Israel sees Syrian army growing beyond pre-civil war size

An Israeli soldier rides an armoured vehicle during an army drill after the visit of Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohe

MEROM GOLAN, Golan Heights (Reuters) – Israel’s defense minister said on Tuesday that Syria was building up its ground forces beyond their pre-civil war size, an assessment that suggests President Bashar al-Assad’s army has recovered from a critical manpower shortage earlier in the war.

The Syrian military was hit by major defections in the first years of the conflict, which began in 2011, and by 2015 Assad acknowledged that “a shortfall in human capacity” meant the army could not fight everywhere for fear of losing vital ground.

Russia intervened militarily soon afterward to turn the tide of war and has been helping arm and train the Syrian army. Iran has also backed Assad, sending military advisers and allied Shi’ite militia from across the region to support his troops.

Pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict have also included local militias raised by the Lebanese Hezbollah with Iranian support, including the National Defence Forces.

“Across the way we see the Syrian military, which is not satisfied with just taking over all of Syrian territory but is expressly building a broad-based, new ground army that will return to its previous proportions and beyond,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of the Golan Heights.

Israel closely monitors the military capacity of Syria, an adversary against which it has fought three wars. It captured part of the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and has occupied it since.

With Assad now regaining control, Israel has voiced worry that he might defy a 44-year-old Golan demilitarisation deal that had stabilized their standoff.

An Israeli soldier is dressed-up playing the role of the enemy takes part in a army drill after the visit of Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

An Israeli soldier is dressed-up playing the role of the enemy takes part in an army drill after the visit of Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

In a Twitter statement, Lieberman said that Israel’s tanks, deployed on parts of the strategic plateau that it captured from Syria in a 1967 war, were “our crushing strike force and will know how to defend the border in any eventuality”.

In a May interview, Assad also said Syria had improved its air defenses with Russian help.

The Golan saw large tank battles in 1967 and the subsequent Israel-Syria war in 1973. Israel annexed its side of the Golan in 1981, in a move not recognized internationally.

In a July 19 briefing, the chief of Israel’s armored corps told reporters that while the number of Israeli tanks fielded was unlikely to grow, a new, improved tank model would be introduced in 2021.

(Writing by Dan Williams and Angus McDowall, Editing by William Maclean)

Iraq jails French and German citizens for life for joining Islamic State

FILE PHOTO: An Iraqi student walks past a school wall covered with drawings showing how Islamic State militants executed their prisoners in Mosul, Iraq April 30, 2018. REUTERS/Ari Jalal/File Photo

By Raya Jalabi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – An Iraqi court sentenced a French man and a German woman to life in prison on Monday for belonging to Islamic State, forging ahead with the trial of hundreds of people – many foreigners – captured after the militant group’s defeat last year.

French citizen Lahcen Ammar Gueboudj, in his 50s, and the German, Nadia Rainer Hermann, 22, had both pleaded not guilty to joining the hardline Islamist group that captured a third of Iraq and swathes of Syria in 2014.

Though Gueboudj and Hermann were tried individually, they were brought out for sentencing with 13 others tried on Monday, crowding the small courtroom.

During Gueboudj’s roughly 30-minute trial, he said he had only come to the region to retrieve his son who had joined Islamic State and had been living in its de facto Syrian capital, Raqqa.

“I would never have left France if my son hadn’t been in Syria,” he told the judge, through a translator, in Baghdad’s Central Criminal Court.

“I know I’m crazy to have gone to Syria.”

Speaking to Reuters in French through the bars of a holding cell outside the courtroom before he was sentenced, a disheveled Gueboudj said he had signed papers he had not understood were a confession during the investigation.

Hermann and Gueboudj both told Reuters they had spoken to consular staff only once since being detained in 2017. They had court-appointed lawyers present on Monday but had neither met with nor spoken to them, they said. The sentences can be appealed.

Embassy staff and translators from both countries attended Monday’s hearing.

Hermann was sentenced in January to a year in jail for entering Iraq illegally.

Asked by the judge whether she believed in Islamic State’s ideology, she said no. However, she earlier admitted to the judge that she had received a salary of 50,000 Iraqi dinars ($42) per month, which confirmed her membership to the group.

