Fighters of the Syrian Islamist rebel group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham cheer on a pick up truck near the wreckage of a Russian helicopter that had been shot down in the north of Syria's rebel-held Idlib province. Aug. 1, 2016. Photo by Ammar Abdullah/REUTERS.

Syrian truck driver on road to Damascus reportedly killed by Israeli drone


A Syrian man was killed when the truck he was driving in the Quneitra region of the Golan Heights on the road to Damascus allegedly was fired on by an Israeli drone, Syrian media is reporting.

The Israel Defense Forces is not commenting on the alleged air strike, neither confirming nor denying the Syrian reports.

The alleged victim has been named as Yasser al-Sayed, with some reports calling him a terrorist member of Hezbollah and others identifying him as a civilian.

Hours before the strike, Syrian media reported that Syrian army forces had repelled an Israeli drone in the same area.

The actions come after the IDF confirmed carrying out aerial strikes in Syria and intercepting missiles launched at its aircraft from the ground on Thursday night.

No Israelis were hurt during the strikes Thursday night or from the anti-aircraft fire, the first time that Israel has used the Arrow anti-missile system.

According to the nrg news site, the strikes Thursday were against targets affiliated with Hezbollah, possibly on a weapons shipment to the Shiite terrorist group, which is based in Lebanon but is fighting in Syria alongside Assad’s forces against rebels and Sunni militants.

The incidents on Thursday are reported to be the most serious between Syria and Israel since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war six years ago. At that time, Israel Air Force planes struck targets in Syria and Syria’s air defense system fired an anti-aircraft missile at the Israeli planes.

Israel is believed to have carried out several attacks on Syrian soil in recent years, but usually refrains from confirming or denying reports on its alleged actions there.

Also on Sunday, Israel’s Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman in an interview with Israel Radio threatened to take out Syrian air defense systems.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said. “Each time we discover arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon we will act to stop them. On this there will be no compromise.”

Syria calls for U.N. sanctions on Israel over air strikes


Syria asked the United Nations Security Council on Monday to impose sanctions on neighboring Israel, a day after accusing the Jewish state of bombing areas near Damascus international airport and in the town of Dimas, near the border with Lebanon.

Israel has struck Syria several times since the start of the three-year conflict, mostly destroying weaponry such as missiles that Israeli officials said were destined for their long-time foe Hezbollah in Lebanon.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Chad, Security Council president for December, Syria said that “such aggressions will not stop it from fighting terrorism in all its forms and manifestation across the entire territory of Syria.”

“At the same time, the Syrian Arab Republic calls on the international community and the Security Council to shoulder their responsibility and forcefully condemn this brutal attack and to cease covering it up under any pretext,” the letter read.

“Syria also calls for the imposition of stern sanctions against Israel … and requests that all measures prescribed under the Charter of the United Nations should be taken to prevent Israel from again committing such aggressions,” it said.

Israel has avoided taking sides in Syria's civil war and does not publicly confirm bombing missions, a policy it sees as aimed at avoiding provoking reprisals.

Syria also accused Israel of carrying out the air strikes to “cover up internal Israeli divisions and draw attention away from the collapse of the Israeli coalition Government and Israel's extreme policies, particularly its continued occupation of Arab territory.”

A U.S.-led coalition is also bombing in Syria to target the Islamic State militant group, one of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's biggest foes.

Syria's war started with a pro-democracy movement which grew into an armed uprising and has inflamed regional confrontations. Some 200,000 people have died, the United Nations said.

Syria says Israeli planes hit military sites near Damascus


The Syrian government claimed that Israeli planes attacked military sites near Damascus.

The attacks, also reported on Syrian television, took place on Sunday night, Syria said. Israeli planes are reported to have hit several military facilities near Damascus International Airport and in Dimas, located north of Damascus near the border with Lebanon.

Syrian state television reports said that there were no casualties.

“The Israeli enemy committed aggression against Syria by targeting two safe areas in Damascus province, in all of Dimas and near the Damascus International Airport,” the Syrian government said.

The Israel Defense Forces neither confirmed nor denied the reports on Sunday, according to Israeli media. The IDF does not comment on such accusations.

The Syrians said the attacks were further evidence that Israel was working with rebels against the Syrian government in the country’s more than three-year civil war.

The Jerusalem Post cited foreign reports that said the attack targeted a warehouse of advanced S-300 missiles that were being transported from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Syria’s Foreign Ministry sent letters to the United Nations secretary-general and to the head of the U.N. Security Council condemning Israel for the attacks, according to a report by the Syrian state news agency, SANA.

Israel reportedly has struck targets in Syria several times during Syria’s civil war. The strikes, including at least two in 2013, were reported to be an effort to stop the transport of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria. Israel has not acknowledged or denied the strikes.

 

Nazi hunter says Adolf Eichmann’s top aide presumed dead in Syria


One of the world's most wanted war criminals, the reputed top lieutenant of Nazi mastermind Adolf Eichmann, is presumed to have died at least four years ago in Syria, where he lived under government protection, a leading Nazi hunter said on Monday.

Alois Brunner, an Austrian SS officer found responsible for the World War Two deportation of 125,500 European Jews to Nazi death camps, escaped at the war's end from Germany to Egypt and arrived in Syria in 1954, said Efraim Zuroff, head of the Simon Wiesenthal Center's Israel office.

Brunner resided in Damascus under an alias and was employed by the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, father of Syria's current ruler, as a terrorism and security expert, Zuroff told Reuters.

Brunner was reported seen alive as late as 2003 at a Damascus hotel, but a German intelligence source informed the Wiesenthal Center four years ago that Brunner had since died and was buried in Syria, Zuroff said.

Although never brought to justice, Brunner was tried and sentenced to death in absentia in France in 1954 for crimes against humanity. He lost several fingers and an eye in two letter-bomb assassination attempts, attributed to Israeli agents.

Zuroff said the Wiesenthal Center was never able to forensically verify Brunner's death but had hoped to obtain corroborating information before announcing it, an effort stymied by Syria's civil war. Were he alive, Brunner would now be 102, Zuroff said.

The Nazi-hunting center decided this year to remove Brunner from its roster of fugitive war criminals on its website, www.operationlastchance.org, Zuroff said.

He said he went public with details about Brunner's presumed demise in recent days when asked about him during an interview with Britain's Sunday Express newspaper.

“He was a notorious, fanatical anti-Semite,” Zuroff said, citing a 1985 German magazine interview in which Brunner was asked if he had any regrets, and was quoted as saying he regretted he hadn't murdered more Jews.

