Syria is death trap for civilians, U.N. refugee chief warns

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi adresses the media with German Chancellor Angela Merkel (not pictured) following their talks in Berlin, Germany, April 23, 2018. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Civilians can no longer flee fighting and bombing raids in Syria because borders are so tightly controlled and neighboring countries are overwhelmed by refugees, creating some of the worst suffering in modern times, a top U.N. agency chief said.

U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi was warning of a new disaster if the rebel-controlled Syrian city of Idlib was the next target of the Syrian military.

“The country is becoming a trap, in some places a death trap for civilians,” Grandi told Reuters during a donor conference for Syria.

“There is an entire population out there that cannot bear its refugees anymore, that is suffering from one of the worse ordeals in modern history.”

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor, said last month about 511,000 people had been killed in the war since it began in March 2011.

Some 5.5 million Syrians are living as refugees in Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey, and now account for a quarter of Lebanon’s population. Another 6.1 million people are still in Syria but have been forced to flee their homes.

Grandi is hoping to raise $5.6 billion from international donors for emergency humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees this year, but that money is not for Syria itself, instead going to help host countries such as Jordan, Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that more than 400,000 civilians trapped in besieged areas throughout Syria.

That the number could rise dramatically because 2 million people live in northwestern Idlib region, the largest populated area of Syria in the hands of insurgents fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Damascus.

Some aid agencies are predicting suffering on an even greater scale than during the siege of Aleppo last year and in eastern Ghouta and Raqqa this year if the Syrian army and its Russian and Iranian backers turn their full fire on Idlib.

Tens of thousands of fighters and civilians have fled to the area from parts of the country which the army has recaptured with the help of Russia and Iran.

“Idlib is where an area where a lot of fighters have transferred,” Grandi said. “If fighting moves more decisively to that area, it could be very dangerous for civilians.”

However, Grandi and other aid agencies predict they will have nowhere to flee to because Turkey’s southern border with Syria at Gaziantep is tightly controlled, mainly letting aid supplies through to Idlib, forcing refugees deeper into Syria.

“I think we are going to lose not only a generation but a population,” Grandi said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Alison Williams)

The pain of Syrian refugees: Parents try to forget as children cling to lost past

Syrian refugee children run in a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By Ayat Basma

(Reuters) – Warda, a Syrian refugee, wishes she could erase her old life, so painful have the memories become. By contrast, as the conflict in Syria slides into its eighth year, her younger children have nothing to remember of their homeland – nor to forget.

They are part of a new generation of Syrians whose parents fled war and destruction in their millions but who themselves are too young to remember their homeland.

For Warda’s children, home is a makeshift tent in a refugee camp in Lebanon which they share with their grief-stricken, 34-year-old mother.

“Even though I know I can’t, I want to forget Syria. I would forget my home, I would forget the place where I lived, I would forget my friends – I would forget everything. But one can’t forget,” Warda said as tears ran down her face.

Five million people have fled Syria since the war erupted after anti-government protests were put down with force in 2011. The eight-year anniversary of when these protests began is on March 15.

Warda and her son Bilal, 13, daughter Rayan, 7, and her youngest, a 3-year-old boy named Ibrahim, are among the one million refugees who stayed in neighboring Lebanon. Most live like them in rickety tents with no running water and inadequate sanitation.

“When my oldest son and I sit together, we reminisce about the things we used to do, going to the public garden or when I dropped him at school,” she said.

“But she doesn’t know what Syria is,” she said of her daughter Rayan, who sat on her lap.

“She repeats what everyone else says. She says things like: ‘when I saw my father’ or ‘when I met my uncle and grandmother’ – but she doesn’t know any of them and it really hurts,” says Warda, who managed to get work as a fruit picker on nearby farms a few days a week. She earns $5 a day.

Warda has heard nothing of her husband, who remarried and remained in Syria, for the past two years.

Syrian refugee children play at a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugee children play at a tented settlement in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, March 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

OUR CHILDREN DON’T KNOW SYRIA

Moussa Oweid al-Jassem from Aleppo is also struggling to keep the memory of Syria alive for his seven children. His youngest is four years old and the oldest is 16.

“Our youngest knows nothing about Syria, she knows this camp. The children here don’t know,” said Jassem, who is 43 and a former textile factory worker.

