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)

‘Bad guy’ Russia emerges as central player in Western diplomacy

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony at the eternal flame during an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, at the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex in the city of Volgograd, Russia February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Robin Emmott and Andrea Shalal

MUNICH (Reuters) – European and U.S. officials divided over U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy found common cause this weekend in decrying what they say is Russia’s covert campaign to undermine Western democracies.

But despite the transatlantic show of anger at Russia during the Munich Security Conference, Western officials and diplomats also acknowledged an uncomfortable truth: that Russia is critical to resolving many of the world’s worst conflicts.

From eastern Ukraine to North Korea, Russia’s status as a nuclear power, its military intervention in Syria and its veto on the United Nations Security Council mean any diplomacy must ultimately involve Moscow, officials said.

“We can’t find a political solution without Russia,” Norwegian Defence Minister Frank Bakke Jensen told Reuters. “We need to reach a point where we can work to find a political solution, and they must be central to that.”

Publicly at least, Russia was the bad guy in Munich, roundly criticized for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign after the U.S. indictment of 13 Russians this week, and more broadly for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

For the West, such unity of purpose marked a change after a year of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, his inconsistent statements on NATO and the European Union, his decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accord and his move not to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

At the annual Munich event, a rare gathering of European and U.S. security officials that also attracts top Russian diplomats, American policymakers were visibly irritated with Moscow’s public denials of accusations of meddling.

“I am amazed that … the Russians come, they send someone, every year to basically refute the facts,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said of the Russian presence at the event.

But behind the scenes, diplomats said there was a different tone, as top officials including NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the gold-and-white paneled rooms of the Bayerischer Hof hotel.

“There is a diplomatic network that works,” said Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov, citing contacts to resolve the Syrian civil war including Moscow, Ankara, Washington and Tel Aviv. “It’s something that, if used efficiently, can prevent bigger confrontations.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel met several times with Lavrov, offering the prospect of easing economic sanctions imposed over Moscow’s role in eastern Ukraine and calling Russia an “indispensable” partner in global efforts to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the 2015 accord curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, said the West needed to “compartmentalize” issues with Moscow, so that diplomacy could achieve more.

“IN RUSSIA’S HANDS”

Part of the challenge for the West is that international crises have been interlinked.

Russia is allied to Israel’s nemesis Iran in Syria while Moscow’s support for separatists in Ukraine draws NATO’s ire.

But NATO-ally Turkey is seeking to complete an arms deal to buy Russian air defenses. It has struck U.S-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria with Russia’s blessing.

In Asia, U.S. efforts to stop North Korea’s atomic weapons development rest partly on Moscow’s willingness to countenance a U.S. and European call for an oil embargo on Pyongyang, which it has so far rejected.

“A few years ago you could talk about distinct crises, but today, if you’re discussing one, you’re shaking all the others,” Norway’s Jensen said.

So as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu railed against Iran in Munich on Sunday, in New York, British, U.S. and French efforts to condemn Tehran at the United Nations immediately ran into Russian resistance, diplomats told Reuters.

And in Munich, while U.S. and European officials saw momentum for U.N. peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine to resolve the four-year-old conflict there, U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker conceded everything rested on Moscow.

“It’s in Russia’s hands,” Volker told a gathering of EU and U.S. officials, including Sweden’s defense chief, who offered his country’s troops for any such mission.

Nine years ago in Munich, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden promised to “reset” relations with Russia, but few in the West appeared to realize the depth of Russia’s resentment over the break-up of the Soviet Union and NATO’s eastward expansion.

Now, with Western economic sanctions in place on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, East-West ties are at their lowest since the Cold War, with little chance of an improvement, diplomats said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Malicious cyber activity cost U.S. economy $57 billion – $109 billion in 2016: White House report

A hooded man holds a laptop computer as blue screen with an exclamation mark is projected on him in this illustration picture taken on May 13, 2017. REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Illustration -

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A White House report estimated on Friday that malicious cyber activity cost the U.S. economy between $57 billion and $109 billion in 2016.

