Syrian rebel fighters pull out of their last besieged area

A woman gestures as she stands on rubble of damaged buildings in Raqqa, Syria May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Aboud Hamam

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The remaining fighters started to withdraw from the last rebel-held enclave in central Syria on Wednesday, state television reported, sealing the government’s control over the area and opening a major stretch of the country’s most important highway.

It further cements President Bashar al-Assad’s dominant position over the most populated parts of Syria after years of fighting, but means any new military campaign might risk direct conflict with foreign powers.

The withdrawal may also be the last in a series of agreed evacuations used by the government to defeat besieged insurgents by forcing them to surrender territory in return for safe passage to opposition areas in the north.

Often brokered by Assad’s Russian allies, such agreements have in recent years become a defining characteristic of Syria’s seven-year war.

In the last two months alone, the United Nations says 110,000 people have been evacuated to northwestern Syria and rebel-held areas north of Aleppo.

The opposition has called it a policy of forced displacement amounting to demographic change to force out Assad’s opponents. The Syrian government has said nobody is forced to leave and those who stay must accept state rule.

The last besieged rebel area, being fully evacuated on Wednesday, is the large enclave located between the cities of Hama and Homs around the towns of Rastan, Talbiseh and Houla.

Rebels still hold large swathes of northwest and southwest Syria that are not besieged because they border Turkey and Jordan, which have at times backed the insurgents and are guarantors of limited truces in those areas.

The only other area still surrounded by the Syrian army, in the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp south of Damascus, is held by Islamic State fighters who look unlikely to agree to withdraw to the patch of desert they still hold in east Syria.

More than a quarter of Syria is held by an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias that the United States helped in the fight against Islamic State.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said he wants to pull American troops from Syria, but the Pentagon has said they are staying for now.

SIEGE

Assad focused on the remaining besieged rebel pockets last month after taking back Eastern Ghouta, the biggest insurgent enclave near Damascus, in a ferocious, weeks-long offensive.

Having held the area being evacuated on Wednesday for years, rebels agreed earlier this month to withdraw along with their families and other civilians who did not want to come back under Assad’s rule.

Since the enclave straddled Syria’s main north-south highway in the stretch between Hama and Homs, recapturing it will significantly ease communication lines in government areas.

Some 27,000 people have left the enclave already since the evacuations began earlier this month, a local government official said. The last convoy of buses began to leave on Wednesday, according to state media.

Last month, 66,000 people left Eastern Ghouta under similar agreements, the U.N. has said. Other major evacuations have included from east Aleppo in late 2016, when more than 30,000 people left.

Tens of thousands of other people have left smaller pockets in recent years. It has added to a humanitarian crisis in northwestern Idlib province, where the pre-war population of about 1 million people has been doubled by those fleeing other parts of the country.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Erdogan’s policies driving Turkey to the edge, challenger says

FILE PHOTO: The President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, speaks at Chatham House in central London, Britain May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls/File Photo

By Dominic Evans and Birsen Altayli

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan is driving Turkey “to the cliff” through ideological politics and a determination to control the central bank, the main opposition party’s presidential candidate said on Wednesday as the lira hit new record lows.

Muharrem Ince, who seeks to end Erdogan’s 15-year hold on power in next month’s elections, said the central bank and other economic institutions must be able to operate independently.

Erdogan said this week he plans to take greater control of the economy after the June 24 presidential and parliamentary polls, comments which drove the lira to fresh record lows. It is down 15 percent against the dollar this year.

“He’s taking the country to the cliff. The central bank needs to be independent, and the other economic bodies need to be autonomous. The rules need to operate,” Ince told Reuters in an interview.

The victor in next month’s election, held under a state of emergency imposed after a failed coup in 2016, will exercise sweeping new executive powers after Turks narrowly approved a constitutional overhaul in a referendum last year. The changes come into effect after the June vote.

Polls show Erdogan is comfortably the strongest candidate, though he could face a challenge if the presidential vote goes to a second round in July and his opponents rally around the other remaining candidate.

Ince, 54, a combative parliamentarian and former physics teacher, has energized his secularist opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) since he started campaigning and may emerge as the leading opposition candidate – although he faces competition from former interior minister Meral Aksener.

