Clinton: No U.S. combat troops to fight Islamic State


Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton rejected the idea of sending thousands of U.S. ground troops to fight Islamic State in the Middle East, saying such a move would give the militant group a recruitment tool to boost its ranks.

In her first television interview since the Paris attacks last month, Clinton largely backed President Barack Obama's strategy, pledging to defeat the militant group and engage Russia in the process if she wins the November 2016 election.

“In terms of thousands of combat troops, like some on the Republican side are recommending, I think that should be a non-starter,” Clinton told CBS News in an interview that aired on Tuesday.

“I don't think it's the smartest way to go after ISIS. I think it gives ISIS a new recruitment tool,” Clinton said, using an acronym for the militant group that has taken control of parts of Syria and Iraq and pledged to form an Islamic caliphate.

Clinton said she could not “conceive of any circumstances” in which she would agree to ground combat troops. She also said it was unclear how many other kinds of U.S. military personnel, such as special operations forces and trainers, were needed.

“You have to fight them in the air, you have to fight them on the ground and you have to fight them in cyberspace,” said Clinton, who served as secretary of state under Obama.

Clinton said “we need to get over the false choice” between going after Islamic State or going after Syrian President Bashar al Assad, who has been caught up in a civil war for more than four years and has Russia's support.

“Right now, we're not going to see a military defeat of Assad. That's not going to happen now,” Clinton said.

The United States has urged Russia to concentrate on attacking Islamic State, rather than moderate opposition forces opposed to Assad.

Clinton said she would like Russia to take an active role in working with the United States and its allies against Islamic State or at least give its “acquiescence” to the fight.

Clinton has called for a no-fly zone over northern Syria, and told CBS she would work with Russia to keep it informed about the area covered.

Israel faces potential challenge from Russia over Syria


This article first appeared on The Media Line.

Periodically throughout the four and half years of the Syrian civil war weapon shipments destined for Hezbollah were intercepted and decimated by airstrikes inside Syria. In each instance Israel, whose air force has enjoyed unrivalled dominance of the airspace around the Jewish state’s borders, was believed responsible. But with the deployment of Russian combat aircraft to bases in Syria several weeks ago this hegemony may have ended.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow underscores Israel’s uncertainty over the future in Syria. Israeli officials worry that, inadvertently or otherwise, Russian fighter jets and air defense systems may act as a screen for Hezbollah to move new arms convoys into Syria.

Several days ago Israeli artillery units fired on Syrian army positions in response to errant shells crossing the border. This represented the first time Israel has attacked Syria since Russian President Vladimir Putin deployed troops and jets into the country. Yet the incidents took place in the Golan Heights, far south of any Russian units which are stationed on the coast.

“The most immediate issue is one of having Israeli flights over Syrian territory (and) ensuring that Russia flights won’t have any confusion or accidental fire incidents (with them),” Yezid Sayigh, a Senior Associate with the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, told The Media Line. But, he added, “This doesn’t need Netanyahu to visit Moscow.” In a similar manner to back channel communications between the US and Syria, Israel and Russia could have cooperated quietly to ensure that both states air forces operated in the same airspace without coming into conflict. A high level visit by Netanyahu demonstrates a deeper agenda, Sayigh said.

“(Its) more a question of working out how far will Russia go in protecting the regime (of President Bashar Al-Assad) – air defenses, new high tech combat aircraft,” Sayigh explained. Of chief concern to Israel would be the delivery of the S-300 air defense system to the Syrian military, something Russia has repeatedly said it will do, Sayigh said. The Russian built anti-aircraft system is capable of targeting planes and cruise missiles and is considered one of the most capable air defense systems in the world. The Israeli government has stated in the past that it would not accept the S-300 being transferred to the Syrian army.

Although Israel has not actively sought to undermine the Assad regime during the ongoing conflict the two countries are still technically at war. Israelis debate whether Assad’s fall or his survival is better for Israel. Russia, on the other hand, has stated that it will work to ensure Assad remains in power, with Putin declaring that supporting the regime is the most effective way to both fight Islamic State and end violence in the region.

A possibility exists that Russian and Israeli jets could come into conflict over Syrian skies but such a scenario is highly unlikely, Zvi Magen, a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies, told The Media Line. “Russia is not fighting on the ground and in the air there is enough technical solutions (to ensure an accidental clash would not occur),” Magen said.

On the issue of Hizbullah, Israel retains the right to strike at weapon shipments and this will be understood and accepted by Russia, Magen said. “Russia is not looking for war,” and understands that Israel has certain requirements, the researcher explained. But this is not a disadvantage for Hizbullah however. “It’s good for them because they are part of this coalition – Russia, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah,” Magen concluded.

Israel’s freedom of action over Syria could be curtailed by the Russian deployment, Raymond Hinnebusch, the director of the Centre for Syrian Studies at the University of St. Andrews, told The Media Line. “To the extent a Russian air defense umbrella reaches outward from their base in the coastal areas… this would potentially limit Israeli options,” the professor said.

The boost to the beleaguered Syrian regime that Putin’s actions represent could have far reaching implications for the whole of the region if they are enough to ensure Assad’s survival. This could alter Israel’s view of the near future and reverse assessments previously made by Israeli intelligence chiefs that Assad’s demise was inevitable.

“The main strategic change is… that the Russian presence will tend to push back against those pressuring for turning the US/Western airstrikes from (targeting) ISIS to hitting Assad,” Hinnebusch said.

Putin is “hoisting the Americans on their own petard,” by lauding the US sentiment that all states must work together to combat ISIS and then including Syria in this equation, Yezid Sayigh argued. Effectively, the Russians have created a “back window” for Assad to survive by, he suggested.

Powers struggle to agree on Syria; Russia urged to strike Islamic State


France challenged Russia to back its words with deeds over fighting Islamic State militants in Syria as major powers on Tuesday struggled to resolve differences between Moscow and the West over ending the civil war in the Middle Eastern country.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has sent warplanes and tanks to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, called for a new anti-Islamic State coalition, diplomats pursued new ways to build a solid front against the militants.

Ideas suggested on the sidelines of the annual United Nations General Assembly in New York included using the model of a small group of world powers that succeeded in negotiating the July 14 Iran nuclear deal, and breathing new life into a virtually moribund broader U.N. peace mechanism.

“What's important in the fight against Islamic State is not the media strike, it's the real strike,” French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said in response Putin's statements Monday at the gathering of world leaders.

Fabius said the Russians “talk a lot, but as far as I can tell they haven't committed any planes against Islamic State.” He added: “If it (Russia) is against the terrorists, it's not abnormal to launch strikes against them.”

A U.S.-led coalition has been bombing Islamic State targets in Syria for about a year with a separate coalition with some of the same countries striking the militants in neighboring Iraq.

The militants control large areas in both countries, exploiting chaos created in Syria by a civil war that began more than four years ago when Assad cracked down on protests against his government.

PUTIN'S PLANS

Western officials have questioned whether Russian objectives in Syria are more to strengthen Assad and build up Moscow's presence as a power in the region than fighting the militants.

Putin told the General Assembly that Assad should be part of the coalition fighting Islamic State. Washington and its allies have indicated Assad might stay in power in the short term but a transition was essential and he had no long term role.

“Bashar has been qualified by the U.N. as a criminal against humanity. How can you imagine Syrians coming back if we tell them that their future passes through Assad?” Fabius said.

After Putin and U.S. President Barack Obama met on Monday, both powers said they were committed to destroying Islamic State and they agreed their militaries would communicate to avoid any accidental clashes between forces in the area.

“There was agreement that Syria should be a unified country, united, that it needs to be secular, that ISIL (Islamic State) needs to be taken on, and that there needs to be a managed transition,” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday.

Kerry told MSNBC: “Everybody understands that Syria is at stake, and the world is looking rapidly for some kind of resolution.”   

ASSAD'S FUTURE

Assad's future role remained the biggest sticking point and Kerry told MSNBC differences remained on what the outcome of such a transition would be. He said he would have further talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov here on Wednesday.

Obama told a U.N. meeting on Tuesday: “Defeating ISIL requires, I believe, a new leader and an inclusive (Syrian) government that unites the Syrian people in the fight against terrorist groups. This is going to be a complex process.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said foreign ministers from Russia, China, Britain, France, Germany and the United States, who met for dinner on Monday, had considered the idea of using the model of that P5+1 group to address Syria.

She said in another meeting of the 28 European Union foreign minister members explored that and other options, including using the EU's influence in the region. “I guess we will have to do a little bit of shuttle diplomacy,” she told reporters.

Russia's Lavrov said he hoped a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on counter terrorism on Wednesday would be another chance to build a solid international legal basis for whatever action might be necessary to fight Islamic State.

Russia is president of the 15-member Security Council for September and Lavrov would chair the meeting.

Western council diplomats, however, voiced doubts that the meeting would yield any significant results.

A bid by Russia for a unanimous council statement on counter terrorism failed after Washington refused to negotiate on the text, which diplomats said strayed into divisive political issues such Syria and Yemen and the Middle East peace process.

