U.S. to oppose U.N. Golan resolution, wins Israeli praise

FILE PHOTO - Israeli kids play next to an Israeli flag next to the Israeli Syrian border at the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The United States said it would oppose on Friday for the first time an annual resolution at the United Nations calling on Israel to rescind its authority in the occupied Golan Heights, drawing praise from Israeli officials.

The Golan Heights form a buffer between Israel and Syria of about 1,200 square km (460 square miles). Israel captured most of it from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war. It annexed the territory in 1981, a move not recognized internationally.

FILE PHOTO - A general view shows the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

FILE PHOTO – A general view shows the Israeli-Syrian border as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The United States has abstained in previous years on the annual “Occupied Syrian Golan” resolution, which declares Israel’s decision to impose its jurisdiction in the area “null and void”, but Washington’s U.N. envoy Nikki Haley said it would vote against the resolution in Friday’s vote.

“The United States will no longer abstain when the United Nations engages in its useless annual vote on the Golan Heights,” she said in a statement on Thursday.

“The resolution is plainly biased against Israel. Further, the atrocities the Syrian regime continues to commit prove its lack of fitness to govern anyone.”

Her comments came after the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, said in September that he expected Israel to keep the Golan Heights in perpetuity, in an apparent nod towards its claim of sovereignty over the territory.

Since early in Donald Trump’s presidency, Israel has lobbied for formal U.S. endorsement of its control of the Golan. Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, breaking with other world powers, though his national security adviser John Bolton told Reuters in August a similar Golan move was not under discussion.

In the past two years, Trump has twice ordered U.S.-led air strikes against targets in Syria in response to what Washington called the use of chemical weapons against civilians by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Israeli officials praised the U.S. move.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called it “extremely important”, saying on Twitter that “no sane person can believe that it (the Golan) should be given to Assad & Iran”.

Tehran has supported Assad during the civil war and Israel has been warning against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria.

Israel has closely monitored the fighting in Syria, where just across the Golan frontier battles have raged in clear view.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Chemical weapons team to begin assigning blame for Syrian attacks

FILE PHOTO: The headquarters of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is pictured in The Hague, Netherlands, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Piroschka van de Wouw/File Photo

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The global chemical weapons watchdog will in February begin to assign blame for attacks with banned munitions in Syria’s war, using new powers approved by member states but opposed by Damascus and its key allies Russia and Iran.

The agency was handed the new task in response to an upsurge in the use of chemical weapons in recent years, notably in the Syrian conflict, where scores of attacks with sarin and chlorine have been carried out by Syrian forces and rebel groups, according to a joint United Nations-OPCW investigation.

A core team of 10 experts charged with apportioning blame for poison gas attacks in Syria will be hired soon, Fernando Arias, the new head of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), told the Foreign Press Association of the Netherlands on Tuesday.

The Syria team will be able to look into all attacks previously investigated by the OPCW, dating back to 2014.

The OPCW was granted additional powers to identify individuals and institutions responsible for attacks by its 193 member states at a special session in June. The decision was supported by the United States and European Union but opposed by Russia, Iran, Syria, and their allies, highlighting deep political division at the agency.

“The mandate is to identify the perpetrators of crimes committed with chemical weapons, but the OPCW is not a court or the police”, and will refer cases to U.N. organizations with powers to punish those responsible, Arias said.

The expert team will “be in charge of identifying the perpetrators for Syria in the first stage”, Arias said, and might later be expanded to look at attacks globally.

The June decision followed attacks with other chemical weapons. In Salisbury, England, a former Russian spy and his daughter were poisoned in March with the military-grade nerve agent novichok, and the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un was assassinated in Malaysia with VX in February 2017.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Syria extends time for post-war property claims under disputed law

FILE PHOTO: Syrian army soldiers ride on a motorbike through rubble in al-Hajar al-Aswad, Syria May 21, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has amended a disputed land law that alarmed refugees and the countries hosting them, giving owners more time to register land claims.