“This whole process is confusing,” Hermann, who wore a blue prison uniform over a black abaya and a grey headscarf, told Reuters before the verdict, speaking in German from the holding cell, in the presence of Iraqi prison guards.

Hermann was the only woman being tried on charges relating to Islamic State on Monday. Iraq has been prosecuting women of various nationalities for months and was sentencing roughly 10 women a day at the peak of trials in the spring.

Around 20 foreign women, including nationals of Turkey, Germany, and Azerbaijan, have been sentenced to death for membership of Islamic State.

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Russia to deploy military police on Golan Heights

Chief of the Main Operational Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces Lieutenant General Sergei Rudskoi speaks during a news briefing, with a map showing the territory of Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria seen in the background, in Moscow, Russia August 2, 2018. Alexander Zemlianichenko/Pool via REUTERS

By Denis Pinchuk and Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia will deploy its military police on the Golan Heights frontier between Syria and Israel, its defense ministry said on Thursday, after weeks of mounting volatility in the area.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s sweeping away of rebels in southwestern Syria has worried Israel, which believes it could allow his Iranian backers to entrench their troops close to the frontier.

Underlining the tensions, Israel killed seven militants in an overnight air strike on the Syrian-held part of the Golan Heights, Israeli radio said on Thursday.

Sergei Rudskoi, a senior Russian defense ministry official, said that Russian military police had on Thursday begun patrolling in the Golan Heights and planned to set up eight observation posts in the area.

He said the Russian presence there was in support of United Nations peacekeepers on the Golan Heights who, he said, had suspended their activities in the area in 2012 because their safety was endangered.

“Today, UN peacekeepers accompanied by Russian military police conducted their first patrols in six years in the separation zone,” Rudskoi told a briefing for journalists in Moscow.

“With the aim of preventing possible provocations against UN posts along the ‘Bravo’ line, the deployment is planned of eight observation posts of Russia’s armed forces’ military police,” Rudskoi said.

He said the Russian presence there was temporary, and that the observation posts would be handed over to Syrian government forces once the situation stabilized.

The deployment of the Russian military police highlights the degree to which the Kremlin has become an influential actor in Middle East conflicts since its military intervention in Syria which turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.

Israel has been lobbying the Kremlin to use its influence with Assad, and with Tehran, to try to get the Iranian military presence in Syria scaled back.

Israel sees Iran, and Iran’s allies in the Hezbollah Shi’ite military, as a direct threat to its national security.

That message was conveyed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Russian President Vladimir Putin when they met in Moscow last month, a senior Israeli official said.

Iranian forces have withdrawn their heavy weapons in Syria to a distance of 85 km (53 miles) from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, TASS quoted a Russian envoy as saying on Wednesday, but Israel deemed the pullback inadequate.

(Writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Christian Lowe, Richard Balmforth)

‘Horrors that can’t be told’: Afghan women report Islamic State rapes

FILE PHOTO: An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic

By Abdul Matin Sahak

SHEBERGHAN, Afghanistan (Reuters) – A mother of three from a remote area of northwestern Afghanistan remembers the day the head of a local Islamic State group came to her village, demanding money he said her husband had promised.

“I told him we didn’t have any money but that if we found any we would send it to him. But he didn’t accept that and said I had to be married to one of his people and leave my husband and go with them,” Zarifa said.

“When I refused, the people he had with him took my children to another room and he took a gun and said if I didn’t go with him he would kill me and take my house. And he did everything he could to me.”

Even by the bloody standards of the Afghan war, Islamic State has gained an unmatched reputation for brutality, routinely beheading opponents or forcing them to sit on explosives.

But while forced marriages and rape have been among the most notable features of Islamic State rule in Iraq and Syria they have been much less widely reported in Afghanistan.

While there have been reports in Nangarhar, the eastern province where Islamic State first appeared in 2014 and in Zabul in the south, deep taboos that can make it impossible for women to report sexual abuse make it hard to know its scale.

The group has a growing presence in Zarifa’s province of Jawzjan, on the border with Turkmenistan, exploiting smuggling routes and attracting both foreign fighters as well as unemployed locals and fighting both U.S.-backed Afghan forces and the Taliban.

