Several hundred Syrian refugees in Lebanon return to Syria

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

By Tom Perry

ARSAL, Lebanon (Reuters) – Nearly 400 refugees began leaving the Lebanese border town of Arsal to cross into Syria on Thursday, a rare case of returns which Lebanon’s government wants to encourage.

The convoy made up a very small fraction of the one million registered Syrian war refugees across Lebanon – about a quarter of its population – and of the 50,000 which local officials estimate live in Arsal.

People gathered in minivans and tractors in the morning, loading them with mattresses, water tanks and furniture. Lebanese security personnel recorded the names of Syrians as they passed through a checkpoint on the way out of Arsal.

The refugees were headed for Qalamoun across the border, a region cleared of insurgents by Syrian army offensives in which Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement played a leading role.

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Those leaving said they had submitted their names to Lebanese authorities, who in turn sent the names to Syria for approval from the state.

Syrian state TV said hundreds of people arrived past a border crossing in the Damascus countryside.

Many said they were happy to be returning to Syria, and while some said their houses were fit to live in, others had heard their homes were destroyed.

“We have been planning to go back for a long time; we are glad things have calmed down,” said Ali Abdullah, 34, leaving with his wife and two young sons. One of the boys was born in Lebanon and had never been to Syria.

“I want to take him back because that is your country, your (home is) not a tent,” Abdullah told his son. He spoke from the same truck he said he drove across the border in four years ago.

Abdullah told Reuters he had heard from relatives in Syria that his house there was fine.

But Murshid Darwish, 55, said she had decided to stay in her tent in Arsal instead of leaving for Syria with her cousin.

“The house needs work, there are no windows, no doors…We cannot live there,” she said. “I cannot carry rocks…Once my room is fixed, I will go back.”

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said it was not involved in organizing the returns, and its team in Syria had so far not been able to access the villages where people were headed.

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

Syrian refugees prepare to return to Syria from the Lebanese border town of Arsal, Lebanon June 28, 2018. REUTERS/Mohamed Azakir

“FIRST PHASE”

About 140 people received polio vaccines, and the Lebanese Red Cross diagnosed 43 people who received medication for acute cases, it said.

Major General Abbas Ibrahim, head of Lebanon’s General Security agency, has said Beirut is working with the Syrian state for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go home.

Ibrahim told Reuters Thursday’s return marked the “first phase out of thousands…We have not received any guarantee that they will not serve in the Syrian army. We have nothing to do with this.”

As Syrian troops and allied forces retake more territory, Lebanese officials have stepped up calls for refugees to go back to parts of Syria where violence has died down.

U.N. officials and foreign donor states have said it is not yet safe for refugees to go back to Syria, where a political deal to end the multi-sided war remains elusive.

The seven-year conflict has driven 11 million Syrians from their homes. More than 1 million have fled to Lebanon, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR says. The Lebanese government puts the number at 1.5 million, a quarter of the population.

They are scattered across Lebanon, often in makeshift camps and severe poverty, facing the risk of arrest because of restrictions on legal residence and work.

Lebanese Foreign minister Gebran Bassil visited Arsal this month to press for more returns. He froze residency visa applications for UNHCR staff, accusing the agency of preventing Syrian refugees from going back.

UNHCR denies this, saying it supports return when it is safe, and major international donors have voiced dismay at what they called “false accusations”.

“We are working in various ways for the gradual removal of the obstacles that refugees see to their return, including through advocating with the concerned authorities inside Syria,” UNHCR spokeswoman Lisa Abou Khaled told Reuters by email on Thursday.

“We fully respect individual decisions to return when a refugee decides that the time is ripe for him or her.”

(Reporting by Tom Perry with additional reporting by Laila Bassam and Ellen Francis; Writing by Ellen Francis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Thousands of refugees to return to Syria from Lebanon soon

Syrian refugees who fled to Lebanon hold Syrian flags as they arrive at Syrian-Lebanese border of Jdaydet Yabous, Syria, April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Around 3,000 refugees in Lebanon are expected to go back to Syria in the coming week, a local official said on Thursday, a week after Lebanon said it was working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to return.

The refugees living in a border town in northeast Lebanon will travel around 20 km (12 miles) over mountains that have separated them from their homes in Syria’s western Qalamoun region for years.

