Prime Minister Netanyahu says Israel could act against Iran’s ’empire’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the dedication ceremony of a new concourse at the Ben Gurion International Airport, near Lod, Israel February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvu

By Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel could act against Iran itself, not just its allies in the Middle East, after border incidents in Syria brought the Middle East foes closer to direct confrontation.

Iran mocked Netanyahu’s tough words, saying Israel’s reputation for “invincibility” had crumbled after one of its jets was shot down following a bombing run in Syria.

In his first address to the annual Munich Security Conference, which draws security and defense officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu held up a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace this month.

“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”

For his part, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”.

“What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility (of Israel) has crumbled,” Zarif, who addressed the conference hours after Netanyahu, said, referring to the downing of the Israeli F-16, which crashed in northern Israel after a strike on Syrian air defenses.

“Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it’s as if a disaster has happened,” Zarif said, accusing Israel of using “aggression as a policy against its neighbors” by regularly carrying out incursions into Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has accused Tehran of seeking a permanent military foothold in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in civil war entering its eighth year.

Netanyahu said that as the Islamic State militant group has lost ground, Iran and its allies were surging into territory, “trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.”

The tough words on both sides at the international event come as Israel is increasingly seeking to cooperate with Sunni Arab states that share its worries about Shi’ite Iran. For months, Netanyahu has touted what he describes as unprecedented levels of behind-the-scenes cooperation.

“The fact that we have this newfound relationship with the Arab countries – something that … I would not have imagined in my lifetime – this is not what they call a spin,” Netanyahu said, during a question and answer session after his speech.

“This is real, it’s deep, it’s broad: it doesn’t necessarily cross the threshold of a formal peace, and I doubt that would happen until we get some formal progress with the Palestinians – so the two are linked,” he added.

Israel has formal peace agreements with just two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Others have said a pre-condition of any such treaty is an Israeli deal with the Palestinians.

“WE HAVE FRIENDS”

Among Israel’s main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased as Hezbollah has gained strength fighting in Syria, and the two countries also have a maritime border dispute.

Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria against suspected Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and has accused Tehran of planning to build missile factories in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, warned against intervention: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves … we also have friends.”

Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by U.S. President Donald Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions’ relief.

“It’s time to stop them now,” Netanyahu said. “They’re aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they’re not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment,” he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord is working and Iran is allowing inspections.

Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace. John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.

“If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?” Kerry said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

U.N. chief warns of nightmare scenario if Israel, Hezbollah clash

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres gives a speech during a ceremony at Lisbon University where Guterres received his honoris causa degree, Portugal February 19, 2018. REUTERS/Rafael Marchante

LISBON (Reuters) – United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Monday he was worried about the possibility of a direct confrontation between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

Guterres said the latest signals from Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah showed the will to not let this happen but “sometimes a spark is enough to unleash this kind of a conflict”.

Hezbollah said last week it could act against Israeli oil facilities if necessary in an Lebanon-Israel offshore energy dispute. U.S. diplomats have been mediating between the two countries after a rise in tensions also involving a dispute over a border wall and Hezbollah’s growing arsenal.

“I am deeply worried about hard-to-foresee escalations in the whole region,” Guterres told reporters in his native Lisbon, also referring to Israel’s concerns about various militia groups in Syria approaching its borders.

“The worst nightmare would be if there is a direct confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah…the level of destruction in Lebanon would be absolutely devastating, so there are major points of concern around this situation.”

The powerful Shi’ite movement is part of Lebanon’s coalition government. Israel sees Hezbollah as the biggest security threat on its borders.

Hezbollah was formed in the 1980s as a resistance movement against Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon. The two remain bitter enemies but there has been no major conflict between them since a month-long war in 2006.

(Reporting By Andrei Khalip; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Lebanon vows to block border wall, Israel eyes diplomacy on gas field

Lebanese President Michel Aoun meets with Lebanon's Higher Defence Council at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon February 7, 2018

By Ellen Francis and Dan Williams

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon vowed on Wednesday to prevent any territorial intrusion by a border wall which Israel is building, and Israel said it wanted foreign mediation to resolve a maritime energy dispute with its northern neighbor.

Lebanese leaders have accused Israel of threatening the stability of the border region. Arguments over the wall and Lebanon’s plans to explore for oil and gas in disputed Mediterranean waters have increased friction between the two enemy states.