In his speech to the General Assembly on Monday Putin proposed talks on a possible Security Council resolution “aimed at coordinating the actions of all forces that confront Islamic State.”

Syrian rebels say launch offensive in southern Syria


Rebels in southern Syria announced a major offensive on Wednesday to capture remaining positions held by the Syrian military in Quneitra province, near the Israeli Golan Heights, where bombardments could be seen a short distance away.

Quneitra sits in a sensitive region around 70 kilometers (40 miles) southwest of the capital Damascus and has been the scene of frequent fighting between insurgent groups opposed to President Bashar al-Assad and the army backed by allied militia.

A Syrian army source told Reuters the army had beat back an insurgent assault to take over several hilltops and the government-controlled villages of Tel Shaar and Tel Bazaq, north of the deserted provincial capital of Quneitra.

“Army units have foiled efforts by the terrorist groups against these villages in the Quneitra countryside,” the army source said, adding at least 200 insurgents were killed or wounded in the army operations.

State television footage showed several tanks and dozens of ground troops moving reinforcements through army-held villages in the lush agricultural border province, where rebels have made gains in the last two years.

Rebel spokesman Issam al-Rayes wrote on Twitter that an alliance of insurgent groups, which did not include al Qaeda's Syria wing Nusra Front, were taking part in the offensive under the banner of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

Nusra has fought in southern Syria but is not thought to be the main insurgent force there, unlike in other parts of the country.

Rayes later told Reuters the attempt to seize remaining army strongholds in the province, following several failed efforts, also targeted the army's main Liwa 90 base. “This is an attempt to end the presence of the regime in the province,” he said.

The insurgents were eyeing the city of Baath, the province's main administrative center and the town of Khan Arnba, the two main urban centers still in the hands of the government.

Dislodging the army from Quneitra would open a supply route to rebels south of Damascus in the opposition-controlled western Ghouta, from where they could target Assad's seat of power.

“We are aiming to destroy the first line of defense of the army around Damascus in this area,” Rayes said.

A Reuters photographer watching from the Israeli Golan said there had been heavy shelling since early Wednesday in the Quneitra area. At one point he saw smoke rising from 13 bombardments. Shooting could also be heard in the distance.

It was not clear which groups were taking part.

Later, rocket alarms sounded in the Golan Heights. Tanks on the Syrian side could be seen firing and there was the sound of helicopters overhead.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported clashes between the Syrian military and insurgents including Islamist factions in northern Quneitra.

The Observatory's head Rami Abdulrahman said a handful of combatants were killed on both sides since Tuesday.

Insurgents fighting in Sweida province further east had failed during recent fighting to capture a main road to Damascus, and it was not clear whether they could secure a route to the capital in this latest offensive, he said.

Different groups, including the hardline Islamic State and Nusra Front, have been putting Assad under heavy pressure in various parts of the country in the past two months.

Another insurgent alliance including Nusra Front has taken hold of the northwestern Idlib province, edging closer to Assad's coastal stronghold, while Islamic State fighters overran the central city of Palmyra last month.

The government says it can defend important stretches of territory in Syria's populous west and the deputy foreign minister told Reuters last week that Damascus was safer than towards the start of the conflict, which grew out of protests against Assad in 2011.

Syria’s Assad denies chemical weapons use; U.S. presses case for strike


Syrian President Bashar Assad denied that he was behind a chemical weapons attack on the Syrian people, as the White House on Sunday pressed ahead with the uphill effort of persuading Congress to approve a military strike to punish Assad.

The Obama administration faces a crucial test vote set for Wednesday in the U.S. Senate and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough made the rounds of five Sunday talk shows to argue for a resolution authorizing a limited strike on Syria.

In Paris, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry did not rule out France's suggestion that it go to the U.N. Security Council for an authorization of a possible military strike once U.N. inspectors complete their report on the August 21 attack near Damascus in which more than 1,400 people were killed.

Russia and China, veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council, have blocked previous efforts to punish the Syrian government. The United States and France hold that Assad was behind the attack and should be deterred from using chemical weapons again.

Assad denied involvement the attack and said if the United States has evidence, Washington should produce it, CBS reported on Sunday on its news program “Face the Nation.

“There has been no evidence that I used chemical weapons against my own people,” CBS reported Assad said in an interview conducted in Damascus. The report was a summary of the interview and did not contain any audio or video of Assad.

Assad said he feared an attack might degrade the Syrian military and tip the balance in the 2-1/2-year-old civil war, CBS reported.

The Syrian president also warned that if there was a military strike by the United States, there would be retaliation by those aligned with Syria, CBS said.

In London, Kerry countered Assad, saying “The evidence speaks for itself.”

President Barack Obama faces an uphill climb to persuade U.S. lawmakers returning from a summer recess to vote for military action. During the break, their constituents voiced strong objections to the action, worrying that it would drag the country into another costly, and broader, Middle East conflict.

Opinion polls show most Americans oppose a strike. A recent Reuters/Ipsos poll said 56 percent of Americans believed the United States should not intervene in Syria; 19 percent backed action.

McDonough, the White House chief of staff, led the administration's lobbying effort on Sunday, part of an intensive push for support that will continue on Monday when Obama sits for six network television interviews and culminate with an address to the country on Tuesday night.

“Are there consequences for a dictator who would have used those weapons to gas to death hundreds of children? The answer to that question … will be followed closely in Damascus, but will also be followed closely in Tehran, among Lebanese Hezbollah, and others. So this is a very important week,” McDonough said on the “Fox News Sunday” program.

While Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, is a supporter of the strikes, he said Obama had made “a hash” of his argument to punish Assad.

“It's very clear he's lost support in the last week,” Rogers said on CBS' “Face the Nation.” He said Obama should have called Congress back from its summer break for classified briefings on the proposed strikes, and the administration needed to “regroup.”

“The president hasn't made the case,” Rogers said.

Representative Jim McGovern, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said that “if I were the president, I would withdraw my request. I don't believe the support is there in Congress.” He spoke on CNN's “State of the Union”

Congressional surveys make it clear Obama has a difficult task. A Washington Post vote count showed 223 House members either against or leaning against authorizing the use of military force in Syria. That is more than the 217 needed to block the resolution.

The White House has said the president could go ahead with a military strike without congressional authorization, but has not said he would do so.

FRENCH SUGGESTION

French President Francois Hollande, increasingly under pressure at home and among European partners to seek a U.N. mandate before any military intervention in Syria, on Saturday suggested he could seek a U.N. resolution despite previous Russian and Chinese vetoes.

U.N. inspectors are likely to hand in their report later this week roughly at the same time as the U.S. Congress votes on military action. The United Nations has said the inspectors will only determine whether gas was used, not who was responsible for its use.

“On President Hollande's comments with respect to the U.N., the president (Obama), and all of us, are listening carefully to all of our friends,” Kerry told a news conference in Paris earlier Sunday. “No decision has been made by the president.”

Later, a U.S. official said Washington was not seeking a U.N. vote at this time.

Kerry said key Arab countries were leaning towards supporting a G20 statement – already signed by 12 countries – that called for a strong international response.

The top U.S. diplomat met in Paris with Arab ministers, including from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, following talks in Lithuania with European foreign ministers, who blamed the attack in Syria on Assad but refused to endorse military action.

Iran's new foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, warned the United States that it would ignite a fire across the Middle East if it attacks Syria.

“We are concerned about warmongering in this region,” Zarif told a news conference while on a visit to Iraq. “Those who are short-sighted and are beating the drums of war are starting a fire that will burn everyone.”

Underscoring the dangers of the Syrian conflict spreading beyond its borders, an Israeli official said on Sunday the United States would notify Israel hours in advance of an attack on Syria.

While formally on the sidelines of the Syrian crisis, Israel fears coming under reprisals from its northern foe should the United States launch strikes to punish Damascus.

A German newspaper, citing German intelligence, reported that Assad may not have personally given permission for the August 21 attack.

Syrian brigade and division commanders had been asking the Presidential Palace to allow them to use chemical weapons for the last 4-1/2 months, according to radio messages intercepted by German spies, but permission had always been denied, the newspaper Bild am Sonntag said.

This could mean Assad may not have personally approved the attack, intelligence officers suggested.

Reporting by John Whitesides in Washington and Arshad Mohammed in Paris and London; additional reporting by Rachelle Younglai, David Brunnstrom and Jackie Frank in Washington; Dan Williams in Israel; Natalie Huet in Paris; Alexandra Hudson in Berlin; and Raheem Salman and Yeganeh Torbati in Baghdad; writing by Eric Beech; editing by Jackie Frank

Iran commander: U.S. strike on Syria would bring Israel’s destruction


Iran's Revolutionary Guards chief said a U.S. military attack on Syria would lead to the “imminent destruction” of Israel and would prove a “second Vietnam” for America, according to an Iranian news agency.

Shi'ite Muslim Iran, an arch-enemy of Israel, is supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against mainly Sunni Muslim rebels trying to oust him in a two-and-a-half-year-old revolt.