The estimate was contained in a report by the White House Council of Economic Advisers on the economic costs of cyber threats.

The report quoted the U.S. intelligence community as saying the main foreign culprits responsible for much cyber activity are Russia, China, Iran and North Korea.

(Reporting By Steve HollandEditing by Chizu Nomiyama)

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

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

By Michelle Nichols

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Damascus warns Israel of ‘more surprises’ in Syria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friend or foe? Assad quietly aids Syrian Kurds against Turkey

Kurdish female fighters of the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) hold their weapons as they sit in the Sheikh Maksoud neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 7, 2018. Picture taken February 7, 2018.

By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s U.S.-backed Kurds are getting indirect help from an unlikely source in their war against Turkey in the northwestern region of Afrin: President Bashar al-Assad.

Pro-government forces and Kurdish-led forces have fought each other elsewhere in Syria and Damascus opposes the Kurds’ demands for autonomy. But in Afrin they have a common enemy and a mutual interest in blocking Turkish advances.

Turkey, which regards the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin as a threat on its southern border, launched an assault on the region last month. Seeking to shield Afrin, the Kurds asked Damascus to send forces into action to defend the border.

The government shows no sign of doing so, but it is providing indirect help by allowing Kurdish fighters, civilians and politicians to reach Afrin through territory it holds, representatives of both sides told Reuters.

Assad stands to gain while doing little.

The arrival of reinforcements is likely to sustain Kurdish resistance, bog down the Turkish forces and prolong a conflict that is sapping the resources of military powers that rival him for control of Syrian territory.

For the United States, it is yet another complication in Syria’s seven-year-old war, and a reminder of how its Syrian Kurdish ally must at times make deals with Assad even as it builds military ties with the United States.

Lacking international protection, the Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria say they have reached agreements with Damascus to allow reinforcements to be sent to Afrin from other Kurdish-dominated areas — Kobani and the Jazeera region.

“There are different ways to get reinforcements to Afrin but the fundamental route is via regime forces. There are understandings between the two forces … for the sake of delivering reinforcements to Afrin,” Kino Gabriel, spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said.

While the Kurds depend on Assad to reach Afrin, Kurdish sources say they also enjoy leverage over Damascus because it needs their cooperation to source grain and oil from areas of the northeast under Kurdish control.

A commander in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad said “the Kurds have no option but coordination with the regime” to defend Afrin.

“The Syrian regime is helping the Kurds with humanitarian support and some logistics, like turning a blind eye and allowing Kurdish support to reach some fronts,” said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

TURKISH CAMPAIGN MOVES SLOWLY

The Turkish military is making slow gains nearly three weeks into the operation it calls “Olive Branch”.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey and is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

The United States has relied on the YPG as a vital ground component of its war against Islamic State, and has backed the group in other Kurdish-run regions in northern Syria along the border with Turkey.

But U.S. forces are not in Afrin, so have been unable to shield Afrin from the attack by Turkey, its NATO ally.

The Kurds meanwhile accuse Russia of giving a green light for the Turkish attack by withdrawing observers it deployed in Afrin last year.

The Afrin war marks another twist in the complicated story of relations between Assad and the Syrian Kurdish groups, spearheaded by the YPG, that have carved out autonomous regions in northern Syria since the war began in 2011.

The YPG controls nearly all of Syria’s frontier with Turkey. But Afrin is separated from the bigger Kurdish-controlled region further east by a 100 km-wide zone controlled by the Turkish military and its Syrian militia allies.

For much of the war, Damascus and the YPG have avoided confrontation, at times fighting common enemies, including the rebel groups that are now helping Turkey attack Afrin.

But tensions have mounted in recent months, with Damascus threatening to march into parts of eastern and northern Syria captured by the SDF with support from the U.S.-led coalition.

Underlining that, pro-Syrian government forces attacked the SDF in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, drawing coalition air strikes overnight that killed more than 100 of the attackers, the coalition said.