Zuroff called Brunner the last of the top-tier Nazi operatives responsible for planning and carrying out the genocide of European Jews “in a broad sense, as opposed to people involved in the murder of Jews in one specific place or operation.”

He was described as the right-hand man to Eichmann, a leading Holocaust architect who was captured in Argentina in 1960 and later hanged after a highly publicized trial in Israel.

Historic Damascus synagogue destroyed


Syrian army forces destroyed a historic synagogue on the outskirts of Damascus, opposition leaders said.

In flattening the more than 400-year-old Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in an attack over the weekend — part of a months-long bombardment of the suburb of Jobar — opposition leaders said the army also may have destroyed thousands of Jewish artifacts, The Daily Beast reported.

The synagogue had been damaged by a mortar shell in 2013. It stopped functioning as a Jewish house of worship more than a century ago.

Before Syria’s civil war, the synagogue reportedly housed thousands of religious and cultural treasures, including century-old Torah scrolls, historical texts, dishes and ancient Judaica. It is not clear how many of those were in the building when it was destroyed.

According to the Daily Beast, the synagogue was a destination for Jewish pilgrims and was said to have been built atop the cave where the Prophet Elijah hid from his persecutors. Local Arab leaders took over the synagogue building in the 19th century.

After Israel was established, the building was used as a school for Palestinian refugees.

Israel backs Syrian opposition accusations of poison attack


Israel Radio said on Monday that Israel has evidence backing Syrian opposition accusations that forces loyal to President Bashar Assad had used non-lethal chemical weapons in Damascus last month.

The report quoted an unidentified senior Israeli defense official as saying there were two attacks on March 27, using a “neutralizing chemical weapon”, east of Damascus and at another location.

The report was broadcast shortly after Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon met the Israeli media. There was no immediate comment from government officials.

Last Thursday, opposition activists accused Assad's forces of using poison gas, showing footage of an apparently unconscious man lying on a bed and being treated by medics.

The alleged attack, the activists said, was carried out in Damascus's Jobar neighborhood. Reuters could not independently verify the footage or the claims due to security restrictions on reporting in Syria.

One opposition group, the Syrian Revolutionary Coordinators Union, said that all those affected by the gas were “in a good condition”. There has been on-off fighting between rebels and government forces in Jobar this year.

A U.N. inquiry found in December that sarin gas had likely been used in Jobar in August and in several other locations, including in the rebel-held Damascus suburb of Ghouta, where hundreds of people were killed.

The inquiry was only looking at whether chemical weapons were used, not who used them. The Syrian government and the opposition have each accused the other of using chemical weapons, and both have denied it.

The Ghouta attack sparked global outrage and a U.S. threat of military strikes, which was dropped after Assad pledged to destroy his chemical weapons.

But the Syrian government failed to meet a February 5 deadline to move all of its declared chemical substances and precursors, some 1,300 tonnes, out of the country. Israel Radio quoted the defence official as saying the material used on March 27 was not

on the list of chemicals due to be removed.

Syria has since agreed to a new timetable to remove the weapons by late April.

Syria's three-year civil war has killed more than 150,000 people, a third of them civilians, and caused millions to flee.

Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by Crispian Balmer

Syria’s chemical weapons: decades to build, years to destroy


If Saddam Hussein's Iraq is anything to go by, destroying Syria's massive chemical weapons arsenal will mean checking dozens of far-flung sites in a war zone while the government employs delaying tactics to hide the banned munitions, an expert involved in past U.N. disarmament missions said.

Bashar Assad's chemical weapons network comprises remote underground bunkers where hundreds of tons of nerve agents are stored, scud missiles and artillery shells, possibly armed with cyanide, and factories deep inside hostile territory used to produce mustard or VX gas, experts believe.

“It's big. He has one of the biggest chemical weapons programs in the region and even in the world,” said Dieter Rothbacher, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq who trained members of the team that just returned from Syria.

“There are calculations that to secure them up to 75,000 ground troops are needed,” he said in a Reuters interview. “It took us three years to destroy that stuff under U.N. supervision in Iraq.”

First there needs to be an iron-clad agreement, either by Syria joining the Chemical Weapons Convention, but more likely in the form of a U.N. Security Council agreement, in which Damascus relinquishes control of the weapons.

It could be similar to Iraq, where a U.N. Security Council resolution forcing Iraq to declare and destroy its chemical weapons. Certain militaries are already preparing for that scenario, Rothbacher said.

Russia proposed on Monday that Damascus could avoid U.S. military action to punish it for allegedly using chemical weapons in an attack in Damascus last month by agreeing to put its stockpiles under international control.

The Syrian chemical weapons program, set up in the 1970s, reportedly with assistance from Iran and Russia and supplies of raw chemicals from Western companies, was designed to counter Israel.

Its stockpile is believed by Western intelligence to be spread over dozens of sites and includes research and development centers and multiple production sites, some of them underground.

Along with Egypt and Israel, Syria is one of just seven countries that is not a member of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention, overseen by the Hague-based Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons.

Even if Syria follows through with the Russian plan drafted this week to let inspectors in, history also shows there is no guarantee of smooth sailing.

CAT-AND-MOUSE TACTICS

Syria's civil war, now in its third year, has already cost 100,000 lives, excluding as many as 1,400 believed to have been killed in the gas attack in Damascus on August 21, and security will be a major concern.

“Cruise missiles were coming in when we were stationed in Baghdad and we were flying out every day for the destruction,” said Rothbacher, who now co-owns a weapons training consultancy, Hotzone Solutions.

Inspectors would begin by mapping out suspected locations and visiting them, then assemble chemicals and munitions at a purpose-built destruction facility.

“The Iraqis had moved all their munitions. They moved the bulk (chemicals). They spread it out, which made our work much more difficult,” Rothbacher said, describing how Saddam's forces tried to undermine their efforts.

U.S. officials believe Syria has been moving its chemical stocks, which will make it harder to account for them.

Assad spent decades building an arsenal to deter the militarily superior Israel, which reportedly has both conventional and non-conventional weapons.

Elements of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus consider destroying the chemical weapons a huge sacrifice that will compromise Syria's regional strategic position and possibly weaken them domestically.

Some experts believe the chemical weapons destruction cannot go ahead during war and warned that Assad may apply the delaying tactics used by Saddam to throw off inspectors.

“He knows that the inspectors must have the cooperation of the inspected state and he certainly saw in chapter and verse how Saddam Hussein's Iraq repeatedly did everything to hinder the inspectors,” said Amy Smithson, an expert in chemical warfare at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Another priority will be ensuring the weapons don't fall into the hands of militant groups seeking to further destabilize the region.

