Syria’s Ghouta residents ‘wait to die’ as more bombs fall

A person inspects damaged building in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Residents of Syria’s eastern Ghouta district said they were waiting their “turn to die” on Wednesday, amid one of the most intense bombardments of the war by pro-government forces on the besieged, rebel-held enclave near Damascus.

At least 27 people died and more than 200 were injured on Wednesday. At least 299 people have been killed in the district in the last three days, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

Another 13 bodies, including five children, were recovered from the rubble of houses destroyed on Tuesday in the villages of Arbin and Saqba, the Observatory reported.

The eastern Ghouta, a densely populated agricultural district on the Damascus outskirts, is the last major area near the capital still under rebel control. Home to 400,000 people, it has been besieged by government forces for years.

A massive escalation in bombardment, including rocket fire, shelling, air strikes and helicopter-dropped barrel bombs, since Sunday has become one of the deadliest of the Syrian civil war, now entering its eighth year.

Reuters photographs taken in eastern Ghouta on Wednesday showed men searching through the rubble of smashed buildings, carrying blood-smeared people to hospital and cowering in debris-strewn streets.

The United Nations has denounced the bombardment, which has struck hospitals and other civilian infrastructure, saying such attacks could be war crimes.

The pace of the strikes appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed later on Wednesday morning, the Observatory said. Pro-government forces fired hundreds of rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the district’s towns and villages.

“We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say,” said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma. They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labor early, he said.

“Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets,” he said.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) called on Wednesday for humanitarian access to Ghouta, especially to reach wounded people in critical need of treatment.

“The fighting appears likely to cause much more suffering in the days and weeks ahead,” said Marianne Gasser, ICRC’s head of delegation in Syria. “This is madness and it has to stop.”

The Union of Medical Care and Relief Organisations, a group of foreign agencies that fund hospitals in opposition-held parts of Syria, said eight medical facilities in eastern Ghouta had been attacked on Tuesday.

WARNINGS

The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the United Nations.

The Observatory said many of the planes over Ghouta appear to be Russian. Syrians say they can distinguish between Russian and Syrian planes because the Russian aircraft fly higher.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov on Wednesday described as “groundless” accusations that Russia bears some of the blame for civilian deaths in eastern Ghouta.

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Assad’s government told Reuters overnight the bombing aims to prevent the rebels from targeting the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign.

“The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing,” the commander said.

Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding four people on Wednesday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.

“Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Centre for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from eastern Ghouta,” Russia’s Defence Ministry said late on Tuesday.

Eastern Ghouta is one of a group of “de-escalation zones” under a diplomatic ceasefire initiative agreed by Assad’s allies Russia and Iran with Turkey which has backed the rebels. But a rebel group formerly affiliated with al Qaeda is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.

Conditions in eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.

(Reporting By Dahlia Nehme, Angus McDowall and Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Peter Graff)

More bombs hit Syria’s Ghouta after heaviest death toll in years

A helicopter is seen flying over the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, Damascus, Syria February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Pro-government forces pounded Syria’s eastern Ghouta on Tuesday, killing at least 66 people after the enclave’s heaviest one-day death toll in three years, a monitoring group said.

Sparking an international outcry, the surge in air strikes, rocket fire, and shelling has killed more than 210 adults and children in the rebel pocket near Damascus since late on Sunday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

France described the government bombing as a serious violation of international humanitarian law.

There was no immediate comment from the Syrian military. Damascus says it only targets militants.

Recent violence in the besieged suburb is part of a wider surge in fighting on several fronts as President Bashar al-Assad’s military pushes to end the seven-year rebellion against him.

A U.N. coordinator called for an immediate ceasefire on Monday and said that Ghouta was “spiraling out of control” after an “extreme escalation in hostilities”.

In Geneva, the U.N. children’s agency expressed outrage at the casualties among the enclave’s children, saying it had run out of words.

Those killed since the escalation began on Sunday include 54 children. Another 850 people have been injured, the Britain-based Observatory said.

In Brussels, Syrian opposition leader Nasr al-Hariri – a delegation head at stalled U.N. peace talks – told the European Union the intensified attacks consisted a “war crime”, and pleaded for more international pressure on Assad to stop.

WARPLANES IN THE SKY

Rescuers said the air raids create “a state of terror” among residents in eastern Ghouta, where the United Nations says nearly 400,000 people live. The pocket of satellite towns and farms, under government siege since 2013, is the last major rebel bastion near the capital.