Law 10, passed in April, gave the Damascus government the right to redevelop urban areas that were damaged by war or that were built without formal approval or property deeds, part of its efforts to move toward reconstruction.

The law initially gave people only 30 days after an area was officially slated for redevelopment to prove they owned property there and apply for compensation – a time frame that aid groups said would be impossible for almost all refugees to cope with.

Late on Sunday, Assad issued Law 42, extending this period to a year and adding other amendments including giving claimants more time to appeal verdicts and letting them do so through the normal courts instead of through a dedicated judicial committee.

Those whose property is already registered in the government’s land registry do not have to prove ownership.

Local authorities in Syria have not yet announced which areas they want to redevelop under Law 10, so the impact of the measure or how it may affect property owners have not yet been tested.

During Syria’s seven years of armed conflict half, the pre-war 22 million population have fled their homes, with about five million seeking refuge abroad.

In the chaos of war, many government buildings have been destroyed along with property records, while refugees and other displaced people have lost identity cards or land deeds, meaning it could take a long time to prove property rights.

For refugees abroad, getting power of attorney under Syrian law for a friend or relation back in Syria to apply on their behalf takes a minimum of three months, even if they both have all the right documents.

It also requires security clearance – potentially a problem for people who fled districts that were rebel-controlled before being retaken by government forces.

Countries hosting refugees voiced concern over Law 10, saying its effect might be to prevent refugees from returning if they were to lose their property in Syria.

Damascus

Japanese journalist apologizes, recounts days as hostage in Syria

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, bows during a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

By Kiyoshi Takenaka

TOKYO (Reuters) – Jumpei Yasuda, a Japanese journalist held by militants in Syria for more than three years, said on Friday he told his captors to deafen him if they suspected he was eavesdropping on their conversations.

Yasuda, 44, said it was one of the darkest moments before his release last month, ending what he called 40 months of physical and psychological “hell”.

“I told them to burst my eardrums and destroy my ears if they don’t like to be heard so much,” the freelance journalist said at the first news conference since his return on Oct 25.

Wearing a black suit and dark blue necktie, and with his greying beard trimmed short, Yasuda bowed in front of reporters and rows of television cameras before taking questions.

Yasuda said he was fully accountable for his actions.

“I would like to offer my apology and express my gratitude to those who worked for my release, and who were worried about me,” he said in a somber voice.

“I am very sorry that my conduct has had the Japanese government involved in this matter,” Yasuda added.

He was captured almost immediately after entering Syria on foot from Turkey in June 2015 and moved from one detention facility to another routinely over the 40 months.

At one location, he was not allowed to make any noise — even the sound of breathing through his nose or cracking of his knuckles — making it virtually impossible for him to move.

“In their logic, my making noise seemed to mean I moved to eavesdrop on what’s going on. So, whenever I made noise, they started doing things like torture (other hostages) and turn off the light,” Yasuda said.

At one point, he didn’t eat for 20 days in an effort to avoid any movement. It left him thin and nauseated.

He later converted to Islam because it allowed him more freedom of movement.

“As a Muslim, you must pray five times a day. As I could move only twice a day during meal time, conversion to Islam meant five additional occasions for me to move,” he said.

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, addresses a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Jumpei Yasuda, the Japanese journalist held in Syria for more than three years, addresses a news conference for the first time since his release last month, at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo, Japan November 2, 2018. REUTERS/Issei Kato

RECKLESS OR COURAGEOUS?

It was not the first time Yasuda had been detained in the Middle East. He was held in Iraq in 2004 and criticized at home for drawing the government into negotiations for his release.

Yasuda’s latest release, which made front-page news in Japan, rekindled debate about reporting from war zones that some see as reckless adventure and others as courageous journalism.

“My own conduct caused trouble for the Japanese government as well as many people. It is only natural I take criticism,” Yasuda said.