His family has nothing to remind them of home or of the lives they lived before. When they left, they had no time to take family albums or even the deeds to the lands they owned, he says.

“We were not prepared to witness the things we have seen. The scale of the violence, the bombings and the airstrikes, we had seen nothing like it before.”

In this small camp on the outskirts of the town of Qab Elias, residents say they are trying their best to make this place feel like a home.

The center of the tented settlement has been kept free to host weddings and wakes, and for the children to play.

On a sunny day, chickens strutted by and a cat looked for scraps as women peeled potatoes and chopped onions on mats spread outside. Black pigeons made nests in tires used as fortifications on tent roofs.

His sons Khaled, 16 and Majed, 14, are among the few whose memories of Syria have not faded completely.

“It felt better than heaven, ” said Majed, when asked to describe what home was like.

What it is like to live in a camp?

“Hell,” replied Khaled.

(Reporting by Ayat Basma; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

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)

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)

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)

For Iraqi Christians, a bittersweet first Christmas home after Islamic State

Iraqi Christians pray during a mass on Christmas eve at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

By Raya Jalabi

TELESKOF, Iraq (Reuters) – Inside the newly renovated Church of Saint George in the Northern Iraqi town of Teleskof, Hayat Chamoun Daoud led children dressed as Santa Claus singing “Jingle Bells” in Aramaic.

Like every other resident of Teleskof, this was Daoud’s first Christmas back home in three years, since Islamic State militants overran her town and forcibly displaced its 12,000-strong Chaldean Christian community.

“It’s so special to be back in my church, the church where I got married, the church I raised my children in,” the school headmistress said, tears in her eyes.

Faced with a choice to convert, pay a tax or die, Daoud, like many other Christians in the Nineveh Plains, chose to flee. Most sought refuge in nearby towns and cities, but many sought permanent asylum abroad. Though the militants were only in Teleskof for a few days, residents only began returning home earlier this year.

On Sunday, they celebrated their first Christmas together again at the town’s main church, which was overflowing. Hundreds of congregants, dressed in their finest, poured in to pray and receive communion from Father Salar Bodagh, who later lit the traditional bonfire in the church’s courtyard, a symbol of renewal he said.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘JOY SOAKED IN TEARS’

Despite the obvious joys of being able to celebrate openly once again, it was a bittersweet Christmas for most across the Nineveh Plains, the epicenter of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities which can trace their history in the country back two millennia.

Though Iraq declared full victory over the militants just two weeks ago after a brutal three-year war, the damage done to Christian enclaves was extensive, and left many wondering whether they could overcome their recent history.

Islamic State ravaged Christian areas, looting and burning down homes and churches, stripping them of all valuable artifacts and smashing relics.

The damage in Qaraqosh, a town 15 km (10 miles) west of Mosul also known as Hamdaniya, was extensive, particularly to the town’s ancient churches.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate, congregants gathered for midnight Mass on Sunday surrounded by scorched and blackened walls, still tagged with Islamic State graffiti. They also sat on donated plastic chairs – the church has not yet been able to replace the wooden pews the militants used to fuel the massive fire which engulfed the church.

Most families will require tens of thousands of dollars to repair their homes and replace their stolen goods. But most say they can overcome the material damage, unlike the forced separation of their families.

Before the militant onslaught, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq, with a population of more than 50,000. But today, only a few hundred families have returned. Entire congregations have moved overseas, such as the Syriac Orthodox congregation of the Church of Mart Shmony.

On Saturday afternoon, Father Butros Kappa, the head of Qaraqosh’s Church of the Immaculate was trying hard to summon any sense of hope to deliver his congregation during Christmas Mass.

“We’ll have a Christmas Mass like in previous years, but this year, ours will be a joy soaked in tears, because all of our people have left Iraq,” said Father Kappa.

Holding Mass in the singed and upturned ruins of his church was therefore important, he said, “to remind everyone that despite the tragedies that have befallen us, we’re still here.”

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017.

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘NO FUTURE FOR US’

In Teleskof, 30 km (20 miles) north of Mosul and itself one of the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world, some families were skipping Mass altogether upset at their forced dispersal.