Bassel Hujeiri, mayor of Arsal town, told Reuters by phone the refugees had asked to go back to Syria.

As the Syrian army backed by Iran and Russia has recovered more territory, Lebanon’s president and other politicians have called for refugees to go back to “secure areas” before a deal to end the war. This is at odds with the international view that it is not yet safe.

Lebanon hosts around 1 million registered Syrian refugees according to the United Nations, or roughly a quarter of the population, who have fled the war since 2011. The government puts the number at 1.5 million and says their presence has strained public services and suppressed economic growth.

Hujeiri said the return would likely happen before the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which this year will fall around June 14. Eid al-Fitr marks the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and depends on the sighting of the moon.

Last Thursday, the head of Lebanon’s General Security agency Major General Abbas Ibrahim told reporters that Lebanon is working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria.

On Wednesday Lebanese President Michel Aoun asked a European Parliament delegation to persuade European nations to help with returning refugees in Lebanon to Syria.

The U.N.’s refugee agency UNHCR told Reuters it was not involved in this transfer, but has spoken to some of the refugees as part of its global policy of making sure people who want to return home have the documentation needed to re-establish themselves and access services.

In April, several hundred refugees were bussed back to Syria from the Shebaa area of southern Lebanon in an operation overseen by General Security in coordination with Damascus.

(Reporting by Dahlia Nehme; Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Syria tells Lebanon it wants refugees to return

Lebanese general security member holds Syrian refugee children, who fled to Lebanon, as they wait for buses to go back to Syria from the southern village of Shebaa, Lebanon April 18, 2018. REUTERS/Aziz Taher

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria has told Lebanon it wants refugees to return to help rebuild the country, its envoy to Lebanon said on Monday, after Beirut expressed concern that a new land redevelopment law could discourage them from going home.

Lebanon, which is hosting some 1 million registered Syrian refugees, wrote to the Syrian government last month over “Law 10”, which aid and rights groups fear could result in Syrian refugees losing their property in the country.

“Law 10” came into effect in April as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria. The law has yet to be applied.

One of big concerns with the law is that it gave people just 30 days to stake ownership claims once an area is designated for redevelopment, according to rights activists and aid groups. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Mualem said on Saturday this time period had been extended to one year.

Gebran Bassil, the foreign minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government, had expressed concern over the limited time frame in a letter to the Syrian government last month.

Ali Abdul Karim, the Syrian ambassador to Lebanon, delivered a letter from Mualem to Bassil, foreign minister in Lebanon’s caretaker government, on Monday.

Abdul Karim told reporters that the letter responded to questions posed by Bassil. The letter said that “Syria is in need of … all its sons and is eager for the return of all its sons”, he said.

Last week, Major General Abbas Ibrahim, a top Lebanese state figure and head of the General Security agency, said Beirut was working with Damascus for the return of thousands of refugees who want to go back to Syria.

A conference on Syria hosted by the European Union and co-chaired by the United Nations in April said conditions for returns were not yet fulfilled, and that present conditions were not conducive for voluntary repatriation in safety and dignity.

President Michel Aoun has called the large numbers of Syrian refugees an existential danger to Lebanon, reflecting a view that the presence of the mainly Sunni Syrian refugees will upend the fragile balance between Lebanese Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shi’ite Muslims and other sectarian groups.

Amnesty International has said “Law 10” effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has said the law is not about dispossessing anyone.

(Reporting by Beirut bureau; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Lawfare? Syrian development plan alarms refugees and host nations

A Syrian army soldier walks past the rubble of damaged buildings in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

By Angus McDowall

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A new law allowing the Syrian government to redevelop areas devastated by war has alarmed refugees and the countries that host them, prompting fears that people will lose their property and be less likely to return home.

Seven years into the war that has killed half a million people, the law signals the government’s intention to rebuild areas of Syria where the rebellion has been defeated, even though large parts of the country remain outside its control.

“Law 10” came into effect last month as the army was on the brink of crushing the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus, consolidating President Bashar al-Assad’s grip over nearly all of western Syria.

The law allows people to prove they own property in the areas chosen for redevelopment, and to claim compensation. But aid groups say the chaos of war means few will be able to do so in the time specified. The law has yet to be applied.