“It's a tricky business to keep iron-clad control of multiple chemical sites that are located in urban settings that are themselves engulfed in an urban war,” Smithson said.

Editing by Giles Elgood

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

Building case for lawmakers, U.S. says sarin gas used in Syria attack


Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sunday tests showed that sarin nerve gas was used in a deadly August 21 chemical attack near Damascus as he sought to build the case to convince skeptical lawmakers to authorize a military strike against the Syrian government.

He invoked the crimes of Adolf Hitler, Saddam Hussein and the potential threat to Israel from Syria and Iran in a round of television interviews a day after President Barack Obama delayed imminent military action in Syria to seek approval first from the U.S. Congress – a decision that puts any strike on hold for at least nine days.

It became apparent on Sunday that convincing Congress of atrocities committed by Syrian President Bashar Assad's forces was only one of the challenges confronting Obama as he seeks their approval.

Lawmakers raised a broad array of concerns, including the potential effectiveness of limited strikes, the possible unintended consequence of sparking a wider Middle East conflict, the wisdom of acting without broader international backing to share the burden and war-weariness of the American public.

Many in Congress have been able to avoid taking a position on the merits of a military strike, focusing instead on demands that Obama consult them and seek their approval.

Now that Obama has put lawmakers on the spot by demanding that they take a position, many appeared to be hedging.

While Kerry predicted Obama would win the endorsement he wants, a growing cacophony of congressional critics – ranging from liberal Democratic doves to Republican Tea Party conservatives – illustrated just how hard that will be.

“This is squarely now in the hands of Congress,” Kerry told CNN, saying he had confidence “they will do what is right because they understand the stakes.”

Kerry declined to say whether Obama would go ahead with military action if Congress rejects the president's request, as British parliament did last week to derail London's role in any Syria military operation. Echoing Obama's comments in the White House Rose Garden on Saturday, he insisted that the president had the right to act on his own if he chooses that course.

Obama is taking a gamble by putting the brakes on the military assault that he considers essential to maintain U.S. credibility after Assad crossed the “red line” set against the use of chemical weapons.

MORE EVIDENCE

With lawmakers due to be briefed later on Sunday by Obama's national security team on the administration's rationale for military action, Kerry used the television appearances to provide further evidence backing its accusations against the Syrian government.

“I can share with you today that blood and hair samples that have come to us through an appropriate chain of custody, from east Damascus, from first responders, it has tested positive for signatures of sarin,” Kerry told CNN's “State of the Union.”

It was the first time the administration has pinpointed what kind of chemical was used in the attack on a rebel-held area, which U.S. intelligence agencies said killed more than 1,400 people, many of them children.

“So this case is building and this case will build,” Kerry told NBC's “Face the Nation.”

Obama's efforts are sure to be hampered by his dismal relations with congressional Republicans, who rarely miss an opportunity to oppose him. Another bitter face-off on government spending is looming this fall.

Lawmakers for the most part welcomed Obama's decision to consult them but looked in no hurry to come back to Washington early from their summer recess, which lasts until September 9.

Comments from leading Republicans and Democrats indicated how complex the debate will be – and raise doubts whether Obama will win their authorization.

Mike Rogers, Republican chairman of House of Representatives intelligence committee, told CNN: “I think there are some real challenges. I think that at the end of the day Congress will rise to the occasion. This is a national security issue.”

Republican Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, speaking on NBC, took a more skeptical view.

While saying that he was “proud” of Obama for coming to Congress for authority, Paul said: “It's at least 50-50 whether the House will vote down the involvement in the Syrian war.”

“I think the Senate will rubber stamp what he wants,” he said. “The House will be a much closer vote.” The Senate is controlled by Obama's Democratic Party, the House is in the hands of the Republican Party.

Republican Senator John McCain said he was not sure Obama's request would pass but made clear his view that tougher military action was needed than the limited cruise missile strikes that the Obama administration is now preparing.

Republican congressman Peter King of New York said it was unclear if lawmakers would sign off on an attack on Syria but he warned Obama may have to overcome “the isolationist wing” of the Republican Party to prevail.

Seeking to lay the groundwork for what is expected to be a heated congressional debate, Kerry tipped his hand on one tactic the administration will use – linking the congressional vote to safeguarding U.S. ally Israel from the Syrian chemical weapons threat.

“I don't think they will want to vote, ultimately, to put Israel at risk,” Kerry said.

Lawmakers of both major political parties recognize how important it is to be seen as defenders of Israel, especially at election time, when they compete to show voters who is a better friend of the Jewish state.

Additional reporting by Thomas Ferraro, Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom; Writing by Matt Spetalnick; editing by Jackie Frank and Fred Barbash

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.”

Arab League ministers to blame Syria’s Assad for chemical attack


Arab League ministers will pass a resolution blaming Syrian President Bashar Assad for last week's chemical weapons attack in Damascus when they meet in Cairo next week, League officials said on Wednesday.

The states' permanent representatives at the League had already explicitly blamed Assad on Tuesday for the attack, which killed hundreds of civilians, in a step that provided regional political cover for a possible U.S.-led military strike on Syria.

A senior U.S. official said planning was under way for possibly several days of attacks by several countries, likely to include its NATO allies France and Britain, to punish Assad.

The higher-level endorsement by the Arab foreign ministers at their meeting on September 2-3 is being pushed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which both back anti-Assad rebels in Syria's civil war, as well as Qatar, a non-Gulf official at the League said.

Syria's neighbors Iraq and Lebanon, along with Algeria, are likely to oppose or abstain from condemning Syria, as they have on similar resolutions in the past. Syria itself is suspended from the League.

“The Arab foreign ministers will affirm the full responsibility of the Syrian regime for the chemical weapons' attack that took place in Eastern Ghouta (on the outskirts of Damascus),” a representative of a Gulf state in the League told Reuters.

“We will also ask for those responsible for the attack to be taken to the International Criminal Court,” he added.

The non-Gulf Arab League source confirmed the Gulf official's remarks.

“The world must see the Arab states seriously condemning Assad's use of chemicals and calling for his punishment,” he said.

He also called on the U.N. Security Council to adopt tougher sanctions on Syria and urged Russia and China, Assad's backers in the council, not to block any council resolution proposing action against Assad.

Syria's civil war has split the region broadly along sectarian lines.

Shi'ite Muslim Iran, and its allies in Lebanon and Iraq, support Assad. The Sunni-led Gulf Arab states, led by oil giant Saudi Arabia and influential Qatar, have backed the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, many of whom are Islamist militants.

Reporting by Yasmine Saleh; Editing by Kevin Liffey and David Evans

Obama lays out case for ‘tailored’ strike against Syria


President Barack Obama made the case on Wednesday for a limited military strike against Syria to deter the future use of chemical weapons, but added he had not made a decision yet on whether to take action.

Obama's administration has spent the past week discussing how to respond to an attack in the suburbs of Damascus that killed hundreds of people, an attack that the president said could only have been made by the Syrian government.

A senior U.S. official has said strikes could last several days and would involve other country's armed forces. Western armies are expected to wait until U.N. investigators leave the country in several days.

Obama said a “tailored, limited” strike, not a protracted engagement like Iraq, could be enough to send a strong message that the use of chemical weapons cannot be tolerated.

“If we are saying in a clear and decisive but very limited way, we send a shot across the bow saying, 'Stop doing this,' this can have a positive impact on our national security over the long term,” he told “PBS Newshour” in a televised interview.

Obama said U.S. officials had concluded the Syrian government was responsible for the attacks, and did not believe the Syrian opposition had a role in them.

U.S. national interests could be at risk if Syrian chemical weapons fall into the wrong hands, Obama said.

“We want to make sure that they are not loose in a way that ultimately, could affect our security,” he said.

Reporting by Jeff Mason, Roberta Rampton and Mark Felsenthal; Editing by Peter Cooney

Israelis line up for gas masks over Syria war fears


Thousands of Israelis are lining up for gas masks or ordering them by phone, spurred on by fears that any Western military response to last week's alleged chemical weapons attack in Syria could ensnare their own country in war.

Western powers are considering military action to punish the Syrian government for the alleged attack that killed hundreds near Damascus last week.

With speculation mounting that NATO powers might fire cruise missiles into Syria, many in Israel worry that President Bashar al-Assad, embroiled in a 2-1/2 year uprising against his rule, could strike out at the Jewish state in retaliation.

Israeli media reports of Syrian officials threatening retaliation against Israel for any Western strike have only served to heighten the anxiety.

“We live in a crazy region. All it takes is for one crazy person to push a button and you never know, everything can go up in flames,” said Victor Bracha, 72, one of those queuing for protective gear at a makeshift distribution center in a shopping mall in Jerusalem.

Maya Avishai, spokeswoman for the Israeli Postal Service which oversees the distribution of gas masks on behalf of the military's homefront command, said four times as many people as usual had phoned in orders in the past two days.

“Twice as many as usual are showing up at public centers to pick them up. The pressure has been great,” Avishai said. There was also talk of expanding the number of centers handing out gas masks to meet demand, she added.

DOUBTS

Israel has eschewed any involvement in the internal conflicts gripping its Arab neighbors in the past two years, and some Israelis doubt Assad would turn his guns on Israel.

“It is not in his interest, it could bring about his demise more quickly,” Israeli Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz said on Sunday.

“It would be insane for somebody to try and provoke Israel,” he added in remarks to foreign correspondents in Jerusalem on Monday.

Shlomi Goldstein, 32, another shopper at the mall in Jerusalem, said he had no plans to join those queuing for masks, confident that Israel could deter any attack.

“I think Assad wouldn't dare to attack us, he knows that if he did it could be the last thing he ever does,” he said.

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

During that conflict, Iraq fired Scud missiles into Israel and its leader, Saddam Hussein, threatened a chemical attack on Israel, though he never acted on this.

Three years ago Israel launched a campaign to renew the protection kits. But until last week's attack in Syria, only around 5 million of Israel's 8-million strong population had updated theirs, officials said.

Israel remains technically at war with Syria, which has long demanded an Israeli withdrawal from the strategic Golan Heights, land that Israel captured in a 1967 war.

Writing by Allyn Fisher-Ilan; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Obama faces growing calls to act over Syria gas attack allegations


With his international credibility seen increasingly on the line, President Barack Obama on Thursday faced growing calls at home and abroad for forceful action against the Syrian government over accusations it carried out a massive new deadly chemical weapons attack.

While the White House said it was “appalled” by reports of hundreds of people gassed on Wednesday, it made clear any U.S. response would await confirmation of a chemical attack and again demanded that Syrian President Bashar Assad give U.N. inspectors immediate access to the site near Damascus.

The Obama administration's cautious response underscored a deep reluctance by Washington to intervene in Syria since the country's civil war erupted 2 1/2 years ago.

But, reflecting the pressures Obama could face in coming days, a U.S. official familiar with initial intelligence assessments said the attack appeared to be the deliberate work of the Assad government. It was “the regime acting as a regime,” the official said.

If allegations of a large-scale chemical attack are verified – Syria's government has denied them – Obama will surely face calls to move more aggressively, possibly even with military force, in retaliation for repeated violations of U.S. “red lines.”

Obama's failure to confront Assad with the serious consequences he has long threatened would likely reinforce a global perception of a president preoccupied with domestic matters and unwilling to act decisively in the volatile Middle East, a picture already set by his mixed response to the crisis in Egypt.

The consensus in Washington and allied capitals is that a concerted international response can only succeed if the United States takes the lead.

But Obama has shown no appetite for intervention. Polls by Reuters/Ipsos and others have indicated that Americans are increasingly aware of the conflict in Syria, but as the news has worsened, opposition to intervention may actually be growing.

Despite that, pressure was mounting as horrific photos and videos of alleged chemical weapons victims spread across the Internet.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said world powers must respond with force if it is proved that Syria's government was responsible for the deadliest chemical attack on civilians in a quarter-century.

But Fabius stressed there was no question of sending in troops and his remarks appeared to be an effort to prod Washington and others to action.

Israel, a longtime foe of Assad, said it believed Syrian forces had used chemical weapons in the killing of hundreds of people in the rebel-held suburbs of Damascus, and it accused the world of turning a blind eye to such attacks.

NO 'CONCLUSIVE' DETERMINATION BY U.S.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the United States had not “conclusively” determined that chemical weapons were employed but that Obama had directed the U.S. intelligence community to urgently gather information to verify the reports from the Syrian opposition.

But another U.S. official said intelligence agencies were not given a deadline and would take the time needed to “reach a conclusion with confidence.” The administration held high-level meetings to deliberate on Syria policy, the official said.

Psaki said Assad's use of chemical arms would be an “outrageous and flagrant escalation,” but stopped short of saying what options were under consideration.

“If we find these reports are true, then we will feel that this has significantly expanded the escalation of the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime,” she said. “The president, the national security team, would certainly have decisions to make, and they have a range of options to decide between.”

Secretary of State John Kerry spoke about the crisis on Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and Kerry's counterparts from France, Jordan, Qatar and Turkey.

Western diplomats said their efforts for now were focused on persuading the Syrian government to allow the U.N. inspection team, already in Damascus, to the site of the alleged attacks.

“We will all have to be clear that there is a price to pay for not letting the team in,” one diplomat said, without elaborating. Russia's shielding of Syria in the U.N. Security Council, where Moscow holds a veto, could blunt any significant measures by the world body.

Psaki acknowledged that Obama's “red line” against Syrian chemical weapons use “was crossed a couple of months ago.”

Obama's decision in June to begin arming Syrian rebels was linked to a U.S. intelligence finding that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons in several small-scale attacks. But even the limited arms supplies authorized by the president have yet to start flowing.

'BLACK MARK'

The latest Syria controversy has added to a growing perception of foreign policy troubles for Obama early in his second term. He is facing criticism for his inability to restrain Egypt's generals in their violent crackdown on Islamists and for failing to persuade Russia to extradite fugitive former spy agency contractor Edward Snowden.

On Syria, White House officials have cited several factors to explain their caution: a fractious anti-Assad rebel movement, lack of direct U.S. security interests, and the high cost of intervention.

Pressing ahead with a bus tour in the U.S. Northeast to promote his economic agenda, Obama made no public mention of Syria. “The fact that we are doing this bus tour is an indication that the president has his priorities straight while he continues to monitor what is an increasingly tragic situation in Syria,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters.

Critics said the Obama administration's international credibility had already been damaged by his handling of the Syria conflict but that it would be even worse if chemical weapons use were confirmed and Washington failed to act.

“You don't want to lay down a red line and not enforce it,” said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who called the Syria crisis the “biggest black mark” on Obama's foreign policy record.

Fred Hof, a former senior State Department adviser on Syria who is now at the Atlantic Council think tank, wrote on Thursday, “The Assad regime, Iran, its Lebanese militia, and Russia have taken the measure of the United States in the Syrian crisis and have concluded they can win.”

In the U.S. Congress, Republican Senator John McCain said the “credible reports” from Syria on chemical weapons use by Assad's forces “should shock our collective conscience.”

“It is long past time for the United States and our friends and allies to respond to Assad's continuing mass atrocities in Syria with decisive actions, including limited military strikes to degrade Assad's air power and ballistic missile capabilities,” McCain, a harsh critic of Obama's Syria policy, said in a statement.

Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he was “shocked and deeply concerned” about the reported chemical weapons attack, but he stopped short of calling for military action.

The top U.S. military officer, Joint Chiefs chairman General Martin Dempsey, canceled a planned press briefing on security issues on Thursday. Dempsey, in letters to lawmakers, has made clear the U.S. armed forces judge that intervention in Syria would be costly and have an uncertain outcome.

Many members of Congress have echoed the administration's concerns about involvement in Syria, worried that weapons sent to anti-Assad rebels could end up in the hands of Islamists.

Unless U.N. inspectors are able to conduct an investigation, it could take some time for U.S. officials to sift through photographs, video and intelligence to determine whether the Syrian opposition's reports are credible.

An earlier U.S. investigation of alleged Syrian chemical weapons use took months to conclude that Assad's forces had used small amounts of sarin gas in attacks during the previous year.

Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, Roberta Rampton, Jeff Mason, Susan Cornwell, Patricia Zengerle and Mark Hosenball; Editing by Warren Strobel and Peter Cooney

Syrian wake-up


Yes, America, we’ve heard: You’re war-weary.

It’s at least something our divided country can agree upon: Americans across party lines oppose sending troops, weapons or air support to the rebel fighters in Syria. “War-weary Nation Wary of Syria,” the centrist Washington Post columnist David Ignatius wrote. “We’re war-weary,” echoed the libertarian magazine Reason. “Americans are war-weary,” Idaho Republican Sen. Jim Risch said on Fox News. “War Weary: Poll Shows Little Support for Syria Intervention,” a Huffington Post headline screamed.

But guess what, America: Whether you’re weary, ready or not, you’re in this thing.  

Last Friday and Sunday, Israel carried out airstrikes that caused an L.A.-sized earthquake in Damascus. 

Friends don’t let friends launch surprise missile strikes, and Israel planned the Syrian attack with American knowledge, if not coordination, as a way to thwart the Triple Entente of Syria-Iran-Hezbollah. 

And that’s the way it is with conflicts in the Middle East. They’re not like spring colds that eventually just go away on their own. No, these things fester, grow more complex, retreat, then roar back far worse. that’s not a cold, that’s syphilis. 

Those of us who called for President Barack Obama to take firm measures two years ago to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, when the body counts were low and the violence rising, can now say, “See, the options have only gotten worse, the risks greater, the casualty and refugee counts far higher, and the power plays more complex.”

Iran rushed in to fill the vacuum created by a lack of American resolve. The mullahs are using the chaos to strengthen Hezbollah in Lebanon. That’s what drew Israel’s preemptive strike.  

“Iran has only one major diplomatic success, and that’s Syria,” former Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said at an Israeli Policy Forum discussion in New York last week. “The only Arab country that goes with Iran is Syria, meaning Assad. The fall of the Assad regime [will be] a huge blow to Iran. I’m not saying the fall of Assad will bring members of the Zionist Congress to rule Syria. They may all be bad guys. But if you want to deal a blow to Iran, this is a huge blow.”

So Israel is now drawn into Syria as part of its larger war against Iranian nuclear ambitions. 

“Hezbollah and Iran are working without any inhibitions in Syria,” said Meridor, who served as minister of intelligence and atomic energy. “They put all their hopes on the Assad regime. This is the unholy triangle: Assad, Hezbollah, Iran.” 

And just because Obama hasn’t sent weapons doesn’t mean the Saudis and other Sunni powers haven’t. Those arms have gone to buttress the more radically Islamist elements, both homegrown and foreign-supplied. Those were few in number when Syria’s Arab Spring began. Now they’re more formidable.

So what should we do? Or, rather, what should we urge our president to do?

At the Milken Global Conference last week, a leader of the Syrian opposition showed up to make a compelling case for the right kind of American intervention. 

Najib Ghadbian, currently a professor of political science at the University of Arkansas, has been integral to the Damascus Spring and other milestones along the path to Assad’s eventual, inevitable demise. Now, the unassuming academic presents a business card that lists him as Representative to the United States National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces. 

Ghadbian sits on the coalition’s 70-member “mini-parliament.” He described how the Syrian opposition has formed a government-in-waiting with ministries, economists and factional representatives. 

In front of an American audience, in Beverly Hills, the question he had to answer 10 different ways was whether Syria is doomed to become a nest of radical Islam.

“It’s first a concern for us,” he stressed. But Ghadbian said extremist elements make up less than 10 percent of the 160,000-strong Free Syrian Army. 

“We don’t want Syria to be a failed state or an extremist one,” he said. “The way to make sure is to support moderate forces.”

Syrians once supported the radical, Iranian-backed Hezbollah in its attacks against Israel, he said. But now that the Iranian regime is supplying the Syrian army with military equipment, they changed their minds.

“The most hated country in Syria today is Iran,” Ghadbian said. “It’s not Israel; it’s not the U.S., because [Iran is] directly involved and implicated in the killing.”

I asked Ghadbian what he would ask Obama to do tomorrow if he had the president’s ear. 

“Be a leader,” he shot back. “Be a spokesperson for a free Syria. Like Vladimir Putin is for Assad.” 

The United States, which Ghadbian acknowledged has helped with relief efforts and nonlethal military aid, must now take a more active role, creating safe zones, presumably through force, and helping the opposition forces with intelligence and communication. 

“We don’t need boots on the ground; we need leadership,” Ghadbian said with the evident exasperation of someone who is, not surprisingly, truly war-weary.

 

You can see the video of Dr. Najiob Ghadbian here:

Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

U.S., Russia seek new Syria peace talks, rebels skeptical


Russia and the United States agreed to seek new peace talks with both sides to end Syria's civil war, but opposition leaders were skeptical on Wednesday of an initiative they fear might let President Bashar Assad hang on to power.

Mindful the conflict may be far from over, Britain has urged fellow European Union states to lift an arms embargo, arguing it would strengthen those rebel groups favored by Western powers.

Visiting Moscow after Israel bombed sites near Damascus and as President Barack Obama also faces renewed calls to arm the rebels, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said late on Tuesday that Russia agreed to work on a conference in the coming weeks.

An East-West disagreement that has seen some of the frostiest exchanges between Washington and Moscow since the Cold War has deadlocked U.N. efforts to settle the Syrian conflict for two years, so any rapprochement could bring an international common front closer than it has been for many months.

Israeli air strikes, reports of the use of chemical weapons and the increasing prominence of al Qaeda-linked militants among the rebels have all added to international urgency for an end to a war that has killed more than 70,000 people.

But with Syria's factional and sectarian hatreds more entrenched than ever, it is far from clear the warring parties are ready to negotiate with each other. Most opposition figures have ruled out talks unless Assad and his inner circle are excluded from any future transitional government.

“I believe the opposition would find it impossible to hold talks over a government that still had Assad at its head,” said Samir Nashar of the opposition's umbrella National Coalition.

“Before making any decisions we need to know what Assad's role would be. That point has been left vague, we believe intentionally so, in order to try to drag the opposition into talks before a decision on that is made.”

In the past, the United States has backed opposition demands that Assad be excluded from any future government, while Russia has said that must be for Syrians to decide, a formula the opposition believes could be used to keep Assad in power.

Opposition members said they were concerned by comments from Kerry in Moscow, echoing Russia, that the decision on who takes part in a transitional government should be left to Syrians.

“Syrians are worried that the United States is advancing its own interests with Russia, using the blood and suffering of the Syrian people,” said National Coalition member Ahmed Ramadan.

Inside Syria, where rebel groups have disparate views, a military commander, Abdeljabbar al-Oqaidi, told Reuters: “If the regime were present, I do not believe we would want to attend.”

There was no immediate response from the Syrian government, which has offered reforms but dismisses those fighting it as terrorists and puppets of outside powers – the West, Turkey and Arab states opposed to Assad's ally Iran.

EU ARMS BAN

If fears of an escalation of the war are driving new peace moves, they have also set some Western powers looking again at their military options. Washington said last week it was rethinking its opposition to arming the rebels, and on Wednesday it emerged Britain has been lobbying the EU to let it do so, too.

Several EU governments are resisting French and British efforts to get the embargo lifted, concerned that the move could escalate the two-year-old conflict.

In a paper seen by Reuters, London suggested ways the ban could be amended to get arms to the National Coalition. Existing sanctions expire on June 1. With France, the other main military power in the bloc, Britain is trying to persuade Spain, Austria, Sweden and others to ease opposition to arming the rebels.

But with the prospect of the conflict spilling across a volatile region central to global energy supplies and transit routes, major powers also have, as Kerry told Putin on Tuesday, “very significant common interests” in pushing for a settlement.

“The alternative,” Kerry later told a joint news conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, “is that Syria heads closer to an abyss, if not over the abyss and into chaos”.

Both sides fear a failed state in Syria could provide a base for hostile militants willing to strike around the world.

Last June, at a conference in Geneva, Washington and Moscow agreed on the need for a transitional government in Syria, but diplomacy has foundered since then, and the mediator of the Geneva conference, former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, quit in despair, saying differences among powers were too wide.

Kerry said the conference might be held as early as this month, though no venue has been set.

Russia, backed by China, has vetoed three U.N. Security Council resolutions hostile to Assad. Alarmed at Western powers' use of a U.N. mandate to oust Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Moscow and Beijing are wary of such interference in their own affairs.

RISK OF POWER VACUUM

Recent developments have focused minds on the risks of wider war in the Middle East.

The White House said last month that Assad's troops probably used chemical weapons – which Obama has called a “red line” that would mandate a strong, if unspecified, response. The government and rebels each accuse the other of using poison gas, a charge both sides deny. British Prime Minister David said on Wednesday there was evidence Assad's forces “continue” to use sarin gas.

But despite pleading from the opposition, Western leaders have been reluctant to weigh in by arming the rebels, especially as Islamist fighters have pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, highlighting the risk to the West that a poorly managed change of leadership in Syria could bring hostile militants to power.

Israeli air strikes in recent days – which Israeli officials said hit Iranian arms headed for Assad and Tehran's Lebanese allies Hezbollah – underlined the risk of cross-border conflict.

The violence has inflamed a confrontation between Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims in the Middle East, with Shi'ite Iran supporting Assad, and Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia backing the rebels.

Tehran warned of unforeseeable consequences if Assad were toppled and said only a political deal would avert a regional conflagration: “God forbid, if there is any vacuum in Syria, these negative consequences will affect all countries,” Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said. “No one knows what will happen.”

Diplomatic sources in Moscow made clear the latest push for peace was being driven by growing alarm following the Israeli air raids, the possibility of foreign arms pouring into Syria and the possible use of chemical weapons.

Moscow and Washington have also signaled they want to improve cooperation on security matters since the Boston Marathon bombings, which U.S. officials suspect was carried out by ethnic Chechens who had lived in Russia. U.S. officials said FBI chief Robert Mueller had been in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss the bombings, but gave no details.

In a further sign of Washington's efforts to improve ties with Russia, Kerry avoided any sharp public criticism of Moscow's human rights record when he met civil rights activists in the Russian capital on Wednesday before his departure.

In Syria, Internet connections and phones to the outside world were restored after a day-long blackout that officials put down to a technical fault on a cable but which opposition activists said was deliberately imposed for military operations.

Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman and Arshad Mohammed, Timothy Heritage, Alexei Anishchuk and Steve Gutterman in Moscow; Writing by Alastair Macdonald, Timothy Heritage and Peter Graff; Editing by Will Waterman

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

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

Israel’s security cabinet meets on Syria


Israel's security cabinet met to discuss the situation in Syria.

Sunday evening's meeting was the first discussion by senior government ministers about the situation in Syria, and the first meeting on the subject since the new government was sworn in.

The meeting discussed formulating Israel's policy regarding the civil war and possibility of chemical weapons in Syria, Haaretz reported, citing an unnamed senior Israeli official.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly asked the government ministers not to make any public statements on Syria.

Less than a day after the security cabinet meeting, a bomb attack targeted Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki on Monday morning in Damascus.

The prime minister survived the attack on his convoy, in which six people were killed. No one claimed responsibility for the attack.

Meanwhile, Yuval Steinitz, Israel's minister of strategic and intelligence affairs and international relations, said Sunday at the Jerusalem Post conference in New York, that  Israel is not pressing the United States to take military action against Syria,  despite Israeli intelligence information that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against rebels and civilians.

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

Syria says it would not use chemical arms, even against Israel


Damascus will not use chemical weapons against its own citizens, or in the event of war with its neighbor Israel, Syria's Information Minister was quoted as saying on Wednesday.

A senior Israeli intelligence officer said on Tuesday that Syrian government forces had used chemical weapons against rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.

But the assessment was met with skepticism by the United States which has declared any use of chemical weapons in Syria's two-year-old civil war a “red line” that could trigger intervention.

The Syrian government and rebels each accused the other of launching a chemical attack near the northern city of Aleppo last month.

Syria last year acknowledged that it had chemical and biological weapons and said it could use them if foreign countries intervened, a threat that was met with strong warnings from Washington and its allies.

Western countries and Israel have also expressed fears that chemical weapons could fall into the hands of militant groups hostile to them as Assad's authority erodes.

“Even if Syria does have chemical weapons, our leadership and our military will not use them either against Syrians or against Israelis, above all for moral reasons and secondarily on legal and political grounds,” Omran al-Zoubi was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying at a Moscow university.

He said Syria would not resort to chemical weapons even if it had to go to war with Israel and use “all resources”.

Reporting by Alexei Anishchuk; Editing by Jon Hemming

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.

Syrian withdrawal from Golan alarms Israel


The Syrian government has reportedly withdrawn thousands of troops near the buffer zone between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights, leaving a power vacuum that Israel is concerned could be filled with jihadist forces ready to turn their guns on the Jewish state.

Syria has redeployed divisions in the Golan to the area around Damascus to battle anti-government forces near the Syrian capital, according to a report in the British newspaper The Guardian on Sunday.

The redeployment near the Golan border was the most significant in 40 years, Western diplomats told The Guardian. Israel is concerned that the jihadist groups hostile to both Syrian President Bashar Assad and the Jewish state could move to fill the power vacuum in the Golan, creating a battlefront with Israel.

Four elite Syrian divisions made the Golan border Israel’s quietest for the past four decades, but tensions have simmered on the Golan Heights in the last few months. Last week, a mortar shell fired during fighting between Syrian rebels and loyalist troops landed in Israel. Errant explosives have landed several times in Israel-controlled Golan territory, and some cross-border incidents have prompted return fire from Israeli army patrols.

Israel is concerned that Assad’s weapons stockpiles, which include chemical weapons and advanced anti-aircraft missiles systems, could fall into the hands of either Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, which is loyal to Assad, has links to Iran, and is very hostile to Israel, or Sunni Islamist groups in Syria with links to international terrorist groups, which seek Assad’s ouster and are no friendlier to Israel.

On Sunday, an Israeli colonel told visiting Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird on a helicopter tour of the Golan that Israel is increasingly concerned about foreign, Sunni jihadists who have flocked to Syria to fight Assad, according to Canadian news outlet The Globe and Mail.

To show Baird the difficulty of assessing who is in control in the Golan, the colonel pointed to a Syrian village just beyond the border that is controlled by rebels but surrounded by Syrian troops who have cut off all access roads. When Israeli troops were fired on last month, Israel fired back at the Syrian position. Israel didn't say whether the fire on its troops had come from Assad loyalists or rebels.

Syria’s southern region saw the beginning of the Syrian uprising when protesters took to the streets in Deraa in March 2011, but the Golan region, located just west of the Deraa governorate, remained largely quiet as fighting moved to Syria’s north and east. Now, fighting has returned to the south. Rebel groups took over an artillery base in Syria’s Quneitra governorate near the demilitarized buffer zone in the Golan near Israel in late January. Jordan closed a border crossing with Syria after fighting increased in the Deraa governorate. The United Nations is now predicting that there could be some 1.2 million Syrian refugees by the end of this year. More than half a million people currently reside in Jordanian refugee camps.

The U.S. has reportedly begun training Syrian rebels in order to battle Assad and subvert the increasingly powerful Islamist groups, such as the al-Qaida-aligned Al-Nusra Front, in the Golan, The Guardian reported.

As Syrian troops move out of the Golan, the future of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Golan Heights is also thrown into question. The states that make up the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force in the Golan Heights are reconsidering their commitments. Croatia already withdrew its troops last February.

“It’s clear UNDOF is having very serious problems in meeting its challenges,” an Israeli official said, according to the report in The Guardian. “But Israeli national security figures are very skeptical as to the real utility of international forces in dealing with our security issues.”

Israel has contacted the UN’s New York headquarters to discuss possible scenarios should the UN peacekeeping forces in the Golan dissolve, including sending replacements for contingents that pull out, according to the report.

Ancient Syrian synagogue hit by looting, shelling


Theft and shelling have damaged a 2,000 year-old synagogue in Damascus, one of the oldest in the world, Syrian government and opposition activist sources said on Monday.

Syria's historic monuments have increasingly become a casualty of the civil war has killed more than 70,000 people. Parts of Aleppo's medieval stone-vaulted souk have been reduced to rubble, and many ancient markets, mosques and churches across the country are threatened with destruction.

The damage has so far been light at the Jobar Synagogue, built in honour of the biblical prophet Elijah, according to Mamoun Abdulkarim, the head of Syria's antiquities department.

“Local community officials say the place's sanctity has been violated and there were thefts but I cannot verify the nature of the thefts without investigation,” Abdulkarim told Reuters by telephone.

“Four months earlier they (Jewish authorities) tried to go in and were prevented from entering due to the presence of fighters.”

He said that authorities believed looters have mostly stolen gold chandeliers and icons dating back 70 to 100 years.

But Abdulkarim said he doubted that thousands of priceless manuscripts had been stolen from the synagogue as most of them, including Torahs in filigreed silver cases, had already been moved to the synagogue inside Damascus's Old City, a UNESCO world heritage site.

The Jobar Synagogue is inside a run-down outer district of Damascus called Jobar, which was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds of years until the 1800s.

Rebels fighting to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad began moving into Jobar last July and the area has suffered heavy shelling from government air strikes and artillery since then.

Pro-Assad groups blame rebels for damage to Syria's heritage, while the opposition blames the government. Video has shown both sides destroying ancient castles and shrines with shelling, gun battles and targeted explosions.

NO SITES SPARED

“Jobar has been shelled by Assad's forces for more than 60 days … There is no building that has been spared by the shelling in Jobar, whether it is holy or not,” said opposition activist Mohammed al-Shami, who lives in the area.

“But luckily many artefacts from the synagogue were removed by a local council in Jobar and are now being stored for safety,” he said, speaking by Skype.

Other Jewish sites remained unharmed and in government hands, according to the Syrian official Abdulkarim.

“We deal with these (synagogues) in their archaeological value as we are dealing with a mosque or church, no differently. It is part of our heritage. Jewish culture is preserved,” he said.

Abdulkarim said Jews still living in Damascus were storing Jewish artefacts in the Old City's Jewish Quarter at a synagogue that dates back to the Ottoman era and where Syria's tiny Jewish community, only a few dozen, still prays.

The Jobar site, built atop a cave where the prophet Elijah was believed to have hidden from persecution, has been a place of pilgrimage for Syrian and Arab Jews.

Activists said at least six mortars had hit the synagogue, but that damage was still minimal.

Video published by opposition groups in early March showed damage to the concrete outer walls surrounding the synagogue and a pile of rubble next to the entrance, which is marked with an inscription in Arabic, Hebrew in English.

Reporting by Erika Solomon and Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Jon Hemming

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

U.N. curbs Golan patrols after peacekeepers seized, diplomats say


U.N. peacekeepers monitoring the ceasefire line between Syria and the Israel's Golan Heights have scaled back patrols after rebels detained 21 Filipino observers for three days last week, diplomats said on Thursday.

The seizure of the unarmed observers highlighted the vulnerability of the 1,000-strong U.N. Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), whose mission began in 1974, to the growing violence in Syria.

It also heightened concern in Israel that Islamist rebels, separated from Israeli troops only by a toothless U.N. force, may be emboldened to end years of quiet maintained by President Bashar al-Assad and his father before him on the Golan front.

“They have reduced their patrols for now, halted patrols in areas like the place where the Filipinos were taken hostage,” one diplomat in the region said.

A U.N. official in Damascus declined to comment, but two Israeli officials confirmed that UNDOF had reduced operations.

The capture of the 21 peacekeepers was the latest challenge for the United Nations force, comprised of troops from the Philippines, India, Croatia and Austria.

Japan said it was withdrawing soldiers from UNDOF three months ago in response to the violence in Syria. Croatia said last month it would also pull out its troops as a precaution after reports, which it denied, that Croatian arms had been shipped to Syrian rebels.

Two weeks ago the United Nations said an UNDOF staff member had gone missing. It did not identify him but one rebel source identified him as a Canadian legal adviser and said he had been captured by another rebel force and held for ransom.

VIOLENCE MAY FORCE CHANGES

The diplomat said the new restrictions on UNDOF affected mainly the southern part of its “area of separation”, between Syrian and Israeli forces, a narrow strip of land running 45 miles from Mount Hermon on the Lebanese border to the Yarmouk River frontier with Jordan.

“But it does affect all areas where there are potential security issues,” she said, adding that the whole UNDOF operation may need to be “reframed and reworked”.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a December report to the Security Council that fighting between Syrian armed forces and rebels inside the area of separation has “the potential to ignite a larger conflict between Israel and the Syrian Arab Republic, with grave consequences”.

Israel warned 10 days ago that it could not be expected to stand idle as Syria's civil war, in which 70,000 people have been killed, spilled over into the Golan Heights.

The 21 Filipino peacekeepers were released on Saturday by Syrian rebels who had seized them and held them for three days in the southern village of Jamla.

The rebels from the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade initially accused the peacekeepers of collaborating with Assad's forces during heavy fighting last week and of failing to carry out their mandate to keep heavy arms away from the frontier region.

At first they demanded the Syrian army cease shelling in the area and pull back from Jamla village as a condition for releasing the peacekeepers, but later described them as guests and escorted them to freedom in Jordan.

Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Mariam Karouny in Beirut; Editing by Alistair Lyon

Assad threatens to retaliate against Israel as shells land on Golan


Syrian President Bashar Assad said that his country would retaliate against Israel for a January air strike on a weapons facility near Damascus, a day after mortar shells fired from Syria landed in northern Israel.

The mortar shells fired from Syria landed Saturday on the Golan Heights, and reportedly were fired into Israeli territory accidentally during a fire fight between Syrian rebels and Syrian government military forces.

It was the second time in recent days that mortar fire from Syria landed in Israeli territory. United Nations peace keeping troops were told about the strike.

Assad said in an interview published in London's Sunday Times that his country would retaliate for what is believed to be an Israeli strike on a research facility near Damascus used for developing chemical weapons. The facility was bombed in January.

“We retaliated in our own way, and only the Israelis know what we mean. Retaliation does not mean missile for missile or bullet for bullet. Our own way does not have to be announced,” Assad told the Sunday Times.

Meanwhile, Syrian opposition forces accused the Syrian government of firing mortars at a historic synagogue located near Damascus. A video of the Jobar Synagogue, which is 2,000 years old, showing damage to parts of the building, including showing that the roof was blown off, was posted on YouTube over the weekend by the Syrian opposition’s military council.