For Zarifa, the attack forced her to leave her home in the Darzab district of south Jawzjan and seek shelter in the provincial capital of Sheberghan.

“My husband was a farmer and now I can’t face my husband and my neighbors and so, despite the danger, I left,” she said.

TEN MONTHS OF TERROR

Another woman, Samira, who escaped Darzab and now lives in Sheberghan, said fighters came to her house and took her 14 year-old sister to their commander. Like Zarifa, she did not want to use her full name because of the stigma against victims of sexual violence.

“He didn’t marry her and no one else married her but he raped her and his soldiers forced themselves on her and even the head of the village who is in Daesh forced himself on my sister and raped her,” she said. Daesh is an Arabic term for Islamic State.

“This girl was there with Daesh for 10 months but after 10 months she escaped and now she’s with us. But I can’t tell anyone about this out of shame.”

Stories like those told by Samira and Zarifa have emerged in recent months as thousands have fled Darzab.

“Daesh has committed many horrors in Darzab that can’t be told,” said the Taliban’s main spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid.

“Daesh does not abide by any rules and there is no doubt about the horrors people have been speaking about.”

Islamic State has no known spokesman in Afghanistan. But the accounts were broadly endorsed by government officials who say Islamic State is trying to import an entirely foreign ideology.

Documents captured in Syria in 2015 revealed ways in which Islamic State theologians regulated the use of female captives for sexual purposes.

“It is completely against our culture and traditions,” said Mohammad Radmanish, a defense ministry spokesman, who said that Darzab was not the only area where rapes and sexual slavery by Islamic State had been reported.

“When they came to our area, everyone knew what these Daesh had come for,” said Kamila, a woman from Darzab, who said that three girls were taken from the area where she lived.

“They would bind a girl or woman from a house and take her with them. At first they said that we would have to marry them. But then, when they took them, many men forced themselves on them and raped them.”

(Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Nick Macfie)

As some ‘White Helmets’ escaped Syria, most were left behind

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets holds a document at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

By Khalil Ashawi

MIZANAZ, Syria (Reuters) – Fearing for his life, Daman Ayed registered to be evacuated from Syria along with hundreds of other members of the White Helmets rescue service, hoping for a new life in Canada.

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets is seen at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Daman Ayed, a 20-year old former rescue worker with the White Helmets is seen at a temporary camp in Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. Picture taken July 23, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

But the 20-year-old was not among the several hundred people who were spirited out of the country last weekend over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and into Jordan. When the list of names approved for evacuation arrived, his was not on it.

“They told us at midnight that the names had come. We were surprised how many names had not been approved,” said Ayed. Only two of the people working at his rescue center were on the list.

Instead, he joined thousands of other people boarding buses for opposition territory in northwest Syria under the terms of the rebels’ surrender to the government.

Many of the rescue workers and their families originally supposed to join the evacuation were not able to reach the frontier because of fighting, the White Helmets said.

Of about 800 people, including about 250 White Helmets, along with 550 family members, in the plans, only about 100 rescue workers and about 300 relatives were able to cross through the Golan Heights and Jordan.

However, other White Helmets, including Ayed, were never cleared for evacuation. “We sent these lists…and some names were refused and some names were accepted,” said Ammar al-Selmo, a White Helmet working at the group’s headquarters in Turkey.

Britain, Canada and Germany were among the countries that offered resettlement and helped to arrange the evacuation.

Asked why some White Helmets were not included in the evacuation plans, a British Foreign Ministry spokesperson said: “This was a response to a specific and urgent situation”.

“We have worked, alongside our partners, to use our diplomatic channels to evacuate the maximum number of White Helmets and their families as was possible in an extremely constrained security context.”

German officials declined to comment.

Ayed, who has arrived in the northwest along with his parents and younger brother, said he still sees leaving Syria as his best hope of surviving the war.

“Regarding our departure for Canada, I consider it the only solution to save our lives,” he said.

People internally displaced from Deraa province walk near their belongings at a temporary camp at Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

People internally displaced from Deraa province walk near their belongings at a temporary camp at Aleppo countryside, Syria July 23, 2018. REUTERS/ Khalil Ashawi

IDENTIFICATION PAPERS

The northwest is the last major area still held by rebels. Idlib faces frequent bombardment and President Bashar al-Assad has said it is now his target.