Aksener’s nationalist Iyi (Good) Party and the CHP have joined with two other smaller parties in an opposition alliance for the parliamentary election. She and Ince are competing separately in the presidential vote.

“WIND OF CHANGE”

Ince said the president was driven by “ideological obsessions” and pushing Turkey in the wrong direction.

Erdogan, a self-described “enemy of interest rates”, wants lower borrowing costs to boost credit and new construction, and has said the central bank will not be able to ignore the president’s wishes. That has fueled concerns about the bank’s ability to fight double-digit inflation.

Since his Islamist-rooted AK Party swept to power in 2002, Erdogan has dominated Turkish politics. His power is reinforced by a near-monopoly of broadcast media coverage. Most TV channels show nearly all his campaign rallies, but rarely offer a platform to his opponents.

“The state of the media is heartbreaking. They have surrendered, they have kneeled,” Ince said, adding he had told broadcasters that unless they started to cover his speeches, he would hold a rally directly outside their offices to shame them.

If elected, Ince pledged to reverse some of the powers granted to the new presidency, saying it handed total control of the budget, judiciary and executive to one person.

Several European Union countries have expressed alarm that those changes are pushing Turkey deeper into authoritarian rule. Turkey is still a candidate for EU membership, though negotiations have stalled over rights concerns and other issues.

Erdogan says the increased powers are necessary to tackle security threats following the failed coup and conflict on Turkey’s southern borders with Syria and Iraq.

“No mortal should be given such authority,” Ince said. “It shouldn’t be given to me either.”

Against Erdogan, a skilled campaigner, the CHP has struggled to win support beyond its core base of secular-minded voters. In the last parliamentary election in November 2015 it took 25.3 percent of the vote.

Ince has pledged to be a non-partisan leader if elected, styling himself as “everyone’s president” and promising not to live in the 1,000-room palace built by Erdogan in Ankara.

“I see that a wind of change is blowing,” he said, pointing to what he described as a new atmosphere at his political rallies compared to last year’s referendum campaign.

“The momentum I have garnered is very different – there is a strong wind and people feel excitement,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Gulsen Solaker in Ankara; Editing by David Dolan and Gareth Jones)

Chlorine likely used in February attack in Idlib, Syria-weapons agency

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. Pcture taken April 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Banned chlorine munitions were likely dropped on a Syrian neighborhood in February, an international body on chemical weapons said on Wednesday, after laboratory tests confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical.

In its latest report on the systematic use of banned munitions in Syria’s civil war, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not say which party was behind the attack on Saraqib, which lies in rebel-held territory in the province of Idlib.

But witnesses told OPCW investigators that the munitions were dropped in barrel bombs from a helicopter, a report released by the OPCW showed. Only Syrian government forces are known to have helicopters.

The report by the OPCW’s fact finding mission for Syria “determined that chlorine was released from cylinders by mechanical impact in the Al Talil neighborhood of Saraqib.”

About 11 people were treated after the attack on Feb. 4. for mild and moderate symptoms of toxic chemical exposure, including breathing difficulties, vomiting and unconsciousness, the report said.

Samples taken from the soil, canisters and impact sites tested positive for other chemicals, bearing the “markers of the Syrian regime,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a biological and chemical weapons expert working in Syria.

The samples tested positive for precursors needed to make the nerve agent sarin, he said.

“These chemicals were detected in previous sarin attacks, Khan Sheikhoun, East Ghouta and no doubt Douma,” Bretton-Gordon said.

The OPCW is also investigating a suspected chemical attack on April 7 in the Douma enclave near Damascus, which prompted missile strikes by the United States, France and Britain. Those findings are expected by the end of the month.

The conclusions on the Saraqib attack are based on the presence of two cylinders, which were determined as previously containing chlorine, witness testimony and environmental samples confirming “the unusual presence of chlorine”, it said.

A joint OPCW-U.N. mechanism for Syria has previously concluded the Syrian government has used both sarin nerve agent and chlorine, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. Rebels were found to have used sulfur mustard once on a small scale.

Reuters reported in January that tests found “markers” in samples taken at three attack sites between 2013 and 2017 from chemicals from the Syrian government stockpile.