People forced to flee their homes – more than half the prewar population – will find it hard to make such claims, aid groups say.

Many refugees now face a major problem: whether to return home, even if they think it may be unsafe, and claim their property rights in person, or risk losing them, along with a big incentive to go back to Syria in future.

“If it is applied to areas once held by the opposition from which the residents have been displaced, or where land registries have been destroyed, it will in effect prevent the return of refugees,” said a briefing note circulated to EU states at a recent high-level meeting.

Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, whose country hosts more than a million Syrian refugees, said this week that the law “tells thousands of Syrian families to stay in Lebanon” by threatening them with property confiscation.

Assad says the law has been misinterpreted in order to inflame Western public opinion against his government. He told the Greek newspaper Kathimerini that the law “is not about dispossessing anyone”.

“You cannot, I mean even if he’s a terrorist, let’s say, if you want to dispossess someone, you need a verdict by the judicial system,” he said.

Assad’s opponents already accuse him of engineering “demographic change” by driving rebels and their families out of Syria’s cities, and say the law confiscates property and homes of the displaced.

Amnesty International has said it effectively deprives thousands of people of their homes and land.

WHY DID SYRIA PASS LAW 10?

Managing the reconstruction of ruined cities, vital for Syria’s economy, will grow more important for Assad if he is to turn battlefield victories into a full restoration of his rule.

Experts on post-war reconstruction have likened it to laws passed in other war zones, notably in Beirut after the 1975-90 civil war.

Assad is banking on allied countries, chiefly Russia and Iran, to help with reconstruction as Western states say they will not contribute until a political transition is in place.

Western Syria’s main cities – Damascus, Aleppo, Hama and Homs – are now entirely in his hands, but apart from Hama they each have entire districts in ruins.

However, rights groups, including Amnesty International, accuse Assad of conceiving Law 10 to push his opponents from their homes, since Syria’s most damaged areas were major centers of the uprising.

“If enacted, this law could be used to implement a breathtakingly efficient feat of social engineering. Thousands of Syrians – mostly those in pro-opposition areas or who have sought refuge abroad – risk losing their homes because their documents are lost or destroyed,” said Diana Semaan, Amnesty International’s Syria researcher.

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers walk past a damaged military vehicle in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 22, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHY WILL IT PARTICULARLY AFFECT REFUGEES?

Many refugees owned property in Syria but they will find it more difficult to stake their claims than people who stayed.

The Norwegian Refugee Council has said 67 percent of refugees it had interviewed said they owned property in Syria, but only 17 percent of them still had ownership documents.

Another big worry is the law’s time frame.

Once a local authority announces a redevelopment plan – and none have yet done so – people will have 30 days to submit ownership claims, making them eligible for compensation.

Government supporters say protections for property owners are generous: family members or people given power of attorney can make claims and appeal decisions on behalf of absent owners.

But after years of a war in which government buildings have been destroyed along with their files, and in which people have lost identity cards or land deeds as they fled, it could take months to prove who somebody is – let alone what they own.

For refugees abroad, getting power of attorney under Syrian law for a friend or relation back in Syria, even if they both have all the right documents, takes a minimum of three months. It also requires security clearance – potentially a problem for people who fled districts that were opposition centers.

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike at a damaged site in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

WHAT ARE THE OTHER CONCERNS WITH THE LAW?

Compensation is offered in the form of shares in the redevelopment company, but aid agencies suggest few original occupants will be able to afford the additional cost of new housing within such projects and might come under pressure to sell their property at low prices.

Since many of the most damaged areas were opposition strongholds, many people who left Syria – and relatives who stayed on – might be afraid to appear before government officials to prove ownership.

The law also targets settlements built without formal approval or legal deeds. Owners of such dwellings can be allocated shares on the basis of the assessed value of their building but will not be able to secure compensation for land without proof of ownership, said an expert on the law.

Many property owners have been killed in the war, sometimes without their relatives obtaining death certificates, setting up likely inheritance disputes that would complicate property claims.

Ownership paper trails were also confused after the fighting began in 2011, as families fled one front line after another, taking only what they could carry and selling their property to neighbors. Some properties were bought and sold many times, without proper documentation.

Property owners cannot challenge the designation of an area for redevelopment, and challenges over the value of their property will be settled by the appeal court.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

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)