“The regime has allowed the YPG to bring people into Afrin, while attacking it east of the Euphrates (River). I think that is indicative of the state of relations right now,” said Noah Bonsey, International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Syria.

He added: “There is still a significant gap between the YPG and regime positions on the future of northeastern Syria.”

FIGHTING FOR AFRIN

The main Syrian Kurdish groups remain wedded to their vision of a Syria where they enjoy autonomy in a form of federalism that is at odds with Assad’s determination to recover all Syria.

Each side has allowed the other to maintain footholds in its territory. In Kurdish-held Qamishli, the government still controls the airport. In the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo, a government city, Kurdish security forces patrol the streets.

Scores of Kurds from Sheikh Maqsoud have gone to Afrin to support the fight, Kurdish officials there said. The short journey requires movement through areas held by the government or its Iran-backed Shi’ite militia allies.

“Of course people went from Sheikh Maqsoud – in the hundreds – to bear arms and defend Afrin,” said Badran Himo, a Kurdish official from Sheikh Maqsoud.

“Around 10 of them were martyred (killed),” he told Reuters as Kurdish security forces held a rally to commemorate one of the dead.

Earlier this week, witnesses say a civilian convoy of hundreds of cars drove to Afrin from other Kurdish-held areas in a show of solidarity.

The Syrian government has ignored appeals by the Kurdish authorities to guard the Syrian border at Afrin.

“We tried to convince them, via the Russians, to at least protect the borders, to take a position, but we did not reach a result,” Aldar Khalil, a top Kurdish politician, told Reuters.

“If they don’t protect the borders, then at least they don’t have the right to block the way for Syrian patriots who are protecting these borders, regardless of other domestic issues.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

UK worried by Iran role in Israel-Syria border confrontation – Johnson

Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson arrives in Downing Street in London, February 8, 2018.

LONDON (Reuters) – British foreign minister Boris Johnson said London was concerned at Iran’s role in a confrontation at Israel’s border with Syria.

“We are concerned at the Iranian actions, which detract from efforts to get a genuine peace process under way,” Johnson said in a statement on Monday.

“We encourage Russia to use its influence to press the regime and its backers to avoid provocative actions and to support de-escalation in pursuit of a broader political settlement,” he said.

In the most serious confrontation yet between Israel and Iranian-backed forces in Syria, anti-aircraft fire on Saturday downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions.

(Writing by William Schomberg; editing by John Stonestreet)

Netanyahu says Israel undeterred after Syria shoots down F-16

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem February 11, 2018.

By Jeffrey Heller and Lisa Barrington

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli forces would press ahead with Syria operations despite their loss of an advanced warplane to enemy fire for the first time in 36 years.

Syrian anti-aircraft fire downed the F-16 as it returned from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria early on Saturday. The Iran-backed forces are supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s near seven-year civil war.

Israel then launched a second and more intensive air raid, hitting what it said were 12 Iranian and Syrian targets in Syria, including Syrian air defense systems.

However, Israel and Syria have both signaled they are not seeking wider conflict and on Sunday their frontier was calm, though Netanyahu struck a defiant tone on Sunday in remarks to his cabinet broadcast by Israeli media.

“Yesterday we landed hard blows on the forces of Iran and Syria. We made unequivocally clear to everyone that our modus operandi has not changed one bit,” he said.

Iran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel, which has said it would counter any threat. Israel also has accused Iran of planning to build precision-guided missile factories in Lebanon.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said Israel’s strikes on Saturday had killed at least six people from Syrian government and allied forces. Syrian state media have yet to disclose any casualties or damage.

The downing of the F-16 over northern Israel – as the air force struck back for what it said was an incursion by an Iranian drone launched from Syria – was a rare setback for a country that relies on regional military supremacy.

Security cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz told Israel Radio the Iranian drone was modeled on the U.S. RQ-170 drone that was downed in Iran in 2011. The U.S. Embassy did not immediately comment.