“This wall, if it is built, will be considered an assault on Lebanese land,” the secretary-general of Lebanon’s Higher Defence Council said in a statement after a meeting of senior government and military officials.

The council “has given its instructions to confront this aggression to prevent Israel from building (the wall) on Lebanese territory,” it said, without elaborating.

The council includes Lebanon’s president, prime minister, other cabinet ministers and the army commander.

Israel has said the wall is entirely within its territory.

One Israeli official told Reuters that parts of the wall were being erected closer to the border than a current frontier fence, which in places runs well to the south due to topography.

The Lebanese government says the wall would pass through land that belongs to Lebanon but lies on the Israeli side of the Blue Line, where the United Nations demarcated Israel’s military withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000.

Calm has largely prevailed along the frontier since 2006, when Israel fought a war with Lebanon’s heavily-armed Shi’ite Muslim Hezbollah movement. The month-long conflict killed about 1,200 people in Lebanon, mostly civilians, and 160 Israelis, most of them soldiers.

In a televised address last month, Hezbollah’s leader cautioned Israel to take the Lebanese government’s warnings over the wall “with utmost seriousness”.

“Lebanon will be united behind the state and the army to prevent the Israeli enemy (violating Lebanese territory),” Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said. Hezbollah will “fully handle its responsibility in this regard,” he added.

OFFSHORE ENERGY

Lebanon’s first offshore oil and gas exploration tender drew condemnation last week from Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman. He called it a “very provocative” move and urged international firms not to participate.

The two countries have an unresolved maritime border dispute over a triangular area of sea of around 860 sq km (330 square miles). The zone extends along the edge of three out of five energy blocks that Lebanon put to tender early last year.

In December, Lebanon approved a bid by a consortium of France’s Total, Italy’s Eni and Russia’s Novatek for two blocks.

One of these, Block 9, juts partly into waters claimed by Israel. In a conciliatory tack from Lieberman’s remarks, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz on Wednesday mooted negotiations.

“There is a dispute, which is no secret – it’s been going on for years – over the border demarcation between our economic waters and Lebanon’s,” he told the Israeli news site Ynet.

“We hope for, and are prepared to move forward on, a diplomatic resolution to this matter.”

Steinitz said that, in 2013, U.S. intermediaries had come close to clinching a deal involving “a kind of compromise”.

“The Lebanese too have their own economic waters in which they want to search for gas and oil,” he added. “And they have such a right – so long as they do not threaten and certainly not penetrate our demarcated waters”.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut and; Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Netanyahu flies to Moscow for talks on Syria with Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attend a meeting at the Jewish Museum and Tolerance Centre in Moscow, Russia January 29, 2018.

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Moscow on Monday to discuss Israeli concerns about any expansion of Iran’s military foothold in Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“I will discuss with President Putin Iran’s relentless efforts to establish a military presence in Syria, which we strongly oppose and are also taking action against,” said Netanyahu, without elaborating, before boarding a plane for the visit, scheduled to last several hours.

Israel’s air force said last year it had struck suspected arms shipments to Iran’s ally, the Lebanese Hezbollah group, around 100 times.

Netanyahu said he and Putin “meet periodically in order to ensure the military coordination between the Israel Defense Forces and the Russian forces in Syria”.

Russia intervened in the civil war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015. Iranian forces, Hezbollah and other Shi‘ite Muslim militias also back Assad.

Israel fears Iran could be left with a permanent garrison in Syria, extending a threat posed from neighboring Lebanon by Hezbollah, which has an extensive missile arsenal and last fought a war with the Israeli military in 2006.

Netanyahu said he also planned to discuss with Putin “Iran’s effort to turn Lebanon into one giant missile site, a site for precision missiles against the State of Israel, which we will not tolerate”.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Hezbollah emerges a winner from Mideast turmoil, alarming foes

Hezbollah emerges a winner from Mideast turmoil, alarming foes

By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – When Iran declared victory over Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, it hailed the “strong and pivotal” role played by Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement.

The praise, contained in a top general’s letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader in November, confirmed Hezbollan’s pre-eminence among Shi’ite Muslim regional groups backed by Tehran that are helping the Islamic Republic exert influence in the Middle East.

Hezbollah has emerged as a big winner in the turmoil that has swept the Arab world since the uprisings of 2011 that toppled governments in several countries. It has fought in Syria and Iraq, trained other groups in those countries and inspired other forces such as Iran-allied Houthis waging a war in Yemen.

