Syria state media says Israeli planes attack targets near Damascus

Smoke rises past a mountain as seen from Damascus countryside, Syria December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israeli war planes attacked with missiles unspecified targets near Damascus, the Syrian capital, on Tuesday and injured three Syrian soldiers, Syrian state media quoted a military source as saying.

“Our air defenses confronted hostile missiles launched by Israeli war planes from above the Lebanese territories and downed most of them before reaching their targets,” the military source said.

An arms depot was hit and three soldiers were injured due to the attack, the source added.

The nature of the Israeli missiles targets was unclear.

Syrian state media reported earlier in the evening downing several “hostile targets” near Damascus.

An Israeli military spokeswoman declined to comment on the reports.

“An IDF aerial defense system activated in response to an anti-aircraft missile launched from Syria,” the official Israeli army Twitter account later said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said Israeli missiles were launched from above the Lebanese territories and targeted western and southwestern Damascus rural areas.

“A number of missiles hit arms depots for Hezbollah or Iranian forces,” the observatory said. No casualties or losses were reported.

Lebanese state-run National News Agency said Israeli war planes performed mock raids above southern Lebanon.

During the more than seven-year conflict in neighboring Syria, Israel has grown deeply alarmed by the expanding clout of its arch enemy Iran – a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel’s air force has struck scores of targets it describes as Iranian deployments or arms transfers to Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement in the war.

(Reporting by Hesham Hajali in Cairo, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Dahlia Nehme; Editing by Edmund Blair and Leslie Adler)

Israeli military begins sealing off cross-border tunnels from Lebanon

FILE PHOTO: A photo taken during a guided tour by the Israeli army shows a view inside a tunnel which reportedly connects Lebanon and Israel, near the border by the northern Israeli town of Metula December 19, 2018. Jack Guez/Pool via REUTERS

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Israeli military on Thursday began to seal off four tunnels that it said had been dug by the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah under the border from Lebanon.

The work was being carried out on the Israeli side of the frontier demarcation, known as the “Blue Line”, military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus told reporters.

Israel says Hezbollah dug the tunnels with the aim of launching cross-border attacks with backing from its regional sponsor Iran. Hezbollah has yet to comment.

U.N. peacekeepers in Lebanon have said they had so far confirmed the existence of four tunnels which the Israeli army discovered in recent weeks in the vicinity of the border.

Conricus said the military would “neutralize and destroy” the tunnels. Some were built with concrete components while others were dug directly into rock,” he said.

“Preliminary work has started,” Conricus said. “We warn anybody against approaching the openings of the tunnels or staying close to them, all of the tunnels, on the Lebanese side.”

He said Israel had asked the U.N. peacekeeping force, known as UNIFIL, to convey the warning to the Lebanese army.

“The end result is that Hezbollah will no longer be able to utilize these tunnels in order to terrorize Israeli civilians.”

Conricus said the work was likely to be completed in a matter of hours.

Israel has called for UNIFIL to deal with the tunnels on the Lebanese side of the border. The Israeli military has said it holds the Beirut government responsible for breaching Security Council resolution 1701, which ended a 2006 war with Hezbollah.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, has said Lebanon is committed to implementing 1701.

The resolution banned all unauthorized weapons between the Litani River and the U.N.-monitored border between Israel and Lebanon. Under the resolution, Lebanon’s army is responsible for security on its side of the border in a zone from which any other armed force, including Hezbollah, is banned.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel says Hezbollah closed precision-guided missile plants

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem December 16, 2018. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday Hezbollah had shut down plants to develop precision-guided missiles but was imperiling Lebanon with a cross-border tunnel network he deemed “an act of war”.

Netanyahu spoke hours before the U.N. Security Council was due to discuss Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese group, and appeared aimed at swaying world powers to order stronger intervention by U.N. peacekeepers.

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

An Israeli soldier lowers a camera down an Israeli-dug hole into a cross-border tunnel dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Israel deems Hezbollah, against which it fought an inconclusive war in 2006, its most potent foe. Israeli forces have repeatedly struck suspected Hezbollah arms transfers via Syria during its civil war, but avoid such action in Lebanon.

Israel and the United States believe Hezbollah has sought homegrown production of precision-guided missiles that could paralyze Israeli civilian infrastructure.