The lab tests linked Ghouta and two other nerve agent attack sites, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4, 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, to the stockpile handed over to the agency for destruction in 2014.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied using chemical weapons and instead has blamed rebels for staging attacks to falsely implicate his forces in the atrocities.

The mechanism was disbanded in November following a Russian veto at the U.N. Security Council, a move which ratcheted up tension between Moscow and Western powers over chemical weapons use in Syria.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean)

Iran says Syria has every right to defend itself against Israel: TV

Missile fire is seen from Damascus, Syria. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

ANKARA (Reuters) – Iran on Friday supported Syria’s right to defend itself against aggression from Israel, state TV reported, accusing others of remaining silent over the attacks on Tehran’s key regional ally.

“Iran strongly condemns …(Israel’s) attacks on Syria. The international community’s silence encourages Israel’s aggression. Syria has every right to defend itself,” the broadcaster quoted Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi as saying.

Israel said it had attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria on Thursday after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory for the first time, in the most extensive military exchange ever between the two adversaries.

The confrontation came two days after President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 multinational agreement aimed it curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

Tehran and its allied Shi’ite Muslim militias back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Since its Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has refused to recognize Israel.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; editing by John Stonestreet)

Russia, after Netanyahu visit, backs off Syria S-300 missile supplies

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/File Photo via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is not in talks with the Syrian government about supplying advanced S-300 ground-to-air missiles and does not think they are needed, the Izvestia daily cited a top Kremlin aide as saying on Friday, in an apparent U-turn by Moscow.

The comments, by Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin who oversees Russian military assistance to other countries, follow a visit to Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, who has been lobbying Putin hard not to transfer the missiles.

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Russia last month hinted it would supply the weapons to President Bashar al-Assad, over Israeli objections, after Western military strikes on Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the strikes had removed any moral obligation Russia had to withhold the missiles and Russia’s Kommersant daily cited unnamed military sources as saying deliveries might begin imminently.

But Kozhin’s comments, released so soon after Netanyahu’s Moscow talks with Putin, suggest the Israeli leader’s lobbying efforts have, for the time being, paid off.

“For now, we’re not talking about any deliveries of new modern (air defense) systems,” Izvestia cited Kozhin as saying when asked about the possibility of supplying Syria with S-300s.

The Syrian military already had “everything it needed,” Kozhin added.

The Kremlin played down the idea that it had performed a U-turn on the missile question or that any decision was linked to Netanyahu’s visit.

“Deliveries (of the S-300s) were never announced as such,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call, when asked about the matter.

“But we did say after the (Western) strikes (on Syria) that of course Russia reserved the right to do anything it considered necessary.”

The possibility of missile supplies to Assad along with its military foray into Syria itself has helped Moscow boost its Middle East clout. with Putin hosting everyone from Netanyahu to the presidents of Turkey and Iran and the Saudi king.

ISRAELI LOBBYING

Israel has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell the S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capabilities against arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. Israel has carried out scores of air strikes against suspected shipments.

On Thursday, Israel said it had attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory. S-300s could have significantly complicated the Israeli strikes.

The missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military, but since modernized and available in several versions with significantly different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Though since been superseded by the more modern S-400 system, the S-300s are still regarded as highly potent and outstrip anything that the Syrian government currently has.

Syria currently relies on a mixture of less advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft systems to defend its air space.

Russian media on Friday were actively circulating a video released by the Israeli military which showed an Israeli missile destroying one such system — a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense battery — on Thursday in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Israel declares high alert over Iranian actions in Syria

FILE PHOTO - An Israeli soldier walks near a military post close to the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 10, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has instructed local authorities in the Israeli-held Golan Heights to “unlock and ready (bomb) shelters” after identifying what the military described on Tuesday as “irregular activity of Iranian forces in Syria”.

The announcement came minutes before U.S. President Donald Trump declared he was withdrawing from the 2015 international nuclear deal with Iran, a move that has stirred concern about a possible regional flare-up.

Israeli media said the order to prepare bomb shelters was unprecedented during Syria’s seven-year-old civil war, in which Israel is formally neutral, though it has carried out cross-border strikes at suspected deployments by Iranian forces supporting Damascus and arms transfers to Hezbollah guerrillas.

Iran has blamed Israel for an April 9 strike that killed seven of its personnel at a Syrian airbase and has vowed revenge.

