Full U.S. pullout from Afghanistan could ignite ‘total civil war’: ex-U.S. envoys

FILE PHOTO: U.S. military advisers from the 1st Security Force Assistance Brigade work with Afghan soldiers at an artillery position on an Afghan National Army base in Maidan Wardak province, Afghanistan August 6, 2018. REUTERS/James Mackenzie/File Photo

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Nine former U.S. ambassadors on Tuesday warned that Afghanistan could collapse in a “total civil war” if President Donald Trump withdraws all U.S. forces before the Kabul government and the Taliban conclude a peace settlement.

“A major troop withdrawal must be contingent on a final peace,” the nine wrote on the website of the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “The initial U.S. drawdown should not go so far or so fast that the Taliban believe they can achieve military victory.”

The nine, including five former ambassadors to Kabul, a former special envoy to Afghanistan and a former deputy secretary of State, issued their warning a day after U.S. chief negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad announced a draft accord with the Taliban for an initial drawdown of nearly 5,000 U.S. troops.

Khalilzad, speaking on Monday to Tolo News television in Kabul, declined to say how long the rest of the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops would stay. But U.S. officials repeatedly have said the pullout would be “conditions-based.”

In exchange, the Taliban would commit to preventing their decades-long ally, al Qaeda, or other extremists from using the country as a springboard for new attacks.

Trump has made clear his impatience to withdraw all U.S. forces and end America’s longest war, which began with a U.S. invasion triggered by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks that al Qaeda launched from then Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Khalilzad said Trump must approve the draft before it can be signed.

Khalilzad excluded Kabul from the nine rounds of U.S.-Taliban talks in Qatar. But he has said it would be part of negotiations on a political settlement with the Taliban, which has so far refused to meet directly with Afghan officials.

Maintaining a major U.S. troop presence would have “a critical influence on the chances for successful peace negotiations,” the former diplomats wrote.

“It is not clear whether peace is possible. The Taliban have made no clear statements about the conditions they would accept for a peaceful settlement with their fellow Afghans, nor do they have a track record of working with other political forces,” they said.

“There is an outcome far worse than the status quo, namely a return to the total civil war that consumed Afghanistan as badly as the war with the Russians and something that could follow a breakdown in negotiations if we remove too much support from the Afghan state, they wrote.

A new civil war “could prove catastrophic for U.S. national security” as it likely would see the Taliban maintain their alliance with al Qaeda and allow Islamic State’s growing local affiliate” to further expand, they said.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Tom Brown)

In Lebanon, a monastery brings together Christians scattered by war

A view of the Monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya in the heart of the Qadisha valley, in Zgharta district, LebanonJune 23, 2019. REUTERS/Imad Creidi

By Ayat Basma

QOZHAYA, Lebanon (Reuters) – The last time Samuel Botros stepped into the Lebanese monastery of Saint Anthony of Qozhaya was in 1978. He was 24, newly married, and the country was in the grip of an all-out war. Like many of his generation, he left. It took him 41 years to return.

The 1975-90 civil war may be over in Lebanon but conflicts in nearby countries like Iraq and Syria have devastated entire communities where Christians once lived alongside Muslims. That has triggered an exodus among people of both faiths, especially among minority sects – like Botros’ Syriac Orthodox community whose roots are in early Christianity.

The monastery, which is nestled in a remote valley in the northern Lebanese mountains and dates from the fourth century, is a meeting place for Christians who have fled conflict.

“It is the war that did this to us. It is the wars that continue to leave behind destruction and force people to leave,” said Botros, visiting the monastery as part of a gathering of his community’s scout group – their first in the region since the 1950s.

The scout group’s roughly 150 members include people living in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Territories and further afield. Lebanon was the only country where they could all meet easily and safely, Botros said.

In Iraq, years of conflict, most recently with Islamic State, erased much of the Christian heritage in ancient cities like Mosul and Sinjar in the north. In Syria’s civil war, some of the oldest churches in Aleppo, Homs and other cities were damaged.

Botros, now 65, is about to retire in Sweden where he made his home years ago. He is father and grandfather to children who know Lebanon only through photos.

“I would like them to visit so that when I pass, there is something to pull them back,” he said.

ANCIENT SANCTUARY

On Sundays and public holidays, the monastery’s small church, with the bell tower and facade, etched into the cliffs is full of people huddled in the pews or standing at the back of the vaulted interior.

