Category Archives: Syria

(Haaretz) Mossad Assassinated Syrian Weapons Chief, NYT Reports

(Haaretz) Middle Eastern spy agency claims Dr. Aziz Asber was working closely with Iran’s Quds Force chief on long range missiles capable of reaching Israeli cities

City of Masyaf in northwestern Syria, 2016
Pavel Golovkin / AP

Israel is responsible for the car bombing assassination of a Syrian rocket scientist on Sunday, The New York Times reported Tuesday.

The account in the report, given by an official from a Middle Eastern intelligence agency who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the highly classified nature of the operation, claims the car bombing near the northwestern Syrian city of Masyaf that killed Dr. Aziz Asber was executed by Israeli Mossad agents.

Dr. Asber ran the northern bureau for research and science in Masyaf, where he was believed to be developing an underground weapons manufacturing facility with the help of the Iranians.

Photo of Asbar distributed on social media

>> How the Mossad broke into an Iranian facility and stole half a ton of nuclear files

The official, who said his agency was notified of the operation, alleged that this was the fourth time in the last three years Israel has covertly killed a weapons engineer on foreign soil.

Despite the attack being claimed by a Syrian rebel group, the Abu Amara Brigades, pro-Assad and Hezbollah-affiliated media outlets were quick to point the finger at Israel as responsible for the assassination.

According to the official, the Mossad had been keeping tabs on Asber for some time and believed him to be working closely with Iran’s Quds Force chief Qassem Soleimani on future plans to manufacture precision-guided missiles in Syria by modifying Syrian SM6000 Tishereen rockets.

Israel had targeted Asber as key player of the Syrian missile program long before the civil war had begun, according to a representative of the Syrian-Iranian alliance who spoke on terms of anonymity, as he was not allowed to talk to Western journalists. He was close with both Syrian and Iranian top brass, and coordinated with Iranian and Hezbollah forces working in Syria, said the intelligence official.

In recent months, in his role as chief of a classified weapons development program known as Sector 4, Asber was focused on modifying the Syrian artillery array’s range and accuracy – which the official posits made his termination more imperative for Israel, as it works to limit and suppress Iran and Hezbollah’s presence and involvement in Syria.

Several strikes on Masyaf, the city where the Scientific Studies and Research Center is located, have been attributed to Israel in recent years. The last one was on July 22. The factory Asber was said to be building with Iranian aid is set to replace the one allegedly destroyed by Israel last September.

The Israeli government has not officially commented on the report, or the allegations. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, speaking to Israel’s News Company, dismissed the claims and said “Every time, they try to place the blame on us. So we won’t take this too seriously.”

+++ (JN) Putin avisa que mais ataques na Síria trarão o “caos” às relações internacionais

(JNO presidente russo afirma que a intervenção dos Estados Unidos, França e Reino Unido na Síria diminuiu as hipóteses de se chegar a uma solução política para o conflito naquele país.

O presidente russo Vladimir Putin avisou este domingo, 15 de Abril, que mais ataques do Ocidente na Síria trarão o “caos” às relações internacionais.

Segundo a Reuters, Putin deixou o alerta numa conversa telefónica com o seu homólogo iraniano Hassan Rouhani depois de os Estados Unidos, França e Reino Unido terem realizado, no sábado, uma série de ataques com mísseis contra três alvos associados à produção e armazenamento de armas químicas na Síria.

Um comunicado do Kremlin informou que Putin e Rouhani concordaram que os ataques ocidentais diminuíram as hipóteses de se chegar a uma solução política para o conflito que dura há sete anos e que já matou pelo menos meio milhão de pessoas.

“Vladimir Putin, em particular, enfatizou que, se tais acções cometidas em violação da Carta da ONU continuarem, isso inevitavelmente levará ao caos nas relações internacionais”, refere o comunicado do Kremlin, citado pela agência noticiosa.

Os ataques levados a cabo pelos Estados Unidos, França e Reino Unido atingiram o coração do programa de armas químicas da Síria, disse Washington, em resposta a um ataque com armas químicas realizado há uma semana. Os três participantes insistiram que a sua resposta não teve como objectivo derrubar o presidente Bashar al-Assad ou intervir no conflito.

Os bombardeamentos, descritos pelo presidente dos EUA Donald Trump como um sucesso, mas denunciados por Damasco e seus aliados como um acto de agressão, marcaram a maior intervenção dos países ocidentais contra Assad e a Rússia.

As palavras de Putin foram divulgadas pouco tempo depois de o ministro-adjunto dos Negócios Estrangeiros da Rússia, Sergei Ryabkov, ter feito uma nota mais conciliatória dizendo que Moscovo faria todos os esforços para melhorar as relações políticas com o Ocidente.

Questionado sobre se a Rússia estava preparada para trabalhar com as propostas dos países ocidentais nas Nações Unidas, Ryabkov disse à agência de notícias TASS: “Agora a situação política é extremamente tensa, por isso não farei nenhuma previsão”.

“Trabalharemos com calma, de forma metódica e profissional, aproveitando todas as oportunidades para que a situação saia deste pico político extremamente perigoso”, afirmou.

(Reuters) Threat of U.S.-Russia clash hangs over Syria

(Reuters) The prospect of Western military action in Syria that could lead to confrontation with Russia hung over the Middle East on Friday but there was no clear sign that a U.S.-led attack was imminent.

International chemical weapons experts were travelling to Syria to investigate an alleged gas attack by government forces on the town of Douma which killed dozens of people. Two days ago U.S. President Donald Trump warned that missiles “will be coming” in response to that attack.

The allies of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad were eager on Friday to lay blame for the crisis not with him but with Trump.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said international relations should not depend on one person’s morning mood, in apparent reference to Trump’s tweets.

“We cannot depend on what someone on the other side of the ocean takes into his head in the morning. We cannot take such risks,” said Dvorkovich, speaking at a forum.

Russia has warned the West against attacking Assad, who is also supported by Iran, and says there is no evidence of a chemical attack in Douma, a town near Damascus which had been held by rebels until this month.

Vassily Nebenzia, Moscow’s ambassador to the United Nations, said he “cannot exclude” war between the United States and Russia.

“The immediate priority is to avert the danger of war,” he told reporters. “We hope there will be no point of no return.”

Sheikh Naim Qassem, deputy leader of the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, told Lebanese daily al-Joumhouria: “The conditions do not point to a total war happening…unless Trump and (Israeli leader Benjamin) Netanyahu completely lose their minds.”

U.S. allies have offered strong words of support for Washington but no clear military plans have yet emerged.

British Prime Minister Theresa May won backing from her senior ministers on Thursday to take unspecified action with the United States and France to deter further use of chemical weapons by Syria.

Trump was also expected to speak with French President Emmanuel Macron, who said on Thursday France had proof the Syrian government carried out the Douma attack and would decide whether to strike back when all necessary information had been gathered.

For a graphic on an overview of chemical warfare, click tmsnrt.rs/2CnTeQh

A bus carries rebels and their families who left Douma, at the entrance of the Wafideen camp in Damascus, Syria April 12, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki

ASSAD TIGHTENS GRIP

Trump himself appeared on Thursday to cast doubt on at least the timing of any U.S.-led military action, tweeting: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!”