Addressing the United Nations on Sept. 7, Netanyahu identified three such plants around Beirut airport – a disclosure that Lebanon’s foreign minister, a political ally of Hezbollah, dismissed at the time as fabricated.

“The underground sites for precision conversion of missiles, which (Israeli) military intelligence gave me, to expose, those sites were closed,” Netanyahu told a conference on Wednesday.

“They are trying to open other sites,” he said, without elaborating. Hezbollah hoped to have thousands of precision-guided missiles by now but instead had “at most, a few dozen”, according to Netanyahu.

In a separate speech to parliament, Netanyahu focused on four tunnels uncovered this month, whose presence was confirmed by UNIFIL peacekeepers and which Israel says were to be used for infiltrations of its northern villages.

Hezbollah has not commented on the tunnels.

A man stands next to a drill as Israeli military personnel continue work on exposing and thwarting cross-border tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

A man stands next to a drill as Israeli military personnel continue work on exposing and thwarting cross-border tunnels dug from Lebanon into Israel, as seen on the Israeli side of the border, near the town of Metula December 19, 2018 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

“This is not merely an act of aggression. It is an act of war,” Netanyahu said.

Lebanon is fully committed to the U.N. resolution that ended the 2006 war, its Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

The ministry called on the Lebanese army “to take all necessary measures to ensure (the resolution) is well implemented in coordination with UNIFIL forces, especially in light of the tensions at the border in recent days.”

It added that it had not seen any “engineering works” being done on its side of the border.

Netanyahu accused UNIFIL of inaction, saying Hezbollah’s rocket arsenal has grown tenfold since 2006 and that every third home in southern Lebanon was being used by the guerrillas.

The Security Council, he said, should ensure “UNIFIL is not restricted by Hezbollah or the Lebanese army in any way, and reports on any obstructions” of the peacekeepers’ mandate to enforce the 2006 Lebanon ceasefire.

Israel has itself violated the truce with overflights of Lebanon for surveillance or Syria sorties.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)

Israel may expand anti-tunnel operation into Lebanon, minister says

FILE PHOTO: Israeli drilling equipment is seen next to the border with Lebanon, near the Lebanese village of Kfar Kila, seen from the Israel's side December 4, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel is prepared to take action in Lebanon against Hezbollah cross-border tunnels if necessary, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Friday.

Israel’s military said earlier this week that it had found a number of passages dug across the Israel-Lebanon border to be used in carrying out attacks inside Israel. The Israeli military sent mechanical diggers, troops and anti-tunneling equipment to the border to shut them down.

The Israeli military, which launched the operation on Tuesday, has said its activity would, for now, stop on the Israeli side of the border.

But Israeli news media on Thursday quoted an unnamed senior official saying that Israel could extend its activity into Lebanon, and on Friday Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz reiterated that messages.

“If we think that in order to thwart the tunnels that one needs to operate on the other side – then we will operate on the other side of the border,” Katz told Radio Tel Aviv 102FM.

What form the action would take was not clear. Over the past year, at least 15 tunnels from the Gaza Strip into Israel were found and destroyed, the Israeli military said.

The United Nations peacekeeping Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), confirmed the existence of a tunnel near the “blue line” frontier between the two countries on Thursday, describing it as a “serious occurrence”.

In the aftermath of the Israeli tunnel announcement, the situation has remained calm on both sides of the border. But the Israeli operation has brought renewed attention to a frontier across which Israel and Hezbollah last fought a war in 2006.

The Israeli military said in a statement on Thursday that it “holds the Lebanese government, the Lebanese Armed Forces and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon responsible for all events transpiring in and emanating from Lebanon.”

It added that an Israeli military commander had shown one of the tunnels to the head of UNIFIL, Major-General Sefano Del Col, and it urged UNIFIL and the Lebanese army to clear the area of tunnels.

UNIFIL said in its statement it was “engaged with the parties to pursue urgent follow-up action”.

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil has instructed the country’s envoy to the U.N. to complain that Israel is waging “a diplomatic and political campaign against Lebanon in preparation for attacks against it”, Hezbollah’s l-Manar TV said.