But its growing strength has contributed to a sharp rise in regional tension, alarming Israel, the United States – which designates it as a terrorist organization – and Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia, Iran’s regional rival, which accuses Hezbollah of having a military role on its doorstep in Yemen.

Israel fears Iran and Hezbollah will keep permanent garrisons in Syria and has called for action against “Iranian aggression”. With Hezbollah stronger than ever, war with Israel is seen by many in the region as inevitable, sooner or later.

“Hezbollah has gained from the experience of working with armies and managing numerous weapons systems simultaneously – air power, armored vehicles, intelligence, and drones: all specialties of conventional armies,” said a commander in a regional alliance fighting in Syria.

“Hezbollah is now a dynamic army, bringing together guerrilla and conventional warfare.”

Hezbollah’s elevated status among Iran’s regional allies was clear at the funeral this month of Hassan Soleimani, father of Major General Qassem Soleimani who wrote the letter praising Hezbollah’s role fighting IS in Syria and Iraq.

Hezbollah’s delegation, led by Sayyed Hashem Safieddine, a top figure in its clerical leadership, took responsibility for organizing talks on the sidelines of the funeral between the various Iranian allies present, an official who attended said.

“All the resistance factions were at the condolences. Hezbollah coordinated and directed meetings and discussions,” the official said.

THE “HEZBOLLAH MODEL”

Hezbollah was set up by the powerful Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) to fight Israeli forces that invaded Lebanon in 1982 and to export Iran’s Shi’ite Islamist revolution.

It has come a long way from the Bekaa Valley camps where its fighters first trained. Its fighters spearheaded the November attack on Albu Kamal, a town near Syria’s border with Iraq, which ended IS resistance in its last urban stronghold in the country.

Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah has said the battle for Albu Kamal was led by Qassem Soleimani, commander of the branch of the IRGC responsible for operations outside.

An Iran-backed Iraqi Shi’ite militia, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), crossed into Syria to help during the battle. Hezbollah helped to set up the Iraqi PMF at the peak of Islamic State’s expansion in 2014.

The attack was of huge symbolic and strategic significance for Iran and its regional allies, recreating a land route linking Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut – often termed the “Shi’ite crescent” by Iran’s regional enemies.

The United States says Iran is “applying what you might call a Hezbollah model to the Middle East – in which they want governments to be weak, they want governments to be dependent on Iran for support,” White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said in late October.

“So, what is most important, not just for the United States but for all nations, is to confront the scourge of Hezbollah and to confront the scourge of the Iranians and the IRGC who sustain Hezbollah’s operations,” he told Alhurra, a U.S.-funded Arabic-language news network.

Syria is where Hezbollah has made its biggest impact outside Lebanon though its role was kept secret when its fighters first deployed there Syria in mid-2012.

The initial aim was to defend the shrine of Sayeda Zeinab, a Shi’ite pilgrimage site near Damascus. But as President Bashar al-Assad lost ground, Hezbollah sent more fighters to aid Syrian security forces ill suited to the conflict they faced.

Hezbollah’s role was crucial in defeating many of the rebels who fought Assad with backing from his regional foes, helping him win back the cities of Aleppo and Homs, and other territory.

Its publicly declared role in support of Assad has been accompanied by an effort to establish new Syrian militias that have fought alongside it, said the commander in the regional alliance fighting in Syria.

Hezbollah has lost more than 1,500 fighters in Syria, including top commanders. But it has gained military experience, supplementing its know-how in guerrilla tactics with knowledge of conventional warfare thanks to coordination with the Syrian and Russian armies and the IRGC, the commander said.

A “BROADENING THREAT”

With Iranian support, Hezbollah has raised and trained new Syrian militias including the National Defence Forces, which number in the tens of thousands, and a Shi’ite militia known as the Rida force, recruited from Shi’ite villages, the commander said.

Hezbollah has also taken the lead in the information war with a military news service that often reports on battles before Syrian state media.

The United States and Saudi Arabia are worried Hezbollah and Iran are seeking to replicate their strategy in Yemen, by supporting the Houthis against a Riyadh-led military coalition.

Hezbollah denies fighting in Yemen, sending weapons to the Houthis, or firing rockets at Saudi Arabia from Yemeni territory. But it does not hide its political support for the Houthi cause.

Saudi concern over Yemen is at the heart of a political crisis that rocked Lebanon in November. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s sudden resignation was widely seen as a Saudi-orchestrated move to create trouble for Hezbollah at home.

