthis, was not affected by the air strike.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates intervened in a civil war in Yemen in 2015 against the Houthis to restore the internationally recognised government of President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi.

The alliance, which includes other Sunni Muslim states, has conducted thousands of air strikes targeting Houthi fighters and has often hit civilian areas, although it denies ever doing so intentionally.

The war has killed more than 10,000 people, displaced more than 2 million and driven the country – already the poorest on the Arabian Peninsula – to the verge of famine.

Last week the Houthis launched a flurry of missiles which Saudi Arabia said it had intercepted over Riyadh. Debris from the missiles fell on a home, killing one person.

Rights watchdog Human Rights Watch on Monday said the Houthi attack had violated the laws of war by indiscriminately targeting populated areas.

“The Houthis should immediately stop their indiscriminate missile attacks on populated areas of Saudi Arabia,” said Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson.

“But just as unlawful coalition airstrikes don’t justify the Houthis’ indiscriminate attacks, the Saudis can’t use Houthi rockets to justify impeding life-saving goods for Yemen’s civilian population.”

When the Houthis fired missiles at Riyadh last November, the coalition responded by shutting Yemen’s airports and ports. The United Nations said that blockade raised the danger of mass starvation, and it was partially lifted.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Alison Williams and Hugh Lawson)

U.N. mediator warns of ‘violent, worrying, dangerous’ moment in Syria

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to attendees after a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Syria peace mediator warned on Wednesday that a recent increase in violence has created one of the most dangerous moments in years of civil war there, as the government bombards rebel areas and foreign powers further intervene.

“I have been now four years (as) special envoy, this is a violent and worrying and dangerous a moment as any that I’ve seen in my time,” Staffan de Mistura told the United Nations Security Council.

Last week was one of the bloodiest in the nearly seven-year-old conflict as Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded two of the last major rebel areas: Eastern Ghouta and the northwestern province of Idlib.

The 15-member Security Council is currently negotiating a possible resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that would demand a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of sick and wounded.

The multi-sided conflict is also raging elsewhere, with Turkey waging an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, while on Saturday, Syrian government anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

“What we are seeing in Syria today not only imperils the de-escalation arrangements and regional stability, it also undermines the efforts for a political solution. Yet we will not be deterred from pursuing the Geneva process, which is the only sustainable path toward a political solution,” De Mistura said.

The U.N.-led Geneva process to try and broker an end to the conflict has been making little or no progress. Last year Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed “de-escalation” zones to ease hostilities in western Syria where they wield influence.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Russia was supposed to guarantee adherence to the de-escalation zones and the removal of all chemical weapons from its ally Syria.

“Instead we to see the Assad regime continue to bomb, starve and yes, gas, civilians,” Haley said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Russia can push the regime to commit to seeking a real peace in Syria … now is the time for Russia to use that leverage.”

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia pushed back on Haley’s remarks, saying the Syrian political process should be free from “external pressure.” He also called on the United States to “exert their influence” on Syrian opposition fighters to ensure they cease hostilities.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Damascus warns Israel of ‘more surprises’ in Syria

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 11, 2018.

DAMASCUS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will face “more surprises” should it again attack Syrian territory, Damascus said on Tuesday, after Syria’s air defenses shot down an advanced Israeli warplane during the fiercest flare-up between the old foes in 36 years.

The F-16 jet was hit over northern Israel on Saturday as it returned from a raid on a Syrian position blamed for launching an Iranian-made drone across the border. Iran is supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s near seven-year civil war.

“Have full confidence the aggressor will be greatly surprised, because it thought this war – this war of attrition Syria has been exposed to for years – had made it incapable of confronting attacks,” Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Sussan said.

“God willing, they will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria,” Sussan said during a Damascus news conference.

The downed F-16 was the first warplane Israel has lost to enemy fire since its 1982 Lebanon war. Its two-man crew survived, with injuries, after bailing out of the stricken jet.

Israel retaliated by destroying around half of Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries, according to an initial assessment shared with Reuters by an Israeli official who requested anonymity.

Israel has said it will press ahead with missions in Syria, where it has launched scores of sorties against suspected arms transfers to Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

“There are no limitations, and nor do we accept any limitations,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon.

“We will continue to defend our vital security and other interests. And I would like to paraphrase the well-known saying: ‘This is not the time to bark, this is the time to bite.'”

Tehran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel. It has also has accused Iran of building precision-guided missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Syria and Hezbollah celebrated the F-16 shoot-down as a blow to Israeli military superiority. Israel’s Army Radio said on Tuesday that investigators believed pilot error – rather than Syrian capabilities – were mainly at fault for the F-16’s failure to evade what was probably an aged SA-5 missile.

Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on that report, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Saturday’s incident stirred up further questions in Israel about the effectiveness of a coordination mechanism set up with Russia, which has also been reinforcing and arming Assad’s army.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the flare-up by urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid escalation in Syria. Moscow said on Monday it did not have information to support Israel’s allegation about an Iranian military presence in the site bombed for launching the drone.

Zeev Elkin, a Russian-speaking Israeli cabinet minister who serves as Netanyahu’s interpreter in the talks with Putin, defended the coordination mechanism on Tuesday as granting Israel “freedom of action in the skies above Lebanon and Syria”.

“I don’t think the Russians ever pledged that they would take military action against the Iranians and the Syrians for us,” Elkin told Israel Radio.

“We are going one-on-one against the Syrians. We don’t need assistance from the Russians. We know how to deal with Syrian anti-aircraft fire, as everyone ultimately saw.”

(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

Years late, Syria’s children of war learn to read and write in school

Students sit in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 4, 2018. Picture taken February 4, 2018.

By Samia Nakhoul and Laila Bassam

DAMASCUS (Reuters) – – Hussein al-Khalaf, aged 13, burst into tears as he sat in his classroom at the Ahmed Baheddine Rajab school near Damascus, recounting why he is learning to read and write for the first time in his life.

He was five years old when the Syrian conflict began in 2011, shattering his life and that of his family in the city of Albu Kamal, which soon became a bastion for Islamic State.

Khalaf is one of thousands of Syrian children in a UNICEF emergency education program for those born during the war and who haven’t been able to attend school. Their school runs two shifts a day to allow as many children as possible to catch up with other kids.

“My parents said I should be in grade 1 but I wanted to be in grade 5 so that other children here won’t ridicule me. They mock me because I’m in grade 1 but I don’t respond”, said Khalaf, who fled with his family to Sahnaya near Damascus last year.

“I haven’t been to school since I was born. Daesh wanted to take us to join them,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

“My friends all left, we all got separated. I found a phone number for one of my friends and called him. He told me ‘your friend Majed died’,” said a tearful Khalaf.

“Majed used to play with us. We were all together and living happily before Daesh came in. I want nothing. I just want to see my friends again.”

 

VICTIMS

Besides the fear that Islamic State would indoctrinate their children or take them as fighters, many parents did not send their children away because they might still be exposed to heavy bombing by Syrian and Russian planes.

Most children at the Rajab school were from the war-torn areas of Raqqa, Aleppo, Deir al Zor, Idlib and Albu Kamal. They were all displaced during fierce fighting.

These children are among the principal victims of the war, now entering its eighth year. The trauma of what they have been through is visible on their faces, in their uneasy silences, sad eyes or tearful outbreaks.

They have paid a high price in a conflict beyond their understanding. Their lives have been broken with grief, their families displaced and dispersed, and they have been robbed of an education and a future.

In Syria, an estimated 7.5 million children are growing up knowing nothing but war, according to Save the Children, an international NGO.

 

WAR AND DESTRUCTION

“All that was there was war and destruction,” said Saleh al-Salehi, 12, who fled eastern Aleppo, a rebel bastion subjected to massive bombardment.

“My brother was killed. They dropped barrel bombs on us and fired rockets,” said Salehi, adding that it felt strange to be going to school for the first time in his life.

The school itself bears the scars of war. Classrooms are freezing cold and heating is a luxury, with fuel available only at sky-high prices.

The desks and benches are decrepit. Nothing of what is now common in modern schools, from laptops to digital activity centres, a library or cafeteria, was to be seen.

Even the headmaster was rushing out to a second job to make some more money to support his family. After 25 years, one teacher said her monthly salary was $80 and this had not increased in seven years.

Many kids look malnourished with black circles under their eyes, tattered clothes and torn shoes not warm enough to withstand the bitter cold.

 

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018.

Hussein al-Khalaf, 13, reacts as he sits in a classroom at a school in Sahnaya, near Damascus Syria February 1, 2018. Picture taken February 1, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

EMBARRASSED

While most said they were happy to have the opportunity to catch up with other children, they felt embarrassed and uneasy about their age and new environment.

Ali Abdel-Jabbar Badawi, 12, said: “I was dreaming about school. I haven’t been to school at all. A rocket fell on the school in our neighborhood and destroyed it. I want to catch up with the other kids of my age.”

Aya Ahmed, 13, from eastern Ghouta, a fought-over suburb of Damascus, said she was terrified of coming to school because she knew nobody and had no friends.

“In Ghouta I had friends but we couldn’t play. I didn’t know how to read and write.”

“I feel embarrassed when people ask me what grade I am. They look at me and say, all this height and you’re in grade 1. I was very late to get into school but I want to study and become an important person. I want to be a lawyer.”

The headmaster, Thaer Nasr al-Ali, said: “The conflict has affected all the people but the children paid a big price. They were deprived of education and were psychologically hurt. The schools were shut, they were cut off from education.”