Its patron is Saint Anthony, a monk who is believed to have lived in rural Egypt in the fourth or fifth century.

“This place has always been a shrine…we don’t even know when it started. Even when there was no development…people still came,” said Father Fadi Imad, the priest who gives sermons.

Qozhaya lies within a valley known as the Valley of Saints, or Qannoubine in ancient Syriac, part of a wider valley network called Qadisha that has a long history as a refuge for monks. At one time, Qadisha was home to hundreds of hermitages, churches, caves and monasteries. The monastery of Saint Anthony is the last surviving one.

It was an early home for Lebanon’s Christian Maronites, the first followers of the Roman Catholic church in the East.

The Maronites and sometimes the Druze, a Muslim sect, sought the sanctuary of the mountains away from the political and religious dynasties of the times with whom they did not always agree, Father Imad said.

“The inhabitants of this mountain…and they were not only Christians, came here because they were persecuted and weak,” he said.

“Qozhaya holds in its heart 1,600 years of history and it doesn’t belong to anyone, church or faith, … it belongs to the homeland,” he said.

The monastery is surrounded by forests of pine and cedar and orchards that can only be reached via a narrow, winding road.

Its grounds include a cave where visitors light candles, a museum housing the Middle East’s oldest printing press in ancient Syriac and halls for resident priests.

Visitors nowadays include foreign and Arab tourists and local residents including Muslims who sometimes come to ask for a blessing.

Father Imad said the monastery was the safest it had been in its history despite being surrounded by countries at war or suffering its aftermath.

“No one is telling us that they are coming to kill us anymore … at least in Lebanon,” he said.

Before he left, Botros and his fellows stood for a final photo outside the building with the valley behind. With their flags and scarves around their necks, they smiled and cheered as the bells rang.

“What I have seen today I will never forget for as long as I live,” Botros said.

“No matter how long it takes, the son always returns to the mother.”

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Exclusive: New chemical weapons team to launch first Syria investigations

FILE PHOTO: A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus August 29, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah

By Anthony Deutsch

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – A new team established by the global chemical weapons watchdog to attribute blame for the use of banned munitions in Syria will investigate nine alleged attacks during the country’s civil war, including in the town of Douma, sources briefed on the matter told Reuters.

The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was created in 1997 as a technical body to enforce a global non-proliferation treaty. It had until now only been authorized to say whether chemical attacks occurred, not who perpetrated them.

Last June, the Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) was established by the OPCW’s member states during a special session, a move that has brought deeper political division to the U.N. -back agency. Now it has identified the locations of its first investigations to be conducted in the coming three years.

The British-led proposal creating the 10-member team was supported by the United States and European Union but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria, and their allies.

Syria has refused to issue visas to the team’s members or to provide it with documentation, OPCW chief Fernando Arias said in comments to member states published last month.

There were reports of dozens of fatalities on April 7, 2018, after an attack on Douma, at the time held by rebels but besieged by pro-government forces.

U.S. President Donald Trump blamed the attack on Syrian forces and launched missile strikes on Syrian government targets a week later with the backing of France and Britain.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its military backer Russia deny using chemical weapons and accuse insurgents of staging the attack to implicate Syrian forces.

SARIN, CHLORINE

A Russian representative to the OPCW in The Hague did not respond to requests seeking comment.

Syria joined the Chemical Weapons Convention in 2013, agreeing to open itself up to OPCW inspections and averting threatened military action by then U.S. President Barack Obama.

As part of a deal brokered with Russia, Damascus vowed to completely destroy its chemical weapons capabilities, but attacks with banned munitions have been widespread and systematic during the civil war, which began in 2011.

A United Nations-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM) carried out the task of assigning blame for chemical weapons attacks, but Russia vetoed a resolution to extend its mandate beyond November 2017.

The new team at the OPCW is focusing on sites of chemical attacks where culprits have not yet been identified by the JIM, dating back as far back as 2015.

The JIM concluded in a series of reports since then that the Syrian military used both nerve agent sarin and chlorine as weapons, while Islamic State insurgents used sulfur mustard gas on the battlefield.

The OPCW concluded in a March 1 report that a chemical weapons attack occurred in Douma, most likely with chlorine. It did not assign blame.