Rescue workers with the White Helmets, which operates only in opposition-held parts of Syria, are at great risk if captured by the government, Ayed said.

“Our fate is worse than that of army defectors,” he said.

Assad has accused the White Helmets of being an al Qaeda front, and his government says they fabricated chemical weapons attacks as a pretext for Western air strikes.

The group, which receives funding from Western governments, says it is a civilian rescue organization that works under bombardment to pull people from the rubble.

Adding to his fear of capture by Assad’s forces, Ayed said when the army advanced into his district of the southwest this month, it seized paperwork at the White Helmets base.

“The most important thing is the names and identities of the volunteers, and our special identification cards. This is what damages us the most. The papers and the names were not destroyed, but stayed as they were and are in the hands of the regime,” he said.

SHELLING

Assad has crushed one center of the rebellion after another in recent years and last month turned to the opposition stronghold straddling Deraa and Quneitra provinces in the southwest.

Air strikes were followed by ground attacks and offers of surrender in return for safe passage to northwestern Syria for any who refused to come back under government control.

Ayed, who said he has been a White Helmet for 16 months, was based in Lajat, the first rebel area in Deraa to come under attack.

As the army closed in, it shelled the White Helmets center and the rescue workers fled before it was captured, he said. Its 30 staff split up, heading for different parts of the remaining rebel territory.

Some sought refuge in towns that were later captured by the government. “They were surrounded and their fate is unknown,” he said.

Ayed and his family ended up in Quneitra, near the frontier with the Golan Heights, the last patch of rebel ground in southwest Syria to surrender to the government.

He worked at the White Helmets center there for several weeks. Then one evening all its rescue workers were called in for an urgent meeting.

They were told to submit their names for evacuation through Israel and Jordan with the prospect of resettlement in Canada, he said. When the names came back, Ayed was not among them.

(Additional reporting by Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Andrew MacAskill in London; Writing by Angus McDowall; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Islamic State kills 215 in southwest Syria attacks: state media

Remains of a suicide bomb are seen in Sweida, Syria July 25, 2018. Sana/Handout via REUTERS

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State militants killed more than 200 people in a coordinated assault on a government-held area of southwestern Syria on Wednesday, local officials and a war monitor said, in the group’s deadliest attack in the country for years.

Jihadist fighters stormed several villages and staged suicide blasts in the provincial capital Sweida, near one of the few remote pockets still held by Islamic State after it was driven from most of its territory last year.

The head of the Sweida provincial health authority told the pro-Damascus Sham FM that 215 people were killed and 180 injured in the attack, as well as 75 Islamic State fighters.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said the attackers had killed more than 200 people including many civilians. Islamic State said in an earlier statement that it had killed more than 100 people in the attacks.

The jihadists launched simultaneous attacks on several villages northeast of Sweida city, where they clashed with government forces, state media and the Observatory said.

In the city itself, at least two attackers blew themselves up, one near a marketplace and the second in another district, state television said. State news agency SANA said two other militants were killed before they could detonate their bombs.

The Observatory said jihadists seized hostages from the villages they had attacked.

Photographs distributed on social media, which Reuters could not independently verify but which the Observatory said were genuine, purported to show the bodies of Islamic State fighters hanged from street signs by angry residents.

Sweida Governor Amer al-Eshi said authorities also arrested another attacker. “The city of Sweida is secure and calm now,” he told state-run Ikhbariyah TV.

Islamic State lost nearly all the territory it once held in Syria last year in separate offensives by the Russian-backed army and a U.S.-backed militia alliance.

Since then, President Bashar al-Assad has gone on to crush the last remaining rebel enclaves near the cities of Damascus and Homs and swept rebels from the southwest.

After losing its strongholds in eastern Syria last year, Islamic State launched insurgency operations from pockets of territory in desert areas.

The Observatory said government forces had forced the jihadists from all the villages they had stormed from their pocket northeast of the city.

Government troops and allied forces hold all of Sweida province except for that enclave.

The air force pounded militant hideouts northeast of the city after soldiers thwarted an attempt by Islamic State fighters to infiltrate Douma, Tima and al-Matouna villages, state media said.