Since the 2006 war, Israel has largely refrained from striking at Hezbollah on Lebanese soil, but it has carried out dozens of attacks in Syria against what it said were advanced weapons shipments to the Iranian-backed Shi’ite group.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell, editing by Larry King)

Netanyahu says Israel will continue operations in Syria against Iran

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 16, 2018 Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday Israel would continue its military operations in Syria, after Russia announced it would supply an advanced anti-aircraft system to its Syrian ally.

“We will continue to act to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and we will continue the military coordination between the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) and the Russian army,” Netanyahu told reporters before boarding a flight to New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly.

Russia said on Monday it would supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks despite strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow accused Israel of indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria.

Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government against rebels and militants, has said Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot its IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target.

Moscow accused Israel of creating dangerous conditions that caused the incident.

Israel, which has carried out air strikes in Syria many times during the civil war, said after the incident it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them.

Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. In his remarks on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had agreed with Putin “that the working teams from the IDF and the Russian army will meet soon”.

The Israeli leader made the remarks after convening his security cabinet to discuss the tensions with Moscow.

“Over the past three years, Israel has been highly successful in preventing the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and Iranian attempts to transfer lethal weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Netanyahu said.

But he said there had been occasions when things had not gone smoothly, calling Syria’s downing of the Russian plane “tragic”.

Israel has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria, fearing this would hinder its aerial capability to strike the forces of Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Syria.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch and Andrew Roche)

Iran puts on ‘show of strength’ military exercise in Gulf

FILE PHOTO: Russian-made Sukhoi fighter jets of the Iranian army fly past during a military parade to commemorate army day in Tehran April 17, 2008. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – The Iranian Revolutionary Guards and army carried out a joint aerial military drill in the Gulf on Friday in what official media said indicated the “pounding reply” that awaited the country’s enemies.

Tehran has suggested in recent weeks that it could take military action in the Gulf to block other countries’ oil exports in retaliation for U.S. sanctions intended to halt its sales of crude.

Washington maintains a fleet in the Gulf that protects oil shipping routes.

“In addition to a show of strength, this ceremony is a message of peace and friendship for friendly and neighboring countries,” Colonel Yousef Safipour, the deputy commander of the army for public relations said, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).

“And if the enemies and arrogant powers have an eye on the borders and land of Islamic Iran they will receive a pounding reply in the fraction of a second.”

Mirage, F-4 and Sukhoi-22 jets took part in the exercise on Friday, according to IRNA.

The Islamic Republic has a large naval military drill, including approximately 600 naval vessels, planned on Saturday, IRNA reported.

Separately, a prominent Iranian cleric said Friday that the time had come for Israel to say goodbye. He did not give any further information on what that could mean.

“Mr. Netanyahu, you and your intelligence services know well that the time to say goodbye has arrived and what position of strength the resistance of Hezbollah and the people of Gaza are in,” Hassan Abu-Torabi Fard, the temporary Friday prayers leader in Tehran, said, according to Fars News.

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh)

Islamist militants adapted after losses: U.S. State Dept.

By Jonathan Landay

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The State Department warned on Wednesday that Islamic State, al Qaeda and its affiliates have adapted by dispersing and becoming less vulnerable to military action after the United States and its partners made “major strides” against the armed Islamist groups last year.

In an annual report on the U.S. anti-terrorism fight worldwide, the State Department said militant attacks decreased globally in 2017 by 23 percent from 2016, with a 27 percent reduction in fatalities.

The drops were due mostly to “dramatically” reduced extremist attacks in Iraq, said Nathan Sales, the U.S. counter-terrorism coordinator, whose office produced the congressionally mandated report.

U.S.-backed forces and Iraqi militias liberated nearly all of the territory that Islamic State, also known as ISIS, once controlled in Iraq and Syria, including the major Iraqi city of Mosul.

The United States and its partners also stepped up pressure on al Qaeda to prevent its resurgence, it said.

Islamic State, al Qaeda and their affiliates, however, “have proven to be resilient, determined and adaptable, and they have adjusted to heightened counterterrorism pressure in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and elsewhere,” the report said.

The groups “have become more dispersed and clandestine,” used the Internet to inspire attacks by their followers, and as a result, “have made themselves less susceptible to conventional military action,” it continued.

Militant groups retain “both the capability and the intent to strike the United States and its allies,” Sales told reporters.

The report said Iran remained “the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism” in 2017, using its elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Lebanese Hezbollah, the Shi’ite Muslim militia movement, to undertake “terrorist-related and destabilizing activities.

(Reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mary Milliken and Alistair Bell)

Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies

FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

By John Irish and Ahmed Rasheed

PARIS/BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran has given ballistic missiles to Shi’ite proxies in Iraq and is developing the capacity to build more there to deter attacks on its interests in the Middle East and to give it the means to hit regional foes, Iranian, Iraqi and Western sources said.

Any sign that Iran is preparing a more aggressive missile policy in Iraq will exacerbate tensions between Tehran and Washington, already heightened by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with world powers.

It would also embarrass France, Germany and the United Kingdom, the three European signatories to the nuclear deal, as they have been trying to salvage the agreement despite new U.S. sanctions against Tehran.

According to three Iranian officials, two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western intelligence sources, Iran has transferred short-range ballistic missiles to allies in Iraq over the last few months. Five of the officials said it was helping those groups to start making their own.

“The logic was to have a backup plan if Iran was attacked,” one senior Iranian official told Reuters. “The number of missiles is not high, just a couple of dozen, but it can be increased if necessary.”

Iran has previously said its ballistic missile activities are purely defensive in nature. Iranian officials declined to comment when asked about the latest moves.

The Iraqi government and military both declined to comment.

The Zelzal, Fateh-110 and Zolfaqar missiles in question have ranges of about 200 km to 700 km, putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq.

The Quds Force, the overseas arm of Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has bases in both those areas. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani is overseeing the program, three of the sources said.

Western countries have already accused Iran of transferring missiles and technology to Syria and other allies of Tehran, such as Houthi rebels in Yemen and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Iran’s Sunni Muslim Gulf neighbors and its arch-enemy Israel have expressed concerns about Tehran’s regional activities, seeing it as a threat to their security.

Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment about the missile transfers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday that anybody that threatened to wipe Israel out “would put themselves in a similar danger”.

MISSILE PRODUCTION LINE

The Western source said the number of missiles was in the 10s and that the transfers were designed to send a warning to the United States and Israel, especially after air raids on Iranian troops in Syria. The United States has a significant military presence in Iraq.

“It seems Iran has been turning Iraq into its forward missile base,” the Western source said.

The Iranian sources and one Iraqi intelligence source said a decision was made some 18 months ago to use militias to produce missiles in Iraq, but activity had ramped up in the last few months, including with the arrival of missile launchers.

“We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region,” said a senior IRGC commander who served during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The Western source and the Iraqi source said the factories being used to develop missiles in Iraq were in al-Zafaraniya, east of Baghdad, and Jurf al-Sakhar, north of Kerbala. One Iranian source said there was also a factory in Iraqi Kurdistan.

The areas are controlled by Shi’ite militias, including Kata’ib Hezbollah, one of the closest to Iran. Three sources said Iraqis had been trained in Iran as missile operators.

The Iraqi intelligence source said the al-Zafaraniya factory produced warheads and the ceramic of missile molds under former President Saddam Hussein. It was reactivated by local Shi’ite groups in 2016 with Iranian assistance, the source said.

A team of Shi’ite engineers who used to work at the facility under Saddam were brought in, after being screened, to make it operational, the source said. He also said missiles had been tested near Jurf al-Sakhar.

The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon declined to comment.

One U.S official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that Tehran over the last few months has transferred missiles to groups in Iraq but could not confirm that those missiles had any launch capability from their current positions.

Washington has been pushing its allies to adopt a tough anti-Iran policy since it reimposed sanctions this month.

While the European signatories to the nuclear deal have so far balked at U.S. pressure, they have grown increasingly impatient over Iran’s ballistic missile program.

France, in particular, has bemoaned Iranian “frenzy” in developing and propagating missiles and wants Tehran to open negotiations over its ballistic weapons.

Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on Thursday that Iran was arming regional allies with rockets and allowing ballistic proliferation. “Iran needs to avoid the temptation to be the (regional) hegemon,” he said.

In March, the three nations proposed fresh EU sanctions on Iran over its missile activity, although they failed to push them through after opposition from some member states.

“Such a proliferation of Iranian missile capabilities throughout the region is an additional and serious source of concern,” a document from the three European countries said at the time.

MESSAGE TO FOES

A regional intelligence source also said Iran was storing a number of ballistic missiles in areas of Iraq that were under effective Shi’ite control and had the capacity to launch them.