Iran has blamed the rebels for a suspected chemical weapons on August 21 that killed hundreds of civilians. Opposition activists blame Assad's forces, Washington has agreed and President Barack Obama made the case for a limited military strike against Syria in response to the chemical attack.

Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of Iran's powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, said in an interview late on Wednesday with the Tasnim news agency that a U.S. strike on Syria would not helpIsrael.

“An attack on Syria will mean the imminent destruction of Israel,” Jafari said, according to Tasnim.

The interview was widely picked up by Iranian media on Thursday. Tasnim, which launched in 2012, says on its website that it is devoted to “defending the Islamic Revolution against negative media propaganda”.

Jafari, as quoted by Tasnim, also warned the United States that it risked embroilment in a costly and protracted struggle if it intervened in Syria.

“Syria will turn into a more dangerous and deadly battlefield than the Vietnam War, and in fact, Syria will become the second Vietnam for the United States,” he said.

Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Israel calls up reservists, deploys missile defenses against Syria


Israel ordered a small-scale mobilization of reservists on Wednesday and strengthened its missile defenses as precautions against possible Syrian attack should Western powers carry out threatened strikes on Syria.

But an Israeli official briefed on a meeting of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's security cabinet said the Jewish state believed the probability of it be targeted by Syria, its northern neighbor and long-time foe, was low.

“Following a security assessment held today, there is no reason for a change to normal routines,” Netanyahu said in a statement. “We are, in parallel, preparing for any scenario.”

That included a limited call-up of military reserve soldiers and deployment of an advanced missile shield in the north, the official said. Israel Radio said mobilization of several hundred troops in intelligence and air defense had been authorized.

Army Radio reported the military was using all of its missile defenses, which include the short-range Iron Dome, the mid-range Patriot and the long-range Arrow II.

Facing potentially imminent attack by the United States and other Western powers over its alleged use of chemical weapons, Damascus has hinted it could shoot back at the Jewish state. Israel is also braced for possible rocket salvoes from Hezbollah, Syria's Lebanese militia ally.

Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israel sought to stay out of the Syrian crisis but would respond forcefully to any attempt to attack it.

Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said after the security cabinet meeting on Wednesday that Israel was “taking steps for just in case”.

In a speech in Tel Aviv, Yaalon said Israel's “finger is not light on the trigger but whoever around us presumes they can challenge us by a threat will of course encounter our might if there is any attempt to hurt us or our citizens”.

Assad, preoccupied with a 2-1/2 year-old uprising against his rule and facing a militarily superior enemy in Israel, has held his fire in the face of three Israeli air strikes in Syria this year on advanced weaponry.

But many in Israel worry that he could lash out if he felt his back was against the wall, and long lines formed on Wednesday at gas mask distribution centers.

Israel has provided its citizens with equipment to cope with possible chemical or biological attacks since the 1991 Gulf War, when U.S.-led troops drove Iraq out of Kuwait.

According to official figures, however, only about 60 percent of Israelis collected their gas masks before the current tensions over Syria erupted. The Israeli Postal Service, which oversees mask distribution, said the number of orders phoned in by the public in recent days had quadrupled.

“We just want to be prepared. I'd say it's a bit of a surreal experience,” a Jerusalem resident, who gave his name only as Tovy, said at a distribution center. “I just really pray we're never going to really need to use it.”

Additional reporting by Allyn Fisher-Ilan, Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Red Lines


Israeli military, civilians readying for possible Syria reprisals


Israel’s military and citizens are preparing for the repercussions of a possible military intervention on Syria by the United States and other allies.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said his country would propose a resolution at the United Nations on Wednesday accusing the Assad regime and its military of being responsible for a chemical weapons attack last week that according to reports left 1,300 people dead. The resolution, he said, would authorize “all necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians.

The Syrian opposition on Tuesday night charged that a second chemical attack by the Syrian army in Aleppo killed at least 10. Syrian opposition activists also reported Wednesday that an eastern Damascus neighborhood was struck with mortars delivering poisonous gas, according to Al Jazeera.

Reports of a possible strike on Syria have spurred threats by Syrian and Iranian officials that if Syria is attacked, Israel will come under fire from the two countries and its allies in the Middle East.

Following security consultations at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that “there is no reason to change daily routines. At the same time, we are prepared for any scenario. The IDF is ready to defend against any threat and to respond strongly against any attempt to harm Israeli citizens.”

Israel reportedly moved Patriot anti-missile batteries as well as Iron Dome anti-missile batteries to the Haifa area and central Israel in response to the Syria threat. The Patriots were used during the 1991 Gulf War to protect civilians from Iraqi Scud missiles.

During Wednesday’s meeting, Israel’s security Cabinet approved a limited call-up of reservist soldiers from civil defense units, as well as air and rocket defense units, an unnamed official told the Times of Israel. A formal announcement is expected soon.

Meanwhile, as the demand for gas masks soared in Israel, the Knesset’s homefront preparedness subcommittee met Wednesday to discuss the impact that a military strike on Syria would have on the country.

Israeli media reported that thousands of Israelis attempting to pick up gas masks at post offices and Israel Defense Forces’ Home Front Command distribution centers on Wednesday went home empty-handed. Some 60 percent of Israelis have been equipped with gas masks; reports said there were not enough gas masks available to provide for every Israeli.

The preparations come a day after Netanyahu convened a second meeting in two days of his security Cabinet to talk about the situation in Syria.

An unnamed Syrian army official was quoted by the Iranian Fars news agency quoted as saying, “If Damascus comes under attack, Tel Aviv will be targeted, too, and a full-scale war against Syria will actually issue a license for attacking Israel. Rest assured that if Syria is attacked, Israel will also be set on fire and such an attack will, in turn, engage Syria’s neighbors.”

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said Tuesday that the Israeli army would respond to Syria-related attacks on Israel.

“We are aware of the developments unfolding before our eyes in the Middle East, and we hear the threats against Israel, despite it not being involved in the bloody conflict in Syria, or in other conflicts in the region,” Yaalon said at a ceremony for fallen soldiers on Tuesday night.

“We are reacting responsibly and sensibly to these threats, but are also loud and clear when we say that whoever wants to test us, will be confronted with the IDF’s might.”

Also Tuesday, The New York Times website was disrupted by a pro-Assad Syrian hacker group calling itself the “Syrian Electronic Army.”

Israel says it will respond with force to any attack from Syria


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israel was not involved in Syria's civil war, but would respond forcefully to any attempts to attack it.

“The state of Israel is prepared for any scenario,” Netanyahu said in a statement after holding security consultations in Tel Aviv as Western countries weighed a possible military action to punish the Syrian government for an alleged chemical attack near Damascus last week.

“We are not a party to this civil war in Syria but if we identify any attempt to attack us we will respond and we will respond forcefully,” he said.

Many in Israel worry that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, embroiled in a 2-1/2 year uprising against his rule, could strike out at the Jewish state in retaliation to any Western attack.

Syria's ally Iran warned on Tuesday against foreign military intervention in Syria, saying the resulting conflict would engulf the region.

Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by David Cowell

Yaalon: Israeli intervention in Syria would be counterproductive


Israel will not intervene in Syria in part because any such intervention would harm the side Israel favors, Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

“We don’t intervene, we do not interfere,” Yaalon said Friday in Washington prior to a meeting with his U.S. counterpart, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. “Any Israel intervention might affect the side we support, and not for its benefit.”

It’s not clear what side Israel would favor. Israel has said it backs the American demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad step down, a move that would wound Israel’s most dangerous rival in the region, Iran, as well as Hezbollah, the potent terrorist force in Lebanon.

On the other hand, Israel appreciates the quiet that successive generations of Assads have ensured on its border, and fears the rise of Islamists among rebels in that country.

Yaalon’s remarks come as the Obama administration says it is ready to increase military support for the rebels.

Yaalon said the red lines that would trigger Israeli actions in Syria are cross-border fire and the transfer of chemical and strategic weapons.

Yaalon said the worst possible outcome in Syria would be “a chaotic situation, but we can manage it.”

He called for increased western and U.S. support of Jordan, which has absorbed most of the refugees fleeing bloodshed in Syria.

Yaalon was bluntly dismissive of Obama administration efforts to restart the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, blaming the Palestinian insistence on a settlement freeze before talks start again for the failure of the process.

He also dismissed as “just spin” the recently revived 2002 Arab peace initiative favored by the Obama administration.

Yaalon said U.S.-Israel defense and intelligence cooperation was close and that he believed it was still possible to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapons through peaceful means.

U.S. concludes Assad’s forces used chemical weapons in Syria


U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces used chemical weapons on a small scale against rebel fighters in Syria's civil war, the White House said on Thursday.

The assessment, which followed President Barack Obama's demand for conclusive proof after U.S. intelligence analysts determined earlier this year that chemical weapons had likely been used, could put pressure on Washington to respond aggressively to the crossing of what Obama himself had called a “red line.”

“Following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year,” Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security adviser, told reporters.