With the help of Russian air power, the Syrian army has been hitting Islamic State in a separate pocket further west, near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The Yarmouk Basin in southwest Syria remains in jihadist hands, after an army offensive defeated rebel factions in other parts of the southwest. The operation has focused on Deraa and Quneitra provinces.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Tom Perry in Beirut, Hesham Hajali in Cairo, and Kinda Makieh in Damascus; editing by Stephen Powell and David Stamp)

Israel shoots down Syrian warplane as Golan frontier heats up

An explosion is pictured at Quneitra at the Syrian side of the Israeli Syrian border, as seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, July 22. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Dan Williams and Lisa Barrington

JERUSALEM/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Israel said it shot down a Syrian warplane that crossed into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights on Tuesday, but Damascus said the jet was fired on as it took part in operations against rebels on Syrian territory.

The incident added new fuel to weeks of tensions over the Golan, a strategic plateau between the two old enemies and where Israel has been on high alert as Syrian government forces, supported by Russia, close in to regain rebel-held ground.

For the second time in as many days, Israeli sirens sounded on the Golan and witnesses saw the contrails of two missiles flying skyward. The military said it fired Patriot interceptor missiles at a Syrian Sukhoi jet that crossed 2 km (1 mile) into Israeli-controlled airspace, after first trying to warn it off.

“It was shot down and it crashed…most likely in the southern part of the Syrian Golan Heights,” Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

“We do not have any information so far about the pilots. I do not know of any reports of parachutes being spotted, and we do not know if any pilots have been retrieved.”

Syrian state media said, however, that a Syrian warplane had been targeted by Israel and hit while conducting raids in Syrian airspace.

“The Israeli enemy confirms its support for the armed terrorist groups and targets one of our warplanes, which was striking their groups in the area of Saida on the edge of the Yarmouk Basin in Syrian airspace,” the official news agency SANA quoted a military source as saying.

Smoke trails from two Patriot missiles can be seen near the Israeli city of Safed in northern Israel July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

Smoke trails from two Patriot missiles can be seen near the Israeli city of Safed in northern Israel July 24, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

An Israeli military statement appeared to acknowledge that its mission was related to the civil war next door.

“Since morning hours, there has been an increase in the internal fighting in Syria, including an increase in the activity of the Syrian Air Force,” the statement said.

It said Israel would “continue to operate against” any breach of a 1974 U.N. armistice deal that established buffer zones on the Golan.

Israel worries that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad might try to defy the demilitarization regime or allow his Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah reinforcements to deploy near the Golan.

The raised Israeli-Syrian tensions have prompted intercession by Moscow, which sent its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and top general on Monday for talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israeli officials said Netanyahu rebuffed as insufficient a Russian offer to keep Iranian forces 100 km (62 miles) from the Golan lines.

Also on Monday, Reuters witnesses on the southern edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan saw numerous warplanes and helicopters in the skies over Syrian territory.

The aircraft were dropping bombs, apparently as part of a Russian-backed Syrian government push into areas previously held by anti-government forces.

Anti-aircraft fire could also be seen, targeting the warplanes.

In February, an Israeli F-16 jet was brought down by Syrian anti-aircraft fire.

That warplane crashed in northern Israel while returning from a bombing raid on what Israel said was an Iranian military installation in Syria. Both pilots ejected and were injured, one critically.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell; Writing by Dan Williams; editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Pro-Assad villages evacuated in deal with Syrian insurgents

A fighter loyal to President Bashar al Assad and a child are seen in a bus as they are evacuated from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Two pro-government villages in northwestern Syria were evacuated on Thursday, state television said, in an agreement between the Damascus government and insurgents who had laid siege to them for several years.

In exchange, the government was due to release hundreds of prisoners from its jails. Pro-Damascus TV stations said at least 20 buses carrying “militants” released from jail had crossed into rebel-held territory under the agreement.

Close to 7,000 people – civilians and fighters – were due to leave the loyalist Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province. They were ferried out in a convoy of buses through rebel-held territory to nearby government-held territory in Aleppo province, state TV footage showed.

A commander in the regional alliance that backs Damascus said insurgents in Idlib were still holding around 1,000 of the evacuees near the crossing on Thursday night.