In its statement, Israel’s military further said that its defense systems had been deployed “and IDF (Israel Defence Force) troops are on high alert for an attack”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a televised address after Trump’s announcement, lauding the U.S. president’s hard tack on Iran and alluding to the tensions over Syria.

“For months now, Iran has been transferring lethal weaponry to its forces in Syria, with the purpose of striking at Israel,” Netanyahu said. “We will respond mightily to any attack on our territory.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Trump pulls U.S. from Iran nuclear deal, to revive sanctions

U.S. President Donald Trump reacts to a question from the media as National Security Advisor John Bolton and Vice President Mike Pence look on after the president announced his intention to withdraw from the JCPOA Iran nuclear agreement during a statement in the Diplomatic Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 8, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump said on Tuesday he was reimposing economic sanctions on Iran and pulling the United States out of an international agreement aimed at stopping Tehran from obtaining a nuclear bomb.

The decision is likely to raise the risk of conflict in the Middle East, upset America’s European allies and disrupt global oil supplies.

“I am announcing today that the United States will withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal,” Trump said at the White House. “In a few moments, I will sign a presidential memorandum to begin reinstating U.S. nuclear sanctions on the Iranian regime. We will be instituting the highest level of economic sanctions.”

The 2015 deal, worked out by the United States, five other international powers and Iran, eased sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program.

Trump says the agreement, the signature foreign policy achievement of Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, its nuclear activities beyond 2025 nor its role in conflicts in Yemen and Syria.

Iran has ruled out renegotiating the agreement and threatened to retaliate, although it has not said exactly how, if Washington pulled out.

Renewing sanctions would make it much harder for Iran to sell its oil abroad or use the international banking system.

(Additional reporting by Tim Ahmann, Makini Brice, Warren Strobel and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Ayenat Mersie in New York, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Andrew Torchia in Dubai; Writing by William Maclean and Alistair Bell; Editing by Peter Graff, Yara Bayoumy and Bill Trott)

Netanyahu says Iran deploying arms in Syria to threaten Israel

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, May 6, 2018. Jim Hollander/Pool via Reuters

NICOSIA (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran on Tuesday of deploying “very dangerous weapons” in Syria as part of a campaign to threaten Israel.

Iran, “openly calls, daily, for the destruction, the elimination of Israel from the face of the earth and practices unmitigated aggression against us,” Netanyahu told reporters during a visit to Cyprus.

“It is now seeking to plant very dangerous weapons in Syria … for the specific purpose of our destruction.”

(Reporting by Michele Kambas, Editing by Dan Williams)

Trump to reveal Iran decision, Europeans doubt he will stick with nuclear deal

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the launch of first lady Melania Trump's "Be Best" initiative in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will announce on Tuesday whether he will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal or stay in and work with European allies who have struggled to persuade him that it has halted Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Trump has consistently threatened to pull out of the 2015 agreement because it does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its role in wars in Syria and Yemen, and does not permanently prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

European leaders have warned that a U.S. withdrawal would undo years of work that led to and sustained a landmark deal that has kept nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands

But a senior French official doubted Trump had taken heed of European concerns.

“I think in Washington it was quite clear the president was convinced that Trump was heading to a negative decision so we have been preparing more aggressively the hypotheses of a partial or total pullout”, the official said.

Two other European officials also said they expected Trump to pull out of the accord.

Such a move could ratchet up tensions in a region riven with interrelated wars, including the multi-layered conflict in Syria where Iran’s presence has brought it into conflict with Israel.

Reflecting those strains, Iran’s Armed Forces Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri said Iran’s military power would defuse any threat to Tehran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of deploying “very dangerous weapons” in Syria to threaten Israel.

A decision to quit the deal could also rattle oil markets due to Iran’s role as a major exporter, and critics say it could also harm Trump’s efforts to reach a deal in nuclear talks with North Korea, a prospect he has dismissed.

“This deal … is a factor of peace and stabilization in a very eruptive region,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly told RTL radio.

Trump, in a tweet on Monday, said he would make the announcement at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Tuesday.

Iran suggested its economy would not be hurt whatever happened, but its rial was near record lows against the dollar in the free market as Iranians tried to buy hard currency, fearing financial turmoil if Trump quits the deal.