“Our intelligence community has high confidence in that assessment given multiple, independent streams of information,” he said. “The intelligence community estimates that 100 to 150 people have died from detected chemical weapons attacks in Syria to date; however, casualty data is likely incomplete.”

Reporting By Matt Spetalnick, Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Sandra Maler

Golan fighting spells more Syria trouble for Israel


Brush fires from stray mortar bombs were still ablaze on the occupied Golan Heights on Friday as Israeli farmers returned to their fields, a day after battles in Syria's civil war reached a U.N.-manned border crossing.

Once the smoke clears, Israel could find itself facing more trouble from multiple threats on its northern front.

On Thursday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces beat back rebels who seized the Quneitra crossing on the Golan, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in a 1967 Middle East war. The battles sent U.N. peacekeepers to their bunkers and prompted Austria to announce it was pulling its men out of the mission.

Israel is now concerned the entire United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is on the brink of unravelling – a scenario that could bring further escalation along what has been for decades a quiet frontier with Syria.

The peacekeepers, in place under a 1974 disengagement agreement after Israel and Syria fought a second war on the Golan, had mostly found their biggest enemy to be boredom.

But their quiet presence has been highly symbolic – an affirmation of a status quo under which the two countries, which last held peace talks 13 years ago, avoided direct conflict that could lead to all-out war.

“If there are no Austrians there is no UNDOF. They were the core force,” an Israeli diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “It will be very hard to find a replacement.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, an Assad ally, said on Friday that he was willing to send troops to fill in for the Austrians.

On high alert over escalating fighting between Assad's forces and his enemies in the Syrian-controlled parts of the Golan, Israel has started in recent months to adjust its deployment along the front. Shelling and machinegun fire have occasionally spilled over into Israeli-held territory.

The Israeli military has revived once-abandoned outposts on the Golan and sent up regular forces to take the place of reservists. Israeli leaders have spoken particularly of a future threat posed to peace on the Golan by jihadi fighters now battling against Assad's forces.

Israel has launched air strikes on Syria to prevent weapons transfers to arch-enemy Hezbollah, an Iran-backed Lebanese militant group fighting on Assad's behalf.

However, it has shown few other signs of preparing to intervene in the civil war and has avoided taking sides.

Unlike his Western allies, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has stopped short of calling for an end to Assad's rule.

Bad news for Assad is generally seen as good news for Israel, which views him as the centre of a network of enemies linking Iran to Lebanon's Hezbollah and Hamas, the Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip.

“From a selfish Israeli point of view, what is happening in Syria is a huge positive development for Israel. This axis of radicalism is now broken,” said Amos Yadlin, head of Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

But Israel also knows that its enemy's enemy is not necessarily a friend.

“A complete victory by either side would not be an optimal situation,” said Uzi Rabi, head of the Moshe Dayan Centre for Middle East Studies. “The current situation is in a way optimal for Israel … and it will most likely go on for months if not years.”

On the Golan on Friday, Israeli firefighters put out brush fires from Thursday's fighting. As gunfire from Syria echoed at times in the distance, Israeli and Druze farmers tended to their cherry orchards. Israeli settlers peered through binoculars and watched shells on the Syrian side send up clouds of smoke.

Along one road, two Israeli soldiers, one of them armed with an anti-tank missile, crouched on the ground, gazing in the direction of Syria.

 

HEZBOLLAH THREAT

Israel has struck inside Syria at least three times in the past few months, each attack against what it believed to be weapons for Hezbollah, whose leader Hassan Nasrallah has threatened to open a new front against Israel on the Golan.

One senior Israeli official briefed on intelligence said Nasrallah's words seemed to be backed by action.

“Hezbollah appears to be making inroads on the Syrian-held Golan too. This would seem consistent with what Nasrallah pledged. There aren't Hezbollah 'boots on the ground' there yet but the infrastructure is being built,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official added that Hezbollah had much to gain from fighting on behalf of its longstanding patron Assad. Hezbollah, he said, was acting under assurances it would be rewarded by Assad in the form of arms transfers.

Hezbollah may be bolstered by its joint victory alongside Assad's forces against rebels in the battle over recent weeks for the Syrian town of Qusair, watched closely in Israel.

“It is our understanding that Qusair was basically a Hezbollah operation, from the planning to the handling of key weapon systems,” the official said. “Hezbollah crews were even operating Syrian T-55 and T-54 tanks there, as well as all significant artillery systems.”

But Hezbollah's involvement in Syria could also have a silver lining as far as Israel is concerned. Another Israeli official said Israeli intelligence assessed that up to 500 of the group's fighters have been killed in Syria.

That estimate was higher than others and Hezbollah itself has not said how many of its men have died in Syria.

Rabi said Hezbollah, which fought a war with Israel in 2006, was losing more than just men in its battles for Assad.

“Hezbollah is losing its legitimisation and prestige. After the 2006 Lebanon war, Hezbollah was hailed in the Muslim and Arab world for carrying the torch in the fight against Israel. But with its entrance into Syria, it has made itself a target for Sunnis in Lebanon and in the entire world,” Rabi said. 

Additional reporting by Ammar Awad in the Golan Heights, Dan williams and Crispian Balmer; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff

Syrian army fights off rebels at Israeli crossing


Syrian forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad fought off an attempt by rebels to seize the sole crossing between Syria and Israel on Thursday, while army troops sought to ram home strategic gains further to the north.

A day after losing control of Qusair, an important town close to the Lebanese border, rebels tried to grab back the initiative with an assault on Quneitra – a demilitarized zone on the Golan Heights that is patrolled by the United Nations.

For the first time since the start of the uprising in March 2011, the rebels briefly took control of the area, sending U.N. peacekeepers scurrying to their bunkers. Israeli sources said Syrian forces wrested back the site after fierce fighting.

Austria said it would withdraw its 380 peacekeepers from the 1,000-strong U.N. monitoring force because of the fighting.

Pro-government troops have won a string of successes in recent weeks, boosting Assad at a time when the United States and Russia are struggling to organize a peace conference aimed at ending the civil war, which has killed more than 80,000.

Activists pushed out of the devastated town of Qusair this week issued a desperate plea for help, saying they were cornered by both Syrian troops and their powerful Lebanese allies, the Shi'ite guerrilla force Hezbollah.

“God has given us the strength to persevere, but until when only God knows. We beg you to move as quickly as possible to rescue us,” said a message posted on social networking sites.

France, which earlier this week accused Assad of deploying nerve gas in the civil war, said on Wednesday the situation on the ground needed to be rebalanced after the fall of Qusair, but did not say how that could be achieved.

Russia said on Thursday it was worried that allegations of gas attacks might be used as a pretext for foreign intervention.

“I do not rule out that somebody wants to use it to state that a red line has been crossed and a foreign intervention is necessary,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow with his German and Finnish counterparts.

QUAGMIRE

Western countries have so far shown little appetite for getting sucked into the Syrian quagmire, but there is also a clear aversion to letting Assad, heavily backed by Shi'ite Iran and their Hezbollah associates, emerge victorious.

France and Britain last month pushed the European Union to drop its ban on arming the rebels, who are mainly Sunni Muslims. London and Paris have not yet said if they plan to arm the fighters but wanted the ban lifted to apply pressure on Assad.

Syrian troops, buoyed by their success in Qusair, much of which was reduced to dust and rubble, sent artillery rounds flying into surrounding villages, where many rebels are hiding.

Qusair lies along an important corridor through the central province of Homs, linking the capital Damascus to the coastal heartland of Assad's minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi'ite Islam.

Many opposition fighters and civilians are believed to have fled to the villages of Debaa, 5-km (3 miles) northeast of Qusair, and Buwayda another 7-km in the same direction. A Reuters photographer reported heavy fighting in both places.

“We have a large number of civilians and wounded in Buwayda,” said activist Mohammed al-Qusair

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said it was negotiating with Syria to reach areas surrounding Qusair to deliver medical assistance to the wounded. Humanitarian groups have estimated that up to 1,500 people might need help.

“We have material, medical supplies for distribution in public health centers and hospitals,” said ICRC spokesman Alexis Heeb in Geneva, adding that Qusair itself appeared deserted.

“Today the conflict is extremely fragmented and this is one of the biggest operational challenges for the ICRC.”

With sectarian divisions deteriorating, the leader of Sunni Islamist group Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, urged Syrians to unite against Assad and thwart what he called U.S. plans to set up a client state in Syria to safeguard Israel's security.

Washington and its allies which have backed the rebels have become alarmed in recent months by the rise of a rebel group that pledged its loyalty to al Qaeda.

Israel's military picked up two wounded Syrians after the clashes on the Golan Heights and transferred them to hospital for treatment, a military spokeswoman said.

Israel is worried that the Golan, which it captured from Syria in 1967 and fought over again in 1973, will become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by jihadi fighters who are trying to topple Assad.

The rarely used Quneitra crossing is the only transit point between Syrian and Israeli disengagement lines set in 1974 and Thursday's battle will further heighten concerns in Israelabout the worsening security environment.