Factions in Ghouta fired mortars at Damascus on Tuesday, killing six people and injuring 28, Syrian state TV said. The army retaliated and pounded militant targets, state news agency SANA said.

The Syrian foreign ministry said militants in Ghouta were targeting Damascus and using people there as “human shields”. It said in a letter of complaint to the U.N. that some Western officials were denying the government’s right to defend itself.

The Civil Defence in eastern Ghouta, a rescue service that operates in rebel territory, said jets battered Kafr Batna, Saqba, Hammouriyeh, and several other towns on Tuesday.

“The warplanes are not leaving the sky at all,” said Siraj Mahmoud, a civil defense spokesman in Ghouta, as the sound of explosions rang out in the background.

Mahmoud said that government forces bombed houses, schools and medical facilities, and that rescuers had found more than 100 people dead “in one day alone” on Monday.

Reuters photos showed bandaged people waiting at a medical point in the town of Douma, some of them with blood streaming down their faces and their skin caked in dust.

Bombs struck five hospitals in the enclave on Monday, said the UOSSM group of aid agencies that funds medical facilities in opposition parts of Syria.

DE-ESCALATION ZONES

Assad’s most powerful backer, Russia, has been pushing its own diplomatic track which resulted in establishing several “de-escalation zones” in rebel territory last year.

Fighting has raged on in eastern Ghouta even though it falls under the ceasefire plans that Moscow brokered with the help of Turkey and Iran. The truces do not cover a former al-Qaeda affiliate, which has a small presence in the besieged enclave.

Residents and aid workers say the “de-escalation” deals have brought no relief. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwindled.

The two main rebel factions in eastern Ghouta, which signed the deals with Russia last summer, accuse Damascus and Moscow of using the jihadist presence as a pretext for attacks.

Moscow did not comment on the renewed bombing in eastern Ghouta on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov blamed on Monday “armed provocations” by Nusra militants, formerly linked to al-Qaeda, for conditions in Ghouta. He said Moscow and its allies could “deploy our experience of freeing Aleppo … in the eastern Ghouta situation”.

U.N. Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura warned on Tuesday that the escalating battle in Ghouta could turn into a repeat of the bloody fight for Aleppo, which Damascus regained full control of in late 2016 after years of fighting.

“These fears seem to be well founded,” aid group International Rescue Committee also said on Tuesday. It said malnutrition was widespread and Ghouta’s schools had been closed since early January because of the attacks.

“The people of Eastern Ghouta are terrified… There is nowhere safe for them to run to,” IRC’s Middle East Regional Director Mark Schnellbaecher said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, and Lisa Barrington; additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by Andrew Roche)

Public reports ‘clearly show’ Assad’s use of chemical weapons: McMaster

National security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster speaks at the FDD National Security Summit in Washington, U.S., October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

By Idrees Ali and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said on Saturday that, despite denials, public reports showed that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was using chemical weapons, and added that it was time for the international community to hold the Syrian government to account.

“Public accounts and photos clearly show that Assad’s chemical weapons use is continuing,” McMaster said at a major international security conference taking place in Munich.

“It is time for all nations to hold the Syrian regime and its sponsors accountable for their actions and support the efforts of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,” he said.

McMaster did not specify which public accounts or pictures he was referring to.

Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the Syrian government had repeatedly used chlorine gas, but stressed that the U.S. did not have evidence of sarin gas use.

French President Emmanuel Macron has said that “France will strike” if chemical weapons are used against civilians in the Syrian conflict in violation of international treaties, but that he had not yet seen proof this is the case.

The Syrian government has repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and said it targets only armed rebels and militants.

In recent weeks, rescue workers, aid groups and the United States have accused Syria of repeatedly using chlorine gas as a weapon against civilians in Ghouta and Idlib.

Earlier this month, Syrian government forces, who are backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded the areas, two of the last major rebel-held parts of Syria.

Diplomatic efforts have made scant progress towards ending a war now approaching its eighth year, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced half the pre-war Syrian population of 23 million from their homes.

NORTH KOREA

McMaster called on the international community to do more on North Korea.

“We must pressure the Kim regime, using all available tools, to ensure that this cruel dictatorship cannot threaten the world with the most destructive weapons on earth,” he said, referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The United States has appeared to endorse closer post-Olympics engagement between North and South Korea with an eye to eventual U.S.-North Korean talks, but has agreed with Seoul that sanctions must be intensified to push Pyongyang to negotiate an end to its nuclear weapons program.