Footage broadcast by al-Manar TV, which is run by the pro-Damascus Lebanese Shi’ite group Hezbollah, showed buses arriving at a government checkpoint in al-Eis, east of the two villages, earlier in the day. Many had smashed windscreens – Al-Manar’s reporter said they had been pelted with rocks as they drove through rebel areas.

A separate convoy of buses was shown crossing from al-Eis into rebel-held territory. Al-Manar’s reporter at the scene said they were carrying detainees released under the deal.

Population transfers have been a common feature of the seven-year war, mostly at the expense of Assad’s opponents.

Rebels and civilians have been bussed out of their home towns to insurgent territory in the north as government troops advanced, backed by Russian and Iranian forces. The opposition has decried this as a systematic policy of forced displacement, or “demographic change”, to get rid of Assad’s opponents.

People are seen as they are evacuated from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

People are seen as they are evacuated from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya, Syria July 19, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

Assad has vowed to recover the entire country, and Idlib province is the last major insurgent-held part of Syria. The Syrian army and its allies are now waging a rapidly advancing campaign against rebels in the southwest, the other major area where Assad’s enemies were holding out.

The conflict, which has killed half a million Syrians and driven 11 million from their homes, has long had a sectarian dimension. Assad is from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam, while most Syrians are Sunni Muslims.

Shi’ite militias backed by Iran have deployed from across the region to help Damascus against the mainly Sunni rebels.

More than 120 buses arrived at the Shi’ite villages on Wednesday to take out the residents and fighters. Ambulances left first, ferrying out the sick to a government checkpoint. State-run al-Ikhbariya TV said 10 ambulances carrying a number of people in critical condition left the villages.

Opposition sources said officials from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a coalition spearheaded by Syria’s former al-Qaeda offshoot, had negotiated the swap with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

A commander in the regional alliance that backs Assad and an Islamist rebel source familiar with the secret talks said that Turkey was also involved in the process, which builds on a deal from last year that was not fully implemented.

The evacuees were due to include Alawites taken hostage by rebels when they overran Idlib more than three years ago, the commander said.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Hesham Hajali in Cairo; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Larry King)

Syrian rebels and Iran reach deal to evacuate villages: sources

FILE PHOTO - People that were evacuated from the two villages of Kefraya and al-Foua walk near buses, after a stall in an agreement between rebels and Syria's army, at insurgent-held al-Rashideen, Aleppo province, Syria April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Ammar Abdullah

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian rebels and Iranian-backed negotiators have reached a deal to evacuate thousands of people from two rebel-besieged Shi’ite villages in northwest Syria in return for the release of hundreds of detainees in state prisons, opposition sources said.

They said the negotiators from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel coalition spearheaded by Syria’s former al Qaeda offshoot Nusra Front, and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had reached the secret deal, under which all residents would be evacuated from the mostly Shi’ite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya in Idlib province.

“An initial agreement has been reached but talks are ongoing,” said an Islamist rebel source familiar with the secret negotiations that Turkey was also involved in and which builds on a deal reached last year that was never fully implemented.

In April 2017 thousands of people in the two Shi’ite towns were evacuated to government-held areas in a swap deal that in exchange freed hundreds of Sunnis living in former rebel-held Madaya and Zabadani that were then besieged by Lebanon’s Iranian-backed Hezbollah group.

But the evacuation of the remaining 7,000 people in al-Foua and Kefraya in exchange for the release of 1,500 detainees prisoners never went through.

The resumption of talks now to complete the deal was to ward off a possible military campaign by the Syrian army and Iranian backed militias to end the siege of the two Shi’ite towns, another opposition source said.

“Over 1,500 civilian and rebel prisoners held in regime prisons will be released,” said an opposition source familiar with the talks told Reuters.

The deal also includes release of thirty four prisoners captured by Hezbollah during its siege of the Madaya and Zabadani.

There was no official word on the deal but state-owned Ikhabriyah television station said there were “reports of an agreement to liberate thousands from the two towns”.

Iran, which backs President Bashar al Assad against the mainly Sunni insurgents and has expanded its military role in the country, has long taken a interest in the fate of its co-religionists in the two-besieged towns.