“We usually celebrate with our entire family,” said Umm Rita, as she prepared the traditional Christmas Day dish of pacha (sheep’s head, trotters and stomach all slowly boiled) at her home. “But how can we be happy this year? Our brothers and sisters, even my own daughter, her husband and child I’ve never met have all moved away.”

Community leaders estimate more than 7,000 of Teleskof’s residents are now scattered across Iraq and it’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the United States, Australia, Germany, Lebanon and Jordan.

Amid ongoing tensions between the central government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds after a referendum on Kurdish independence was held over Baghdad’s objections in September, Teleskof’s residents fear violence once again. “We just want to live in peace,” said Umm Rita. “We are more anxious now than when Islamic State was in our homes.”

“Our community has been gutted,” said Firas Abdelwahid, a 76-year-old former state oil employee, of the thousands who have sought permanent shelter overseas. Watching children play by the church bonfire, he felt melancholy.

“But what do we expect? The past is tragic, the present is desperate and well, there is no future for us Christians in Iraq.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Mary Milliken)

Lebanon’s Hariri leaves Saudi Arabia for France on Friday

Lebanon's Hariri leaves Saudi Arabia for France on Friday

By Laila Bassam and Lisa Barrington

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Saad al-Hariri, who sparked a crisis by resigning as Lebanese prime minister on Nov. 4 during a visit to Saudi Arabia, is on his way to the airport, he said early on Saturday, before his flight from Riyadh to France.

Hariri’s abrupt resignation while he was in Saudi Arabia and his continued stay there caused fears over Lebanon’s stability. His visit to France with his family to meet President Emmanuel Macron is seen as part of a possible way out of the crisis.

“I am on the way to the airport,” he said in a Tweet.

However, Okab Saqr, a member of parliament for Hariri’s Future Movement, said that after Hariri’s visit to France, he would have “a small Arab tour” before traveling to Beirut.

Macron, speaking in Sweden, said Hariri “intends to return to his country in the coming days, weeks”.

The crisis has thrust Lebanon into the bitter rivalry pitting Saudi Arabia and its allies against a bloc led by Iran, which includes the heavily armed Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group.

In Lebanon, Hariri has long been an ally of Riyadh. His coalition government, formed in a political deal last year to end years of paralysis, includes Hezbollah.

President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, has called Hariri a Saudi hostage and refused to accept his resignation unless he returns to Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia and Hariri say his movements are not restricted. On Wednesday, Macron invited Hariri to visit France along with his family, providing what French diplomats said might be a way to reduce tensions surrounding the crisis by demonstrating that Hariri could leave Saudi Arabia.

Lebanese politicians from across the political spectrum have called for Hariri to return to the country, saying it is necessary to resolve the crisis.

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil, who heads President Aoun’s political party, said on Thursday Beirut could escalate the crisis if Hariri did not return home.

“We have adopted self-restraint so far to arrive at this result so that we don’t head towards diplomatic escalation and the other measures available to us,” he said during a European tour aimed at building pressure for a solution to the crisis.

REGIONAL CRISIS

Saudi Arabia regards Hezbollah as a conduit for Iranian interference across the Middle East, particularly in Syria, Yemen and Bahrain. It says it has no problem with Hezbollah remaining a purely political party, but has demanded it surrender its arms, which the group says are needed to defend Lebanon.

Although Riyadh has said it accepted Hariri’s decision to join a coalition with Hezbollah last year, after Hariri announced his resignation Saudi Arabia accused Lebanon of declaring war on it because of Hezbollah’s regional role.

Lebanon, where Sunni, Shi’ite, Christian and Druze groups fought a 1975-1990 civil war, maintains a governing system intended to balance sectarian groups. The prime minister is traditionally from the Sunni community, of which Hariri is the most influential leader.

On Friday, Hariri said in a tweet that his presence in Saudi Arabia was for “consultations on the future of the situation in Lebanon and its relations with the surrounding Arab region”.

His scheduled meeting with Macron in Paris on Saturday, and a lunch that his family will also attend, comes the day before Arab foreign ministers meet in Cairo to discuss Iran.

Maha Yahya, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut, says it appears Saudi Arabia hopes the ministers will adopt a “strongly worded statement” against Iran.

But she said not all the countries share Riyadh’s view that one way to confront Iran is to apply pressure on Lebanon.