The prospect of negotiations comes after months of tension over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, in which U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader traded insults and threats, while the U.N. tightened sanctions.

“Nations that evade full enforcement and fail to take these steps are acting irresponsibly, now is the time to do more,” McMaster said, calling on countries to cut off military and commercial ties with Pyongyang.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Andrea Shalal and Andrew Bolton)

Prime Minister Netanyahu says Israel could act against Iran’s ’empire’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the dedication ceremony of a new concourse at the Ben Gurion International Airport, near Lod, Israel February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvu

By Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel could act against Iran itself, not just its allies in the Middle East, after border incidents in Syria brought the Middle East foes closer to direct confrontation.

Iran mocked Netanyahu’s tough words, saying Israel’s reputation for “invincibility” had crumbled after one of its jets was shot down following a bombing run in Syria.

In his first address to the annual Munich Security Conference, which draws security and defense officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu held up a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace this month.

“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”

For his part, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”.

“What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility (of Israel) has crumbled,” Zarif, who addressed the conference hours after Netanyahu, said, referring to the downing of the Israeli F-16, which crashed in northern Israel after a strike on Syrian air defenses.

“Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it’s as if a disaster has happened,” Zarif said, accusing Israel of using “aggression as a policy against its neighbors” by regularly carrying out incursions into Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has accused Tehran of seeking a permanent military foothold in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in civil war entering its eighth year.

Netanyahu said that as the Islamic State militant group has lost ground, Iran and its allies were surging into territory, “trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.”

The tough words on both sides at the international event come as Israel is increasingly seeking to cooperate with Sunni Arab states that share its worries about Shi’ite Iran. For months, Netanyahu has touted what he describes as unprecedented levels of behind-the-scenes cooperation.

“The fact that we have this newfound relationship with the Arab countries – something that … I would not have imagined in my lifetime – this is not what they call a spin,” Netanyahu said, during a question and answer session after his speech.

“This is real, it’s deep, it’s broad: it doesn’t necessarily cross the threshold of a formal peace, and I doubt that would happen until we get some formal progress with the Palestinians – so the two are linked,” he added.

Israel has formal peace agreements with just two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Others have said a pre-condition of any such treaty is an Israeli deal with the Palestinians.

“WE HAVE FRIENDS”

Among Israel’s main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased as Hezbollah has gained strength fighting in Syria, and the two countries also have a maritime border dispute.

Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria against suspected Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and has accused Tehran of planning to build missile factories in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, warned against intervention: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves … we also have friends.”

Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by U.S. President Donald Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions’ relief.

“It’s time to stop them now,” Netanyahu said. “They’re aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they’re not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment,” he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord is working and Iran is allowing inspections.

Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace. John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.

“If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?” Kerry said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

‘Bad guy’ Russia emerges as central player in Western diplomacy

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a wreath laying ceremony at the eternal flame during an event to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the battle of Stalingrad in World War Two, at the Mamayev Kurgan memorial complex in the city of Volgograd, Russia February 2, 2018. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov

By Robin Emmott and Andrea Shalal

MUNICH (Reuters) – European and U.S. officials divided over U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy found common cause this weekend in decrying what they say is Russia’s covert campaign to undermine Western democracies.

But despite the transatlantic show of anger at Russia during the Munich Security Conference, Western officials and diplomats also acknowledged an uncomfortable truth: that Russia is critical to resolving many of the world’s worst conflicts.

From eastern Ukraine to North Korea, Russia’s status as a nuclear power, its military intervention in Syria and its veto on the United Nations Security Council mean any diplomacy must ultimately involve Moscow, officials said.

“We can’t find a political solution without Russia,” Norwegian Defence Minister Frank Bakke Jensen told Reuters. “We need to reach a point where we can work to find a political solution, and they must be central to that.”

Publicly at least, Russia was the bad guy in Munich, roundly criticized for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign after the U.S. indictment of 13 Russians this week, and more broadly for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea.

For the West, such unity of purpose marked a change after a year of Trump’s “America First” rhetoric, his inconsistent statements on NATO and the European Union, his decision to pull out of the Paris climate change accord and his move not to certify Iran’s compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

At the annual Munich event, a rare gathering of European and U.S. security officials that also attracts top Russian diplomats, American policymakers were visibly irritated with Moscow’s public denials of accusations of meddling.

“I am amazed that … the Russians come, they send someone, every year to basically refute the facts,” U.S. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats said of the Russian presence at the event.