Shared concerns over Hezbollah may have been a motivating factor behind recently declared contacts between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Hezbollah is meanwhile expanding its conventional arsenal in Lebanon, where it is part of the government, including buying advanced rocket and missile technology, in “a broadening of the threat to the Eastern Mediterranean and the Arabian Peninsula”, Nick Rasmussen, the director of the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, said in October.

Despite newly imposed U.S. sanctions, Hezbollah sounds confident. With IS now defeated in Iraq, Nasrallah has indicated Hezbollah could withdraw its men from that front, saying they would “return to join any other theater where they are needed”.

He says his group will continue to operate wherever it sees fit, repeatedly declaring: “We will be where we need to be.”

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel signals free hand in Syria as U.S., Russia expand truce

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem November 12, 2017.

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel signaled on Sunday that it would keep up military strikes across its frontier with Syria to prevent any encroachment by Iranian-allied forces, even as the United States and Russia try to build up a ceasefire in the area.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday affirmed joint efforts to stabilize Syria as its civil war wanes, including with the expansion of a July 7 truce in the southwestern triangle bordering Israel and Jordan.

A U.S. State Department official said Russia had agreed “to work with the Syrian regime to remove Iranian-backed forces a defined distance” from the Golan Heights frontier with Israel, which captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war.

The move, according to one Israeli official briefed on the arrangement, is meant to keep rival factions inside Syria away from each other, but it would effectively keep Iranian-linked forces at various distances from the Israel-held Golan as well.

Those distances would range from as little as 5-7 kms and up to around 30 kms, depending on current rebel positions on the Syrian Golan, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Moscow did not immediately provide details on the deal.

Israel has been lobbying both big powers to deny Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias any permanent bases in Syria, and to keep them away from the Golan, as they gain ground while helping Damascus beat back Sunni-led rebels.

In televised remarks opening Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not speak about the new U.S.-Russian arrangement for Syria.

His regional cooperation minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, sounded circumspect about the deal, telling reporters that it “does not meet Israel’s unequivocal demand the there will not be developments that bring the forces of Hezbollah or Iran to the Israel-Syria border in the north”.

 

“RED LINES”

“There’s reflection here of the understanding that Israel has set red lines, and will stand firm on this,” Hanegbi said.

That was an allusion to Israeli military strikes in Syria, carried out against suspected Hezbollah or Iranian arms depots or in retaliation for attacks from the Syrian-held Golan.

In the latest incident, the Israeli military said it shot down a spy drone on Saturday as it overflew the Golan. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman blamed the drone on the Syrian government. Damascus did not immediately respond.

Repeating Israel’s warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, Lieberman said: “We will not allow the Shi’ite axis to establish Syria as its forefront base”.

Russia, which has a long-term military garrison in Syria, has said it wants foreign forces to quit the country eventually.

The U.S. State Department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity on Saturday, said that goal could be served by Russia’s pledge to remove Iranian-linked fighters from the truce zone in southwestern Syria.

“If this works, this is an auspicious signal, would be an auspicious signal, that our policy objective – the objective that I think so many of us share, of getting these guys out of Syria ultimately – that there’s a path in that direction,” the official said.

 

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

 

Hezbollah media unit: Islamic State leader reported in Syrian town

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A Hezbollah-run media unit said on Friday Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was reported to have been in the Syrian town of Albu Kamal during the Syrian army and its allies’ operation to clear it.

The military unit did not say what had happened to Baghdadi, give further details or identify its sources.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State said on Friday it had no “releasable information” on Baghdadi’s whereabouts.

Syria’s army declared victory over Islamic State on Thursday, saying its capture of the jihadists’ last town in the country marked the collapse of their three-year rule in the region.

But the army and its allies are still fighting Islamic State in desert areas close to Albu Kamal near the border with Iraq, the Syrian army said on Thursday.

On Friday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State has taken back control of half of Albu Kamal.

The capture of the border town had sealed “the fall of the terrorist Daesh organization’s project in the region”, an army statement said on Thursday, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

An audio message purported to be from Baghdadi was released in September. Baghdadi declared himself caliph and heir to Islam’s historic leaders from the great medieval mosque in Iraq’s Mosul in 2014.