He met his national security team on the situation in Syria later in the day and “no final decision has been made,” the White House said in a statement.

“We are continuing to assess intelligence and are engaged in conversations with our partners and allies,” it said.

A team of experts from the global chemical weapons watchdog, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, was travelling to Syria and will start its investigations into the Douma incident on Saturday, the Netherlands-based agency said.

The capture of Douma has clinched a major victory for Assad, crushing what was once a centre of the insurgency near Damascus, and underlines his unassailable position in the war.

He has cemented his control over most of the western, more heavily populated, part of the country, with rebels and jihadist insurgents largely contained to two areas on Syria’s northern and southern borders.

They still control the northwestern province of Idlib, near Turkey, and a southern region around Deraa, on the border with Jordan. Turkish forces and rebel allies control territory in northern Syria, while U.S.-backed Kurdish forces hold wide areas of the northeast, and pockets of Islamic State fighters remain.

But none of those any longer directly threaten Assad’s grip on power, which has been reinforced by Russian air power and Iran-backed fighters on the ground.

(ZH) Trump Warns Russia “Missiles Are Coming” At Syria After Moscow Vows To Shoot Them Down

(ZH) A shooting war between the US and Russia appears imminent.

Following overnight speculation that the US may launch an airstrike on Syria at any moment, this morning, in his latest fiery tweetstorm, after slamming the failing New York Times and again lashing out at the Russia collusion probe and Cohen’s office raid, Trump tweeted that “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia,  because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!”

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!

The tweet prompted several observers to point out the following Trumps statement from the historical archives:

Donald J. Trump

@realDonaldTrump

@walaa_3ssaf No, dopey, I would not go into Syria, but if I did it would be by surprise and not blurted all over the media like fools.

In any case, Trump’s comment came in response to a statement by the Russian ambassador to Lebanon Alexander Zasypkin who said overnight that any U.S. missiles fired at Syria will be shot down and their launch sites targeted in response to Trump promise of a forceful response to an alleged chemical attack on a rebel enclave near Damascus.

“If there is a strike by the Americans, then we refer to the statements of President [Vladimir] Putin and the chief of staff that the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,” Zasypkin told Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV.

Nasser Atta@nasseratta5

ambassdor in beirut : “If there is a strike by the Americans on , then… the missiles will be downed and even the sources from which the missiles were fired,” Zasypkin told Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV, speaking in Arabic.

In response, Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said that US “smart missiles should fly towards terrorists, not a legitimate government that has been fighting international terrorism for several years on its territory” and sarcastically noted that the US “smart missiles” could be an attempt to destroy evidence of the alleged “chemical attack” on the ground in Syria.

Jennifer Jacobs

@JenniferJJacobs

RUSSIA RESPONDS TO Trump missiles-are-coming tweet.

Foreign Ministry’s Maria Zakharova: “Missiles must fly towards terrorists, not a legitimate government that has been fighting international terrorism in its territory for several years.”

And missiles would “destroy evidence.”

Earlier, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Russia “categorically” disagrees that a chemical attack took place in Syria. “I still want to hope that all parties will avoid any steps, which in reality aren’t provoked by anything, that can destabilize the already fragile situation in the region.”

Peskov also said that Putin has no plans so far for phone talks with Donald Trump, while adding that Russian market volatility is partly emotional, partly speculative; Russian economy has sufficient durability, Peskov says

Meanwhile, indicating that a US strike on Syria is imminent, on Tuesday Trump canceled a trip to Latin America to focus on the Syria incident, the White House said. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis also canceled plans to travel to California in the coming days, as Trump told reporters all options were on the table regarding Syria.

As we reported on Monday, the USS Donald Cook, a Navy destroyer, left a port in Cyprus on Monday. The guided missile destroyer is armed with Tomahawk cruise missiles, which were used a year ago after an alleged sarin gas attack on Syrian civilians.

Also overnight, Eurocontrol, the European air traffic control agency, warned airlines Tuesday to exercise caution in the eastern Mediterranean due to possible airstrikes in the next 72 hours.

Retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former head of NATO and an NBC News analyst, warned that any U.S. strike on Syria would likely require manned aircraft and characterized it as a “high-risk operation.”

“Last year was about sending a signal,” Stavridis said, referring to the April 2017 strike ordered by Trump. “This year its about destroying actual Syrian capability.”

Of course, if Russia is serious and it intends to shoot down not only US missiles but their sources – including ships and fighter jets – what happens in the next several hours could unleash World War III. Which would be bizarre if the only purpose for that is for Trump to prove to Mueller that he is not, in fact, a Russian puppet, even as the Military Industrial Complex enjoys its final victory.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, futures did not like the news that war between the US and Russia may be coming, and slumped to session lows.

 

(GB) Alwaleed sells Damascus hotel stake to Assad-linked businessman – report

Sold out of his own free will…?
I wouldn’t bet one cent on it.

FCMP

(GB)The deal is said to have taken place while the businessman was still detained under Saudi’s anti-corruption drive.


Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal has reportedly sold his stake in the Four Season hotel in Damascus to a Syrian businessman linked to President Bashar al-Assad.

The Financial Times cited sources as confirming the sale, which was completed while Alwaleed was still detained as part of Saudi’s Arabia’s November anti-corruption drive.

The buyer was Samer Foz, a businessman with close ties to Assad’s inner circle, according to the publication.

Alwaleed was released from Riyadh’s opulent Ritz-Carlton hotel, used as a luxury prison for those detained in the corruption purge, at the end of January.

He is reported to have handed over assets in exchange for his freedom, like hundreds of other businessmen, royals and government officials that were detained, but has denied any settlement took place.

The billionaire’s investment firm, Kingdom Holding, had been divesting its stakes in hotels long before Alwaleed’s detention.

Reports in January suggested it also sold its stake in the Four Seasons Beirut for $100-$115m including debt and was in the process of a similar deal for its stake in Beirut’s Movenpick hotel.

Sources told the FT that the Damascus Four Seasons transaction generated a larger sum than the one in Beirut.

However, it said the deal could stir controversy given the sensitivity of dealing with the Syrian regime.

Foz is said to have businesses across the Middle East ranging from a water company to transport, cement and contracting, investments in hotels and a gold mine in Turkey.

He uses Dubai as a business hub, according to the publication.

(BBG) UN Panel Blames Syrian Forces for Deadly Sarin Attack in April

(Bloomberg) — Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s
government was behind a deadly chemical attack that killed
scores of civilians in a rebel-held village last April, an
investigative panel said in a report to the United Nations
Security Council.
The April 4 attack on the village of Khan Sheikhoun killed
more than 80 people and injured almost 300 others, according to
a report Thursday by a panel of investigators known as the Joint
Investigative Mechanism. In June, investigators from the
Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said the
attack probably involved the use of sarin, a lethal nerve agent,
or similar toxic weapons. But that agency isn’t authorized to
conclude who’s responsible for the use of banned chemicals.
After the attack, as images of dying children gasping for
air circulated in the media, the U.S. placed blame on the Syrian
military while also accusing Russia, which backs Assad’s
government, of pushing a “false narrative” that rebel forces
were behind the incident. In an early test of his
administration, U.S. President Donald Trump ordered dozens of
cruise missile strikes on the Shayrat airfield from which the
jet fighters had launched.
The attack on the town crossed “many, many lines, beyond
red lines,” Trump said at the time.
Assad’s government has repeatedly denied the charges.
“‎Time and again, we see independent confirmation of
chemical weapons use by the Assad regime,” U.S. Ambassador to
the UN Nikki Haley said in a statement after the report was
circulated. “The Security Council must send a clear message that
the use of chemical weapons by anyone will not be tolerated.”
The use of chemical weapons would also mean Syria violated
a deal to destroy such weapons, an accord brokered by the Obama
administration and Russia after an August 2013 sarin attack
killed more than 1,000 people in a Damascus suburb.