But behind the scenes, diplomats said there was a different tone, as top officials including NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the gold-and-white paneled rooms of the Bayerischer Hof hotel.

“There is a diplomatic network that works,” said Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov, citing contacts to resolve the Syrian civil war including Moscow, Ankara, Washington and Tel Aviv. “It’s something that, if used efficiently, can prevent bigger confrontations.”

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel met several times with Lavrov, offering the prospect of easing economic sanctions imposed over Moscow’s role in eastern Ukraine and calling Russia an “indispensable” partner in global efforts to prevent proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who negotiated the 2015 accord curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, said the West needed to “compartmentalize” issues with Moscow, so that diplomacy could achieve more.

“IN RUSSIA’S HANDS”

Part of the challenge for the West is that international crises have been interlinked.

Russia is allied to Israel’s nemesis Iran in Syria while Moscow’s support for separatists in Ukraine draws NATO’s ire.

But NATO-ally Turkey is seeking to complete an arms deal to buy Russian air defenses. It has struck U.S-backed Kurdish forces in northern Syria with Russia’s blessing.

In Asia, U.S. efforts to stop North Korea’s atomic weapons development rest partly on Moscow’s willingness to countenance a U.S. and European call for an oil embargo on Pyongyang, which it has so far rejected.

“A few years ago you could talk about distinct crises, but today, if you’re discussing one, you’re shaking all the others,” Norway’s Jensen said.

So as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu railed against Iran in Munich on Sunday, in New York, British, U.S. and French efforts to condemn Tehran at the United Nations immediately ran into Russian resistance, diplomats told Reuters.

And in Munich, while U.S. and European officials saw momentum for U.N. peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine to resolve the four-year-old conflict there, U.S. special envoy Kurt Volker conceded everything rested on Moscow.

“It’s in Russia’s hands,” Volker told a gathering of EU and U.S. officials, including Sweden’s defense chief, who offered his country’s troops for any such mission.

Nine years ago in Munich, then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden promised to “reset” relations with Russia, but few in the West appeared to realize the depth of Russia’s resentment over the break-up of the Soviet Union and NATO’s eastward expansion.

Now, with Western economic sanctions in place on Russia over its 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for rebels in eastern Ukraine, East-West ties are at their lowest since the Cold War, with little chance of an improvement, diplomats said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Catherine Evans)

U.S. and Turkey agree to mend ties; Turks propose joint deployment in Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Yara Bayoumy, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey agreed on Friday to try to rescue a strategic relationship that Washington acknowledged had reached a crisis point, with Turkey proposing a joint deployment in Syria if a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia leaves a border area.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met President Tayyip Erdogan during a two-day visit that followed weeks of escalating anti-American rhetoric from the Turkish government.

While relations between Washington and its main Muslim ally in NATO have been strained by a number of issues, Turkey has been particularly infuriated by U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists.

Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria’s northwest Afrin region to sweep the YPG away from its southern border. The United States has armed, trained and aided YPG fighters with air support and special forces, as the main ground force in its campaign against Islamic State.

“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson told a news conference after meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday morning. He had met with Erdogan for a more than three-hour discussion on Thursday night.

“We’re going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms. We’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them.”

The United States has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place. But Turkey has proposed extending its campaign further east to the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with U.S.-backed units.

In a proposal that could signal an important breakthrough in efforts to overcome the allies’ stark differences over Syria, a Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey had proposed that Turkish and U.S. forces could deploy jointly in Manbij.

Such a joint deployment could take place if YPG fighters first withdrew to positions east of the Euphrates river, long a Turkish demand.

Neither Tillerson nor Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, directly responded to a question about Reuters’ report of a possible joint deployment to Manbij.

MANBIJ

Turkey would be able to take joint steps with the United States in Syria once the YPG left the vicinity of Manbij, Cavusoglu told reporters.

“What is important is who will govern and provide security to these areas,” he said. “We will coordinate to restore stability in Manbij and other cities. We will start with Manbij. After YPG leaves there, we can take steps with the U.S. based on trust.”

He also said the two countries had created a “mechanism” for further talks and would meet again by mid-March to further hash out their differences. Tillerson said issues around Manbij would receive priority in the talks, acknowledging Washington had not fufilled some of its promises to Turkey on Manbij.

“The United States made commitments to Turkey previously, we’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments. Through the working group, we’re going to address that and Manbij is going to receive priority,” he said.

Turkey’s pro-government media has been particularly scathing of the United States over its failure to keep a promise that the YPG would leave the town once Islamic State was defeated there.