(This version of the story was refiled to clarify source in headline)

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Samia Nakhoul, Tom Perry and Andrew Roche)

Lebanon’s PM Hariri resigns, attacking Iran, Hezbollah

Lebanese Prime Minister-designate Saad al-Hariri reacts at the presidential palace in Baabda, near Beirut, Lebanon November 3, 2016.

By Angus McDowall , Tom Perry and Sarah Dadouch

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Lebanon’s prime minister Saad al-Hariri resigned on Saturday, saying he believed there was an assassination plot against him and accusing Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

His resignation thrusts Lebanon back into the frontline of Saudi-Iranian regional rivalry and seems likely to exacerbate sectarian tensions between Lebanese Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.

It also shatters a coalition government formed last year after years of political deadlock, and which was seen as representing a victory for Shi’ite Hezbollah and Iran.

Hariri, who is closely allied with Saudi Arabia, alleged in a televised broadcast that Hezbollah was “directing weapons” at Yemenis, Syrians and Lebanese and said the Arab world would “cut off the hands that wickedly extend to it”.

Hariri’s coalition, which took office last year, grouped nearly all of Lebanon’s main parties, including Hezbollah. It took office in a political deal that made Michel Aoun, a Hezbollah ally, president.

It was not immediately clear who might succeed Hariri, Lebanon’s most influential Sunni politician.

The post of prime minister is reserved for a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon’s sectarian power sharing system. The constitution requires Aoun to nominate the candidate with the greatest support among MPs.

“We are living in a climate similar to the atmosphere that prevailed before the assassination of martyr Rafik al-Hariri. I have sensed what is being plotted covertly to target my life,” Hariri said.

Rafik al-Hariri was killed in a 2005 Beirut bomb attack that pushed his son Saad into politics and set off years of turmoil.

The Saudi-owned pan-Arab television channel al-Arabiya al-Hadath reported that an assassination plot against Saad al-Hariri was foiled in Beirut days ago, citing an unnamed source. Lebanese officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

In a statement read from an undisclosed location, Hariri said Hezbollah and Iran had brought Lebanon into the “eye of a storm” of international sanctions. He said Iran was sowing strife, destruction and ruin wherever it went and accused it of a “deep hatred for the Arab nation”.

Aoun’s office said Hariri had called him from “outside Lebanon” to inform him of his resignation.

Hariri flew to Saudi Arabia on Friday after a meeting in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, the top adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Afterwards, Velayati described Hariri’s coalition as “a victory” and “great success”.

 

TUSSLE FOR INFLUENCE

Walid Jumblatt, the leader of Lebanon’s Druze minority, who has frequently played kingmaker in Lebanese politics, said he feared the consequences of Hariri’s resignation.

“We cannot afford to fight the Iranians from Lebanon,” he said, advocating an approach of compromise with Hezbollah in Lebanon while waiting for regional circumstances to allow Saudi-Iranian dialogue.

Iranian officials denounced the resignation, noting that it had been made from outside Lebanon, while Saudi officials appeared to crow over it.

“Hariri’s resignation was done with planning by Donald Trump, the president of America, and Mohammed bin Salman, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, to destabilize the situation in Lebanon and the region,” said Hussein Sheikh al-Islam, adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, in remarks to a state broadcaster.

Saudi Arabia’s influential Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan, who met Hariri in Riyadh this week, echoed the language of the Lebanese politician saying in a tweet: “The hands of treachery and aggression must be cut off.”

Saudi Arabia and Iran are locked in a regional power tussle, backing opposing forces in wars and political struggles in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and Iraq.

A U.N.-backed tribunal charged five Hezbollah members over Rafik al-Hariri’s killing. Their trial in absentia at the Hague began in January 2014 and Hezbollah and the Syrian government, have both denied any involvement in the killing.

In his statement, Hariri said Iran was “losing in its interference in the affairs of the Arab world”, adding that Lebanon would “rise as it had done in the past”.

 

POLITICAL DEAL

Hezbollah’s close ties to Iran and its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in his war with rebels have been a major source of tension in neighboring Lebanon for years.

The Lebanese government has adopted an official position of “disassociation” from the conflict, but this has come under strain in recent months with Hezbollah and its allies pushing for a normalization of ties with Assad.

Since taking office, Hariri had worked to garner international aid for Lebanon to cope with the strain of hosting some 1.5 million Syrian refugees, seeking billions of dollars to boost its sluggish economy.

Finance Minister Ali Hassan Khalil told Reuters there was no danger to Lebanon’s economy or its currency.