As of this year, Syria had not fully disclosed its chemical weapons program or explained why inspectors have continued to find traces of prohibited nerve agents or their chemical precursors at multiple locations.

Syria has acknowledged, after more than five years, that it carried out research and development activities on nerve agents it has never admitted having.

“This adds to the growing evidence of deliberately false declarations by Syria, destruction of possible evidence, and the alarming likelihood that Syria continues to possess” banned chemical agents, Canada’s ambassador to the OPCW, Sabine Nolke, told delegates attending meetings at the OPCW in The Hague this week.

“Continued possession of these chemicals by Syria lends additional credence to existing allegations of their use by the regime,” she said.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean)

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)

More than 80,000 Yemeni children may have died from hunger: humanitarian body

FILE PHOTO: A malnourished boy lies on a weighing scale at the malnutrition ward of al-Sabeen hospital in Sanaa, Yemen September 11, 2018. REUTERS/Khaled Abdullah

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Mohammed Ghobari

DUBAI/ADEN (Reuters) – An estimated 85,000 children under five may have died from extreme hunger in Yemen since a Saudi-led coalition intervened in the civil war in 2015, a humanitarian body said on Wednesday, as the U.N. special envoy arrived in Yemen to pursue peace talks.

Western countries are pressing for a ceasefire and renewed peace efforts to end the disastrous conflict, which has unleashed the world’s most urgent humanitarian crisis with 8.4 million people believed to be on the verge of starvation.

Save the Children said that according to a conservative estimate based on United Nations data, approximately 84,700 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition may have died between April 2015 and October 2018 in the impoverished country, where a Western-backed Arab alliance is battling the Iranian-aligned Houthi movement that holds the capital Sanaa.

“We are horrified that some 85,000 children in Yemen may have died because of the consequences of extreme hunger since the war began. For every child killed by bombs and bullets, dozens are dying from hunger and disease and it’s entirely preventable,” it said in a statement.

The last available figure from the United Nations for the death toll from the conflict, seen as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, was in 2016 and stood at more than 10,000.

The world body has not provided figures for the death toll from malnutrition but warned last month that half the population, or some 14 million people, could soon be on the brink of famine and completely relying on humanitarian aid.

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a database that tracks violence in Yemen, says around 57,000 people have been reported killed since the beginning of 2016.

The Saudi-led coalition intervened in Yemen in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government that was ousted from Sanaa in 2014 by the Houthis, who control the most populated areas of the Arabian Peninsula country.

But since seizing the southern port city of Aden in 2015, the coalition has faced a military stalemate and has been focusing on wresting control of the main port city of Hodeidah to weaken the Houthis by cutting off their main supply line.

NO CEASEFIRE YET

The coalition last week ordered a halt to military operations in Hodeidah, a lifeline for millions of Yemenis. A few days later the Houthis announced a halt to missile and drone attacks on coalition leaders Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates along with their Yemeni allies.

However, Hodeidah has witnessed intense fighting in the past two days, mostly taking place at night, as each side tried to reinforce its positions during the de-escalation in hostilities.

“Loud bangs, shelling and gunfire could be heard all over the city until dawn,” a Hodeidah resident said on Wednesday.

A pro-coalition Yemeni military source told Reuters on Monday that a ceasefire in Hodeidah would start only after the U.N. Security Council passes a British-drafted resolution on Yemen.

Aid groups have warned against an all-out assault on the city, an entry point for more than 80 percent of Yemen’s food imports and humanitarian aid.

U.N. envoy Martin Griffiths arrived in Sanaa on Wednesday to meet with Houthi leaders to discuss convening peace talks in Sweden next month to agree on a framework for peace under a transitional government.

The Houthis failed to show up to peace talks in September. Kuwait has offered to provide planes for the parties to ensure the participation of both sides in Stockholm.

Griffiths faces a daunting challenge to overcome deep mistrust between all sides, including among allies, which makes any peace agreement fragile.

The draft resolution, seen by Reuters, calls for a halt to fighting in Hodeidah, a stop to attacks on populated areas across Yemen and an end to attacks on countries in the region.

It also calls for an unhindered flow of commercial and humanitarian goods across the impoverished country, including a large, fast injection of foreign currency into the economy through the Central Bank of Yemen and more aid funding.

(Writing By Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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)