However, he defended the need for on-the-ground reporting in conflict zones.

“States kill people in war. Information is absolutely necessary for people to decide if such an act is acceptable,” Yasuda said. “Information for that purpose should come not only from the states involved but from a third party as well.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe thanked Qatar and Turkey for their cooperation after Yasuda was released, but Japan’s government said it did not pay a ransom.

Japanese media have reported he was held hostage by the Nusra Front, but Yasuda said he was not told the identity of his captors and he had no idea what had triggered his release.

Asked if he would go back to war reporting, Yasuda said he didn’t know.

“I am thinking I should be good to my parents. So, I could be more cautious in the way I conduct my reporting from now on.”

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Europe torn over Islamic State children in Syria

Belgian mothers attend a meeting of "Mothers' Jihad", a group aiming to repatriate women and children held in Syrian refugee camps, in Antwerp, Belgium September 8, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

By Alissa de Carbonnel and Emmanuel Jarry

ANTWERP/PARIS (Reuters) – For years, they heard little from daughters who went to join Islamic State. Now dozens of families across Europe have received messages from those same women, desperate to return home from detention in Syria.

They are among 650 Europeans, many of them infants, held by U.S.-backed Kurdish militias in three camps since IS was routed last year, according to Kurdish sources. Unwanted by their Kurdish guards, they are also a headache for officials in Europe.

In letters sent via the Red Cross and in phone messages, the women plead for their children to be allowed home to be raised in the countries they left behind.

In one message played by a woman at a cafe in Antwerp, the chatter of her young grandchildren underscores their mother’s pleas.

Another woman in Paris wants to care for three grandchildren she has never met, born after her daughter left for Syria in 2014, at the age 18. “They are innocent,” she said. “They had no part in any of this.”

Like other relatives of those held in Syria, the two mothers asked to remain anonymous – afraid of being linked to IS and worried their daughters may face reprisals.

The United States has taken custody of some citizens, as have Russia and Indonesia, and wants Europe to do the same – fearing the camps may breed a new generation of militants.

“We are telling European governments: ‘Take your people back, prosecute them. … They are more of a threat to you here than back home,'” a senior U.S. counterterrorism official said.

Europe is largely reluctant: there is little sympathy for militants’ families with the trauma of deadly attacks still fresh in many capitals, and European diplomats say they cannot act in a region where Kurdish control is not internationally recognized.

For the children it may be that their fate is determined by which country their mother came from.

The Kurds say it is not their job to prosecute or hold them indefinitely, leaving the women and children in legal limbo.

“Absolutely nobody wants them,” said a senior diplomat grappling with the issue. “How can you sell to the public that you are proactively helping the families of your enemies?”

However, mounting concern over abandoning hundreds of children with a claim to EU citizenship – most of them under six – is pushing governments to quietly explore how to tackle the complexities of bringing them back.

“The threat emanating from children of the caliphate is really an unprecedented, invisible and very complex one – one that we have to deal with right now,” Robert Bertholee, head of the Dutch AIVD intelligence agency, said earlier this year.

“These children are victims above all.”

French officials have said they will work to repatriate the children – but not their mothers. Other EU nations are in talks with Kurdish authorities, two European intelligence sources said, but these are complicated because the Kurds want governments to take back all their nationals – not just the young.

“About the children we all agree but not on the parents,” a senior European security source said.

LETTERS HOME

The Red Cross collected about 1,290 messages for families in visits to the Al Roj, Al Hol and Ain Issa camps where the women are held this year. The camps are in an area of Syria under Kurdish control following the defeat of Islamic State in nearly all territory it once held in Syria and Iraq.

“Mummy, Papa, forgive me for everything,” one 23-year-old wrote, adding little hearts to the margins of the page provided. “I’ve lived unimaginable things,” she scribbled. “I want to be with you and never leave.”