The source could not confirm that Iran has a missile production capacity in Iraq.

A second Iraqi intelligence official said Baghdad had been aware of the flow of Iranian missiles to Shi’ite militias to help fight Islamic State militants, but that shipments had continued after the hardline Sunni militant group was defeated.

“It was clear to Iraqi intelligence that such a missile arsenal sent by Iran was not meant to fight Daesh (Islamic State) militants but as a pressure card Iran can use once involved in regional conflict,” the official said.

The Iraqi source said it was difficult for the Iraqi government to stop or persuade the groups to go against Tehran.

“We can’t restrain militias from firing Iranian rockets because simply the firing button is not in our hands, it’s with Iranians who control the push button,” he said.

“Iran will definitely use the missiles it handed over to Iraqi militia it supports to send a strong message to its foes in the region and the United States that it has the ability to use Iraqi territories as a launch pad for its missiles to strike anywhere and anytime it decides,” the Iraqi official said.

Iraq’s parliament passed a law in 2016 to bring an assortment of Shi’ite militia groups known collectively as the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF) into the state apparatus. The militias report to Iraq’s prime minister, who is a Shi’ite under the country’s unofficial governance system.

However, Iran still has a clear hand in coordinating the PMF leadership, which frequently meets and consults with Soleimani.

(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jonathan Landay in Washington; editing by David Clarke)

Israel says it killed seven insurgents on Syria frontier, talks up Assad

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman visits Gaza's Kerem Shalom crossing, the strip's main commercial border terminal, July 22, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Thursday it saw potentially stabilizing benefits to President Bashar al-Assad winning the Syrian civil war after the Israeli military said it killed seven Islamist insurgents in a rare airstrike across the countries’ frontier.

The remarks by Israel’s defense minister signal an emerging Israeli accommodation with Assad, an old enemy who has not sought direct confrontation with Israel, as he regains control of Syria from rebels – including some Islamist groups.

As recently as last week, Israel sounded alarms over Assad’s advances against southwestern rebels: It shot down a Syrian warplane that it said had strayed into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and warned Assad’s Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah reinforcement against trying to deploy on the Syrian-held side.

But Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman struck a cautiously upbeat note on Thursday as he described an Assad win as a given.

“From our perspective, the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule,” Lieberman told reporters during a tour of air defense units in northern Israel.

Asked whether Israel should be less wary of possible flare-ups on the Golan – much of which it seized from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized abroad – Lieberman said: “I believe so. I think this is also in Assad’s interest.”

Shortly after the remarks, Israel’s military said it had carried out an air strike on the Golan on Wednesday night, killing seven insurgents that it believed were from a Syrian wing of Islamic State and en route to attack an Israeli target.

With Assad’s troops closing in, “we see how the ISIS-affiliated terrorists are scattered and are losing terrain,” military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

He said the men hit had assault rifles and bomb belts and moved in a battle formation: “We assume they were on a terrorist mission and that they were trying to infiltrate into Israel. It did not seem as if they were fleeing, seeking refuge.”

An earlier Israeli military statement said the airstrike took place on the Syrian-held Golan. But Conricus amended that, saying that the location was within Israeli lines.

There was no immediate Syrian government response.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitoring group, on Thursday, reported clashes going on between Assad’s forces and Islamic State militants on the Syrian Golan.

The Syrian civil war erupted in 2011 and Russian intervention in 2015 helped to turn the tide in Assad’s favor.

Russian military police began deploying on the Syrian-held Golan and planned to set up eight observation posts in the area, the Defence Ministry in Moscow said, describing the move as aimed at supporting a decades-old U.N. peacekeeper presence.

The new Russian posts would be handed over to the Syrian government once the situation stabilized, the ministry said.

Conricus confirmed the Russian deployment but declined to comment further.

Lieberman said that, for there to be long-term quiet between Israel and Syria, Assad must abide by a 1974 U.N.-monitored armistice that set up demilitarized zones on the Golan.

Lieberman reiterated Israel’s demand that Iran not set up military bases against it in Syria, nor that Syria be used to smuggle arms to Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon.

“We are not looking for friction, but we will know how to respond to any provocation and any challenge,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut and Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Editing by Kevin Liffey and David Stamp)

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

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

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“EXTREMELY SCARED”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)