The United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) is meant to police the peace but has been largely ineffectual during the civil war. Israel however is keen to maintain an international presence in the area and has urged countries contributing to the force not to quit, despite the dangers.

Additional reporting by Erika Solomon in Beirut, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva and Alissa de Carbonnel in Moscow

Syria’s chemical weapons program was built to counter Israel


Syria, defeated by Israel in three wars and afraid its arch enemy had gained a nuclear arsenal, began in earnest to build a covert chemical weapons program three decades ago, aided by its neighbors, allies and European chemical wholesalers.

Damascus lacked the technology and scientific capacity to set up a program on its own, but with backing from foreign allies it amassed what is believed to be one of the deadliest stockpiles of nerve agent in the world, Western military experts said.

“Syria was quite heavily reliant on outside help at the outset of its chemical weapons program, but the understanding now is that they have a domestic chemical weapons production capability,” said Amy Smithson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Washington, an expert on nuclear, biological and chemical weapons.

As Syria's civil war enters its third year with 80,000 dead, chemical weapons are reported to have been used by the government of President Bashar al-Assad, and there are also fears they could fall into the hands of militants seeking to destabilize the region.

As a result of the wars of 1967, 1973 and 1982, Syria sought to counter Israel's military superiority.

Non-conventional weapons have already been used in the region. The late Iraqi President Saddam Hussein used chemical weapons such as mustard gas and other nerve agents during the 1980s, including the killing of 5,000 Kurds in Halabja, during the war with Iran.

Syria's ally Iran is accused by the West of seeking to develop an atomic bomb, which it denies, while Israel refuses to confirm or deny whether it has nuclear weapons.

“Syria had to have something to stack up against Israel,” Smithson told Reuters.

United Nations human rights investigators said on Tuesday they had “reasonable grounds” to believe that limited amounts of chemical weapons had been used in Syria. They had received allegations that government forces and rebels had used the banned weapons, but most testimony related to their use by the government.

Syria is one of only seven countries not to have joined the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, which commits members to completely destroying their stockpiles.

Syria does not generally comment on its chemical weapons, but in July last year it acknowledged for the first time that it had them. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi told a news conference the army would not use chemical weapons to crush the rebels but could use them against foreign forces.

LOSING CONTROL

While it is relatively easy to produce small amounts of chemicals, scaling up to megaton quantities of precursors needed for weapons of mass destruction requires long-term, industrial-grade processing facilities with advanced equipment.

The first technology and delivery systems were most probably obtained from the Soviet Union and pre-revolution Egypt, military experts believe, while chemical precursors came from European companies.

To boost its own capabilities, Damascus set up the Scientific Studies and Research Centre (SSRC), an agency with a civilian figure head that was run by military intelligence.

It is “the best-equipped research center in Syria, possessing better technical capacity and equipment than the four Syrian universities,” the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a leading non-proliferation group, wrote last month.

The SSRC, attacked by rebels earlier this year, oversees chemical weapons facilities in Dumayr, Khan Abou, Shamat, and Firaqlus, according to the U.S. Center for Strategic and International Studies. It set up facilities for blister agent, sarin, mustard and VX nerve gas, the Center said.

The agency is now headed by one of Assad's top advisers, national security chief Ali Mamlouk, said Brigadier General Mustafa al Sheikh, a Syrian army defector.

“The man overseeing the chemical weapons in general is Ali Mamlouk, but effective control of the weapons is becoming fragmented,” Sheikh, who served for almost two decades in chemical weapons units, told Reuters from an undisclosed location in northern Syria. “Assad himself has lost overall command and control.”

Mamlouk, on a list of Syrians targeted by EU sanctions since 2011, was promoted last year to head national security after its chief was killed in a bombing in Damascus. Considered to be a member of Assad's inner circle, Mamlouk is one of two Syrian officers indicted last August in Beirut for allegedly plotting to incite sectarian violence in Lebanon. Efforts to reach Mamlouk for comment were unsuccessful.

Sheikh said the arsenal is now in the hands of chemical weapons-trained loyalists of Assad's Alawite clan, a Shi'ite offshoot sect, and is being used for limited attacks that have killed dozens of rebels.

“Most of the chemical weapons have been transported to Alawite areas in Latakia and near the coast, where the regime has the capability to fire them using fairly accurate medium range surface-to-surface missiles,” Sheikh said.

Some chemical munitions remain in bases around Damascus, and have been deployed with artillery shells. “It is a matter of time before fairly large warheads are used,” he said.

A U.S. official, asked about Sheikh's comments, told Reuters: “This is one concerning scenario we're taking a close look at.”

Reports of use of chemical weapons in the battlefield have become more frequent in recent weeks. A U.N. team of inspectors has been denied access and has been unable to verify the claims.

ILLEGAL SUPPLIERS

The bulk of chemical and biological weapons production technology came from “large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany,” said Globalsecurity, a security information provider.

In the early 1980s, Syria mostly imported French pharmaceuticals, some of them so-called “dual use” chemicals, which could also be used for chemical weapons, it said.

A wide range of industrial chemicals with legal applications, such as in agriculture, are also precursors for chemical weapons. The most important precursors for sarin, the nerve agent believed to have been used in recent fighting in Syria, are methylphosphonyl difluoride and isopropanol.

None of the reports cited named specific companies as suppliers. Syria has said it intended to use the chemicals for agriculture.

Securing raw chemicals on the international market became more difficult in 1985, when suspect sales were restricted by the Australia Group, a 40-nation body that seeks to curb chemical or biological weapons through export controls.

Some experts say Damascus obtained supplies from Russia and Iran instead, but Syria may also have turned to a network of illegal traders using front companies to sell to Iran and Iraq.

Former Russian general Anatoly Kuntsevich was suspected of smuggling precursor chemicals to VX gas to Syria, according to Globalsecurity. He died in 2002.

While questions remain about the origins of Syria's chemical weapons stockpile, an evaluation by the U.S. government in March leaves little doubt about the threat it poses.

“Syria's overall chemical weapons program is large, complex, and geographically dispersed, with sites for storage, production, and preparation,” the Director of National Intelligence wrote.

It “has the potential to inflict mass casualties, and we assess that an increasingly beleaguered regime, having found its escalation of violence through conventional means inadequate, might be prepared to use chemical weapons against the Syrian people.”

Additional reporting by Phillip Stewart in Washington; Editing by Giles Elgood

Syria fires on Israeli military vehicle, Israel returns fire


Syria fired on and damaged an Israeli army jeep, and Israel retaliated with a missile attack, the Israeli military said.

No one was injured when Syria opened fire on an Israeli army patrol early Tuesday morning in the Golan Heights, the Israel Defense Forces said. It was the third time this week that Israeli positions were targeted by Syria.

In retaliation, the IDF said an Israeli missile struck the source of Tuesday’s gunfire.

The IDF lodged a complaint with the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force, a peacekeeping force that was established in 1974.

The Syrian military claimed in a statement issued Tuesday that its military destroyed an Israeli military vehicle and its occupants. The statement said the jeep crossed the cease-fire line in the Golan Heights.

Israeli troops manning a border observation point in the Golan Heights were fired on Sunday and Monday. The Israelis did not retaliate but lodged a separate complaint with the U.N. observer force.

Also Tuesday, Israel transferred an injured Syrian national from the border to a hospital in northern Israel for surgery to treat shrapnel wounds.

Ditto


Russia’s Putin warns against aggravating Syria crisis


Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday it was important to avoid actions that might aggravate Syria's civil war, a veiled warning against foreign military intervention or arming anti-government forces.

Russia and the United States are trying to bring the warring sides together at an international conference on ending the bloodshed in Syria, but Moscow is concerned that Washington or other countries might arm the rebels.

“In this crucial period it is extremely important to avoid any actions that could aggravate the situation,” Putin said after talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. He gave no further details.

Netanyahu did not immediately make clear whether Putin had eased his concerns that Russia is about to deliver an advanced air defense system to Damascus that could undercut the new diplomatic initiative aimed at reaching a political solution.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Friday that Russia had no new plans to sell the S-300 missile defense system to president Bashar al-Assad's government but left open the possibility they could be delivered under an existing contract.

Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya, Editing by Timothy Heritage

Syria warns Israel it could enter Golan


A Syrian government official warned that his country can enter the Israeli-held Golan Heights at any time.

“The Golan is Syrian Arab territory and will remain so, even if the Israeli army is stationed there,” Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi said Sunday at a news conference in Damascus. “We have the right to go in and out of it whenever we want and however we please.”

The statement came in response to two alleged Israeli airstrikes last week on Syrian military targets, which unnamed Israel and U.S. officials say targeted long-range missiles in transit from Iran to Hezbollah.

Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria during the 1967 Six-Day War. A United Nations peacekeeping force patrols the area.

Also on Sunday, Syrian rebels released four Filipino U.N. peacekeepers stationed on the Golan who were kidnapped last week. The Philippines and other countries with soldiers stationed there have threatened to withdraw their troops.