“Over previous decades, Hezbollah was able to impose a reality in Lebanon with the power of its weapons, which it claims is the (anti-Israel) resistance’s weapons, which are aimed at the chests of our Syrian and Yemeni brothers, not to mention the Lebanese,” Hariri said.

He said the Lebanese people were suffering from Hezbollah’s interventions, both internally and at the level of their relationships with other Arab countries.

Hariri has visited Saudi Arabia, a political foe of Iran and Hezbollah, twice in the past week, meeting Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior officials.

In recent weeks, leading Christian politicians who oppose Hezbollah have also visited Saudi Arabia.

 

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Tom Perry, Sarah Dadouch and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut, Ahmed Tolba in Cairo and Reem Shamseddine in Khobar; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Stephen Powell)

 

Syrian army captures Islamic State position, eyes final stronghold

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army and its allies seized an oil pumping station in eastern Syria from Islamic State, paving the way for an advance towards the jihadists’ last remaining Syrian stronghold, a Hezbollah-run news service reported on Thursday.

The “T2” pumping station is “considered a launch pad for the army and its allies to advance towards the town of Albu Kamal … which is considered the last remaining stronghold of the Daesh organization in Syria”, the report said.

Albu Kamal is located in Deir al-Zor province at the Syrian border with Iraq, just over the frontier from the Iraqi town of al-Qaim. Iraq declared on Thursday the start of an offensive to capture al-Qaim and Rawa, the last patch of Iraqi territory still in IS hands.

Islamic State’s self-declared “caliphate” has crumbled this year with the fall of the Syrian city of Raqqa and the Iraqi city of Mosul. In Syria, the group is now mostly confined to a shrinking strip of territory in Deir al-Zor province.

The U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State is waging a separate campaign against the group in Deir al-Zor, focused on areas to the east of the Euphrates River which bisects the province. Albu Kamal is located on the western bank of the river.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Israel says Hezbollah runs Lebanese army, signaling both are foes

Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman speaks during the International Institute for Counter Terrorism's 17th annual conference in Herzliya, Israel September 11, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Tuesday that the Hezbollah guerrilla group, its most potent enemy in neighboring Lebanon, had gained control over that country’s U.S.-sponsored conventional military, signaling both would be in Israeli gunsights in any future war.

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s remarks were a hard tack from more measured recent Israeli estimates that the Lebanese army maintained autonomy even if some of its troops cooperated with the better-armed, Iranian-aligned guerrillas.

Outlining potential threats in Lebanon, where Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006, Lieberman said in a speech: “We are no longer talking about Hezbollah alone”.

“We are talking about Hezbollah and the Lebanese army, and to my regret this is the reality. The Lebanese army has turned into an integral part of Hezbollah’s command structure. The Lebanese army has lost its independence and become an inseparable part of the Hezbollah apparatus,” Lieberman said.

There was no immediate response from Lebanon, which is formally in a state of war with Israel, nor from the U.S. embassies in Beirut and Tel Aviv.

The Lebanese army has previously said it operates independently from Hezbollah, most recently during an operation against Islamic State militants at the Lebanese-Syrian border, during which the army said there was absolutely no coordination with Hezbollah fighters who attacked IS from the Syrian side.

“ONE THEATER”

Hosting Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri in July for aid talks, U.S. President Donald Trump praised Beirut’s efforts to stem the spread of Islamic State and pledged continued help from Washington.

“America’s assistance can help ensure that the Lebanese army is the only defender Lebanon needs,” Trump said.

The Pentagon said Washington has provided Lebanon with more than $1.5 billion in military assistance since 2006, and that U.S. special forces have been providing “training and support” for the Lebanese army since 2011.

“Strengthening the LAF (Lebanese Armed Forces) also advances a range of U.S. interests in the Middle East that includes not only countering the spread of ISIS (Islamic State) and other violent extremists but also stemming the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon said.

While welcoming U.S. action against Islamic State, Israel sees Iran, Hezbollah and their allies as the greater threat and worries about their entrenchment in Syria as they help President Bashar al-Assad beat back a more than six-year-old rebellion.

Lieberman said Israel sought to avoid going to war again on its northern front, which, he predicted, would include Syria.

“In anything that transpires, it will be one theater, Syria and Lebanon together, Hezbollah, the Assad regime and all of the Assad regime’s collaborators,” he said.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Andrew Heavens)