The jet’s two-man crew survived with injuries, and Israeli generals insisted they had inflicted much greater damage in Syria – even as Damascus claimed a strategic gain in the decades-old standoff with its old foe to the south.

“BROADEST ATTACK” ON SYRIA DEFENSES

Israel said it had destroyed three Syrian anti-aircraft batteries and four targets “that are part of Iran’s military establishment” in Syria during Saturday’s raids.

“This is the broadest attack on Syria’s defense systems since (Operation) Peace for the Galilee,” air force Brigadier-General Amnon Ein Dar told Army Radio, referring to Israel’s 1982 Lebanon offensive, in which it battled Syrian forces.

It was also the first downing of an Israeli warplane by enemy fire since that conflict.

In Syria, the pro-government al-Watan newspaper said the country’s air defenses had “destroyed the myth of Israeli air superiority in the region”.

Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah group, which fights in support of Assad in Syria, spoke of the “start of a new strategic phase” that would limit Israel’s activity in Syrian airspace, where Israeli planes have regularly attacked suspected weapons shipments to the Islamist movement.

Both the United States, Israel’s closest ally, and Russia, which supports Assad in the Syrian civil war, have expressed concern over the latest clashes.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was due to begin a previously scheduled visit to the region on Sunday, expecting what a State Department official said would be “tough conversations”. He is due to travel to Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Egypt and Kuwait during the Feb 11-16 trip.

In a telephone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday, Netanyahu affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense and pledged continued cooperation with Moscow to avoid inadvertent clashes with Russian forces in Syria.

Putin, whose country supplies Syria’s air defense systems, urged Netanyahu to avoid an escalation of the conflict.

The Eurasia Group, a New York-based political risk consultancy, said in a commentary that “in order to reinforce deterrence, Israeli leaders will probably assess they need to show Iran, Hezbollah and Syria they will continue to strike targets despite the risk”.

“(But) in a fog of war environment, another incident can easily drag the relevant parties toward a regional conflict.”

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones)

France demands end to Syria air strikes as more hit rebel-held Ghouta

People and cars are seen in old town in Aleppo, Syria February 8, 2018.

By Dahlia Nehme and Matthias Blamont

BEIRUT/PARIS (Reuters) – France demanded an end to air strikes in Syria on Friday as warplanes mounted further attacks on a rebel stronghold near Damascus where a war monitor said government bombardments have killed 229 people, the deadliest week in the area since 2015.

President Bashar al-Assad, who has seized a clear advantage in the war with Russian and Iranian help, is hammering two of the last key rebel pockets of Syria – the Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus and Idlib in the northwest near the Turkish border.

The multi-sided conflict is raging on other fronts too, with Turkey waging a big offensive in a Kurdish-controlled area of northwestern Syria, the Afrin region, where Ankara is targeting Kurdish militia forces it sees as a threat to its security.

Diplomacy is making no progress toward ending a war now approaching its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes, with millions forced out as refugees.

“We are very worried. The air strikes need to end,” French Defence Minister Florence Parly said on France Inter radio. “Civilians are the targets, in Idlib and in the east of Damascus. This fighting is absolutely unacceptable.”

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, said on Thursday a ceasefire was unrealistic. The United Nations called on Tuesday for a humanitarian truce of at least one month to allow for aid deliveries and evacuations of the wounded.

France and 1the United Nations have repeatedly called in past months for the opening of aid corridors to alleviate Syria’s humanitarian crisis. The Paris government has also urged Moscow in private to consider ways to alleviate the crisis, but those efforts have not materialized into results on the ground.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and French President Emmanuel Macron discussed the Syrian peace process by phone on Friday, the Kremlin said in a statement.

A boy is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria February 8, 2018

A boy is seen running after an air raid in the besieged town of Douma in eastern Ghouta in Damascus, Syria February 8, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

“CATASTROPHE”

In the Eastern Ghouta, the last major rebel area near Damascus, residents described one of the most extensive bombing campaigns of the war, with multiple towns being hit simultaneously and people driven into shelters for days.