The women paint a grim picture: tuberculosis is rampant while food, baby milk and medical care are in short supply. Some women have died.

“There is no capacity; keeping them there is not a long-term viable option,” said Nadim Houry, director of Human Rights Watch’s counterterrorism program, who has visited some camps.

“You don’t build counterterrorism policy on public opinion.”

Kurdish officials say the foreigners in their custody comprise 900 IS fighters, 500 women and more than 1,000 children. As coalition forces clear remaining pockets of IS territory, Western security sources say numbers will grow.

They fear the camps will not hold them long. Kurdish forces have traded some women back to IS fighters in exchange for prisoners and let others go.

While women made up almost 20 percent of 5,900 Western Europeans who joined IS – and they had at least 566 babies abroad, a report by the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalism found, few have returned.

 

LEGAL GREY ZONE

Families in Belgium, France and the Netherlands are suing governments to intervene to get their relatives home.

One mother has been petitioning authorities since receiving a letter on March 30 from her daughter – one of at least 20 Belgian women in the camps.

“I’ve tried everything,” she said, meeting with other mothers from around the country to share sorrows over tea and cupcakes on a recent Saturday in Antwerp. “We have no voice. We are branded the parents of terrorists.”

Calling their cause the Mothers’ Jihad, they plan to joint legal action after one of their group lost a case to repatriate six grandchildren – all under 5 years old – by her daughter and step-daughter from camp Roj.

The judge ruled that although Belgium had a moral duty under the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child to do so, it could not be enforced in the stateless war zone.

“I am broken,” their grandmother said after the ruling.

In the Netherlands, lawyers for three of about 35 women in the camps won a small victory. Judges ruled the government should bring them to stand trial where they would otherwise be prosecuted in absentia over their role in IS.

As long as Dutch authorities do not act, their trials are frozen. “It is a political decision,” a government official said. “Other countries are taking steps to bring people back.”

In France, lawyers say the absence of an official government stance on at least 60 French women and 150 children in camps has made it difficult to bring cases to court. “We have been met with a scornful silence,” said Martin Pradel, who represents several families.

‘DENIAL AND PANIC’

The children are seen both as victims and threats, so bringing them back to schools and homes in Europe is fraught with difficulties.

“I understand the sensitivities in countries that suffered from terrorist attacks; still we hope to facilitate humane solutions for kids,” said Peter Maurer, president of the ICRC.

But DNA testing to confirm claims of nationality may not be possible when parents are dead. IS widows often remarried, complicating custody issues. And separating children from their parents breaches international humanitarian law.

“The debate must stop oscillating between denial and panic,” said Muriel Domenach, who leads efforts against radicalization in France, where some 78 children of militants who fled IS have been taken in charge by the state. “These are neither kids like any other, nor are they time bombs.”

When French psychiatrists first see their young charges, they are in a state of shock from being separated from their mothers at the airport. “They are in a terrible state when we see them,” said Thierry Baubet, who is treating 40 children as part of the program set up by French authorities last year.

With their returning mothers in pre-trial detention, the children are placed with foster families – many of whom are at a loss on how to handle their trauma and have begun attending a support group set up by psychiatrists.

Mostly the children are too young to understand the stigma of IS or how their words may alarm neighbors, teachers and social workers.

“They talk about bombs. They talk about fathers who passed away,” Baubet said. “They talk about the Islamic State all the time.”

(Reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Additional reporting by Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Mark Hosenball in London; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Putin says Islamic State has seized 700 hostages in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a signing ceremony following a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia October 17, 2018. Pavel Golovkin/Pool via REUTERS

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Islamic State (IS) militants had seized nearly 700 hostages in part of Syria controlled by U.S.-backed forces and had executed some of them and promised to kill more.

Speaking in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, Putin said the hostages included several U.S. and European nationals, adding that Islamic State was expanding its control in territory on the left bank of the River Euphrates controlled by U.S. and U.S.-backed forces.