(ZH) Trump Saw A Disturbing Video, Then He Shut Down The CIA’s Covert Syria Program

(ZH) While we’ve carefully documented the dynamics in play behind Trump’s decision to end the CIA’s covert Syria program, as well as the corresponding fury this immediately unleashed among the usual hawkish DC policy wonks,new information on what specifically impacted the president’s thinking has emerged.

Thomas Joscelyn, a Middle East analyst for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains in the August edition of The Weekly Standard:

Earlier this year, President Donald Trump was shown a disturbing video of Syrian rebels beheading a child near the city of Aleppo. It had caused a minor stir in the press as the fighters belonged to the Nour al-Din al-Zenki Movement, a group that had been supported by the CIA as part of its rebel aid program.

 

The footage is haunting. Five bearded men smirk as they surround a boy in the back of a pickup truck. One of them holds the boy’s head with a tight grip on his hair while another mockingly slaps his face. Then, one of them uses a knife to saw the child’s head off and holds it up in the air like a trophy. It is a scene reminiscent of the Islamic State’s snuff videos, except this wasn’t the work of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s men. The murderers were supposed to be the good guys: our allies.

Trump pressed his most senior intelligence advisers, asking the basic question of how the CIA could have a relationship with a group that beheads a child and then uploads the video to the internet. He wasn’t satisfied with any of the responses:

Trump wanted to know why the United States had backed Zenki if its members are extremists. The issue was discussed at length with senior intelligence officials, and no good answers were forthcoming, according to people familiar with the conversations. After learning more worrisome details about the CIA’s ghost war in Syria—including that U.S.-backed rebels had often fought alongside extremists, among them al Qaeda’s arm in the country—the president decided to end the program altogether.


Screenshot of the horrific video of a CIA-backed Syrian group beheading a boy named Abdullah Issa.

At the time the beheading video surfaced (July 2016), many in the American public naturally wanted answers, but the story never really picked up much momentum in the media. As Joscelyn describes, it caused nothing more than “a minor stir in the press.” The State Department seemed merely satisfied that the group responsible, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, claimed to have arrested the men that committed the gruesome crime, though nothing more was known. Absurdly, a US government spokesperson expressed hope that the child-beheading group would “comply with obligations under the law of armed conflict.”

The only press agencies that publicly and consistently challenged the State Department at the time were RT News and the Associated Press, yet even these attempts didn’t get picked up beyond the confines of the State Department’s daily briefing. When the AP’s Matt Lee initially questioned spokesman Mark Toner as to whether Zenki would continue to receive any level of US assistance, Toner casually replied “it would give us pause” – which left Lee taken aback.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t just the US government which had aided Zenki, but as fighting in Aleppo raged it became a favored group among both the mainstream media and prominent think tank pundits. One of the UK’s major broadcasters (Channel 4) even went so far as to attempt to delete and hide its prior online content which sought to normalize the beheaders as “moderate” and heroic once news of the video got out.

Controversial, but @AbuJamajem is largely right:

– “In , U.S. Can Keep Its Hands Clean or Get Things Done”https://tcf.org/?p=15688 

Photo published for In Syrian Proxy War, America Can Keep Its Hands Clean or It Can Get Things Done

In Syrian Proxy War, America Can Keep Its Hands Clean or It Can Get Things Done

Last month, video of a Syrian rebel apparently beheading a child captive stunned the world. In the amateur cell phone footage, a fighter from Aleppo factio

tcf.org

Among think tankers, Zenki’s most prominent public supporter, frequently presenting the terror group as actually representative of Syria’s “secular” and supposedly democracy-promoting armed opposition (even after the beheading video emerged), was Charles Lister. Lister was finally confronted not by mainstream media, but by AlterNet’s Max Blumenthal at a DC event held by the (largely Gulf funded) Atlantic Council.

Only by the time of this January 2017 public forum, and after being persistently questioned, did Lister awkwardly back off his previous enthusiastic promotion of Zenki:

We can imagine that Trump saw other things beyond the shocking Zenki beheading video which made him fully realize the utter criminality of the CIA program (Thomas Joscelyn further emphasizes that Trump came to understand the full scope of CIA cooperation with al-Qaeda in Syria).

The only question that remains is who in the CIA or Obama-era State Department should be prosecuted first?

(Economist) De-escalation in Syria

(Economist) The latest ceasefire will test Russia’s ability to rein back its allies.

WHEN a group of teenage boys scrawled “down with the regime” on their school wall they lit the powder that ignited Syria’s civil war. Ever since their torture at the hands of state-security agents in March 2011, the boys’ home city of Deraa has become synonymous with the start of the rebellion to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. But Deraa may yet turn out to be the place where dreams of overthrowing the regime finally die.

The guns fell silent over the battered city at noon on July 9th as a ceasefire brokered by Russia and America came into force. The truce, announced by Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin after their first meeting, is the latest in a string of failed attempts by the two powers to quell more than six years of violence that has killed perhaps 400,000 people. Its success, if it lasts, may open the door to deeper co-operation between Moscow and Washington. That could lead to a kind of peace, but at the price of what may be a lasting carve-up of Syria into zones controlled by different foreign powers, which will in all probability leave Mr Assad firmly in place on the populous coastal west of the country.

It is unclear whether the ceasefire will work this time. Months of secret meetings between American, Russian and Jordanian officials in Amman have produced a deal that lacks teeth. Russia says it will deploy troops to police the ceasefire zone, which covers three southern regions that abut the borders with Israel and Jordan. American diplomats say the make-up of any ground force is still being discussed. The truce has held so far but, like past deals, may quickly fall apart without a way to enforce it. Rushed out to give the two presidents something to announce at their first meeting, the ceasefire appears premature.

The geography and make-up of the region covered by the ceasefire may, however, help it to last. The area—Deraa, the province of Quneitra and parts of Suwaida province—is smaller than regions covered in the past. There are also fewer extremists to spoil the truce, and fewer rebel factions to pressure into abiding by it. The rebels in the south are also less rebellious: Jordan keeps a tight hold on those fighting the Syrian army and Iranian-backed militias that have made incursions into areas close to its borders.

The ceasefire is a result of Russian plans to wind down the war. Since January, Moscow has led talks with Turkey and Iran, which back opposing sides in the conflict, to establish four “de-escalation zones” where rebels and the regime will agree to stop killing each other. The aim is to have each region policed by different foreign powers. America’s rush to cut a deal with Russia in the south, the first of the zones to be formally demarcated, is partly a test of Moscow’s sincerity. “We’ll soon see if the Russians are willing or even able to rein in Assad and the Iranians,” said a Western diplomat.