“There is quite a widespread understanding that there is only so much Lebanon can do and it doesn’t serve anybody to turn Lebanon into your next arena for a fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia,” said.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam and Lisa Barrington; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Larry King)

Hezbollah says Saudi declares war on Lebanon, detains Hariri

Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah is seen on a video screen as he addresses his supporters in Beirut, Lebanon November 10,

By Tom Perry and Ellen Francis

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah’s leader said on Friday that Saudi Arabia had declared war on Lebanon and his Iran-backed group, accusing Riyadh of detaining Saad al-Hariri and forcing him to resign as Lebanon’s prime minister to destabilize the country.

Hariri’s resignation has plunged Lebanon into crisis, thrusting the small Arab country back to the forefront of regional rivalry between the Sunni Muslim monarchy Saudi Arabia and Shi’ite revolutionary Islamist Iran.

Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia’s detention of Hariri, a long-time Saudi ally who declared his resignation while in Riyadh last Saturday, was an insult to all Lebanese and he must return to Lebanon.

“Let us say things as they are: the man is detained in Saudi Arabia and forbidden until this moment from returning to Lebanon,” Nasrallah said in a televised speech.

“It is clear that Saudi Arabia and Saudi officials have declared war on Lebanon and on Hezbollah in Lebanon,” he said. His comments mirror an accusation by Riyadh on Monday that Lebanon and Hezbollah had declared war on the conservative Gulf Arab kingdom.

Riyadh says Hariri is a free man and he decided to resign because Hezbollah was calling the shots in his government. Saudi Arabia considers Hezbollah to be its enemy in conflicts across the Middle East, including Syria and Yemen.

Western countries have looked on with alarm at the rising regional tension.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned other countries and groups against using Lebanon as vehicle for a larger proxy fight in the Middle East, saying Washington strongly backed Lebanon’s independence and respected Hariri as a strong partner of the United States, referring to him as prime minister.

“There is no legitimate place or role in Lebanon for any foreign forces, militias or armed elements other than the legitimate security forces of the Lebanese state,” Tillerson said in a statement released by the U.S. State Department.

The French foreign ministry said it wanted Hariri to be fully able to play what it called his essential role in Lebanon.

Hariri has made no public remarks since announcing his resignation in a speech televised from Saudi Arabia, saying he feared assassination and accusing Iran and Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

Two top Lebanese government officials, a senior politician close to Hariri and a fourth source told Reuters on Thursday that the Lebanese authorities believe Hariri is being held in Saudi Arabia.

Nasrallah said Saudi Arabia was encouraging Israel to attack Lebanon. While an Israeli attack could not be ruled out entirely, he said, it was unlikely partly because Israel knew it would pay a very high price. “I warn them against any miscalculation or any step to exploit the situation,” he said.

“Saudi will fail in Lebanon as it has failed on all fronts,” Nasrallah said.

Riyadh has advised Saudi citizens not to travel to Lebanon, or if already there to leave as soon as possible. Other Gulf states have also issued travel warnings. Those steps have raised concern that Riyadh could take measures against the tiny Arab state, which hosts 1.5 million Syrian refugees.

 

AOUN TELLS SAUDI ENVOY HARIRI MUST RETURN

Hariri’s resignation unraveled a political deal among rival factions that made him prime minister and President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, head of state last year.

The coalition government included Hezbollah, a heavily armed military and political organization.

Hariri’s resignation is being widely seen as part of a Saudi attempt to counter Iran as its influence deepens in Syria and Iraq and as Riyadh and its allies battle Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.

Aoun told Saudi Arabia’s envoy on Friday that Hariri must return to Lebanon and the circumstances surrounding his resignation as prime minister while in Saudi Arabia were unacceptable, presidential sources said.

An “international support group” of countries concerned about Lebanon, which includes the United States, Russia and France, appealed for Lebanon “to continue to be shielded from tensions in the region”. In a statement, they also welcomed Aoun’s call for Hariri to return.

In the first direct Western comment on Hariri’s status, France and Germany both said on Friday they did not believe Hariri was being held against his will.

“Our concern is the stability of Lebanon and that a political solution can be put in place rapidly,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Europe 1 radio.

“As far as we know, yes: we think (Hariri) is free of his movements and it’s important he makes his own choices,” he said.