“But it’s not just Manbij. We have to think about all of northern Syria,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson said he recognized Turkey’s legitimate right to defend its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in the Afrin operation and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the area.

He also said the United States had serious concerns about local employees at its missions in Turkey and called on Ankara to release a U.S. pastor and other Americans detained in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gareth Jones, Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)

Russian toll in Syria battle was 300 killed and wounded: sources

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu (R) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visit the Hmeymim air base in Latakia Province, Syria December 11, 2017. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik via REUTERS

By Maria Tsvetkova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – About 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in Syria last week, according to three sources familiar with the matter.

A Russian military doctor said around 100 had been killed, and a source who knows several of the fighters said the death toll was in excess of 80 men.

The timing of the casualties coincided with a battle on Feb. 7 near the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor where, according to U.S. officials and associates of the fighters involved, U.S.-led coalition forces attacked forces aligned with Moscow’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russian officials said five citizens may have been killed but they had no relation to Russia’s armed forces.

The clashes show Moscow is more deeply involved in Syria militarily than it has said, and risks being drawn into direct confrontation with the United States in Syria.

The casualties are the highest that Russia has suffered in a single battle since fierce clashes in Ukraine in 2014 claimed more than 100 fighters’ lives. Moscow denies sending soldiers and volunteers to Ukraine and has never confirmed that figure.

The wounded, who have been medically evacuated from Syria in the past few days, have been sent to four Russian military hospitals, according to five sources familiar with the matter.

The military doctor, who works in a Moscow military hospital and was directly involved in the treatment of wounded men evacuated from Syria, said that as of Saturday evening there were more than 50 such patients in his hospital, of which around 30 percent were seriously wounded.

The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to disclose information about casualties, said at least three planeloads of injured fighters were flown to Moscow between last Friday and Monday morning.

He said they were flown back on specially equipped military cargo planes which can each accommodate two or three intensive care cases and several dozen less severely wounded patients.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry, said initial information was that five Russian citizens in the area of the battle may have been killed, but they were not Russian troops. She said reports of tens or hundreds of Russian casualties were disinformation inspired by Russia’s opponents.

The Russian defense ministry did not respond to Reuters questions about casualties in Syria. A Kremlin spokesman, asked about Russian casualties on Thursday, said he had nothing to add to previous statements. The Kremlin said earlier this week it had no information on any casualties.

Reuters was unable to make direct contact with the contractors’ employers, the Wagner group, whose fallen fighters have in the past received medals from the Kremlin.

The military doctor said that a fellow doctor who flew to Syria on one of the recent medevac flights told him that around 100 people in the Russian force had been killed as of the end of last week, and 200 injured.

The doctor who spoke to Reuters said most of the casualties were Russian private military contractors.

Yevgeny Shabayev, leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary Cossack organization who has ties to Russian military contractors, said he had visited acquaintances injured in Syria at the defense ministry’s Central Hospital in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow, on Wednesday.

He said the wounded men had told him that the two units of Russian contractors involved in the battle near Deir al-Zor numbered 550 men. Of those, there are now about 200 who are not either dead or wounded, the wounded men had told him.

Shabayev said the ward he visited contained eight patients, all evacuated from Syria in the past few days, and there were more in other wards in the hospital.

“If you understand anything about military action and combat injuries then you can imagine what’s going on there. That’s to say, constant screams, shouts,” Shabayev told Reuters. “It’s a tough scene.”

A source with ties to the Wagner organization, and who has spoken to people who took part in the Feb. 7 clashes, told Reuters his contacts told him more than 80 Russian contractors were killed.

The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the total of about 300 killed or injured was broadly correct.

He said many of the injured had shrapnel in their bodies that was not showing up on X-rays, making treatment difficult. “The prognosis for most of the wounded is dismal,” he said.

PROXY WAR

Other military hospitals treating the contractors are the Third Vishnevskiy hospital in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow, the Burdenko hospital near Moscow city center, and the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, according to the doctor, Shabayev, and three other people who know dead or wounded fighters.

When Reuters contacted those hospitals by phone on Thursday, staff either declined to comment or denied having any patients evacuated from Syria.

A Reuters reporter visited the Burdenko hospital on Wednesday and spoke briefly to patients who said they knew nothing about anyone evacuated from Syria. Reporters also visited the hospital in Krasnogorsk, and a fifth military hospital, at Balashikha near Moscow, but were denied entry.