“We are prepared for all scenarios. If America pulls out of the deal, our economy will not be impacted,” central bank chief Valiollah Seif said on state television.

‘STAND ON OUR OWN FEET’

“One man in one country might create some problems for us for a few months, but we will overcome those problems,” President Hassan Rouhani said. “If we are under sanctions or not, we should stand on our own feet.”

It would be a severe mistake for Iran to stay in the nuclear deal if the United States leaves it, said senior hardline official Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the Iranian Judiciary’s Human Rights Council, Tasnim news agency reported.

Even before the latest standoff, a raft of business deals including plane purchases have been delayed amid bankers’ concerns that the nuclear deal could unravel or that they could fall foul of U.S. financial controls.

Whatever Trump’s decision, those concerns are unlikely to ease any time soon as the fallout from weeks of uncertainty and the appointment of a more hawkish U.S. foreign policy team expose underlying obstacles, bankers said.

The deal, negotiated during the administration of Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, eased economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program.

Trump has called it the “worst deal ever negotiated” and he wants Britain, France and Germany – which also signed the pact along with Russia and China – to toughen up the terms.

Under the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States committed to ease a series of U.S. sanctions on Iran and it has done so under “waivers” that effectively suspend them.

 

WAIVERS

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano has said in Iran his agency had the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime. If the deal failed it would be “a great loss”.

Trump has until Saturday to decide whether to extend the waivers or withdraw and reintroduce sanctions related to Iran’s central bank and Iranian oil exports.

That would dissuade foreign companies from doing business with Iran because they could be subject to U.S. penalties.

Rouhani suggested on Monday that Iran might remain in the nuclear deal even if Trump abandons it and imposes sanctions. But he also warned that Tehran would fiercely resist U.S. efforts to limit its influence in the Middle East.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal would have harmful consequences.

Israel is widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, although it neither confirms nor denies possessing atomic weapons.

Financial markets are watching Trump’s decision closely. On Tuesday, oil retreated from 3-1/2 year highs as investors waited for Trump’s statement.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Andrew Torchia in Dubai, Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Israeli minister threatens Assad over any Iranian attacks from Syria

Israel's Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz is seen during a quadrilateral Ministerial Summit in Nicosia, Cyprus December 5, 2017. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel could respond to any Iranian attack on it from Syria by toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government, an Israeli security cabinet minister said on Monday, hinting that Assad himself may be targeted for assassination.

Israel and Iran have traded blows over Syria since February, stirring concern that major escalation could be looming ahead of next week’s review decision by U.S. President Donald Trump on the 2015 international nuclear deal with Tehran.

On April 9, an air strike killed seven Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps members at the Syrian base. Tehran blamed Israel and vowed unspecified retaliation, drawing Israeli counter-threats to broaden attacks on Iranian military assets in Syria.

Sharpening these warnings, Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Monday that Assad may find himself in Israel’s sights.

“If Assad allows Iran to turn Syria into a military vanguard against us, to attack us from Syrian territory, he should know that would be the end of him, the end of his regime,” Steinitz told the Ynet news site.

Asked if that meant Israel might assassinate Assad, Steinitz said: “His blood would be forfeit.” He also appeared to suggest that his remarks did not reflect Israeli government policy, saying: “I’m not talking about any concrete proposal.”

There was no immediate response from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office or from Israel’s Defence Ministry.

A Ynet text story had quoted Steinitz as saying explicitly that Israel would kill Assad, but this was not borne out by a video clip of the interview.

Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia and Russia have been reinforcing Damascus against a 7-year-old Syrian rebellion. The Israelis worry that Iran’s garrison will remain, linking with Hezbollah to form a broad Syrian-Lebanese front against them.

On Sunday, Israeli media carried what they described as an alert by Israel’s intelligence services that Iran was planning a missile salvo against Israeli military bases from within Syria.

Some analysts interpreted the publication as a warning to Iran that its plans were known, lest it try to carry out the missile strike without explicitly claiming responsibility.

On Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss Syria, where Moscow wants to see Assad’s rule restored.

“Whoever is interested in Assad’s survival should do the honor of telling Assad to prevent attacks on Israel,” Steinitz said, alluding to Putin.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Hugh Lawson, William Maclean)