Assad: Syrian army can handle Israel


Syria's army is ready to deal with Israel, Syrian President Bashar Assad told an Iranian official on Syrian state television.

“The Syrian people and its army, who have made important achievements by fighting terrorist and Takfiri groups, are capable of confronting Israel's ventures that represent one of the many faces of terrorism targeting Syria today,” Assad said Tuesday during a meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi, according to reports.

Assad on the broadcast also accused Israel, as well as Western states, with involvement in the two-year Syrian civil war.

The comments are his first public remarks since alleged Israeli airstrikes in Syria over the weekend. The two strikes reportedly targeted long-range missiles sent from Iran for the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah.

His comments came as Internet connections between Syria and the rest of the world were severed. The cutoff remained in effect on Wednesday. It is unknown if there is Internet communication within Syria, Reuters reported.

The BBC cited the Syrian Arab News Agency as saying that the Internet shutdown was the result of a fault in fiber optic cables, but Syrian activists believe the shutdown is deliberate.

Israel to Assad: Air strikes did not aim to help Syria rebels


Israel sought to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that its recent air strikes around Damascus did not aim to weaken him in the face of a more than two-year-old rebellion.

Officials say Israel is reluctant to take sides in Syria's civil war for fear its actions would boost Islamists who are even more hostile to Israel than the Assad family, which has maintained a stable stand off with the Jewish state for decades.

But Israel has repeatedly warned it will not let Assad's ally Hezbollah receive hi-tech weaponry. Intelligence sources said Israel attacked Iranian-supplied missiles stored near the Syrian capital on Friday and Sunday that were awaiting transfer to Hezbollah guerrilla group in neighboring Lebanon.

Syria accused Israel of belligerence meant to shore up the outgunned anti-Assad rebels – drawing a denial on Monday from veteran Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Interviewed on Israel Radio, Hanegbi said the Netanyahu government aimed to avoid “an increase in tension with Syria by making clear that if there is activity, it is only against Hezbollah, not against the Syrian regime”.

Hanegbi noted Israel had not formally acknowledged carrying out the raids in an effort to allow Assad to save face, adding that Netanyahu began a scheduled visit to China on Sunday to signal the sense of business as usual.

“DIPLOMATIC CHANNELS”

The Assad government has condemned the air strikes as tantamount to a “declaration of war” and threatened unspecified retaliation.

But Hanegbi said Israel was ready for any development if the Syrians misinterpreted its messages and was ready “to respond harshly if indeed there is aggression against us”.

As a precaution, Israel deployed two of its five Iron Dome rocket interceptors near the Syrian and Lebanese fronts and grounded civilian aircraft in the area, although an Israeli military spokesman said the airspace would reopen on Monday.

Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel's biggest-selling newspaper, said the Netanyahu government had informed Assad through diplomatic channels that it did not intend to meddle in Syria's civil war.

Israeli officials did not immediately confirm the report, but one suggested that such indirect contacts were not required.

“Given the public remarks being made by senior Israeli figures to reassure Assad, it's pretty clear what the message is,” the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Military analysts say Syria would be no match for Israel, a U.S. defense ally, in any confrontation. But Damascus, with its leverage over Hezbollah, could still consider proxy attacks through Lebanon, where Israel's conventional forces fought an inconclusive war against the Iranian-backed guerrillas in 2006.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied Israel's attack was on arms. Shi'ite Hezbollah did not comment.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jon Boyle

Russia, China express alarm after Israel hits Syria


Russia and China expressed alarm on Monday over the regional repercussions of two Israeli air raids on Syria, while Israel played down strikes which its officials said targeted Iranian missiles bound for Lebanese Hezbollah militants.

Oil prices spiked above $105 a barrel, their highest in nearly a month, on Monday morning as the air strikes on Friday and Sunday prompted fears of a wider spillover of Syria's two-year-old civil war that could affect Middle East oil exports.

Israel, whose prime minister visited China on Monday in a sign of business-as-usual, sought to persuade Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Monday that the air strikes did not aim to weaken him and dismissed the prospects of an escalation.

“There are no winds of war,” Yair Golan, the general commanding Israeli forces on the Syrian and Lebanese fronts, told reporters while out jogging with troops.

“Do you see tension? There is no tension. Do I look tense to you?” he said, according to the Maariv NRG news website.

The attacks hit targets manned by Assad's elite troops in the Barada River valley and Qasioun Mountain, residents, activists and opposition military sources said. They included a compound linked to Syria's chemical weapons programme, air defences and Republican Guards' facilities, the sources said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 42 soldiers were killed and 100 more were missing, while other opposition sources put the death toll at 300 soldiers.

Russia said it was concerned the chances of foreign military intervention in Syria were growing, suggesting its worry stemmed in part from media reports about the alleged use of chemical weapons in the conflict that has killed 70,000 people.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich said the reported air strikes “caused particular alarm”.

“The further escalation of armed confrontation sharply increases the risk of creating new areas of tension, in addition to Syria, in Lebanon, and the destabilisation of the so-far relatively calm atmosphere on the Lebanese-Israeli border.”

Assad's government accused Israel of effectively helping al Qaeda Islamist “terrorists” and said the strikes “open the door to all possibilities”. It said many civilians had died.

IRAN

Israel has not confirmed the attack officially, but has reinforced anti-missile batteries in the north. Israeli officials said that, as after a similar attack in the same area in January, they were calculating Assad would not pick a fight with a well-armed neighbour while preoccupied with survival.

Syria would be no match for U.S. ally Israel in any direct military showdown. But Damascus, with its leverage over Lebanon's Hezbollah, could still consider proxy attacks through Lebanon.

Israeli officials said the raids were not connected with Syria's civil war but aimed at stopping Hezbollah, an ally of Iran, acquiring weapons to strike Israeli territory if Israel were to attack Iranian nuclear sites.

Iran denies Israeli and Western accusations that it is bent on acquiring atomic weapons – a long-running dispute that now threatens to intersect with the bloody strife in Syria.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied Israel's attack was on arms. Shi'ite Hezbollah did not comment.

China, hosting Netanyahu, urged restraint and the respect of sovereignty, without mentioning Israel by name. Moscow and Beijing, allies of Assad, have blocked Western-backed measures against Assad at the United Nations Security Council.

A U.S. official said U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was due to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday to see if he could persuade Moscow to support U.S. peace efforts.

Following the air strikes, the United Nations said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called on all sides “to act with a sense of responsibility to prevent an escalation of what is already a devastating and highly dangerous conflict”.

The military in Turkey, one of Assad's most vocal critics and home to more than 400,000 refugees from the civil war that grew out of protests against his rule, launched a 10-day military exercise on Monday at a base near the border.

The violence in Syria has inflamed wider regional tensions between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni-ruled Arab states, some of them close allies of the West.

Senior Republican Senator John McCain said on Sunday that the Israeli air strikes could add pressure on Washington to intervene in Syria, although President Barack Obama has said he has no plans to send ground troops.

After Friday's raid, Obama defended Israel's right to block “terrorist organisations like Hezbollah” from acquiring weapons. A U.S. intelligence official said on Sunday Washington was not given any warning before the air strikes.

Additional reporting by Alexei Anishchuk in Moscow, Michael Martina in Beijing, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus and Jonathon Burch in Ankara; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Peter Graff

Few options for Syria’s Assad to strike back after Israeli raids


Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has few good options for military retaliation after Israel's air strikes over the weekend but the attacks could redouble support from his regional allies Iran and Hezbollah.

Assad, already battling rebel fighters who have seized large parts of his country and killed many thousands of his troops, can ill afford to confront the region's dominant military power in a devastating and likely one-sided war.

And his allies in Iran and Hezbollah are also wary of starting a new battle which would divert from their determined efforts to keep their strategic ally in power in Damascus.

“Significant military action is unlikely,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Centre. “Syria, Hezbollah and Iran are not interested in opening another front when clearly their main battle is for the Syrian regime to survive.”

Israel's twin air strikes within 48 hours shook Damascus, sent pillars of flame into the night sky and killed dozens of soldiers.

The war planes struck Assad's elite troops in the valley of the Barada River that flows through Damascus and on Qasioun Mountain overlooking the capital, said residents and opposition sources. Targets included air defenses, Republican Guards and a compound linked to chemical weapons.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 42 soldiers were killed and 100 more were missing. Other opposition sources put the death toll at hundreds of troops. A Western security source said the attacks targeted Iranian missiles intended for Hezbollah which could strike Tel Aviv.

Both Damascus and Tehran have hinted at a tough response.

Syria's information minister said the attacks “opened the door to all possibilities”. Iran's foreign ministry spokesman warned of a “crushing response”.

Syria did not retaliate in 2007 when Israeli jets struck a suspected nuclear facility, nor in January this year when they bombed a suspected missile convoy. On each occasion Damascus said it would choose the time and place to respond.

But the scale of the latest operation will pile pressure on Assad to respond, “not only to save face but also to maintain credibility at home and in the region,” said Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Centre at the London School of Economics.