Mr Assad is sitting pretty in Damascus. If the ceasefire holds, it will partly be because the Syrian president and his Iranian backers see in the truce a chance to solidify their territorial gains, drive rebels from other parts of the country and race American-backed forces for control of the oil-rich lands still occupied by Islamic State in the east. The American secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, says America “sees no long-term role for the Assad family”. But removing the dictator, who has repeatedly vowed to reclaim every inch of territory lost during the war, will be impossible without the consent of Iran and Russia.

If anything has remained constant in America’s approach to the Syrian conflict over the past year, it is its faith in Russia to bring the fighting to a close and keep Iran in check. Mr Tillerson believes the warring parties are “tired” and “weary” of the conflict. The coming weeks will establish how fanciful this reading is.

(BBG) Turkish State News Agency Publishes U.S. Base Locations in Syria

(BBG) Turkey’s state-run news agency published U.S. base locations in northern Syria, a move that threatens to deepen distrust between the two allies by exposing American soldiers on the front lines of the fight against Islamic State.

In reports published in both Turkish and English on Tuesday, Turkey’s state-run Anadolu Agency provided detailed information about 10 U.S. bases in northern Syria, including troop counts and a map of the U.S. force presence in the Turkish version. The reports said that the military outposts are “usually hidden for security reasons, making it hard to be detected.” It said they were located “in the terrorist PKK/PYD-held Syrian territories,” a reference to Kurdish groups that Turkey’s government considers terrorist organizations.

Despite a tight military alliance dating back to the Cold War, Turkey and the U.S. have been at odds for years now over the U.S. backing of Kurdish fighters in Syria who are affiliated with separatist movements inside Turkey. The Turkish government probably leaked U.S. troop locations to Anadolu as retaliation, according to Aaron Stein, a fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington.

“The U.S. takes force protection seriously, obviously,” Stein said by email on Wednesday. “The Turkish government knows this, and still decided to leak the locations of U.S. bases in Syria. Hard not to see this as a F-you.”

‘Unnecessary Risk’

The Pentagon said it had conveyed its concern to the Turkish government.

“While we cannot independently verify the sources that contributed to this story, we would be very concerned if officials from a NATO ally would purposefully endanger our forces by releasing sensitive information,” Major Adrian J.T. Rankine-Galloway, a Defense Department spokesman, said in an emailed statement. “The release of sensitive military information exposes Coalition forces to unnecessary risk and has the potential to disrupt ongoing operations to defeat ISIS.”

Levent Tok, an Anadolu Agency reporter on the story, said the information about U.S. troop positions wasn’t leaked. The story was based on field work by Anadolu’s Syria reporters and some of the information on bases had been broadcast on social media by Kurdish fighters, he told Bloomberg on Wednesday. “The U.S. should have thought about this before it cooperated with a terrorist organization,” he said.

Base Building

Syria’s civil war has drawn in several external powers, raising questions about their longer-term plans in the country now that Islamic State is in retreat. Construction of military bases is often taken as a clue. In recent days, Israeli officials have warned that they won’t tolerate the establishment of permanent Iranian facilities, while Russia signed an accord that could keep its air bases in Syria for decades. Turkey is most worried about Kurdish-run enclaves in Syria’s north; its national security council said a statement on Monday that it wouldn’t allow a “terrorist state” on its borders.

News of the Anadolu story was published earlier on Wednesday by the Daily Beast, which also released correspondence with U.S. military officials urging the reporter, Roy Gutman, not to disseminate the information because they said it would expose sensitive tactical information and put coalition lives in jeopardy.

The incident is the latest to strain relations between Turkey and a major NATO ally. Last week, a senior Turkish official told Bloomberg that Turkey had agreed to purchase a missile defense system from Russia, a move that could jeopardize Turkey’s relations with the Western security bloc. Germany is in the process of withdrawing from Turkey’s most important NATO base, Incirlik, after Turkey repeatedly refused to allow German lawmakers to visit troops there.

(BBG) Editorial Board: Syrian Cease-Fire Is a Baby Step Toward Peace

(BBG) A fragile truce in the southwest is a good omen for U.S. interests.

War’s still just a shot away.

Photographer: Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images

After years of horrific fighting in Syria — including several failed cease-fires — it’s hard to get too excited about a limited agreement to stop hostilities in a tiny corner of the country. Yet the modest “de-escalation” deal in Syria’s southwest is a promising sign.

Islamic State is not yet defeated. But the cease-fire, reached by Jordan, Russia and the U.S., is an indication that the end of that fight is near, as all sides are beginning to jockey for position in the next stage of the Syrian civil war.

The halt in the fighting in parts of three provinces, reached earlier this month, seems to be mostly holding. The next steps of the deal, which reportedlyinclude the departure of non-Syrian fighters, providing humanitarian aid to civilians, and setting up a monitoring center in Jordan, are pending.

Still, what has already been achieved is notable. Russia — Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s most powerful backer — has cut an independent deal with the U.S. that will not just give rebel troops a respite but also help protect Israel and Jordan, two of America’s most important Middle East allies. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to have hammered out the truce without giving the Syrian regime or its Iranian patrons a say. And this despite the fact that Iranian-backed militias had been making military inroads in southern Syria.

The area covered in the de-escalation agreement includes the rebel stronghold of Deraa Province, which is within 50 miles of the Jordanian capital of Amman and is adjacent to the Golan Heights, which Israel has considered a crucial buffer zone since conquering it in the 1967 war. The deal will be help keep Iran and its proxies from gaining too close a foothold to Israel and Jordan.

A piecemeal approach to cease-fires has its downsides. It may undermine the fitful negotiations to end the civil war that are now taking place in Kazakhstan, and the Assad regime may use this opportunity to strategically reposition forces at other battlefronts (the Syrians seem to have an eyeon the oil-rich Euphrates River Valley near the Iraq border). And the deal relies on the questionable assumption that the Russians will be able to rein in aggression by the Syrian army its allies.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted that the pact is the “first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria.” As distasteful as it sounds, cooperation with the Kremlin may be the best hope for an enduring political solution to the civil war — and for ensuring that Islamic State won’t rise again.

+++ (BBG) Iran Fires Several Missiles at Syria Following Tehran Attacks

(BBG) Iran said it fired missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria in retaliation for the jihadists’ deadly attacks in Tehran last week, a rare strike signaling Iran’s willingness to escalate its use of military power in the region’s conflicts.

Six surface-to-surface missiles were launched on Sunday from western bases in Iran at command centers, logistic sites and suicide car bomb factories in Syria’s eastern Deir Ezzor area, 700 kilometers (435 miles) away, the Revolutionary Guard Corps said.

The missile operation “is just a very small part of the capability of Iran’s punitive force against the terrorists and its enemies,” the Islamic Students’ News Agency quoted Guards spokesman Brigadier General Ramezan Sharif as telling state TV. “Regional and international allies of the terrorists must understand this missile operation is a warning message.”

Iran had earlier insinuated that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia — its chief regional foe — had encouraged the June 7 attacks on Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of the late Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, which killed 17 people.