Tillerson told reporters on Friday there was no indication that Hariri was being held in Saudi Arabia against his will but that the United States was monitoring the situation.

Posters depicting Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, are seen in Beirut, Lebanon, November 10, 2017.

Posters depicting Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, who has resigned from his post, are seen in Beirut, Lebanon, November 10, 2017. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

STUCK BETWEEN ANTAGONISTIC INTERESTS

On Thursday, Hariri’s Future Movement political party said his return home was necessary to uphold the Lebanese system, describing him as prime minister and a national leader.

Aoun has refused to accept the resignation until Hariri returns to Lebanon to deliver it to him in person and explain his reasons.

Top Druze politician Walid Jumblatt said it was time Hariri came back after a week of absence “be it forced or voluntary”.

Jumblatt said on Twitter there was no alternative to Hariri.

In comments to Reuters, Jumblatt said Lebanon did not deserve to be accused of declaring war on Saudi Arabia. “For decades we’ve been friends,” he said.

“We are a country that is squeezed between two antagonistic interests, between Saudi Arabia and Iran,” he said. “The majority of Lebanese are just paying the price … Lebanon can not afford to declare a war against anybody.”

The Saudi foreign minister accused Hezbollah of a role in the launching of a ballistic missile at Riyadh from Yemen on Saturday. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman said Iran’s supply of rockets to militias in Yemen was an act of “direct military aggression” that could be an act of war.

Nasrallah mocked the Saudi accusation that Iran and Hezbollah were behind the firing of the missile from Yemen, saying Yemenis were capable of building their own missiles.

 

(Reporting by Dominiqu Vidalon and John Irish in Paris, Sarah Dadouch, Lisa Barrington, Laila Bassam and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Peter Graff)

 

Purge of Saudi princes, businessmen widens, travel curbs imposed

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud poses for a photo with National Guard Minister Khaled bin Ayyaf and Economy Minister Mohammed al-Tuwaijri during a swearing-in ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 6, 2017. Saudi Press

By Stephen Kalin and Reem Shamseddine

RIYADH (Reuters) – A campaign of mass arrests of Saudi Arabian royals, ministers and businessmen widened on Monday after a top entrepreneur was reportedly held in the biggest anti-corruption purge of the kingdom’s affluent elite in its modern history.

The arrests, which an official said were just “phase one” of the crackdown, are the latest in a series of dramatic steps by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to assert Saudi influence internationally and amass more power for himself at home.

The campaign also lengthens an already daunting list of challenges undertaken by the 32-year-old since his father, King Salman, ascended the throne in 2015, including going to war in Yemen, cranking up Riyadh’s confrontation with arch-foe Iran and reforming the economy to lessen its reliance on oil.

Both allies and adversaries are quietly astonished that a kingdom once obsessed with stability has acquired such a taste for assertive – some would say impulsive – policy-making.

“The kingdom is at a crossroads: Its economy has flatlined with low oil prices; the war in Yemen is a quagmire; the blockade of Qatar is a failure; Iranian influence is rampant in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and the succession is a question mark,” wrote ex-CIA official Bruce Riedel.

“It is the most volatile period in Saudi history in over a half-century.”

The crackdown has drawn no public opposition within the kingdom either on the street or social media. Many ordinary Saudis applauded the arrests, the latest in a string of domestic and international moves asserting the prince’s authority.

But abroad, critics perceive the purge as further evidence of intolerance from a power-hungry leader keen to stop influential opponents blocking his economic reforms or reversing the expansion of his political clout.

Prominent Saudi columnist Jamal Kashoggi applauded the campaign, but warned: “He is imposing very selective justice.”

“The crackdown on even the most constructive criticism – the demand for complete loyalty with a significant ‘or else’ – remains a serious challenge to the crown prince’s desire to be seen as a modern, enlightened leader,” he wrote in the Washington Post.

“The buck stops at the leader’s door. He is not above the standard he is now setting for the rest of his family, and for the country.”

 

ACCOUNTS FROZEN

The Saudi stock index initially fell 1.5 percent in early trade but closed effectively flat, which asset managers attributed to buying by government-linked funds.