“We had severe cases of trauma among the children because of the war and the violence they witnessed. Many kids lost parents and relatives and saw horror and death in front of their eyes.”

As well as losing out on education, many kids had to work to help their families or were recruited by militias and fighters, Ali and U.N. officials said.

CATCHING UP

UNICEF set up an emergency plan for accelerated learning in coordination with the education ministry so that students can catch up with other children.

The plan compresses one year into two and runs two shifts a day. There are 64 teachers for each shift and each class has 40-50 students. The school has 1,750 students, double the number before the war.

Syria had 20,000 schools before the war but only 11,000 are functioning; the rest are destroyed, semi–destroyed or being used by the armed forces or militia groups, UNICEF said.

In seven years of civil war, marked by sieges and starvation and the death of 400,000 people, half the 23 million population has been displaced or forced into exile. One third of the country has been internally displaced.

According to UNICEF there are 2.5 million Syrian refugee children living outside the country and 2.6 million internally displaced. The long term-impact on these children is huge.

“The drama of the Syrians is not finished. Even if the war ends tomorrow, the impact will be felt for generations,” said one relief official in Damascus, who declined to be named.

(Writing by Samia Nakhoul; editing by Giles Elgood)

U.N. demands Syria ceasefire as air strikes pound rebel-held areas

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 9, 2018.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least a month as heavy air strikes were reported to have killed at least 40 people in rebel-held areas near Damascus and in the northwest.

Separately, U.N. war crimes experts said they were investigating multiple reports of bombs allegedly containing chlorine gas being used against civilians in the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib and Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons.

The latest air strikes killed 35 people in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs after 30 died in bombardments of the same area on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Air strikes in rebel-held Idlib killed six.

“Today there is no safe area at all. This is a key point people should know: there is no safe space,” Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in opposition-held rural Damascus, told Reuters.

“Right now, we have people under rubble, the targeting is ongoing, warplanes on residential neighborhoods.”

Insurgent shelling of government-held Damascus killed three people, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported.

U.N. officials in Syria called for the cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian aid deliveries, and the evacuation of the sick and wounded, listing seven areas of concern including northern Syria’s Kurdish-led Afrin region, being targeted by a Turkish offensive.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, is pursuing military campaigns against insurgents in the last major pockets of territory held by his opponents in western Syria.

GHOUTA AND IDLIB

There were air strikes on towns across the Eastern Ghouta, including Douma, where an entire building was brought down, a local witness said. In Idlib, where pro-government forces are also on the offensive, at least five people were killed in the village of Tarmala, the Observatory said.

Khalil Aybour, a member of a local council, said rescue workers were under enormous pressure “because the bombing is all over the Ghouta”.

The U.N. representatives noted that Eastern Ghouta had not received inter-agency aid since November.

“Meanwhile, fighting and retaliatory shelling from all parties are impacting civilians in this region and Damascus, causing scores of deaths and injuries,” said their statement, released before the latest casualty tolls emerged on Tuesday.

They said civilians in Idlib were being forced to move repeatedly to escape fighting, noting that two pro-government villages in Idlib also continued to be besieged by rebels.

Syria’s protracted civil war, which spiraled out of street protests against Assad’s rule in 2011, will soon enter its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country as refugees.

Paulo Pinheiro, head of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said the government siege of Eastern Ghouta featured “the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population”.

Reports of air strikes hitting at least three hospitals in the past 48 hours “make a mockery of so-called “de-escalation zones”, Pinheiro said, referring to a Russian-led truce deal for rebel-held territory, which has failed to stop fighting there.

The conflict has been further complicated since January by a major offensive by neighboring Turkey in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“U.S. CALCULATIONS”

The YPG has been an important U.S. ally in the war against Islamic State militants, but Ankara sees it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and Washington.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ramped up his verbal assault on the U.S. role in Syria on Tuesday, saying U.S. forces should leave Manbij, a Syrian city held by YPG-allied forces with support from a U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

“If the United States says it is sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh (Islamic State), we don’t believe this,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in parliament.

“It means you have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia.”

In agreement with Iran and Russia, the Turkish military is setting up observation posts in parts of Idlib and Aleppo province. But tensions have flared as Turkish forces moved to set up one such post south of Aleppo.

The Turkish military said a rocket and mortar attack by militants had killed one Turkish soldier while the post was being set up on Monday.

It was the second attack in a week on Turkish soldiers trying to establish the position, near the front line between rebels and pro-Syrian government forces.

In an apparent warning to Ankara, a commander in the military alliance supporting Assad said the Syrian army had deployed new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles to front lines with rebels in the Aleppo and Idlib areas.

“They cover the air space of the Syrian north,” the commander told Reuters. That would include the Afrin area where Turkish warplanes have been supporting the ground offensive by the Turkish army and allied Free Syrian Army factions.

(Reporting Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)