Putin did not specify what the militants’ demands were.

“They have issued ultimatums, specific demands and warned that if these ultimatums are not met they will execute 10 people every day. The day before yesterday they executed 10 people,” Putin told the Valdai discussion forum in Sochi.

The TASS news agency reported on Wednesday that IS militants had taken around 700 hostages in Syria’s Deir-al Zor province after attacking a refugee camp in an area controlled by U.S.-backed forces on Oct.13.

TASS said the militants had kidnapped around 130 families and taken them to the city of Hajin.

(Reporting by Gleb Stolyarov in Sochi; Additional reporting by Polina Devitt in Moscow; Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Jordan says nearly 300 Syrian ‘White Helmets’ leave for West

FILE PHOTO: Members of the Civil Defence, also known as the 'White Helmets', are seen inspecting the damage at a Roman ruin site in Daraa, Syria December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir/File Photo

AMMAN (Reuters) – Nearly 300 Syrian “White Helmet” rescue workers and their families who fled Syria for Jordan three months ago have left for resettlement in Western countries under an U.N. sponsored agreement, Jordan said on Wednesday.

In July the rescue workers who had been operating in rebel-held areas fled advancing Russian-backed Syrian government troops and slipped over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights frontier and into Jordan, with the help of Israeli soldiers and Western powers.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time he had helped the evacuation at the request of U.S. President Donald Trump and other leaders and that there had been fears that the rescue workers’ lives were at risk.

Jordan had accepted them on humanitarian grounds after getting written guarantees they would be given asylum in Canada, Germany and Britain, Jordanian officials said.

The “White Helmets”, known officially as Syria Civil Defence, have been credited with saving thousands of people in rebel-held areas during years of bombing by Syrian government and Russian forces in the country’s civil war.

Its members say they are neutral. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his backers describe them as tools of Western propaganda and Islamist-led insurgents.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh said 279 of the 422 people who took sanctuary in the kingdom had left, with 93 others due to leave by Oct. 25, near the end of a three-month period the authorities had given them to stay.

Another group’s departure would be delayed for two weeks until mid-November as there were new-born babies and people receiving medical treatment among them, al-Qatarneh told Reuters.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Andrew Roche and Alison Williams)

Number of U.S. diplomats doubled in Syria as Islamic State nears defeat: Mattis

U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis attends a news conference with French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly (not pictured) at the Defence Ministry in Paris, France, October 2, 2018. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

By Idrees Ali

PARIS (Reuters) – The number of U.S. diplomats in Syria has doubled as Islamic State fighters near a military defeat, U.S. Defense Secretary Mattis said on Tuesday.

The U.S.-led coalition, along with local partners, has largely cleared the militant group from Iraq and Syria but remains concerned about its resurgence.

“Our diplomats there on the ground have been doubled in number. As we see the military operations becoming less, we will see the diplomatic effort now able to take (root)” Mattis said.

He did not give a specific number.

A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mattis was referring to State Department employees, including diplomats and personnel involved in humanitarian assistance, and the increase was recent.

The United States does not have an embassy in Syria.

In a sign of the threat still posed by the militant group, security forces in northern Syria’s Raqqa said on Sunday they had uncovered an Islamic State sleeper cell which was plotting large attacks across the devastated city.

Raqqa served as the de facto capital of Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate until it was retaken by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia alliance last October.

In June, the SDF imposed a three-day curfew in Raqqa and declared a state of emergency, saying Islamic State militants had infiltrated the city and were planning a bombing campaign.

“We are still in a tough fight, make no mistake about it,” Mattis said.

He said troops would work after the defeat of Islamic State to ensure that the militant group did not return.

Russia has held the balance of power in Syria, both on the battlefield and in the U.N.-led peace talks, for the past two years. It has helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recover huge amounts of lost territory without persuading him to agree to any political reforms.

But nine rounds of talks, most of them in Geneva, have failed to bring the warring sides together to end a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven millions from their homes.