Al Tayyar Travel <1810.SE> plunged 10 percent in the opening minutes after the company quoted media reports as saying board member Nasser bin Aqeel al-Tayyar had been detained in the anti-corruption drive.

Saudi Aseer Trading, Tourism and Manufacturing <4080.SE> and Red Sea International <4230.SE> separately reported normal operations after the reported detentions of board members Abdullah Saleh Kamel, Khalid al-Mulheim and Amr al-Dabbagh.

Saudi banks have begun freezing suspects’ accounts, sources told Reuters.

Dozens of people have been detained in the crackdown, which have alarmed much of the traditional business establishment. Billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, Saudi Arabia’s best-known international investor, is also being held.

The attorney general said on Monday detainees had been questioned and “a great deal of evidence” had been gathered.

“Yesterday does not represent the start, but the completion of Phase One of our anti-corruption push,” Saud al-Mojeb said. Probes were done discreetly “to preserve the integrity of the legal proceedings and ensure there was no flight from justice.”

Investigators had been collecting evidence for three years and would “continue to identify culprits, issue arrest warrants and travel restrictions and bring offenders to justice”, anti-graft committee member Khalid bin Abdulmohsen Al-Mehaisen said.

 

“THE NOOSE TIGHTENS”

The front page of leading Saudi newspaper Okaz challenged businessmen to reveal the sources of their assets, asking: “Where did you get this?”

Another headline from Saudi-owned al-Hayat warned: “After the launch (of the anti-corruption drive), the noose tightens, whomever you are!”

A no-fly list has been drawn up and security forces in some Saudi airports were barring owners of private jets from taking off without a permit, pan-Arab daily Al-Asharq Al-Awsat said.

Among those detained are 11 princes, four ministers and tens of former ministers, according to Saudi officials.

The allegations against the men include money laundering, bribery, extortion and taking advantage of public office for personal gain, a Saudi official told Reuters. Those accusations could not be independently verified and family members of those detained could not be reached.

A royal decree on Saturday said the crackdown was launched in response to “exploitation by some of the weak souls who have put their own interests above the public interest, in order to, illicitly, accrue money”.

The new anti-corruption committee has the power to seize assets at home and abroad before the results of its investigations are known. Investors worry the crackdown could ultimately result in forced sales of equities, but the extent of the authorities’ intentions was not immediately clear.

 

“OVERKILL”

Among those detained is Prince Miteb bin Abdullah, who was replaced as minister of the National Guard, a pivotal power base rooted in the kingdom’s tribes. That recalled a palace coup in June which ousted his elder cousin, Mohammed bin Nayef, as heir to the throne.

The moves consolidate Prince Mohammed’s control of the internal security and military institutions, which had long been headed by separate powerful branches of the ruling family.

Consultancy Eurasia Group said the “clearly politicized” anti-corruption campaign was a step toward separating the Al Saud family from the state: “Royal family members have lost their immunity, a long standing golden guarantee”.

Yet many analysts were puzzled by the targeting of technocrats like ousted Economy Minister Adel Faqieh and prominent businessmen on whom the kingdom is counting to boost the private sector and wean the economy off oil.

“It seems to run so counter to the long-term goal of foreign investment and more domestic investment and a strengthened private sector,” said Greg Gause, a Gulf expert at Texas A&M University.

“If your goal really is anti-corruption, then you bring some cases. You don’t just arrest a bunch of really high-ranking people and emphasize that the rule of law is not really what guides your actions.”

Over the past year, MbS has become the top decision-maker on military, foreign and economic policy, championing subsidy cuts, state asset sales and a government efficiency drive.

The reforms have been well-received by much of Saudi Arabia’s overwhelmingly young population, but resented among some of the more conservative old guard.

The crown prince has also led Saudi Arabia into a two-year-old war in Yemen, where the government says it is fighting Iran-aligned militants, and into a dispute with Qatar, which it accuses of backing terrorists, a charge Doha denies. Detractors of the crown prince say both moves are dangerous adventurism.

The Saudi-led military coalition said on Monday it would temporarily close all air, land and sea ports to Yemen to stem the flow of arms from Iran to Houthi rebels after a missile fired toward Riyadh was intercepted over the weekend.

Saudi Prince Alwaleed’s investments: http://tmsnrt.rs/2j5fE04

 

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

 

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)