“That's where Assad's predicament is – what do you do, given the limited options?” he said.

A GOLAN FRONT?

Two years into the uprising against his rule – which has spiraled into a civil war pitting mainly Sunni Muslim rebels against a president from Syria's Alawite minority sect – Assad still has regional supporters.

As well as Iran and Hezbollah, Damascus also has links to some militant Palestinian groups and has a degree of support from neighboring Iraq's Shi'ite-led authorities, who have turned a blind eye to Iranian weapons cargoes flown across Iraqi airspace, according to a senior Iraqi Shi'ite leader.

Syria's pro-government Al-Ikhbariya television gave an indication of what Assad might be considering, quoting unnamed sources who said that Syrian rockets were ready to strike targets inside Israel in the event of any new attack.

It also said Syria had given the green light to Palestinian factions to carry out operations against Israel from across the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

However, neither of those warnings have been spelled out publicly by Syrian officials, and any direct Syrian rocket fire on Israel would be likely to provoke an overwhelming Israeli response.

Perhaps ironically, the step that Assad could take in the Golan that might most alarm Israel would be to retreat from it.

Through four decades of official hostility with Israel, Assad and his father before him kept the Golan Heights frontier quiet. Were Assad to pull back troops, Israel is worried that the heights it captured from Syria in 1967 could become a springboard for attacks on Israelis by the jihadi rebels who are currently battling to topple Assad.

“I would not be surprised if the Assad regime begins the process of pulling out its forces from the Golan to Damascus,” said Gerges. “The (rebel) Nusra Front and other groups are preparing themselves for the ultimate war against Israel…so this would create a strategic predicament for Israel.”

A Western diplomat in the region said that if the Nusra Front gained territory on the Golan Heights it would inevitably suck Israel deeper into to conflict.

“They will not accept that Islamist extremists gain ground,” he said.

HEZBOLLAH SILENCE

Hezbollah, Assad's Lebanese ally which fought a 34-day war with Israel in 2006, has maintained a resolute silence over the Israeli raids on Damascus.

Israel believes Hezbollah has built up an arsenal of about 60,000 missiles and rockets, making it potentially a more formidable foe than in 2006, when the militant group fired 4,000 missiles into Israel.

“Hezbollah has to tread carefully because they can't afford to be fighting in Syria (against the rebels) and provoking Israel on the Israel-Lebanon border,” said another diplomat.

The militant Shi'ite Muslim group, which is accused by Bulgaria of a bombing which killed five Israeli tourists in a Black Sea resort last year, could seek to strike Israeli targets abroad instead of seeking direct confrontation.

But Gerges said the most likely response would be to reinforce its backing for Assad.

“Both Hezbollah and Iran will respond to Israel's escalation by deepening their own involvement in Syria,” he said. “Israel's logic says: 'We will not allow any transfer of advanced weapons to Hezbollah'. If you deepen Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in Syria, you are punching holes in this logic.”

That deepening support from Assad's allies, matched by the growing support from Gulf Arab countries and Turkey for his rebel foes, could push the Syrian crisis – which has already killed 70,000 people according to the United Nations – one step closer to regional conflict.

“The risk factor has become much more acute in recent weeks,” the second diplomat said, referring to the prospect of a broader war.

Assad has vowed to defeat the rebels and his troops have launched recent counter-offensives around Damascus, the central city of Homs and the coastal province of Banias, where activists said his forces killed scores of people.

Israel cannot assume that the Syrian leader will remain passive if it continues its attacks inside Syria's borders, the former director of Israel's espionage agency Mossad said.

“The broader the strike, the greater the chance that Assad will have no choice to respond,” Danny Yatom told Israel Radio. “The Syrians too have limits. And the limit is not necessarily a blow to Syrian sovereignty, but rather a blow to Syrian honor.”

Additional reporting by Samia Nakhoul in Amman, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Suadad al-Salhi in Baghdad and Yeganeh Torbati in Dubai; Editing by Peter Graff

Israel strikes Syria, says its targeting Hezbollah arms


Israeli jets devastated Syrian targets near Damascus on Sunday in a heavy overnight air raid that Western and Israeli officials called a new strike on Iranian missiles bound for Lebanon's Hezbollah.

As Syria's two-year-old civil war veered into the potentially atomic arena of Iran's confrontation with Israel and the West over its nuclear program, people were woken in the Syrian capital by explosions that shook the ground like an earthquake and sent pillars of flame high into the night sky.

“Night turned into day,” one man told Reuters from his home at Hameh, near one of the targets, the Jamraya military base.

But for all the angry rhetoric in response from Tehran and from the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it was unclear whether the second such raid in 48 hours would elicit any greater reaction than an Israeli attack in the same area in January, which was followed by little evident change.

The Syrian government accused Israel of effectively helping al Qaeda Islamist “terrorists” and said the strikes “open the door to all possibilities”; but Israeli officials said that, as in January, they were calculating Assad would not pick a fight with a well-armed neighbor while facing defeat at home.

Denying it was weighing in on the rebel side on behalf of Washington – which opposes Assad but is hesitating to intervene – officials said Israel was pursuing its own conflict, not with Syria but with Iran, and was acting to prevent Iran's Hezbollah allies receiving missiles that might strike Tel Aviv if Israel made good on threats to attack Tehran's nuclear program.

What Israel was not doing, they stressed, was getting drawn into a debate that has raged in the United States lately of whether the alleged use of poison gas by Assad's forces should prompt the West finally to give military backing to oust him.

Israel was not taking sides in a civil war that has pitted Assad's government, a dour but mostly toothless adversary for nearly 40 years, against Sunni rebels, some of them Islamist radicals, who might one day turn Syria's armory against the Jewish state.

It is a mark of how two years of killing in which at least 70,000 Syrians have died has not only inflamed a wider, regional confrontation between Shi'ite Muslim Iran and Sunni Arabs, some of them close Western allies, but have also left Israel and Western powers scrambling to reassess where their interests lie.

Egypt, the most populous Arab state and flagship of the 2011 Arab Spring revolts where elected Islamists have replaced a Western-backed autocrat, has no love for Assad. But on Sunday it condemned Israel's air strikes as a breach of international law that “made the situation more complicated”.

ROCKETS TARGETED

Israel does not confirm such missions explicitly – a policy it says is intended to avoid provoking reprisals. But an Israeli official told Reuters on condition of anonymity that the strikes were carried out by its forces, as was a raid early on Friday that U.S. President Barack Obama said had been justified.

A Western intelligence source told Reuters: “In last night's attack, as in the previous one, what was attacked were stores of Fateh-110 missiles that were in transit from Iran to Hezbollah.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his aim for Israel was to “guarantee its future” – language he has used to warn of a willingness to attack Iran's nuclear sites, even in defiance of U.S. advice, as well as to deny Hezbollah heavier weapons.

He later flew to China on a scheduled trip, projecting confidence there would be no major escalation – though Israel has reinforced its anti-missile batteries in the north.

Syrian state television said bombing at a military research facility at Jamraya and two other sites caused “many civilian casualties and widespread damage”, but it gave no details. The Jamraya compound was also a target for Israel on January 30.

Hezbollah's Al-Manar television showed a flattened building spread over the size of a football pitch, with smoke rising from rubble containing shell fragments. It did not identify it.

Syrian state television quoted a letter from the foreign minister to the United Nations saying: “The blatant Israeli aggression has the aim to provide direct military support to the terrorist groups after they failed to control territory.”

Obama defended Israel's right to block “terrorist organizations like Hezbollah” from acquiring weapons after Friday's raid, and a White House spokesman said on Sunday: “The president many times has talked about his view that Israel, as a sovereign government, has the right to take the actions they feel are necessary to protect their people.”

It was unclear that Israel had sought U.S. approval for the strikes, although the White House spokesman said: “The close coordination between the Obama administration, the United States of America, is ongoing with the Israeli government.”

Obama has in recent years worked to hold back Netanyahu from making good on threats to hit facilities where he says Iran, despite its denials, is working to develop a nuclear weapon.

On Sunday, some Israeli officials highlighted Obama's reluctance to be drawn into new conflict in the Middle East to explain Israel's need for independent action.

Syria restricts access to independent journalists. Its state media said Israeli aircraft struck three places between Damascus and the nearby Lebanese border. The city also lies barely 50 km (30 miles) from Israeli positions on the occupied Golan Heights.

Tehran, which has long backed Assad, whose Alawite minority has religious ties to Shi'ite Islam, denied the attack was on armaments for Lebanon and called for nations to stand firm against Israel. A senior Iranian commander was quoted, however, as saying Syria's armed forces were able to defend themselves without their allies, though Iran could help them with training.

Hezbollah, a Shi'ite movement that says it is defending Lebanon from Israeli aggression, declined immediate comment.

ISRAELI CONCERNS

Analysts say the Fateh-110 could put the Tel Aviv metropolis in range of Hezbollah gunners, 100 km (60 miles) to the north, bolstering the arsenal of a group that fired some 4,000 shorter-range rockets into Israel during a month-long war in 2006.