The United States has said it will pursue “a strategy of isolation”, including sanctions, with its allies if Assad holds up a political process aimed at ending Syria’s seven-year-old war.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Netanyahu says Israel will continue operations in Syria against Iran

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem September 16, 2018 Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday Israel would continue its military operations in Syria, after Russia announced it would supply an advanced anti-aircraft system to its Syrian ally.

“We will continue to act to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and we will continue the military coordination between the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) and the Russian army,” Netanyahu told reporters before boarding a flight to New York, where he will address the U.N. General Assembly.

Russia said on Monday it would supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks despite strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow accused Israel of indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military jet in Syria.

Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government against rebels and militants, has said Syrian anti-aircraft batteries shot its IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target.

Moscow accused Israel of creating dangerous conditions that caused the incident.

Israel, which has carried out air strikes in Syria many times during the civil war, said after the incident it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them.

Netanyahu spoke by telephone with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday. In his remarks on Tuesday, Netanyahu said he had agreed with Putin “that the working teams from the IDF and the Russian army will meet soon”.

The Israeli leader made the remarks after convening his security cabinet to discuss the tensions with Moscow.

“Over the past three years, Israel has been highly successful in preventing the Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and Iranian attempts to transfer lethal weaponry to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” Netanyahu said.

But he said there had been occasions when things had not gone smoothly, calling Syria’s downing of the Russian plane “tragic”.

Israel has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria, fearing this would hinder its aerial capability to strike the forces of Iran and its Hezbollah allies in Syria.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Ari Rabinovitch and Andrew Roche)

Russia to give Syria S-300 air defense after accusations against Israel

FILE PHOTO: Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket system move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow May 4, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

By Polina Nikolskaya and Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia announced on Monday it will supply an S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Syria in two weeks against strong Israeli objections, a week after Moscow blamed Israel for indirectly causing the downing of a Russian military plane in Syria.

Last week’s crash, which killed 15 Russian service members, had forced Moscow to take “adequate retaliatory measures to increase the safety of Russian military fighting international terrorism in Syria,” Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu said on Monday in a televised address.

“A modern S-300 air defense missile system will be transferred to the Syrian armed forces within two weeks,” he said. The system will “significantly increase the Syrian army’s combat capabilities,” he said.

Russia, which fights in Syria to support the government, has said Syria shot the IL-20 surveillance plane down by mistake shortly after Israeli jets hit a nearby target. Russia blamed Israel for creating dangerous conditions that caused the crash.

Israel, which has struck Syria scores of times during the seven-year war, said after the incident that it would work to improve “deconfliction” of its missions with Russian forces, but would not halt them. It has long lobbied Moscow not to provide the S-300 to Syria.

Krelmin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on a conference call that the decision to supply the weapons was “not directed at any third country”. “Russia needs to increase safety of its military and it should be clear for everyone,” he said.

But he also repeated Moscow’s accusations that Israel was to blame for the crash: “No doubt that according to our military experts, deliberate action by Israeli pilots was the reason for the tragedy and this cannot but harm our (Russia-Israeli) ties.”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s office explicitly linked the Russian decision to supply the weapons to the air crash: “President Putin held Israel responsible for bring down the plane and informed President Assad that Russia will develop Syria’s air defense systems,” the Syrian presidency said.

Shoigu said Russia will equip Syrian anti-aircraft units with Russian tracking and guidance systems in order to identify Russian aircraft.

Russia in April had hinted that it would supply the S-300 to Assad’s government despite Israeli objections.

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

Israel says its air strikes on Syria are not a threat to Russia’s ally Assad, but that it must carry them out to halt arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. It has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capability.

(Reporting by Maria Kiselyova, Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Polina Nikolskaya in Moscow and Ellen Francis in Beirut,; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Denis Pinchuk, Editing by Robin Pomeroy and Peter Graff)