Russia launched a military operation in Syria in September 2015 which has turned the tide of the conflict in favor of Assad.

Russian officials deny they deploy private military contractors in Syria, saying Moscow’s only military presence is a campaign of air strikes, a naval base, military instructors training Syrian forces, and limited numbers of special forces troops.

But according to people familiar with the deployment, Russia is using large numbers of the contractors in Syria because that allows Moscow to put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers whose deaths have to be accounted for.

The contractors, mostly ex-military, carry out missions assigned to them by the Russian military, the people familiar with the deployment said. Most are Russian citizens, though some have Ukrainian and Serbian passports.

The United States and Russia, while backing opposite sides in the Syria conflict, have taken pains to make sure that their forces do not accidentally collide. But the presence of the Russian contractors adds an element of unpredictability.

PROBING MISSION

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that a force aligned with Assad, backed with artillery, tanks, rockets and mortars, had on Feb. 7 attacked fighters with the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Deir al-Zor.

U.S. special forces were accompanying the SDF forces that came under attack, officials in Washington said.

The U.S.-led coalition in Syria retaliated, killing about 100 of the pro-Assad forces, according to the official.

Since the battle, associates of Russian military contractors have said Russians were part of the pro-Assad force involved in the battle, and among the casualties.

Shabayev, the Cossack leader, said casualties were so high because the force had no air cover, and because they were attacked not by poorly equipped rebels, their usual adversaries, but by a well-armed force that could launch air strikes.

“First of all the bombers attacked, and then they cleaned up using Apaches (U.S.-made attack helicopters),” Shabayev said, citing the wounded men he visited in hospital.

The source with ties to Wagner said they told him the force struck by the U.S.-led coalition was made up mainly of Russian contractors, with a few Syrians and Iranians in support roles.

He said that on Feb. 7 the force had advanced toward the settlement of Khusham, in Deir al-Zor province, into a zone designated as neutral under a deal between the Russian military and the U.S.-led coalition.

The aim was to test if the U.S.-led coalition would react. The force advanced to within less than 5 km (3 miles) of the SDF and American positions, he said.

He said that the U.S.-led forces, in line with procedure agreed with the Russians, warned Russian regular forces that they were preparing to strike. He does not know if the warning was passed on to the contractors.

“The warning was 20 minutes beforehand, in that time it was not feasible to turn the column around,” said the source.

He said once the strikes began, the contractors did not return fire because they believed that would provoke even more strikes from the U.S.-led coalition.

(Additional reporting by Anton Zverev in MOSCOW; Writing by Christian Lowe; Editing by Giles Elgood)

U.N. mediator warns of ‘violent, worrying, dangerous’ moment in Syria

United Nations Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura speaks to attendees after a session of the Syrian Congress of National Dialogue in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia January 30, 2018. REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The U.N. Syria peace mediator warned on Wednesday that a recent increase in violence has created one of the most dangerous moments in years of civil war there, as the government bombards rebel areas and foreign powers further intervene.

“I have been now four years (as) special envoy, this is a violent and worrying and dangerous a moment as any that I’ve seen in my time,” Staffan de Mistura told the United Nations Security Council.

Last week was one of the bloodiest in the nearly seven-year-old conflict as Syrian government forces, backed by Russia and Iran, bombarded two of the last major rebel areas: Eastern Ghouta and the northwestern province of Idlib.

The 15-member Security Council is currently negotiating a possible resolution, drafted by Kuwait and Sweden, that would demand a 30-day ceasefire in Syria to allow the delivery of aid and the evacuation of sick and wounded.

The multi-sided conflict is also raging elsewhere, with Turkey waging an offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces in the Afrin region of northwestern Syria, while on Saturday, Syrian government anti-aircraft fire downed an Israeli warplane returning from a bombing raid on Iran-backed positions in Syria.

“What we are seeing in Syria today not only imperils the de-escalation arrangements and regional stability, it also undermines the efforts for a political solution. Yet we will not be deterred from pursuing the Geneva process, which is the only sustainable path toward a political solution,” De Mistura said.

The U.N.-led Geneva process to try and broker an end to the conflict has been making little or no progress. Last year Russia, Turkey and Iran agreed “de-escalation” zones to ease hostilities in western Syria where they wield influence.

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley told the Security Council that Russia was supposed to guarantee adherence to the de-escalation zones and the removal of all chemical weapons from its ally Syria.

“Instead we to see the Assad regime continue to bomb, starve and yes, gas, civilians,” Haley said, referring to President Bashar al-Assad’s government. “Russia can push the regime to commit to seeking a real peace in Syria … now is the time for Russia to use that leverage.”

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia pushed back on Haley’s remarks, saying the Syrian political process should be free from “external pressure.” He also called on the United States to “exert their influence” on Syrian opposition fighters to ensure they cease hostilities.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Damascus warns Israel of ‘more surprises’ in Syria

An old military vehicle can be seen positioned on the Israeli side of the border with Syria, near the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, Israel February 11, 2018.

DAMASCUS/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will face “more surprises” should it again attack Syrian territory, Damascus said on Tuesday, after Syria’s air defenses shot down an advanced Israeli warplane during the fiercest flare-up between the old foes in 36 years.

The F-16 jet was hit over northern Israel on Saturday as it returned from a raid on a Syrian position blamed for launching an Iranian-made drone across the border. Iran is supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s near seven-year civil war.

“Have full confidence the aggressor will be greatly surprised, because it thought this war – this war of attrition Syria has been exposed to for years – had made it incapable of confronting attacks,” Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Sussan said.

“God willing, they will see more surprises whenever they try to attack Syria,” Sussan said during a Damascus news conference.

The downed F-16 was the first warplane Israel has lost to enemy fire since its 1982 Lebanon war. Its two-man crew survived, with injuries, after bailing out of the stricken jet.

Israel retaliated by destroying around half of Syria’s anti-aircraft batteries, according to an initial assessment shared with Reuters by an Israeli official who requested anonymity.

Israel has said it will press ahead with missions in Syria, where it has launched scores of sorties against suspected arms transfers to Iranian-sponsored Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas.

“There are no limitations, and nor do we accept any limitations,” Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters during a tour of Israel’s border with Syria and Lebanon.

“We will continue to defend our vital security and other interests. And I would like to paraphrase the well-known saying: ‘This is not the time to bark, this is the time to bite.'”

Tehran’s involvement in Syria, including the deployment of Iran-backed forces near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, has alarmed Israel. It has also has accused Iran of building precision-guided missile factories for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Syria and Hezbollah celebrated the F-16 shoot-down as a blow to Israeli military superiority. Israel’s Army Radio said on Tuesday that investigators believed pilot error – rather than Syrian capabilities – were mainly at fault for the F-16’s failure to evade what was probably an aged SA-5 missile.

Israeli military spokesman declined to comment on that report, saying the investigation was ongoing.

Saturday’s incident stirred up further questions in Israel about the effectiveness of a coordination mechanism set up with Russia, which has also been reinforcing and arming Assad’s army.

Russian President Vladimir Putin responded to the flare-up by urging Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avoid escalation in Syria. Moscow said on Monday it did not have information to support Israel’s allegation about an Iranian military presence in the site bombed for launching the drone.

Zeev Elkin, a Russian-speaking Israeli cabinet minister who serves as Netanyahu’s interpreter in the talks with Putin, defended the coordination mechanism on Tuesday as granting Israel “freedom of action in the skies above Lebanon and Syria”.

“I don’t think the Russians ever pledged that they would take military action against the Iranians and the Syrians for us,” Elkin told Israel Radio.

“We are going one-on-one against the Syrians. We don’t need assistance from the Russians. We know how to deal with Syrian anti-aircraft fire, as everyone ultimately saw.”

(Reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by William Maclean)

Friend or foe? Assad quietly aids Syrian Kurds against Turkey

Kurdish female fighters of the Women's Protection Unit (YPJ) hold their weapons as they sit in the Sheikh Maksoud neighbourhood of Aleppo, Syria February 7, 2018. Picture taken February 7, 2018.

By Laila Bassam and Tom Perry

ALEPPO, Syria/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s U.S.-backed Kurds are getting indirect help from an unlikely source in their war against Turkey in the northwestern region of Afrin: President Bashar al-Assad.

Pro-government forces and Kurdish-led forces have fought each other elsewhere in Syria and Damascus opposes the Kurds’ demands for autonomy. But in Afrin they have a common enemy and a mutual interest in blocking Turkish advances.

Turkey, which regards the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin as a threat on its southern border, launched an assault on the region last month. Seeking to shield Afrin, the Kurds asked Damascus to send forces into action to defend the border.

The government shows no sign of doing so, but it is providing indirect help by allowing Kurdish fighters, civilians and politicians to reach Afrin through territory it holds, representatives of both sides told Reuters.

Assad stands to gain while doing little.

The arrival of reinforcements is likely to sustain Kurdish resistance, bog down the Turkish forces and prolong a conflict that is sapping the resources of military powers that rival him for control of Syrian territory.

For the United States, it is yet another complication in Syria’s seven-year-old war, and a reminder of how its Syrian Kurdish ally must at times make deals with Assad even as it builds military ties with the United States.

Lacking international protection, the Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria say they have reached agreements with Damascus to allow reinforcements to be sent to Afrin from other Kurdish-dominated areas — Kobani and the Jazeera region.

“There are different ways to get reinforcements to Afrin but the fundamental route is via regime forces. There are understandings between the two forces … for the sake of delivering reinforcements to Afrin,” Kino Gabriel, spokesman for the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), said.

While the Kurds depend on Assad to reach Afrin, Kurdish sources say they also enjoy leverage over Damascus because it needs their cooperation to source grain and oil from areas of the northeast under Kurdish control.

A commander in the military alliance fighting in support of Assad said “the Kurds have no option but coordination with the regime” to defend Afrin.

“The Syrian regime is helping the Kurds with humanitarian support and some logistics, like turning a blind eye and allowing Kurdish support to reach some fronts,” said the commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

TURKISH CAMPAIGN MOVES SLOWLY

The Turkish military is making slow gains nearly three weeks into the operation it calls “Olive Branch”.

Ankara views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a three-decade insurgency in Turkey and is regarded as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union.

The United States has relied on the YPG as a vital ground component of its war against Islamic State, and has backed the group in other Kurdish-run regions in northern Syria along the border with Turkey.

But U.S. forces are not in Afrin, so have been unable to shield Afrin from the attack by Turkey, its NATO ally.

The Kurds meanwhile accuse Russia of giving a green light for the Turkish attack by withdrawing observers it deployed in Afrin last year.

The Afrin war marks another twist in the complicated story of relations between Assad and the Syrian Kurdish groups, spearheaded by the YPG, that have carved out autonomous regions in northern Syria since the war began in 2011.

The YPG controls nearly all of Syria’s frontier with Turkey. But Afrin is separated from the bigger Kurdish-controlled region further east by a 100 km-wide zone controlled by the Turkish military and its Syrian militia allies.

For much of the war, Damascus and the YPG have avoided confrontation, at times fighting common enemies, including the rebel groups that are now helping Turkey attack Afrin.

But tensions have mounted in recent months, with Damascus threatening to march into parts of eastern and northern Syria captured by the SDF with support from the U.S.-led coalition.

Underlining that, pro-Syrian government forces attacked the SDF in the eastern province of Deir al-Zor, drawing coalition air strikes overnight that killed more than 100 of the attackers, the coalition said.

“The regime has allowed the YPG to bring people into Afrin, while attacking it east of the Euphrates (River). I think that is indicative of the state of relations right now,” said Noah Bonsey, International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Syria.

He added: “There is still a significant gap between the YPG and regime positions on the future of northeastern Syria.”

FIGHTING FOR AFRIN

The main Syrian Kurdish groups remain wedded to their vision of a Syria where they enjoy autonomy in a form of federalism that is at odds with Assad’s determination to recover all Syria.

Each side has allowed the other to maintain footholds in its territory. In Kurdish-held Qamishli, the government still controls the airport. In the Sheikh Maqsoud district of Aleppo, a government city, Kurdish security forces patrol the streets.

Scores of Kurds from Sheikh Maqsoud have gone to Afrin to support the fight, Kurdish officials there said. The short journey requires movement through areas held by the government or its Iran-backed Shi’ite militia allies.

“Of course people went from Sheikh Maqsoud – in the hundreds – to bear arms and defend Afrin,” said Badran Himo, a Kurdish official from Sheikh Maqsoud.

“Around 10 of them were martyred (killed),” he told Reuters as Kurdish security forces held a rally to commemorate one of the dead.

Earlier this week, witnesses say a civilian convoy of hundreds of cars drove to Afrin from other Kurdish-held areas in a show of solidarity.

The Syrian government has ignored appeals by the Kurdish authorities to guard the Syrian border at Afrin.

“We tried to convince them, via the Russians, to at least protect the borders, to take a position, but we did not reach a result,” Aldar Khalil, a top Kurdish politician, told Reuters.

“If they don’t protect the borders, then at least they don’t have the right to block the way for Syrian patriots who are protecting these borders, regardless of other domestic issues.”

(Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Timothy Heritage)