“What we want is to ensure that inside the Syrian chaos we will not see Hezbollah growing stronger,” Israeli lawmaker Tzachi Hanegbi, a confidant of Netanyahu, told Army Radio.

“The world is helplessly looking on at events in Syria, the Americans in particular, and this president in particular,” he added of Obama. “He has left Iraq, Afghanistan and has no interest in sending ground troops to Syria … That is why, as in the past, we are left with our own interests, protecting them with determination and without getting too involved.”

Video footage uploaded onto the Internet by Syrian activists showed a series of blasts. One lit up the skyline of Damascus, while another sent up a tower of flames and secondary blasts.

Syrian state news agency SANA said Israeli aircraft struck in three places: northeast of Jamraya; the town of Maysaloun on the Lebanese border; and the nearby Dimas air base.

“The sky was red all night,” one man said from Hameh, near Jamraya. “We didn't sleep a single second. The explosions started after midnight and continued through the night.”

Central Damascus was quiet on the first day of the working week, and government checkpoints seemed reinforced. Some opposition activists said they were glad strikes might weaken Assad, even if few Syrians have any liking for Israel: “We don't care who did it,” Rania al-Midania said in the capital. “We care that those weapons are no longer there to kill us.”

Additional reporting by Mariam Karouny in Beirut, Marwan Makdesi in Damascus, Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams, Jeffrey Heller and Crispian Balmer in Jerusalem, Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Amman, Roberta Rampton Aboard Air Force One and Arshad Mohammed and Phil Stewart in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Will Waterman

White House: U.S. intelligence community believes Syria used chemical weapons


The U.S. intelligence community believes Syria used chemical weapons on anti-government rebels.

The White House on Thursday informed Congress that intelligence shows that Syrian President Bashar Assad ordered government troops to use sarin gas against the rebels.

“Our intelligence community does asses with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria, specifically the chemical agent sarin,” Miguel Rodriguez, director of the White House office of legislative affairs, wrote in a letter.

Rodriguez said the use of chemical weapons in Syria is a “red line” for the United States. But he said that the U.S. is not ready to take action yet.

“Given the stakes involved, and what we have learned from our own recent experience, intelligence assessments alone are not sufficient — only credible and corroborated facts that provide us with some degree of certainty will guide our decision-making, and strengthen our leadership of the international community,” Rodriguez wrote.

Also Thursday, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, speaking in Abu Dhabi, reiterated the message in the letter, saying that the use of chemical weapons “violates every convention of warfare.”

Hagel said Wednesday that an Israeli official's revelation that Israel believes Syria used chemical weapons caught him by surprise.

White House: Evidence Syria used chemical arms not ‘airtight’


The White House said on Friday it was continuing to study evidence that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons and would not set a timetable for corroborating reports.

“I'm not going to set a timeline, because the facts need to be what drives this investigation, not a deadline,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters at a briefing.

“We are continuing to work to build on the assessments made by the intelligence community, that the degrees of confidence here are varying, that this is not an airtight case,” he said.

In response to a question, Carney said that President Barack Obama would consider a range of options including, but not exclusive to, military force, should it be determined that Syria has used chemical weapons.

“He retains all options to respond to that, all options,” Carney said. “Often the discussion, when people mention all options are on the table, everyone just talks about military force. It's important to remember that there are options available to a commander in chief in a situation like this that include but are not exclusive to that option.”

Reporting by Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Vicki Allen and Sandra Maler

Israeli intelligence: Syria used chemical weapons


Syrian forces have used chemical weapons against rebel forces and civilians, the head of Israel's military research said.

The weapon likely is sarin-based, which targets the nervous system and can cause paralysis or death, Brig. Gen Itai Baron, the head of the Israel Defense Forces Military Intelligence Research Branch, said on Tuesday.

Baron told a conference of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv that intelligence photos of the victims of the weapons, with foam coming out of their mouths and dilated pupils, as well as photos of the areas affected by the weapons' attack, led to the conclusion that chemical weapons had been used, Haaretz reported.

The photos were taken during two incidents near Damascus on March 19; Western intelligence officials have said they believe that Syria used chemical weapons in the incidents.

President Obama has called the use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar Assad a “red line” that would lead to U.S. involvement in the two-year civil war.

Historic Damascus synagogue looted and burned


The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus was looted and burned to the ground.

The Syrian army loyal to President Bashar Assad and rebel forces are blaming each other for the destruction of the historic synagogue, according to reports on Sunday.

The synagogue is said to be built on the site where the prophet Elijah anointed his successor, Elisha, as a prophet. It had been damaged earlier this month by mortars reportedly fired by Syrian government forces.

The rebels said the Syrian government looted the synagogue before burning it to the ground, Israel Radio reported Sunday.

The government said the rebels burned the synagogue and that so-called Zionist agents stole its historic religious items in an operation that had been planned for several weeks, the Arabic Al-Manar Television reported, citing the Arabic Syria Truth website.

Israeli general: Israel could withstand Syrian chemical weapons


Israel could withstand any attack involving Syrian chemical weapons, an Israeli general said on Friday, adding it was improbable that Damascus would order such a strike.

The fate of Syria's reputed chemical arsenal is a focus of international concern. Israel has threatened to go to war to prevent Islamist militants or Hezbollah guerrillas in neighboring Lebanon from getting such weapons.

Some Israeli officials have also suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, battling a two-year-old uprising against his rule, could launch a chemical strike against the Jewish state in a suicidal gesture of defiance.

But Major-General Eyal Eisenberg, commander of Israel's home front forces, described the latter scenario as unlikely. “I don't foresee a chemical war being initiated against us,” he told Haaretz newspaper in an interview.

He said there was a “certain possibility” of chemical arms being used against Israel were they to fall into “the wrong hands” but added: “This would not defeat the State of Israel. We know how to deal with this kind of event and are ready for it.”

Israel's government has issued gas masks to some 60 percent of its citizens, mostly those living in urban areas likeliest to be targeted in a future war. Rather than equip the rest, Israel should invest in better air raid alerts, Eisenberg said.

Assad's government has publicly hedged on whether it has chemical weapons, while saying it would only use such an arsenal to fend off foreign foes. Israel is assumed to have the region's sole nuclear arsenal, a deterrent to non-conventional attack.

In the Haaretz interview, Eisenberg expressed greater worry about Hezbollah's arsenal, which Israel says includes 60,000 rockets – a more formidable capacity than when the Iranian- and Syrian-sponsored group last fought the Israelis in a 2006 war.

The Lebanese front has been mostly quiet since, but Israel believes Hezbollah guerrillas might lash out in reprisal should it launch a long-threatened strike on Tehran's nuclear projects.

Among Hezbollah's rockets are 5,000 with explosive payloads of between 300 kg (660 lb) and 880 kg (1,940 lb) and capable of reaching Tel Aviv, Israel's commercial capital, Haaretz quoted Eisenberg as saying.

“I am preparing for a scenario in which more than 1,000 missiles and rockets are fired at the home front on each day of fighting,” he said, adding that Israel could suffer more casualties in its civilian interior than on its front lines.

Israel's technologically advanced military includes Iron Dome interceptors that can shoot down most rockets used by Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza Strip. The Israelis have so far deployed five of the interceptors, well short of the 13 they say they would need for nationwide defense.

Eisenberg said that, in any war, he would recommend that key Israeli industrial areas and military bases, rather than civilian centers, get preferential Iron Dome protection.

Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Syrian rebels take towns near ceasefire line with Israel


Syrian rebels have overrun several towns near Israel's Golan Heights in the past 24 hours, rebels and a monitoring group said on Thursday, fuelling tensions in the sensitive military zone.

“We have been attacking government positions as the army has been shelling civilians, and plan to take more towns,” said Abu Essam Taseel, from the media office of the “Martyrs of Yarmouk”, a rebel brigade operating in the area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based group monitoring the conflict in Syria, said rebels had taken several towns near the Golan plateau, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed.

It said that on Wednesday night rebels had captured Khan Arnabeh, which sits on the Israeli-Syrian disengagement line and straddles a main road leading into Israeli-held territory.

Rebels also took Mashati al-Khadar and Seritan Lahawan, two villages near the ceasefire line, it said.

U.N. peacekeepers monitoring the line halted patrols this month after rebels held 21 Filipino observers for three days.

The armed struggle between rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has posed increasing difficulties for the 1,000-strong U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF).

There is growing concern in Israel that Islamist rebels may be emboldened to end the quiet maintained by Assad and his father before him on the Golan front since 1974.

Rebel sources say the Syrian army intensified shelling of villages in the area of Saham al-Golan at dawn on Thursday.

They said that rebels in the Quneitra region, next to the Golan, were stepping up attacks on roadblocks to gain more territory but added that the strategic town of Quneitra – which was largely destroyed and abandoned during Israeli-Syrian clashes in 1974 – was still in Syrian government hands.

Reporting by Oliver Holmes in Beirut and Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman; Editing by Alistair Lyon

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