It has arranged dozens of air lifts of food and equipment to circumvent the siege by rebels of the two towns.

Past deals have mostly affected Sunni Muslims living in former rebel-held areas surrounded by government forces and their allies after years of crushing sieges that have in some cases led to starvation. Damascus calls them reconciliation deals.

Rebels say it amounts to forced displacement of Assad’s opponents from Syria’s main urban centers in the west of the country, and engenders demographic change because most of the opposition, and Syria’s population, are Sunni.

But backed militarily by Russia and Shi’ite regional allies, Assad, a member of Syria’s Alawite minority, has negotiated the deals from a position of strength.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Israel warns Syrians away from frontier as Assad closes in

People wave white cloths next to the refugee tents erected near the border fence between Israel and Syria from its Syrian side as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the Israeli Syrian border July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

GOLAN HEIGHTS/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Dozens of Syrians approached the Israeli frontier on the Golan Heights on Tuesday in an apparent attempt to seek help or sanctuary from a Russian-backed Syrian army offensive, before turning back after a warning from Israeli forces.

Tens of thousands of Syrians have arrived near the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in the past month, fleeing a rapidly advancing offensive which has defeated rebels across a swathe of territory near Jordan and Israel.

“Go back before something bad happens. If you want us to be able to help you, go back,” an Israeli army officer on the Israeli side of a frontier fence told the crowd in Arabic through a megaphone. “Get a move on.”

The offensive has triggered the single biggest displacement of the war, with several hundred thousand people uprooted. Both Israel and Jordan have said they will not allow Syrians to cross into their territory.

Israel, which seized the Golan in the 1967 Middle East War, has given humanitarian aid to refugees in encampments close to a 1974 Israeli-Syrian disengagement line. Many of the displaced are sheltering within the disengagement zone that is monitored by a U.N. force.

The Syrians who approached the frontier fence stopped some 200 meters (yards) away, before an Israeli soldier told them to leave.

People walk towards the border fence between Israel and Syria from its Syrian side as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the Israeli Syrian border July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvu

People walk towards the border fence between Israel and Syria from its Syrian side as it is seen from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights near the Israeli Syrian border July 17, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

“You are on the border of the State of Israel. Go back, we don’t want to hurt you,” the soldier shouted in Arabic through a loudspeaker at the crowd, live Reuters TV footage showed.

The crowd, which included women and children, then walked back slowly towards the refugee encampment. Some stopped mid-way and waved white cloths in the direction of the Israeli frontier.

The Russian-backed offensive has advanced swiftly, unopposed by President Bashar al-Assad’s foreign adversaries. The United States, which once armed the southern rebels, told them not to expect it to intervene as the attack got underway last month.

A witness on the Syrian side of the Golan frontier said the sound of bombardment was drawing ever nearer. The United Nations said last week up to 160,000 Syrians had fled to Quneitra province, some in close proximity to the Golan area.

GOVERNMENT FORCES CELEBRATE

Syrian state TV broadcast from a hilltop captured from rebels on Monday and overlooking the Golan frontier. Government fighters waved rifles and held aloft pictures of Assad as they celebrated on camera from the location, al-Haara hill.

“We will liberate all Syria,” said one of the soldiers.

Israel has threatened a harsh response to any attempt by Syrian forces to deploy in the disengagement zone, complicating the government offensive as it draws closer to the frontier.

Israel does not want its enemies Iran and Hezbollah, both allies of Assad, to move forces near its border. Iran-backed Shi’ite forces including Hezbollah have been critical to Assad’s advances.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, speaking alongside U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday, cited the need to restore the situation along the Golan borders to the state that prevailed before the outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been pressing Putin to rein in Iranian and Iran-backed forces in Syria.

Hezbollah-controlled al-Manar TV said the Syrian army had captured one of the last rebel-held areas in Deraa province, al-Aliyeh.

At least 14 people, including five children and some women, were killed when government forces bombarded the nearby village of Ain al-Tineh 10 km (6 miles) from the Golan frontier, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported.

(This story has been refiled to remove extraneous words in final paragraph)

(Reporting by Rami Amichay and Tom Perry in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry in Beirut and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Angus MacSwan)