Opposing Sides

Sunni-led Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran are on opposing sides in a series of conflicts raging in the Middle East, and their sectarian rivalry is also at the heart of a Saudi-led coalition’s recent isolation of Qatar, which has plunged the Gulf region into its biggest crisis in decades.

The U.S. and Iran, meanwhile, are supporting opposite sides in Syria’s civil war. Iran is backing President Bashar al-Assad, while the U.S. is supporting a rebel militia and leading a coalition campaign against Islamic State.

The Guards’ missile strike sends a message that extends beyond the fighting in Syria, said Amir Handjani, a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council research center.

It sends “a message to the Saudi-led alliance that ‘our missiles have the range and the accuracy to strike anywhere in the region’,” Handjani said. It’s also designed to signal to the U.S. that Iran is fighting the Islamic State on its own terms, he added.

In another manifestation of how the rivalries in Syria are playing out, a U.S. combat plane on Sunday shot down a Syrian-regime combat aircraft south of the town of Tabqah that had dropped bombs near the American-backed militia, according to a statement from the U.S.-led coalition. The Syrian army said the warplane was on a mission against Islamic State militants when it was shot down.

The “flagrant aggression” highlights coordination between the U.S. and Islamic State and “reveals the evil intentions fo the U.S. in administering terrorism,” the general command said in a statement carried by state-run SANA news agency.

(BBG) Venezuela Secretly Plotted to Sell Banned Syrian Oil to the U.S.

(BBG) Syria and Venezuela plotted in recent years to evade international sanctions on Syria through a secret deal to transport its crude oil through Russia to the Caribbean.

The previously undisclosed plan aimed to sell Syrian oil at a big discount to Venezuela through a Russian shell company, which would send it to Aruba for refining and distribution to gas stations in the U.S. and elsewhere, according to dozens of emails, documents and interviews.

Refinery in San Nicolas, Aruba.

Photographer: Ben Bartenstein/Bloomberg

The scheme, which hasn’t been executed, indicates the extent to which the two pariah nations are willing to go to evade international rules and antagonize global powers. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, written off repeatedly during the past six years as hundreds of thousands of his citizens have been killed in a brutal civil war, has clung firmly to power.

For Venezuela, the plan forms part of an international agenda initiated by the late socialist President Hugo Chavez that has made the country an ally of Iran and Cuba. Now under the leadership of his embattled disciple, Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela is desperate for cash after years of government mismanagement drove oil output to a three-decade low, plunged the economy into a depression and fueled weeks of deadly nationwide protests. The Syrian initiative underscores Venezuela’s international ambitions, indicating that its current crisis could have repercussions far beyond its shores.

Caribbean Scheme

It’s unclear whether the plan is still under consideration. A key player, Wilmer Ruperti, a Venezuelan oil trader who grew enormously wealthy through his closeness to the country’s leadership, acknowledged in a phone interview his participation but said he no longer has a role in it. Syrian officials approached him in early 2012 during a party at the Syrian Club of Caracas.

At that time, Ruperti began renting a lavish guesthouse on Aruba’s northern coast to scout out a refinery and meet a local realtor, Oscar Helmeyer. He had his eye on a facility that had just been shut down by its owners, San Antonio-based Valero Energy Corp., causing massive unemployment on the island. Ruperti offered to pay Helmeyer $15 million for help in buying the refinery, one of the world’s largest, although in the end Venezuela’s state oil company leased it. In an interview, Helmeyer said Ruperti also met with Aruban Prime Minister Mike Eman and another top official, Mike de Meza. Both declined repeated requests for interviews.

In a September 2012 letter to Syria’s then-ambassador to Venezuela, Ghassan Abbas, Ruperti said the point of the scheme would be to “avoid the boycott that has been implemented by United States of America and the European Community.”

Socialist Fatherland

He proposed heading a business group called “Sirius Venezuelan” and recommended a five-year contract to supply 50,000 to 200,000 barrels a day of Syrian crude, as well as storage capacity for another 6 million Syrian barrels. Stamped beneath Ruperti’s signature, in bold italics: “Socialist fatherland, we will win and we will live.”

What followed was a chain of communication between Syrian and Venezuelan officials that included several executives of Houston-based Citgo Petroleum Corp., the U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA, or Petroleos de Venezuela, according to two people familiar with the talks. One note from Ambassador Abbas urged a Venezuelan official to come to Damascus to discuss volumes, terms and conditions of the deal.

In the phone interview from Caracas, Ruperti said the oil deal wasn’t meant to make a political statement. “It was a logistical solution to make a lot of money,” he said.

PDVSA did not respond to requests for comment. A Citgo official said the company “is not considering and will not consider Syrian crude imports to supply the Citgo Aruba Refinery. The company is committed to the operation of the Citgo Aruba Refinery in compliance with all applicable laws, and this includes all U.S. sanctions laws.”

Abbas couldn’t be reached for comment.

Trump Conflict?

Citgo attracted attention in Washington earlier this year by donating $500,000 to the inauguration fund of President Donald Trump, a sum that exceeded gifts by Shell, Walmart and most other U.S. companies. The donation raises concerns about how a foreign government might seek to buy influence inside the Oval Office, according to Richard Painter, who served as White House ethics counsel under President George W. Bush and has been critical of the Trump administration.

Oil refinery in Aruba.

Photographer: Ben Bartenstein/Bloomberg

Citgo’s inauguration gift surfaced after a bipartisan group of U.S. senators said that “critical energy infrastructure” in the U.S. owned by Citgo could come into the hands of Russian oil giant Rosneft PJSC.

PDVSA used 49.9 percent of its Citgo shares as collateral for a loan from Rosneft last year, according to a Nov. 30 financial statement filed in Delaware. Senators, including Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican, and Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, have said that the Russian company’s purchase of additional PDVSA bonds on the open market would bring its total ownership potential, if PDVSA were to default, to more than 50 percent.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said last week that, in the event of a PDVSA default, Citgo’s loan from Russia will be reviewed by the department’s Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S., which can derail deals on national security concerns. The U.S. is the largest buyer of Venezuelan crude, and Citgo takes the largest share of those imports, according to analysis of U.S. government data compiled by Bloomberg.

For many in Aruba, learning of a refining deal that would have included Syrian oil has come as something of a shock. U.S. officials have said that even planning such a scheme violates international sanctions. Alvin Koolman, the top official of Aruba’s state refining company, Refineria di Aruba N.V., said in an interview that the company will investigate attempts to violate sanctions at the facility and cooperate with U.S. officials. “If anything like that comes above water, it will be stopped,” Koolman said at the company’s headquarters in San Nicolas, Aruba.

The facility hasn’t processed any oil since Citgo signed the lease, Koolman said, and there’s no evidence of oil tankers actually taking the route from Syria to Russia to the Caribbean, according to shipping data tracked by Bloomberg.

While many Aruban officials say they had no knowledge of the Syrian oil plan, parliamentary elections will be held in September and the refinery may turn into a political pawn because its closing caused so much suffering and unemployment. When Valero shut operations in March 2012, it was one of Aruba’s largest employers and the island plunged into a double-dip recession. Its economy is now the third-most dependent on tourism in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.