“My brother was hit yesterday in an air strike and we had to amputate his leg. Thank God it was only this,” said an Eastern Ghouta resident reached by Reuters on Friday. “He was hit by shrapnel while sitting in his home,” said the resident, who identified himself as Adnan, declining to give his full name.

“The people here have collapsed, people are seen talking to themselves in the streets. They don’t know where to go,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a spokesman with the Civil Defence rescue service in the rebel-held area. “We are living a catastrophe.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reports on the war using what it describes as a range of sources on all sides, said the air strikes had killed 229 people in the last four days, the Eastern Ghouta’s biggest weekly toll since 2015.

“Children in Eastern Ghouta are being starved, bombed and trapped. Schools are supposed to be safe places for children, protected under international law, yet they are being attacked every single day,” said Sonia Khush, Save the Children’s Syria Response Director in a statement.

“Children and teachers are terrified that at any moment they could be hit. The siege means there is nowhere for them to escape.”

The Syrian government has repeatedly said it targets only armed rebels and militants.

The World Food Programme, in an interview with Reuters on Thursday, reiterated the call for a cessation of hostilities to enable aid deliveries, but also noted that the Syrian government was not giving necessary permits to delivery aid.

“It has been now almost 60 days since we had the last convoy to a besieged area,” Jakob Kern, the WFP country director in Syria, told Reuters in a phone interview from Damascus.

“The frustration is two-fold. One is that we don’t get approvals to actually go but even if we got approvals, there just is too much fighting going on,” he said, pointing to hostilities in Idlib, Eastern Ghouta, Afrin and the south.

TURKISH AIR CAMPAIGN

The Turkish army, which launched an air and ground offensive into Afrin on Jan. 20, said it carried out air strikes on Kurdish YPG militia targets in the Afrin region. The Observatory said the strikes killed seven combatants and two civilians.

The overnight attacks came after a lull in Turkish air strikes following the shooting down of a Russian warplane elsewhere in Syria last weekend.

The air strikes destroyed 19 targets including ammunition depots, shelters and gun positions, the Turkish armed forces said in a statement without specifying when the raids were conducted. The raids began at midnight, state-run Anadolu news agency said.

Ankara regards the YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on neighboring Turkish soil.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Putin, his Russian counterpart, spoke by telephone on Thursday and agreed to strengthen military and security service coordination in Syria, according to the Kremlin.

The YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous cantons in Syria’s north, including Afrin, since the war began in 2011.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme, Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Matthias Blamont and John Irish in Paris; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey, Russia and Iran leaders to discuss Syria in Istanbul: Turkish source

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani together with his counterparts, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan, attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Sochi, Russia November 22, 2017.

ANKARA (Reuters) – The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed on Wednesday to meet in Istanbul to discuss the conflict in Syria, a Turkish presidential source said.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the meeting in two phone calls on Wednesday with the Russian and Iranian presidents, the source said. The date of the summit would be set in coming weeks.

The three countries have worked together in recent months to try to reduce violence in Syria, even though they have backed rival sides in the nearly seven-year civil war and remain deeply involved in the conflict.

Iran-backed militias and Russian air power have supported a Syrian army offensive in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib since November, and Turkish forces last month launched an offensive in northern Syria’s Kurdish region of Afrin.

On Monday, Iran urged Turkey to halt the Afrin operation, saying it breached Syrian sovereignty and would increase tension. It was not immediately clear whether Erdogan and Rouhani discussed Afrin in their telephone call on Thursday.

Erdogan and Putin also agreed to speed up the establishment of military observation posts in Syria’s Idlib region under an accord reached by Ankara, Tehran and Moscow last year to reduce fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels.

After the phone call, the Kremlin said in a statement that Putin and Erdogan agreed to strengthen coordination between the two countries’ military and security services in Syria in the fight against terrorism.

(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans)