Netanyahu describes mutual interests in defending ties with Russia


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that outreach between Israel and Russia made sense because of shared concerns about militant Islam, a desire to avoid clashes in Syria and Russia’s interest in Israeli technology.

Netanyahu appeared in New York on Sept. 22 to receive the Herman Kahn Award from the conservative Hudson Institute, named for one of the think tank’s founders.

He was pressed by his interviewer, Roger Hertog, a philanthropist who is one of Hudson’s benefactors, to explain why Russian President Vladimir Putin has been seeking closer relations with Israel, given Russia’s military backing for the Assad regime in Syria and its sale of an anti-missile system to Iran.

The “first interest is to make sure that militant Islam doesn’t penetrate and destabilize Russia,” Netanyahu replied. “There are many, many millions of Muslims in Russia, including in greater Moscow; I think it’s up to 2 million. And the concern that Russia has, which many other countries have, is that these populations would be radicalized.”

Another reason is to avoid a clash in airspace bridging Israel and Syria, where Russian combat aircraft are bombing enemies of the regime of Bashar Assad.

“We can coordinate in order not to crash and clash with each other,” Netanyahu said.

Given Russia’s influence in Syria, Netanyahu said, Russia was also a useful conduit to keep Israel’s enemies from being empowered. Notably, another Assad ally is Hezbollah, the Iran-allied Shiite Lebanese militia that has warred frequently with Israel.

“We don’t want to see in the aftermath in Syria, whether with an agreement or without an agreement, we don’t want to see an Iranian military presence, we don’t want to see Shiite militias which Iran is organizing from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, and we certainly don’t want to see Iranian game-changing weapons being transferred through Syrian territory to Hezbollah in Lebanon,” the prime minister said.

Another factor was Russian interest in Israeli technology.

Putin is “interested in technology and Israel is a global source of technology in many areas that are of interest to Russia — agriculture, dairy production, you name it, the standard fare,” Netanyahu said.

Finally, Netanyahu said, Israel has a substantial Russian-speaking minority.

“There’s a cultural, a human bridge,” he said. “We have a million Russian speakers in Israel. These and other reasons, I think, inform Russia’s policies. And I think it’s very important that we have this relationship.”

To applause, Netanyahu reasserted that Israel’s main alliance is with the United States.

“With the United States, we certainly have shared interests, but it’s the one alliance we have, and there may be one or two others, but nothing like this, that is based on shared values,” he said.

Russia uses Iran as base to bomb Syrian militants for first time


Russia used Iran as a base from which to launch air strikes against Syrian militants for the first time on Tuesday, widening its air campaign in Syria and deepening its involvement in the Middle East.

In a move underscoring Moscow's increasingly close ties with Tehran, long-range Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and Sukhoi-34 fighter bombers used Iran's Hamadan air base to strike a range of targets in Syria.

It was the first time Russia has used the territory of another nation, apart from Syria itself, to launch such strikes since the Kremlin launched a bombing campaign to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in September last year.

It was also thought to be the first time that Iran has allowed a foreign power to use its territory for military operations since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The Iranian deployment will boost Russia's image as a central player in the Middle East and allow the Russian air force to cut flight times and increase bombing payloads.

The head of Iran's National Security Council was quoted by state news agency IRNA as saying Tehran and Moscow were now sharing facilities to fight against terrorism, calling their cooperation strategic.

Both countries back Assad, and Russia, after a delay, has supplied Iran with its S-300 missile air defense system, evidence of a growing partnership between the pair that has helped turn the tide in Syria's civil war and is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.

Relations between Tehran and Moscow have grown warmer since Iran reached agreement last year with global powers to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of U.N., EU and U.S. financial sanctions.

President Vladimir Putin visited in November and the two countries regularly discuss military planning for Syria, where Iran has provided ground forces that work with local allies while Russia provides air power.

TARGET: ALEPPO

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Tuesday Iraq, which lies between Iran and Syria, had granted Russia permission to use its air space, on the condition the planes use corridors along Iraq’s borders and not fly over Iraqi cities.

Abadi told a press conference the same permission has been given to air forces of a separate U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State flying to Syria from Kuwait.

Russia also gave advanced notice to the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, complying with the terms of a safety agreement meant to avoid an accidental clash in the skies, the U.S. military said.

“They informed us they were coming through and we ensured safety of flight as those bombers passed through the area and toward their target and then when they passed out again,” said U.S. Army Colonel Christopher Garver, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S-led coalition.

“They did not impact coalition operations in either Iraq or Syria.”

The Russian Defence Ministry said its bombers had taken off on Tuesday from the Hamadan air base in north-west Iran.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Russian bombers were believed to have returned to Russia.

The ministry said Tuesday's strikes had targeted Islamic State as well as militants previously known as the Nusra Front in the Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al Zour provinces. It said its Iranian-based bombers had been escorted by fighter jets based at Russia's Hmeymim air base in Syria's Latakia Province.

“As a result of the strikes five large arms depots were destroyed … a militant training camp … three command and control points … and a significant number of militants,” the ministry said in a statement.

The destroyed facilities had all been used to support militants in the Aleppo area, it said, where battle for control of the divided city, which had some 2 million people before the war, has intensified in recent weeks.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based war monitor, said heavy air strikes on Tuesday had hit many targets in and around Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria, killing dozens.

Strikes in the Tariq al-Bab and al-Sakhour districts of northeast Aleppo had killed around 20 people, while air raids in a corridor rebels opened this month into opposition-held eastern parts of the city had killed another nine, the observatory said.

The Russian Defence Ministry says it takes great care to avoid civilian casualties in its air strikes.

Zakaria Malahifi, political officer of an Aleppo-based rebel group, Fastaqim, said he could not confirm if the newly deployed Russian bombers were in use, but said air strikes on Aleppo had intensified in recent days.

“It is much heavier,” he told Reuters. “There is no weapon they have not dropped on Aleppo – cluster bombs, phosphorus bombs, and so on.”

Aleppo, Syria's largest city before the war, is divided into rebel and government-held zones. The government aims to capture full control of it, which would be its biggest victory of the five year conflict.

Hundreds of thousands of civilians are believed to be trapped in rebel areas, facing potential siege if the government closes off the corridor linking it with the outside.

Russian media reported on Tuesday that Russia had also requested and received permission to use Iran and Iraq as a route to fire cruise missiles from its Caspian Sea fleet into Syria, as it has done in the past. Russia has built up its naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean and the Caspian as part of what it says are planned military exercises.

Russia's state-backed Rossiya 24 channel earlier on Tuesday broadcast uncaptioned images of at least three Russian Tupolev-22M3 bombers and a Russian military transport plane inside Iran.

The channel said the Iranian deployment would allow the Russian air force to cut flight times by 60 percent. The Tupolev-22M3 bombers, which before Tuesday had conducted strikes on Syria from their home bases in southern Russia, were too large to be accommodated at Russia's own air base inside Syria, Russian media reported.

Russia to return Israeli tank captured by Syria in 1982


Russia said it will return to Israel a tank that Syrian forces captured in 1982 during a battle that ended with 20 Israeli soldiers dead and three missing in action.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed an order to return the tank from the Battle of Sultan Yacoub in the First Lebanon War, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Sunday. The Syrians delivered the tank to the Russian army and it is currently at the armored corps museum in Moscow, the report said.

Netanyahu reported the news to the families of MIAs Zvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz and Zechariah Baumel, whose fate remains unknown.

An Israeli army delegation is in Moscow preparing the transfer along with the Russian army.

“There has been nothing to remember the boys by and no grave to visit for 34 years now,” Netanyahu said. “The tank is the only evidence of the battle, and now it is coming back to Israel thanks to President Putin’s response to my request.”

The battle took place in Lebanon’s Valley of Tears as an Israeli tank formation found itself surrounded by a larger Syrian force. The force was extracted with heavy artillery. Along with the Israeli soldiers killed, 30 were wounded.

Iran and Russia move closer but their alliance has limits


When Iran took delivery of the first parts of an advanced Russian air defense system this month, it paraded the anti-aircraft missile launchers sent by Moscow to mark Army Day.

Tehran had cause to celebrate: the Kremlin's decision a year ago to press ahead with the stalled sale of the S-300 system was the first clear evidence of a growing partnership between Russia and Iran that has since turned the tide in Syria's civil war and is testing U.S. influence in the Middle East.

But the delay in implementation of the deal also points to the limitations of a relationship that is forged from a convergence of interests rather than a shared worldview, with Iran's leadership divided over ideology and Russia showing signs of reluctance to let the alliance develop much more, according to diplomats, officials and analysts interviewed by Reuters.

Some Iranian officials want a strategic alliance, a much deeper relationship than now. But the Kremlin refers only to ongoing cooperation with a new dimension because of the conflict in Syria, in which both back Damascus.

“We are continuously developing friendly relations with Iran, but we cannot really talk about a new paradigm in our relations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last month.

Russia agreed to sell the S-300 system to Iran in 2007 but froze the deal in 2010 after sanctions were imposed on Tehran over its nuclear program.

Moscow lifted the self-imposed ban in April last year as Iran and world powers got closer to the deal that led eventually to the nuclear-related sanctions being lifted in exchange for Tehran curbing its atomic program.

Russia is now weighing the financial and diplomatic benefits of arms sales to Tehran against the risk of upsetting other countries including Saudi Arabia, the United States and Israel, or seeing Iran become too powerful.

“There is a military-economic aspect to this alliance which is beneficial to both sides,” said Maziar Behrooz, associate professor of Mideast and Islamic history at San Francisco State University, who has studied Iran's relationship with Russia.

“But on a geopolitical level, Iran and Russia can only form a tactical short-term alliance, not a strategic one. I think the ideological differences between the two are just too deep.”

BACKING FOR DAMASCUS

The relationship, long cordial, appeared to reach a new level last September when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a military intervention in Syria in support of Iran's ally, President Bashar al-Assad.

Iran had already deployed its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), who had rallied Assad's troops to check the opposition's momentum. But it took Russian air power to break the stalemate and give Assad the upper hand.

Militarily, the two powers proved complementary. Iran brought disciplined ground troops who worked well with their local allies, while Russia provided the first-rate air power that Iran and Assad lack.

Diplomatically, the joint operations have made Tehran and Moscow central to any discussion about the regional security architecture.

That is important for Putin as he has sought to shore up alliances in the region and increase Moscow's influence since Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, a Russian ally, was killed.

How well Moscow will fare when it comes to winning lucrative business contracts now the nuclear-related sanctions have been lifted is less clear. There is little sign so far of Russian companies making new inroads into Iran.

This is partly for ideological reasons. The Iranian establishment is divided, with President Hassan Rouhani's faction more interested in trading with the West than struggling against it, even if many U.S. policies are still condemned.

Russia has little incentive to join the mostly Shi'ite “Axis of Resistance” to Western interests in the region which is championed by the more conservative Iranian faction as this could ruin its relationships with other Middle Eastern powers such as Israel, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

SECRET MEETINGS

Russia's first big intervention in the Middle East since the Cold War followed months of secret meetings in Moscow between Putin and Iranian officials, including IRGC commanders and Ali Akbar Velayati, foreign policy advisor to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

A close and exclusive alliance with Russia would suit Khamenei, Iran's most powerful figure, who has blamed Western influence for Iran's troubles and pushed hard to implement his “Look East” policy.

But it runs contrary to the policy of Iran's government, led by Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who have courted Western delegations on an almost weekly basis since the nuclear deal was reached with world powers last July.

The Western-educated Rouhani is less inclined toward Russia and has an uneasy relationship with Putin. Last November, during his first visit to Tehran in eight years, Putin went straight from the airport to meet Khamenei, rather than seeing Rouhani first as most visitors do.

“Rouhani and Putin don't get along that great,” an Iranian diplomat told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Some Iranian officials are also wary of getting too close to Russia, which fought Britain for domination of 19th century Iran and occupied the country during both World Wars.

“Russians have always used us as a tool in their foreign policy. They never stayed committed to their alliance with any country,” Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, who served as spokesman for former President Mohammad Khatami, told Reuters from Tehran.

Putin has worked hard to improve relations with Iran. During the November visit, he presented Khamenei with one of the world's oldest copies of the Koran, which Russia had obtained during its occupation of northern Iran in the 19th century.

The intervention in Syria has served as a distraction from economic problems in Russia, deepened by international sanctions on Moscow over its role in the Ukraine crisis which have forced Moscow to seek new trade partners.

Trade with Iran was only $1.3 billion in 2015, according to Russian data, though there are signs cooperation could pick up.

Russia says it is ready to start disbursing a $5-billion loan to Tehran for financing infrastructure projects. A deal is also being discussed for Russia to send oil and gas to northern Iran, where supply is scarce, and for Iran to send oil and gas from its southern fields to Russia's customers in the Gulf.

But the prospects for cooperation may be limited, sector analysts say, as, to update its energy sector, Iran mainly needs technology and equipment which Russia is also in need of.

Russia is also in talks to help upgrade Iran's dilapidated air force by selling it Sukhoi Su-30 fighter jets but the deal would need the approval of the United Nations Security Council and could further strain Moscow's relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Netanyahu, Putin meet to ‘avoid’ military mishaps over Syria


Amid tension between Israeli and Russian troops around Syria, Benjamin Netanyahu met with Vladimir Putin in Moscow to discuss ways to avoid friction.

Israel’s prime minister and Russia’s president met Thursday in Moscow to “tighten security coordination between Israel and Russia to avoid errors,” Netanyahu said in a statement. The commander of the Israel Air Force, Major General Amir Eshel and the prime minister’s military secretary, Eliezer Toledano, will have follow-up meetings with Russian top brass, the statement also said.

The meeting took place following several incidents involving Russian troops in Syria and Israeli military personnel, the Israeli daily Yedioth Achronoth reported. In one incident, a Russian fighter jet scrambled to meet and escorted an Israel Air Force plane carrying out intelligence missions over Syrian airspace, according to the report. A Kremlin spokesperson on Friday denied the reports, saying they were “far from the truth.”

Russia stepped up its military presence in Syria and made it public last year in a bid to bail out the Syrian government under Bashar Assad, who has lost control of large parts of the country in the course of a bloody civil war that erupted in 2011.

Israeli aircraft regularly fly over Syrian airspace, according to non-Israeli media, and have carried out dozens of strikes in that country and Lebanon to prevent certain weapons from reaching Hezbollah, an ally of Assad, and other militant groups.

During the meeting with Putin, Netanyahu reiterated statements he made earlier this week about the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in 1967 and effectively annexed in 1981, remaining under Israeli control.

“We will not return to the days when our towns and children were fired upon from up in the Golan,” he was quoted by Ynet as saying in reference to frequent shelling from the Golan before 1967. “So, with an agreement or without it, the Golan will remain under Israeli sovereignty.”

In wake of Russia’s planned Syria withdrawal, Putin and Netanyahu to hold security meeting


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet soon in Moscow to discuss regional security and trade.

At a joint news conference Wednesday with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin before their meeting in Moscow, Putin announced his plans for the Netanyahu meeting, the Times of Israel reported.

Israeli officials confirmed that a sit-down between the two leaders will happen soon, but did not offer specific dates.

Citing Russian media, the Times of Israel reported Putin saying the two countries “have a large number of questions to discuss linked with the development of bilateral trade and economic relations and questions of the region’s security.”

On Monday, Putin made the surprise announcement that he plans to pull most of his forces out of Syria, which has been entangled in a civil war for five years. The next day, en route to Russia for a two-day trip, Rivlin told the Israeli media that “there is a need for coordination” with Russia on the Syria situation to ensure that Russia’s withdrawal does not result in strengthening Hezbollah and its backer Iran, both sworn enemies of Israel.

“Everyone understands that Islamic State is a danger to the entire world, but the Shiite fundamentalist Islam of Iran is for us no less a threat,” Rivlin said before the trip, according to The Jerusalem Post.

An unidentified senior Israeli official told the Post on Tuesday, “This is not a zero-sum game. Russia has interests similar to ours. They also do not want to see a strong Iran that will spread terror on Russia’s southern border. The Russians also understand that it will not be good if Hezbollah remains and becomes established in Syria.”

In his joint news conference with Rivlin, Putin said, “The ties between our countries are based on friendship and mutual understanding,” noting that Israel has a significant population of Russian emigres and tourism between the two countries is on the rise.

Rivlin said the Jews would always remember Russia’s key role in World War II, noting that “many Holocaust survivors all over the world remember being liberated by the Red Army.”

Rivlin to tell Putin: Syria pullout must not strengthen Iran, Hezbollah


Any future peace agreement in Syria must not end up strengthening Iran and Hezbollah, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will tell Russian President Vladimir Putin when they meet in Moscow.

With Wednesday’s meeting, Rivlin will be the first international leader to meet with Putin since his surprise announcement on Monday that Russia will withdraw most of its troops from the civil war in Syria.

“We want Iran and Hezbollah not to emerge strengthened from this entire process,” Rivlin told reporters on a flight Tuesday to Moscow. “Everybody agrees that the Islamic State organization is a danger to the entire world, but Shiite Iranian fundamentalist Islam is for us just as dangerous.”

“Given the situation we’re in, we have to coordinate with Russia,” Rivlin said on the plane.

Israel’s military chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, told a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on Tuesday that Israel was caught off guard by the Kremlin announcement.

“We had no prior information about the Russian announcement of a reduction in its involvement, just as others didn’t,” Eisenkot said.

Haaretz reported that Russia will retain control of two military bases in Syria and gradually retract its troops from the region.

Putin says Russians to start withdrawing from Syria, as peace talks resume


President Vladimir Putin announced out of the blue on Monday that “the main part” of Russian armed forces in Syria will start to withdraw, telling his diplomats to step up the push for peace as U.N.-mediated talks resumed on ending the five-year-old war.

Syria rejected any suggestion of a rift with Moscow, saying President Bashar al-Assad had agreed on the “reduction” of Russian forces in a telephone call with Putin. 

Western diplomats speculated Putin may be trying to press Assad into accepting a political settlement to the war, which has killed 250,000 people, although U.S. officials saw no sign yet of Russian forces preparing to pull out.

The anti-Assad opposition simply expressed bafflement, with a spokesman saying “nobody knows what is in Putin's mind”.

Russia's military intervention in Syria in September helped to turn the tide of war in Assad's favour after months of gains in western Syria by rebel fighters, who were aided by foreign military supplies including U.S.-made anti-tank missiles.

Putin made his surprise announcement, made with no advance warning to the United States, at a meeting with his defence and foreign ministers.

Russian forces had largely fulfilled their objectives in Syria, Putin said. But he gave no deadline for the completion of the withdrawal and said forces would remain at a seaport and airbase in Syria's Latakia province.

In Geneva, United Nations mediator Staffan de Mistura told the warring parties there was no “Plan B” other than a resumption of conflict if the first of three rounds of talks which aim to agree a “clear roadmap” for Syria failed to make progress.

Putin said at the Kremlin meeting he was ordering the withdrawal from Tuesday of “the main part of our military contingent” from the country.

“The effective work of our military created the conditions for the start of the peace process,” he said. “I believe that the task put before the defence ministry and Russian armed forces has, on the whole, been fulfilled.”

With the participation of the Russian military, Syrian armed forces “have been able to achieve a fundamental turnaround in the fight against international terrorism”, he added.

“COMPLETE COORDINATION”

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin had telephoned the Syrian president to inform him of the decision, but the two leaders had not discussed Assad's future – the biggest obstacle to reaching a peace agreement.

The move was announced on the day United Nations-brokered talks involving the warring sides in Syria resumed in Geneva.

Moscow gave Washington no advance warning of Putin's announcement, two U.S. officials said. Speaking on condition of anonymity, they added that they had seen no indications so far of preparations by Russia's military for the withdrawal.

In Damascus, the Syrian presidency said in a statement that Assad had agreed to the reduction in the Russian air force presence, and denied suggestions that this reflected a difference between the two countries

“The whole subject happened in complete coordination between the Russian and Syrian sides, and is a step that was carefully and accurately studied for some time”, the statement said, adding that Moscow had promised to continue support for Syria in “confronting terrorism”. 

Syria regards all rebel groups fighting Assad as terrorists.

Rebels and opposition officials alike reacted sceptically.

“I don't understand the Russian announcement, it's a surprise, like the way they entered the war. God protect us,” Fadi Ahmad, spokesman for the First Coastal Division, a Free Syria Army group fighting in the northwest, said.

Opposition spokesman Salim al-Muslat demanded a total Russian withdrawal. “Nobody knows what is in Putin's mind, but the point is he has no right to be in be our country in the first place. Just go,” he said.

A European diplomat was also sceptical. “It has the potential to put a lot of pressure on Assad and the timing fits that,” the diplomat said.

“However, I say potentially because we've seen before with Russia that what's promised isn't always what happens.”

MOMENT OF TRUTH

The Geneva talks are the first in more than two years and come amid a marked reduction in fighting after last month's “cessation of hostilities”, sponsored by Washington and Moscow and accepted by Assad's government and many of his foes.

Russia's U.N. ambassador Vitaly Churkin confirmed some forces would stay in Syria. “Our military presence will continue to be there, it will be directed mostly at making sure that the ceasefire, the cessation of hostilities, is maintained,” he told reporters at the United Nations in New York.

However, he added: “Our diplomacy has received marching orders to intensify our efforts to achieve a political settlement in Syria.” 

Speaking before Putin's announcement, de Mistura said Syria faced a moment of truth, as he opened talks to end a war which has displaced half the population, sent refugees streaming into Europe and turned Syria into a battlefield for foreign forces and jihadis.

The limited truce, which excludes the powerful Islamic State and Nusra Front groups, is fragile. The warring sides have accused each other of multiple violations and they arrived in Geneva with what look like irreconcilable agendas.

The Syrian opposition says the talks must focus on setting up a transitional governing body with full executive power, and that Assad must leave power at the start of the transition. Damascus says Assad's opponents are deluded if they think they will take power at the negotiating table. 

In a sign of how wide the rift is, de Mistura is meeting the two sides separately, at least initially. The talks must focus on political transition, which is the “mother of all issues”, the U.N. envoy said.

Putin announces Russian military withdrawal from Syria


In a surprise move, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a military withdrawal from Syria.

Saying its intervention, launched in 2015, has mostly achieved its goals, Putin said Monday the pullout of most of Russia’s forces will begin Tuesday, according to Reuters.

Russia will keep its Hmeimim airbase and its longtime Tartus naval base in Syria, however.

Putin said the decision to leave was made in coordination with Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose government Russia has backed in a civil war that has lasted more than five years. Assad said in a statement that Russia has promised to continue helping Syria in “combating terrorism.”

Putin’s announcements comes on the eve of new peace talks in Geneva, Switzerland.

Israel says Syrian government used chemical weapons during truce


Israel said on Tuesday that Syrian government forces have used chemical weapons against civilians since the start of a ceasefire aimed at preparing the way for an end to the five-year civil war.

The truce, sponsored by Russia and the United States, began on Saturday and has been dogged by opposition charges of non-compliance by Damascus – something President Bashar al-Assad has denied. It does not apply to missions against jihadist rebels.

“The Syrians used military grade chemical weapons and lately have been using materials, chlorine, against civilians, including in these very days, after the supposed ceasefire, dropping barrels of chlorine on civilians,” Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon said in a speech to a conference organized by the New Tech military and aviation group in Airport City, near Tel Aviv. He did not provide further details. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the Syria truce efforts on Sunday but said his country might still carry out attacks in the neighboring Arab state to thwart any threats to its security. 

A fact-finding mission of the global chemical weapons watchdog (OPCW) concluded in 2014 that the use of chlorine gas has been “systematic” in the Syrian civil war, even after the country surrendered its stockpile of toxic weapons.

Both sides have denied using chlorine “barrel” bombs, which the OPCW said are dropped out of helicopters. The Syrian air force is the only party in the conflict known to have helicopters.

A joint mission by the United Nations and the OPCW is currently investigating who is responsible for the chemical attacks.

Israel welcomes Syria truce but hints could attack if threatened


Israel welcomed the cessation of hostilities in neighboring Syria but hinted on Sunday it could still launch attacks there if it saw a threat.

Guns mostly fell silent in Syria and Russian air raids in support of President Bashar al-Assad stopped on Saturday, the first day of a U.S.-Russian accord that the United Nations has described as the best hope for ending five years of civil war.

Israeli officials had earlier been skeptical about the prospects of a truce, given Syria's sectarian rifts and the exclusion of jihadi rebels. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sounded cautiously upbeat in pubic remarks on Sunday. 

“We welcome the efforts to achieve a stable, long-term and real ceasefire in Syria. Anything that stops the terrible slaughter there is important, first and foremost from a humanitarian standpoint,” he told his cabinet. 

“But at the same time it is important that it be clear: Any arrangement in Syria has to include a cessation of Iranian belligerence toward Israel from Syrian territory,” he added.

While formally neutral on the civil war, Israel has launched a number of air strikes in Syria to foil suspected arms transfers to Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah guerrillas, who are helping Assad.

Israel has also said it has returned fire when shot at across the Golan Heights frontier, where it worries Hezbollah is active.

“We will not agree to the supply of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, from Syria to Lebanon. We will not agree to the creation of a second terrorist front on the Golan,” Netanyahu said. “These are the red lines that we set out and they remain the red lines of the State of Israel.”

Kremlin official: Russia will not put Hamas and Hezbollah on list of terror groups


The fighting in Syria will not affect Russia’s decision to keep Hamas and Hezbollah off its list of terrorist organizations, a senior Kremlin official said.

Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov told the Interfax news agency last week that while his country concurs with the United States’ definition of some organizations that are operating in Syria as terrorist groups, Russia is “not even discussing Hezbollah and Hamas with the Americans.”

Gatilov’s remark, made in response to a question by an Interfax journalist, came as his country was discussing with Washington the possibility of promoting steps to weaken the Islamic State, al-Qaida and Jabhat al-Nusra.

“Our opinions coincide as regards to the main terrorist organizations,” Gatilov said. “These are the main ones, and there is a definite consent about them” being terrorist groups.

Russian officials have said repeatedly that Hamas and Hezbollah, which are allies of Syrian President Bashar Assad, will not be recognized as terrorist organizations by Moscow. These groups or some of their sections are listed as such by the European Union, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, among other nations.

Putin, Netanyahu agree in call to coordinate efforts to fight terrorism


Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed in a phone call on Tuesday to coordinate their two countries' actions to fight terrorism in the Middle East, the Kremlin said in a statement.

The two leaders discussed the Syrian crisis during their conversation.

“Vladimir Putin stressed that there is no alternative to the launch of intra-Syrian negotiations under the auspices of the United Nations, as well as to the continued and uncompromising fight against Islamic State and other extremist groups acting in Syria,” the Kremlin was quoted as saying.

Kerry, at contentious U.S.-Israel confab, asks Israel to consider perils of single state


U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking at an annual U.S.-Israel confab, said Israel’s government must consider the consequences of evolving toward a single state incorporating the Palestinian areas.

“How does Israel possibly maintain its character as a Jewish democratic state?” Kerry said Saturday at the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C.

Would Palestinians “be relegated to a permanent underclass? Would they be segregated?” he asked.

Kerry’s forceful questioning of Israeli policy as well Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon’s outright derision of U.S. Middle East policy the previous evening underscored the divisions that continue to dog the governments of President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Kerry told the forum, which is sponsored by the Israeli-American entertainment mogul Haim Saban and convened by the Brookings Institution to bring together U.S. and Israeli leaders, that he believed Netanyahu was committed to a two-state outcome, but it was clear that “many” ministers in his Cabinet were not.

Should Israel abandon plans for two states, Kerry said, the Palestinian Authority would likely collapse, and Israel would have to assume many of the functions it now carries out, including policing the Palestinians. More comprehensively, Israel would have to consider how it governs an entity with a Jewish minority.

“The level of mistrust” between Israelis and Palestinians “has never been more profound,” Kerry said.

Kerry’s bluntness matched Yaalon’s in his claim the previous evening that the Obama administration had forfeited leadership in the region to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Much of the Saban event is off the record, allowing for frank exchanges between top U.S. and Israeli officials. It is rare for such corrosive exchanges to make it into the portions open to the media and streamed online. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the front-runner in the race to become the Democratic nominee for president and Kerry’s predecessor as secretary of state, is due to speak on Sunday.

Netanyahu, in a last-minute addition, delivered a 10-minute video address Sunday rebutting Kerry’s warning. He said the core issue hindering Israeli-Palestinian peace was the Palestinian refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state.

“The Palestinians have not yet been willing to cross that conceptual bridge, the emotional bridge of giving up the dream of not a state next to Israel, but of a state instead of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

The unfiltered bickering showed that last month’s friendly Netanyahu-Obama summit did not entirely patch up tensions and hurt feelings stoked by Kerry’s failed attempt in 2014 to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal and by this year’s Iran nuclear deal, which was backed by Obama and opposed by Netanyahu.

Kerry, at Saban, asked how Israelis imagined the international community would react to a scenario in which Palestinians were permanently denied rights. He studiously avoided the term “apartheid”; his previous use of the term to describe the likely outcome of a collapse of the peace process drew sharp criticism from Jewish-American groups.

Kerry said Israel and the Palestinians were sowing despair — Israel through continued settlement expansion and the demolition of Palestinian homes, and the Palestinians through countenancing incitement and their failure to condemn attacks on Israelis.

“Abu Mazen needs to change the rhetoric,” Kerry said, referring to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry singled out as “incendiary” Abbas’ charges recently that Israel planned to alter the status quo at the Temple Mount-Haram al Sharif, a Jerusalem site holy to Jews and Muslims.

Much of the recent spate of deadly violence in the West Bank and Israel has been stoked by tensions surrounding the Temple Mount.

Kerry chided leaders on both sides for sniping at one another.

“If all you’re doing is hurling invective at each other on a daily basis,” there is little prospect for peace, he said.

Kerry said Israel was effectively allowing Israeli expansion into Area C, the largest part of the West Bank where Israel maintains control and which the Palestinians say they need for a viable state.

“Settlements are absolutely no excuse for violence,” he said. “But continued settlement growth raises questions” about Israel’s intentions.

Kerry said that in Area C, Israel had granted only a single permit for Palestinian building over the previous year, while enshrining as legal many illegal Israeli settlement outposts in the area.

“You get that?” he said, appearing to challenge the Israelis present.

Yaalon, the previous evening, said Israel preferred a “slowly, slowly” approach to the Palestinians, preferring to focus on Israel’s security needs and unspecified progress on the political and economic tracks for the Palestinians.

Kerry also sharply pushed back against Yaalon’s claims that the United States had failed to show leadership in confronting the Islamic State terrorist group making gains in Iraq and Syria.

“We have led a coalition of 65 countries to fight, degrade and defeat Daesh,” Kerry said, using the Arabic acronym for Islamic State. “We are not naive.”

The “naive” comment appeared to be a direct rebuke to Yaalon, who was present, and who in the past has used the term — not to mention “messianic” — to describe Kerry.

Yaalon had said that Russia was showing more resolve in the fight than the United States.

“Unfortunately, in the current situation, Russia is playing a more significant role than the United States,” eliciting some gasps at the stately Willard Hotel in downtown Washington.

“We don’t like the fact that King Abdullah of Jordan is going to Moscow, the Egyptians are going to Moscow, the Saudis are going to Moscow,” Yaalon said. “It should have been very different. And we believe the United States can’t sit on the fence. If you sit on the fence, the vacuum is filled, and Syria is an example, whether by Iran or the Shia axis supported now by Russia or by Daesh, by ISIS.”

Yaalon appeared especially concerned by the involvement of Iran in talks Kerry has convened in Vienna on confronting the Islamic State, depicting it as part of a process since the Iran nuclear agreement this summer of legitimating Iranian influence in the region.

“We worry about it as this process might bring about two bad options, as I mentioned: Daesh in one hand and Iran on our border,” Yaalon said, suggesting he had evidence that Iran was orchestrating attacks on the Israeli presence on the Golan Heights against the wishes of Bashar Assad, the Syrian president that Iran and its proxies are nominally protecting.

“Unfortunately, as part of the deal, the Iranian deal, one of the implications of the Iranian deal is a more confident Iran perceived as a part of the solution in their readiness to fight Daesh and gaining hegemony everywhere, in Iraq and now in Syria,” he said. “The Vienna process, which I’m not sure will be successful, provides Iran the opportunity to gain power, to gain hegemony. Very dangerous.”

Kerry, speaking the next day, said that Iran and Russia, by joining the Vienna talks, had joined a process that would lead to a unified Syria removed of the leadership of Assad and the influence of outsiders.

“Russia and Iran are at the table for the first time … in which they agree there has to be a transition,” he said.

Yaalon in his talk Friday evening said Israel preferred a fractured Syria as an outcome, with separate enclaves for the Shiites, the Druze, the anti-Islamic State Sunnis and the Kurds.

“This is the only good option that might come out of this chaotic situation,” he said.

Kerry and Yaalon agreed on one thing: They each said that whatever the political differences between the United States and Israel, the defense relationship remained “superb.”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russian military jet violated Israeli airspace


A Russian military jet violated Israeli airspace but was not shot down, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said.

The jet breached Israeli airspace by a mile and turned back when Russia was informed of its mistake, Yaalon said Sunday during an interview on Israel Public Radio. The breach came recently while Russia was carrying out airstrikes against rebels in the Syrian civil war.

“Russian planes do not intend to attack us, which is why we must not automatically react and shoot them down when an error occurs,” Yaalon said a week after Turkey downed a Russian jet that it said repeatedly violated Turkish airspace.

Israel is coordinating with Russia to prevent the accidental downing of its planes while operating in and around Syria, Yaalon said. The defense chief noted a hotline to share immediate information.

Israeli and Russian officials met in September to coordinate after Russia announced it would operate in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

One year ago, Israeli forces shot down a Syrian warplane that penetrated Israeli airspace over the Golan Heights.

Russia and Turkey refuse to back down in row over jet downing


Russia sent an advanced missile system to Syria on Wednesday to protect its jets operating there and pledged its air force would keep flying missions near Turkish air space, sounding a defiant note after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet.

Underscoring the message, Russian forces launched a heavy bombardment against insurgent-held areas in Latakia on Wednesday, near where the jet was downed, rebels and a monitoring group said.

The United States and Europe both urged calm and continued dialogue in telephone conversations with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, a sign of international concern at the prospect of any escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

The downing of the jet on Tuesday was one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member and Russia for half a century, and further complicated international efforts to battle Islamic State militants in Syria.

President Tayyip Erdogan made no apology, saying his nation had simply been defending its own security and the “rights of our brothers in Syria”. He made clear Turkish policy would not change.

Russian officials expressed fury over Turkey's action and spoke of retaliatory measures that were likely to include curbing travel by Russian tourists to Turkish resorts and some restrictions on trade.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described it as a planned act and said it would affect efforts towards a political solution in Syria. Moscow would “seriously reconsider” its relations with Ankara, he said.

Jets believed to be Russian also hit a depot for trucks waiting to go through a major rebel-controlled border crossing with Turkey, Bab al-Salam, the head of the crossing said.

Syrian jets have struck the area before, but if confirmed to have been carried out by Russia, it would be one of Moscow's closest air strikes to Turkish soil, targeting a humanitarian corridor into rebel-held Syria and a lifeline for ordinary Syrians crossing to Turkey.

DO NOT WANT WAR

But the Russian response was carefully calibrated, indicating Moscow did not want to jeopardize its main objective in the region: to rally international support for its view on how the conflict in Syria should be resolved.

“We have no intention of fighting a war with Turkey,” Lavrov said. Erdogan also said Ankara had no intention of escalating tensions with Russia.

In Paris, where deadly attacks on Nov. 13 claimed by Islamic State prompted France to step up its aerial bombing of the militant group in Syria, President Francois Hollande expressed concern over the war of words between Ankara and Moscow.

“We must all work to make sure that the situation (between Russia and Turkey) de-escalates,” Hollande told a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Hollande was due to discuss Syria and the fight against Islamic State with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday.

Putin said an advanced weapons system would be despatched to Russia's Khmeimim air base in Syria's Latakia province.

“I hope that this, along with other measures that we are taking, will be enough to ensure (the safety) of our flights,” Putin told reporters, in an apparent warning to Turkey not to try to shoot down any more Russian planes.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia was forced to fly missions close to the Turkish border because that was where the militants tended to be located. Russian operations would continue, he said.

MUTUAL RECRIMINATION

Turkey said the downed jet had encroached on Turkish air space and was warned repeatedly to change course, but Russian officials have said the plane was at no time over Turkey.

The crew ejected, and one pilot was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to the ground. A Russian marine sent to recover the crew was also killed in an attack by rebels.

The surviving pilot was quoted by Russian agencies as saying the crew “knew the region like the back of their hand”, that they did not fly over Turkish air space, and that there were no visual or radio warnings from Turkey.

The Turkish military later released what it said was an audio recording of a warning to a Russian fighter jet before it was shot down near the Syrian border. A voice on the recording can be heard saying “change your heading” in English.

The Turkish military said it had explained the rules of engagement that led to the downing of the jet to Russian military attaches and had tried to rescue the pilots.

At a business event in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey had made a “huge effort” to prevent such incidents but that the limits of its patience had been tested after repeatedly warning Russia about air space incursions in recent weeks.

“Nobody should expect us to remain silent against the constant violation of our border security, the ignoring of our sovereign rights,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has been angered by Russian air strikes in Syria, particularly those near its border targeting Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent.

TRADE TIES

Russia made clear it could target Turkey economically.

“The direct consequences could lead to our refusal to take part in a whole raft of important joint projects and Turkish companies losing their positions on the Russian market,” Medvedev said in a statement.

Russia is a major exporter of grain and energy to Turkey, and sends over four million tourists each year to Turkish resorts, second only to the number of German tourists.

The Russian government has already said it will discourage Russian tourists from traveling to Turkey, though the immediate impact will be limited because Turkey is now in the off-season.

But while Russia may mothball deals with Turkish firms and curb imports of Turkish goods, it is unlikely to let the fallout affect energy exports that are the core of their economic relationship.

“Erdogan is a tough character, and quite emotional, and if Russia pushes too far in terms of retaliatory action, I think there will inevitably be a counter reaction from Turkey (like) tit-for-tat trade sanctions, perhaps extending to things like the Russia nuclear deal,” said Nomura strategist Timothy Ash.

“But I think there is also a clear understanding that any such action is damaging for both sides, and unwelcome. The ball is in Russia's court now,” he wrote in a note.

Surviving crew member of Russian jet says no warning from Turkey


The surviving crew member of a Russian warplane shot down by Turkey said on Wednesday the plane received no warnings from the Turkish Air Force and did not fly over Turkish air space, Russian news agencies reported.

Turkey shot down the Russian plane near the Syrian border on Tuesday, saying it had violated its air space, in one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member country and Russia for half a century.

Navigator Konstantin Murakhtin was rescued by Russian and Syrian special forces after ejecting from the plane but the pilot was shot dead by rebels as he parachuted to the ground.

“There were no warnings, either by radio or visually. There was no contact whatsoever,” TASS quoted Murakhtin as saying at a hospital in the Syrian province of Latakia, where Russia has an airbase.

“If they wanted to warn us, they could have shown themselves by taking a parallel course. There was nothing. And the missile hit the tail of our aircraft suddenly, we did not see it in time to do an anti-missile maneuver.”

Ankara has said the plane was repeatedly warned to change course after encroaching on Turkish air space but Moscow has denied that its warplane flew over Turkish territory.

Murakhtin also said his jet did not leave Syrian airspace.

“I could see perfectly on the map and on the ground where the border was and where we were. There was no danger of entering Turkey,” he was quoted by Interfax as saying.

Turkey downs Russian warplane near Syria border, Putin warns of ‘serious consequences’


Turkey shot down a Russian warplane near the Syrian border on Tuesday, saying the jet had repeatedly violated its air space, in one of the most serious publicly acknowledged clashes between a NATO member country and Russia for half a century.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said the plane had been attacked when it was 1 km (0.62 mile) inside Syria and warned of “serious consequences” for what he termed a stab in the back administered by “the accomplices of terrorists”.

“We will never tolerate such crimes like the one committed today,” Putin said, as Russian and Turkish shares fell on fears of an escalation between the former Cold War enemies.

Each country summoned a diplomatic representative of the other and NATO called a meeting of its ambassadors for Tuesday afternoon. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov canceled a visit to Turkey due on Wednesday and the defense ministry said it was preparing measures to respond to such incidents.

Footage from private Turkish broadcaster Haberturk TV showed the warplane going down in flames, a long plume of smoke trailing behind it as it crashed in a wooded part of an area the TV said was known by Turks as “Turkmen Mountain”. 

Separate footage from Turkey's Anadolu Agency showed two pilots parachuting out of the jet before it crashed. A deputy commander of rebel Turkmen forces in Syria said his men shot both pilots dead as they came down.

A video sent to Reuters earlier appeared to show one of the pilots immobile and badly wounded on the ground and an official from the rebel group said he was dead.

But a Turkish government official told Reuters the pilots were believed still to be alive and that Ankara was working to secure their release from Syrian rebels. 

Russia's defense ministry said one of its Su-24 fighter jets had been downed in Syria and that, according to preliminary information, the pilots were able to eject. “For the entire duration of the flight, the aircraft was exclusively over Syrian territory,” it said.

The Turkish military said the aircraft had been warned 10 times in the space of five minutes about violating Turkish air space. Officials said a second plane had also approached the border and been warned.

“The data we have is very clear. There were two planes approaching our border, we warned them as they were getting too close,” another senior Turkish official told Reuters. 

“We warned them to avoid entering Turkish air space before they did, and we warned them many times. Our findings show clearly that Turkish air space was violated multiple times. And they violated it knowingly,” the official said.

A U.S. military spokesman said it was an issue between the Turkish and Russian governments and that U.S.-led coalition operations in Syria and Iraq were continuing “as planned”.

In Washington, an official said the United States believed the incursion probably lasted only a matter of seconds before the jet was downed. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the incident was still being investigated.

RUSSIA TARGETS TOURISM

Russia's decision to launch separate air strikes in Syria mean Russian and NATO planes have been flying combat missions in the same air space for the first time since World War Two, targeting various insurgent groups close to Turkish borders. 

Russia’s military involvement in Syria has brought losses, including the downed jet and the bombing by militants of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt. But there is no sign yet that public opinion is turning against the operation in Syria and the Kremlin said it would continue.

Instead the Kremlin, helped by state-controlled television, has used these reverses to rally public opinion, portraying the campaign as a moral crusade that Russia must complete, despite indifference or obstruction from elsewhere.

A U.S. official said U.S. forces were not involved in the downing of the Russian jet, which was the first time a Russian or Soviet military aircraft has been publicly acknowledged to have been shot down by a NATO member since the 1950s. 

The incident appeared to scupper hopes of a rapprochement between Russia and the West in the wake of the Islamic State attacks in Paris, which led to calls for a united front against the radical jihadist group in Syria.

Russia's main stock index fell more than two percent, while Turkish stocks fell 1.3 percent. Both the rouble and lira were weaker.

Lavrov advised Russians not to visit Turkey and one of Russia's largest tour operators to the country said it would temporarily suspend sales of trips.

SHOT AS THEY FELL

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was briefed by the head of the military, while Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu was due to report on the incident to NATO ambassadors. He also informed the United Nations and related countries.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said the warplane crashed in a mountainous area in the northern countryside of Latakia province, where there had been aerial bombardment earlier and where pro-government forces have been battling insurgents on the ground.

“A Russian pilot,” a voice is heard saying in the video sent to Reuters as men gather around the man on the ground. “God is great,” is also heard.

The rebel group that sent the video operates in the northwestern area of Syria, where groups including the Free Syrian Army are active but Islamic State, which has beheaded captives in the past, has no known presence.

A deputy commander of a Turkmen brigade told reporters on a trip organized by Turkish authorities that his forces had shot dead both pilots as they descended. A U.S. official said the pilots' status remained unclear.

“Both of the pilots were retrieved dead. Our comrades opened fire into the air and they died in the air,” Alpaslan Celik said near the Syrian village of Yamadi, close to where the plane came down, holding what he said was a piece of a pilot's parachute. 

In a further sign of a growing fallout over Syria, Syrian rebel fighters who have received U.S. arms said they fired at a Russian helicopter, forcing it to land in territory held by Moscow's Syrian government allies.

Turkey called this week for a U.N. Security Council meeting to discuss attacks on Turkmens, who are Syrians of Turkish descent, and last week Ankara summoned the Russian ambassador to protest against the bombing of their villages.

About 1,700 people have fled the mountainous area due to fighting in the last three days, a Turkish official said on Monday. Russian jets have bombed the area in support of ground operations by Syrian government forces.

Islamic State says ‘Schweppes bomb’ used to bring down Russian plane


Islamic State's official magazine carried a photo on Wednesday of a Schweppes drink it said was used to make an improvised bomb that brought down a Russian airliner over Egypt's Sinai Peninsula last month, killing all 224 people on board.

The photo showed a can of Schweppes Gold soft drink and what appeared to be a detonator and switch on a blue background, three simple components that if genuine are likely to cause concern for airline safety officials worldwide.

“The divided Crusaders of the East and West thought themselves safe in their jets as they cowardly bombarded the Muslims of the Caliphate,” the English language Dabiq magazine said in reference to Russia and the West. “And so revenge was exacted upon those who felt safe in the cockpits.”

Western governments have said the plane was likely brought down by a bomb and Moscow confirmed on Tuesday it had reached the same conclusion, but the Egyptian government says it has still not found evidence of criminal action.

Islamic State also published a photo of what it said were passports belonging to dead Russians “obtained by the mujahideen”. It was not immediately possible to verify the authenticity of the published photos.

The group, which has seized large swathes of Syria and Iraq, said it had exploited a loophole at Sharm al-Sheikh airport, where the plane originated, in order to smuggle a bomb on board.

The airport is widely used by budget and charter airlines to fly tourists to the nearby resorts on the Sinai coast.

Islamic State said it had initially planned to bring down a plane belonging to a country participating in the U.S.-led coalition bombing it in Syria and Iraq, but it changed course after Moscow started its own air strikes campaign in Syria.

“A bomb was smuggled onto the airplane, leading to the deaths of 219 Russians and five other crusaders only a month after Russia’s thoughtless decision,” it said.

Egypt's interior minister told a news conference in Sharm al-Sheikh on Tuesday that there was “no information” about security lapses at the airport.

Islamic State's Egyptian branch, Sinai Province, claimed responsibility for the attack the day it happened but Egyptian officials were quick to dismiss talk of a bomb as premature.

NO SAFETY IN MUSLIM LANDS

Egypt is battling an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, a strategic peninsula bordering Israel, Gaza and the Suez Canal. But Islamic State said the airline attack was primarily planned as a response to Russian and Western air strikes.

“This was to show the Russians and whoever allies with them that they will have no safety in the lands and airspace of the Muslims,” the group wrote. “That their daily killing of dozens in (Syria) through their air strikes will only bring them calamities.”

Russia, an ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, launched air strikes against opposition groups in Syria including Islamic State, on Sept. 30.

Since the attacks on Paris, both Russia and France have stepped up the tempo of air strikes.

The downed aircraft, an Airbus A321 operated by Metrojet, had been carrying Russian holidaymakers from the Egyptian resort to St Petersburg when it broke up over Sinai.

On Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible for blowing up the plane and offered a $50 million reward for information leading to those responsible.

“We will find them anywhere on the planet and punish them,” Putin said of the plane bombers at a somber Kremlin meeting.

Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia's FSB security service, said traces of foreign-made explosive had been found on fragments of the downed plane and on passengers' personal belongings. He said the bomb probably contained around 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of TNT.

Egypt has not officially given a reason as to why the plane was brought down, calling on all sides to await the official results of an investigation carried out by an Egyptian-led team.

The government said it would “take into consideration” Russia's findings but that it was yet to find any evidence of criminal action bringing down the plane.

France, Russia strike Islamic State; new suspect sought


France and Russia bombed Islamic State targets in Syria on Tuesday, punishing the group for attacks in Paris and against a Russian airliner that together killed 353 people, and made the first tentative steps toward a possible military alliance.

Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a coordinated onslaught in Paris on Friday and the downing of the Russian jet over Sinai on Oct. 31, saying they were in retaliation for French andRussian air raids in Iraq and Syria.

Still reeling from the Paris carnage that killed 129 people, France made an unprecedented appeal for European Union support and investigators said they were making progress in unraveling the plot, which was hatched in Syria and nurtured in Belgium.

Seven attackers died on Friday night, but video footage suggested that two other men were directly involved in the operation and subsequently escaped, not one as previously said.

Police also discovered two places in Paris where the militants probably stayed before the violence and also found a third car abandoned in the city that was used in the operation.

In Moscow, the Kremlin acknowledged that a bomb had destroyed the jet last month, killing 224 people. President Vladimir Putin vowed to hunt down those responsible and intensify air strikes against Islamists in Syria.

“Our air force's military work in Syria must not simply be continued,” he said. “It must be intensified in such a way that the criminals understand that retribution is inevitable.”

Syrian targets hit by Russian long-range bombers and cruise missiles on Tuesday included the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, while French warplanes also targeted Raqqa on Tuesday evening — the third such bombing raid within 48 hours.

Paris and Moscow are not coordinating their operations, but French President Francois Hollande has called for a global campaign against the radicals in the wake of the Paris attacks.

The Kremlin said Putin spoke to Hollande by telephone and had ordered the Russian navy to establish contact with a French naval force heading to the eastern Mediterranean, led by an aircraft carrier, and to treat them as allies.

“We need to work out a plan with them of joint sea and air actions,” Putin told military chiefs.

Russia began air strikes in Syria at the end of September. It has always said its main target is Islamic State, but most of its bombs in the past have hit territory held by other groups opposed to its ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. 

“Russia is shifting because today Russian cruise missiles hit Raqqa. Maybe today this grand coalition with Russia is possible,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told TF1 television channel on Tuesday evening.

JANGLING NERVES

The West blames Assad for the chaos in Syria and says he must quit as part of any political solution to the crisis — a demand rejected by Syria's main backers Russia and Iran.

Hollande will visit Putin in Moscow on Nov. 26, two days after the French leader is due to meet U.S. President Barack Obama in Washington to push for a concerted drive against Islamic State, which controls large parts of Syria and Iraq.

A French presidential source said Hollande also spoke by phone to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who backed calls for a united front against the militants. 

In Brussels, Le Drian invoked the EU's mutual assistance clause for the first time since the 2009 Lisbon Treaty introduced the possibility, saying he expected help with French operations in Syria, Iraq and Africa.

“This is firstly a political act,” Le Drian told a news conference after a meeting of EU defense chiefs.

The 28 EU member states accepted the French request but it was not immediately clear what assistance would be forthcoming.

With nerves jangling across Europe, German police arrested and then released seven people around Aachen, near the Belgian border, and later canceled a Germany-Netherlands soccer match in Hanover, evacuating the stadium shortly before kick-off.

One of the targets on Friday was outside a Paris stadium where France was playing Germany in a friendly.

French prosecutors have identified five of the seven dead assailants from Friday — four Frenchmen and a fifth man who was fingerprinted in Greece among refugees last month. 

A Syrian passport was found near his body, but a justice source said investigators doubted whether it was his, suggesting the attacker might have been using someone else's ID. 

Police issued a photograph of the militant and asked the public for help in identifying him.

Despite a massive manhunt across Europe, police have failed to find Salah Abdeslam, 26, a Belgian-based Frenchman who is believed to have played a central role in both planning and executing the deadly mission.

Abdeslam drove back to Belgium from Paris early on Saturday with two friends, who have both been detained. A lawyer for one of the men told Belgian media that French police had pulled over their car three times early on Saturday as they headed to the border, but each time let them continue their journey.

The two men in detention deny any role in the attacks.

“DON'T SCAPEGOAT REFUGEES”

The U.N. refugee agency and Germany's police chief urged European countries not to demean or reject refugees because one of the Paris bombers was believed to have slipped into Europe among migrants registered in Greece.

“We are deeply disturbed by language that demonizes refugees as a group,” U.N. spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said after government officials in Poland, Slovakia and the German state of Bavaria cited the Paris attacks as a reason to refuse refugees.

French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said Paris would spare no expense to reinforce and equip its security forces and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism, even though that was bound to involve breaching European budget deficit limits.

“We have to face up to this, and Europe ought to understand,” he told France Inter radio.

The European Commission said it would show understanding to France if additional security spending pushed up its deficit.

As France geared up for a long war, British Prime Minister David Cameron said he would present a “comprehensive strategy” for tackling Islamic State to parliament. British war planes have been bombing the militants in Iraq, but not Syria.