“This is a shock,” said Dangui Oduber, an opposition lawmaker, whose father served two terms as Aruba’s prime minister. “Our tourism industry can’t afford to be related to the Syrian government.”

Oduber said he will request a public hearing to bring Eman and other ministers who signed off on the Citgo lease before parliament.

On a recent weekday, the only signs of life in once-bustling San Nicolas were two pimps standing guard on the street corners as Venezuelan and Colombian prostitutes in blue and yellow bikinis posed alongside abandoned row houses. Outside the refinery entrance, five donkeys plodded through a field of cacti.

Whatever happens to the refinery, the uncovered plot to reopen it raises questions about possible efforts that haven’t been exposed.

“Syria is searching for alternatives and ways to get around the law and they’ve found friends in our own hemisphere,” said Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow in Latin American studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If Venezuela is willing to go through all of these contortions to help the Assad regime, what else are they willing to do?”

(Jpost) ISRAELI MINISTER CALLS FOR ASSASSINATION OF SYRIA’S ASSAD

(Jpost) Housing Minister Yoav Galant also charges that the rule of the Assad regime is the worst since the Nazis in WWII.

Housing Minister Yoav Galant on Tuesday condemned the genocide taking place in Syria, adding that “it is time to eliminate” President Bashar Assad, following US accusations that the regime is using a crematorium to hide atrocities being committed outside Damascus.

“The reality in which people are executed in Syria, being hit deliberately by chemical weapons, their bodies being burned, something we haven’t seen in 70 years, we are crossing a redline and it is time to eliminate Assad, literally,” Galant, a former major-general in the IDF and member of the National Security Council, said at the Second International Ground Warfare and Logistics Conference at Latrun, outside of Jerusalem.

Earlier, in an interview with Army Radio, Galant charged that the rule of the Assad regime is the worst since the Nazis led by Adolf Hitler in Germany during World War II.

Housing Minister Yoav Galant (credit: Nurit Zatlawi)Housing Minister Yoav Galant (credit: Nurit Zatlawi)

“What is happening in Syria is defined as genocide, under all its classifications,” he told Army Radio. The Kulanu minister added that Israel wants to see Assad and his Alawite regime fall from power and be replaced by a moderate Sunni ruler.

The US State Department on Monday accused the Assad regime of having constructed a crematorium at the notorious Sednaya military prison near Damascus to burn the bodies of prisoners that continue to be executed inside.

“Beginning in 2013, the Syrian regime modified a building within the Sednaya complex to support what we believe is a crematorium,” said Assistant Secretary of State Stuart Jones, adding, “We believe that the building of a crematorium is an effort to cover up the extent of mass murders taking place in Sednaya prison.

“These atrocities have been carried out seemingly with the unconditional support from Russia and Iran,” the main backers of the Assad regime, Jones continued.

According to Galant, while it is unclear whether or not the crematorium was in use for all those years, it is imperative that something must now be done, as the actions of the Assad regime amount to nothing less than a genocide, with “hundreds of thousands killed.”

The Obama administration made a “strategic mistake,” Galant said, by “deviating” from the course of supporting Sunni countries in order to try get closer to Shi’ite countries, something that he said is different in the Trump administration.

Up until a year-and-a-half ago, Syria looked like it was heading toward Sunni rule, but following the Russian intervention, which used methods first applied in Chechnya, such as blockading cities while continuing aerial bombardments, the will of the rebels to fight was broken and the tide turned. But while the Russians are currently backing Assad, they realize the importance of the region and understand who they are aligned with, Galant said.

“They realize that once the war is over there will still be 20 million Sunnis in Syria who will be wanting to avenge their dead and the Russians know they will be a target,” Galant said, adding that the Russians will “seek avenues to make relations better with the Sunnis, including sacrificing Assad.”

The major threat to Israel remains Iran, which wishes to open up a Shi’ite land bridge from Tehran through Iraq to Damascus in order to get to Israel, according to Galant.

“What is behind Syria is Hezbollah, which is backed by Iran. Iran is a danger to the security of the entire world.

Iran is the problem, not the solution,” he said.

“When we get the tail of the snake [Assad], we can get the head in Tehran, too,” he added.

Earlier on Tuesday, the Syrian government denied US accusations that a crematorium had been built at one of its prisons that could be used to dispose of detainees’ remains.

A Foreign Ministry statement published by state news agency SANA said the US administration had come out with “a new Hollywood story detached from reality” by alleging the crematorium had been built at Sednaya military prison near Damascus.

Amnesty International reported in February that an average of 20 to 50 people were hanged each week at the Sednaya military prison. Between 5,000 and 13,000 people were executed at Sednaya in the four years since a popular uprising descended into war, it said.

The Syrian government also denied that accusation.

Amnesty said the executions took place between 2011 and 2015, but were probably still being carried out and amount to war crimes.

In a briefing on Monday, Jones showed aerial images of what he said was the crematorium at the Sednaya site.

(Reuters) Turkey warns U.S. of blowback from decision to arm Kurdish fighters in Syria

(Reuters) Turkey warned the United States on Wednesday that a decision to arm Kurdish forces fighting Islamic State in Syria could end up hurting Washington, and accused its NATO ally of siding with terrorists.

The rebuke came a week before President Tayyip Erdogan is due in Washington for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump, who approved the arms supply to support a campaign to retake the Syrian city of Raqqa from Islamic State.

Turkey views the YPG as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984 and is considered a terrorist group by the United States, Turkey and Europe.

“We want to believe that our allies will prefer to side with us, not with a terrorist organization,” Erdogan told a news conference in Ankara, saying he would convey Turkey’s stance to Trump next week and at a NATO summit later this month.

He said he hoped that recently taken decisions would be changed by the time he visits the United States.

Earlier, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told reporters the U.S. failure to consider Turkey’s sensitivities “will surely have consequences and will yield a negative result for the U.S. as well”.

The United States regards the YPG as a valuable partner in the fight against Islamic State militants in northern Syria. Washington says that arming the Kurdish forces is necessary to recapturing Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria and a hub for planning attacks against the West.

That argument holds little sway with Ankara, which worries that advances by the YPG in northern Syria could inflame the PKK insurgency on Turkish soil.

Weapons supplied to the YPG have in the past fallen into PKK hands, said Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

“Both the PKK and YPG are terrorist organizations and they are no different apart from their names,” he told a televised news conference. “Every weapon seized by them is a threat to Turkey.”

The YPG said Washington’s decision would bring swift results and help the militia “play a stronger, more influential and more decisive role in combating terrorism”.

The Pentagon said on Tuesday it was aware of concerns in Turkey, which has given vital support to a U.S.-led campaign against Islamic State insurgents in Syria and Iraq. Jets carrying out air strikes against the jihadist group have flown from Turkey’s Incirlik air base.

Erdogan has repeatedly castigated Washington for its support of the YPG.

“SAME SACK”

Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said the United States should review its move. “We hope the U.S. administration will put a stop to this wrong and turn back from it,” he said in an interview with Turkish broadcaster A Haber.

“Such a policy will not be beneficial; you can’t be in the same sack as terrorist organizations.”

But U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he was confident the United States would be able to resolve the tensions.

“We’ll work out any of the concerns. We will work very closely with Turkey in support of their security on their southern border. It’s Europe’s southern border, and we’ll stay closely connected,” Mattis told reporters during a visit to the Pabrade Training Area in Lithuania.

Ankara has argued that Washington should switch support for the Raqqa assault from the YPG to Syrian rebels Turkey has trained and led against Islamic State for the past year – despite U.S. scepticism about their military capability.

“There is no reality in the comments that a ground operation against Daesh (Islamic State) can only be successful with the YPG. I hope they turn back from this mistake,” Canikli said.

Despite the angry language, Erdogan’s government has little prospect of reversing Washington’s decision, and any retaliatory move would come at a cost.

Cavusoglu said Trump would address the issue with Trump during his planned May 16-17 visit to Washington, suggesting there were no plans to call off the talks in protest.

“Turkey doesn’t have much room to move here,” said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and analyst at Carnegie Europe. “I think Washington made such an evaluation when taking this decision.”

While Turkey could impose limits on the use of the Incirlik base, that would hamper operations against Islamic State, which also menaces Turkey itself and has claimed responsibility for attacks including the bombing of Istanbul airport.

Turkey could also step up air strikes on PKK targets in northern Iraq. Turkish warplanes attacked Kurdish YPG fighters in northeastern Syria and Iraq’s Sinjar region late last month.

But Cavusoglu and Canikli both pointed to a diplomatic, rather than military, response to Trump’s decision.

“We are carrying out, and will carry out, all necessary diplomatic communications,” Canikli said. “Our wish is that the U.S. stops this wrong and does what is mandated by our friendship.”

(AFP) Russia, Turkey, Iran sign deal to set up Syria safe zones

(AFP) Russia, Iran and Turkey on Thursday signed an agreement on setting up four safe zones in Syria that the United Nations described as a promising step to wind down the brutal six-year war.

The United States however gave an extremely cautious welcome, citing concerns over Iran’s role as a guarantor, even as it expressed hope that the deal could set the stage for a settlement.

Several members of the rebel delegation left the room shouting in protest as the signing ceremony got underway in the Kazakh capital Astana, angry at regime ally Iran, an AFP reporter saw.

The plan for the “de-escalation areas” was discussed on Tuesday by US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a telephone conversation.

The agreement provides for a ceasefire, a ban on all flights, rapid deliveries of humanitarian aid to the designated areas and the return of refugees.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said he was “encouraged” by the breakthrough. He stressed it will be “crucial to see this agreement actually improve the lives of Syrians.”

Russia and Iran, which back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in the war, and Turkey, a supporter of rebel forces, hope to build on a ceasefire deal they reached in December.

The Syrian government and rebel delegations are not signatories to the deal.

“We are not supporting this agreement. It is an agreement between the three countries,” said Usama Abu Zeid, a rebel spokesman. “We do not at all agree that Iran… is a guarantor of this accord.”

– ‘Promising’ step –

UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, who was in Astana as an observer, described the agreement as “an important, promising, positive step in the right direction” toward de-escalation.

A working group will be set up within two weeks to resolve technical issues and the three countries agreed to set up the four areas by June 4.

The areas include key territory held by anti-Assad forces.

The first zone includes the whole of Idlib province along with certain parts of neighboring Latakia, Aleppo and Hama provinces.

The second will encompass certain parts in the north of Homs province, and the third will be comprised of some areas of Eastern Ghouta, outside of Damascus.

The fourth zone will include parts of the Deraa and Quneitra provinces in southern Syria, according to the memorandum seen by AFP.

– US doubts about Iran –

The UN envoy said the deal would be quickly put to the test and that success on the ground could pave the way to a new round of political talks in Geneva later this month.

“There will be a period not longer than two weeks in which all this will be seriously put to the test and we want that test to succeed,” he said.

In Washington, the State Department, which had dispatched an observer to the talks, said it appreciated Russian and Turkish efforts but called into doubt Iran’s role.

“We continue to have concerns about the Astana agreement, including the involvement of Iran as a so-called ‘guarantor’,” State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

“Iran’s activities in Syria have only contributed to the violence, not stopped it, and Iran’s unquestioning support for the Assad regime has perpetuated the misery of ordinary Syrians.”

“We nonetheless hope that this arrangement can contribute to a de-escalation of violence, end the suffering of the Syrian people, and set the stage for a political settlement of the conflict,” she said.

– What monitoring? –

Russia’s envoy, Alexander Lavrentiev, said the zones would remain in place for six months, a period that could be extended.

It remained unclear whether there would be any international monitoring of the safe zones.

Guterres said the United Nations will support de-escalation efforts, but he did not specify whether it would have a role in the new set-up.

Putin said Wednesday that ways to monitor the zones would be an issue for separate talks.

Lavrentiev said Moscow was ready to send observers to the zones.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in comments published Thursday that the plan would solve “50 percent” of the six-year conflict.

Damascus supports the Russian plan, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.

Syrian rebels said earlier Thursday that they had resumed participation in the talks after having suspended their involvement a day earlier over air strikes against civilians.

More than 320,000 people have been killed in Syria since the country’s war began with anti-government protests in March 2011.

(Reuters) Russia: Syria safe zones to be shut for U.S., coalition planes – agencies

(Reuters) The safe zones which are being created in Syria will be closed for warplanes of the United States and those of the U.S.-led coalition, Russian news agencies quoted Russian envoy at Syria peace talks Alexander Lavrentyev as saying on Friday.

Turkey and Iran agreed on Thursday to Russia’s proposal for “de-escalation zones” in Syria, a move welcomed by the United Nations but met with scepticism from the United States.

+++ (BBG) Putin Says Trump Backs Syria Plan, Russia Open to No-Fly Zones

(BBG) Russian President Vladimir Putin said that he secured the backing of U.S. President Donald Trump for a proposal to establish safe zones in Syria which could include a ban on bombing raids.

Putin said after talks with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Wednesday that Russia, Turkey and Iran, which brokered a shaky cease-fire in Syria at the end of last year, have agreed on the need for such areas to cement the truce.

“We spoke about this with Mr. Trump yesterday. As far as I understood, the American administration supports these ideas,” said Putin, who held what the White House described as a “very good” phone call with the U.S. leader on Tuesday.

Russia has long urged the U.S. to join forces with it in Syria. But Trump’s campaign pledge to cooperate with Putin on defeating Islamic State has run into resistance from Republicans and Democrats who are pushing for a harder line toward Moscow over its meddling in the U.S. election, support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and interference in Ukraine.

The Trump-Putin call was the first between the two leaders since tensions erupted over a U.S. missile strike on Syria last month in response to a chemical weapons attack the U.S. says was launched by Assad’s forces. The Syrian president and his Russian allies rejected the accusations.

Protect Civilians

Trump has called for the creation of safe areas inside Syria to protect civilians fleeing the conflict. The Russian initiative would set up four buffer zones patrolled by forces that could include troops from Russia, Turkey and Iran as well as other militaries. The areas would be set up in the northwestern Idlib province, Homs province in the west, the East Ghouta suburb of the capital Damascus and southern Syria.

“There is a new development here,” Erdogan said after the meeting with Putin. “I am, I have been and I will be defending the idea of safe zones everywhere.”

Putin and Trump agreed during their call to step up efforts to cooperate on resolving the Syria conflict and the fight against terrorism, according to U.S. and Russian statements. The White House statement said there was “a discussion of safe, or de-escalation, zones” in Syria during the call, though it didn’t state there was agreement on them.

A senior U.S. diplomat is attending two days of Russian-led talks on Syria that started Tuesday in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, and include discussion of the safe areas.

Syria’s opposition is skeptical about the Russian initiative because of the involvement of Iran, an uncompromising backer of Assad. They’re urging the deployment of United Nations peacekeepers and the creation of no-fly zones.

Halt Bombing

Putin said a halt to bombing could happen inside the safe zones if there is no military activity taking place.

The talks in Astana are “very positive and I’m hopeful we will reach an understanding on this,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Sochi.

While Assad managed to turn the tide of war in his favor after Russia started an air campaign in September 2015, continued fighting between his forces and rebels backed by the U.S. and its allies including Turkey and Saudi Arabia stand in the way of a political settlement. The conflict has killed an estimated 400,000 people and sent millions more fleeing.

Putin and Erdogan also agreed to lift most trade restrictions that remain after a chill in relations that lasted for months when the Turkish air force shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in late 2015.

Tomato Ban

Still, Russia will keep in place a ban on Turkish tomato imports for up to three to five years, Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said. The market will be “liberalized” as Russian producers complete investments in domestic production, Putin said.

Russia has blocked Turkish tomato imports worth a quarter of a billion dollars a year while Turkey effectively barred Russian grain and other food supplies that have cost Russian exporters up to $1.5 billion, according to estimates cited by the Kommersant newspaper.

A Russian warning against charter flights to Turkey will be revoked, Dvorkovich said.

Relations between Russia and Turkey have returned to normal after the crisis over the downing of the warplane, Putin said. Erdogan said he and “my friend” Putin agreed on all topics except for the ban on tomatoes.

(Reuters) Israel strikes Iran-supplied arms depot near Damascus airport

(Reuters) Israel struck an arms supply hub operated by the Lebanese group Hezbollah near Damascus airport on Thursday, Syrian rebel and regional intelligence sources said, targeting weapons sent from Iran via commercial and military cargo planes.

Video carried on Lebanese TV and shared on social media showed the pre-dawn airstrikes caused a fire around the airport east of the Syrian capital, suggesting fuel sources or weapons containing explosives were hit.

Syrian state media said Israeli missiles hit a military position southwest of the airport, but did not mention arms or fuel. It said “Israeli aggression” had caused explosions and some material losses, but did not expand on the damage.

Israel does not usually comment on action it takes in Syria. But Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, speaking to Army Radio from the United States, appeared to confirm involvement.

“The incident in Syria corresponds completely with Israel’s policy to act to prevent Iran’s smuggling of advanced weapons via Syria to Hezbollah,” he said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had “said that whenever we receive intelligence that indicates an intention to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, we will act”, he added.

An Israeli military spokeswoman said: “We can’t comment on such reports.”

Two senior rebel sources in the Damascus area, citing monitors in the eastern outskirts of the capital, said five strikes hit an ammunition depot used by Iran-backed militias.

Lebanon’s al-Manar television, which is affiliated with Hezbollah, said early indications were that the strikes hit warehouses and fuel tanks. It said there no casualties.

RUSSIA AND IRAN BACK ASSAD

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is backed in his six-year-old civil war by Russia, Iran and regional Shi’ite militias. These include Hezbollah, a close ally of Tehran and enemy of Israel, which describes the group as the biggest threat it faces on its borders. The two fought a month-long war in 2006.

Syrian military defectors familiar with the airport say it plays a major role as a conduit for arms from Tehran.

Alongside military planes, there are a number of commercial cargo aircraft that fly from Iran to resupply arms to Hezbollah and other groups. The flights go directly from Iran to Syria, passing through Iraqi airspace.

As well as weapons, hundreds of Shi’ite militia fighters from Iraq and Iran have been flown to Damascus international airport. Intelligence sources put their numbers at 10,000 to 20,000 and say they play a significant role in military campaigns launched by the Syrian army.

Israel has largely kept out the war in Syria, but officials have consistently referred to two red lines that have prompted a military response in the past: any supply of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, and the establishment of “launch sites” for attacks on Israel from the Golan Heights region.

Speaking in Moscow on Wednesday, where he was attending a security conference, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman reiterated that Israel “will not allow Iranian and Hezbollah forces to be amassed on the Golan Heights border”.

During his visit, Lieberman held talks with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, as part of efforts by Israel to coordinate with Moscow on actions in Syria and avoid the risk of confrontation.

A statement from the Defence Ministry said Lieberman had expressed concern to the Russian ministers over “Iranian activity in Syria and the Iranian use of Syrian soil as a base for arms smuggling to Hezbollah in Lebanon”.

A Western diplomat said the airstrikes sent a clear political message to Iran, effectively saying it could no longer use Iraqi and Syrian airspace to resupply proxies with impunity.

Speaking to Reuters in an interview in Washington on Wednesday, Katz, the intelligence minister, said he was seeking an understanding with the Trump administration that Iran not be allowed to establish a permanent military foothold in Syria.

Israeli officials estimate that Iran commands around 25,000 fighters in Syria, including members of its own Revolutionary Guard, Shi’ite militants from Iraq and recruits from Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Israel has also said that Hezbollah has built up an arsenal of more than 100,000 rockets, many of which would be capable of striking anywhere within Israel’s territory. The last conflict between the two left 1,300 people dead and uprooted more than a million Lebanese and 300,000 to 500,000 Israelis.

(Reuters) Israel says Assad’s forces still have several tonnes of chemical weapons

(Reuters)

Israel’s military said on Wednesday it believes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces still possess several tonnes of chemical weapons, issuing the assessment two weeks after a chemical attack that killed nearly 90 people in Syria.

Israel, along with many countries, blames the strike on Assad’s military. French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said French intelligence services would provide proof of that in the coming days.

A senior Israeli military officer, in a briefing to Israeli reporters, said “a few tonnes of chemical weapons” remained in the hands of Assad’s forces, a military official told Reuters.

Some local media reports quoted the briefing officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with Israeli military procedure, as putting the amount at up to 3 tonnes.

In a 2013 agreement brokered by Russia and the United States, Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapons.

Earlier in the day, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons, a global watchdog, said sarin or a similar banned toxin was used in the April 4 strike in Syria’s Idlib province.

The findings supported earlier testing by Turkish and British laboratories.

Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper on April 6 that he was “100 percent certain” that the attack was “directly ordered and planned by Assad”. He did not elaborate on how he reached that conclusion.

Syria has repeatedly denied it was behind the attack in Khan Sheikhoun. Assad was quoted as saying last week that Syria’s military gave up all its chemical weapons in 2013 after the agreement made at the time, and would not have used them anyway.

Israel closely monitors the civil war in Syria, a northern neighbour. During the six-year conflict, Israel has largely stayed on the sidelines, carrying out occasional air strikes against what it says is the movement of weapons to Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militants.