“It is in Syria, in Raqqa, that ISIL has its headquarters and it is from Raqqa that some of the main threat against this country are planned and orchestrated,” Cameron said, referring to Islamic State by one of its many acronyms. 

“Raqqa, if you like, is the head of the snake.”

Crowded skies over Syria


This article originally appeared on The Media Line.

In response to the Paris terror attacks that have so far claimed 129 lives and wounded 300 more, French warplanes have for the first time attacked Islamic State (ISIS) targets inside of Syria.  Until now, France had limited its attacks to Iraqi airspace, matching the policy of a number of its coalition partners.

However, with the skies over Syria increasingly full of combat aircraft, it is becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of which factions on the ground are being bombed, let alone the safety of coalition air craft. Analysts suggest that despite being the focal point for fear and anger among Western media, ISIS might not even be on the receiving end of the majority of airstrikes launched from the Syrian skies.

Air strikes against fighters in Iraq and Syria can generally be linked to three main thrusts: attacks against forces battling the Assad regime and carried out by Russian and Syrian jets; targeting of Kurdish groups by the Turkish military; and the anti-ISIS strikes by the United States-led coalition. To add to the confusion, some of the US coalition partners operate in Syrian airspace while others only conduct sorties over Iraq.

“The coalition does not target non-ISIS (groups), but the US, Russia and Turkey do to various degrees,” Chris Woods, founder of the nongovernmental organization Airwars, told The Media Line. The US has conducted attacks against other groups, in particular the Al-Nusra Front, which the Americans conduct outside the coalition framework, Woods explained. Al-Nusra is the official affiliate of Al-Qa’ida in the Syrian Civil War and are rivals to the Islamic State. But these attacks are a small part of the operations reported by the coalition, roughly 30 attacks out of the more than 8,000 conducted, Woods said.

Yet, Russia is conducting a far higher proportion of strikes against groups other than ISIS. “Russians are targeting ISIS in places like Raqqa and Idlib but primarily it looks like only 1 out of 5 attacks are targeting the group,” Woods, whose organization monitors airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, said.

Previously the US State Department has accused Russia of avoiding targeting ISIS and instead hitting moderate Syrian opposition groups.

The majority of attacks by the Russian air force are against Ahrar Al-Sham and Al-Nusra, and have not targeted ISIS, Nikolay Kozhanov, a fellow at Carnegie Moscow Center and a visiting fellow at Chatham House in London, told The Media Line. But, he stressed, this was for legitimate tactical reasons on the ground and not to push a Russian agenda. “The (Syrian) government and ISIS have quite a limited frontline with each other…(and) even if they are more targeting Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra, this is a good thing because these guys are no better than the Islamic State,” Kozhanov argued.

Ahrar Al-Sham, one of the many factions fighting on the ground in Syria, is estimated to comprise upwards of 10,000 fighters. The group has been seen as jihadist in nature with links to the Qatari government, but has apparently attempted to rebrand itself in order to become more palatable to Western backers. Ahrar Al-Sham fought against the Islamic State, which they have said represents a threat to the people of Syria.

Like the US, Turkey is a member of the anti-ISIS coalition but conducts its own unilateral operations. The majority of these strikes take place in Iraqi airspace and target the PKK, Chris Woods explained. The PKK, or the Kurdish Workers Party, is a left-wing Kurdish independence movement that has fought an armed conflict with the Turkish government since 1984. Ankara was accused of using the premise of striking at ISIS in order to target the group which is based in northern Iraq, and of ignoring the threat that ISIS represents in order to do so.

Yusuf Kanli, a journalist with Turkey’s Hurriyet Daily News disagrees. He told The Media Line that on the contrary, the Turkish government does recognize the threat from ISIS, citing the suicide bombings in Ankara last month which were attributed to the Islamic State. As many as one hundred people were killed in the explosions.

But the government’s position is confused, Kanli suggested. “On the one hand, Turkey is a part of the anti-ISIS coalition and collaborating in every way possible in fighting that extremist group. On the other hand, we all know that that group is exporting oil through the (Turkish) private sector,” the journalist explained. Turkey’s border with Syria has previously been one of the main supply routes for the Islamic State through which weapons and foreign fighters from Europe have reportedly travelled. Oil revenues represent an important source of income for the Islamic State since it captured key petroleum infrastructure in Iraq and Syria.

While ISIS is recognized as a threat by the [Turkish] government, the Kurds are still considered “the real problem,” Kanli said, as “their objective is to carve out a Kurdish state along Turkey’s border.”

U.S. says 85-90 percent of Russian strikes hit moderate Syria rebels


Eighty-five to 90 per cent of Russian strikes in Syria have hit the moderate Syrian opposition, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East told a congressional committee on Wednesday.

Russia boosted its military support for President Bashar al-Assad's fight against rebels in the four-and-a-half year Syrian civil war, beginning air strikes last month that it said would also target the Islamic State militant group.

“Moscow has cynically tried to claim that its strikes are focused on terrorists, but so far 85 to 90 percent of Syrian strikes have hit the moderate Syrian opposition,” Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson told lawmakers.

Testifying with her, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, Victoria Nuland, said Russia had also begun to deploy ground assets such as artillery to areas Assad forces have lost to the moderate opposition, including near the cities of Hama and Homs.

“Russia is fielding its own artillery and other ground assets around Hama and Homs, greatly increasing Russia's own soldiers' vulnerability to counterattack,” Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, said.

Patterson also told the House hearing that President Barack Obama is considering additional ways to “intensify” the campaign against the Islamic State, which has seized swaths of territory in Syria and Iraq.

“The president is looking at a number of other efforts to intensify our efforts in this battle,” she said.

The Obama administration last week announced it would send fewer than 50 special operations forces into Syria in an advise and assist capacity, weeks after Russia escalated its involvement in the conflict with its own air strikes.

Obama says Syria deployment doesn’t break no ‘boots on ground’ pledge


President Barack Obama said on Monday the planned deployment of dozens of U.S. special forces to Syria to advise opposition forces fighting Islamic State did not break his promise not to put “boots on the ground” in the Syrian conflict.

“Keep in mind that we have run special ops already and really this is just an extension of what we are continuing to do,” Obama said in an interview on “NBC Nightly News” in his first public comments on the deployment since it was announced on Friday.

“We are not putting U.S. troops on the front lines fighting firefights with ISIL,” Obama said, using another acronym for the Islamic State militant group. “I have been consistent throughout that we are not going to be fighting like we did in Iraq with battalions and occupations. That doesn't solve the problem.”

In announcing the measure, the White House said the troops would be on a mission to “train, advise and assist” and would number fewer than 50.

The introduction of U.S. forces on the ground marks a shift after more than a year of limiting theSyria mission to air strikes against Islamic State. Before last year, Obama, who has been averse to committing troops to Middle East wars, had ruled out an American presence on the ground inSyria.

In a nationally televised address in September 2013, Obama said: “I will not put American boots on the ground in Syria.”

Over the past year, however, he has emphasized that he would not send U.S. “combat” troops there.

The Obama administration is under pressure to ramp up the U.S. effort against Islamic State, particularly after the militant group captured the Iraqi city of Ramadi in May and following the failure of a U.S. military program to train and arm thousands of Syrian rebels.

Russia and Iran have increased their military support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's fight against rebels in the 4-1/2-year-old civil war.

Parents receive body of first Russian to die in Syria, doubt suicide


The body of the first Russian serviceman confirmed dead in four weeks of air strikes in Syria was delivered on Tuesday to his parents, who said they were not convinced by the military's account that their 19-year-old son had hanged himself.

In an interview with Reuters at their home in southern Russia before they received the body of their son Vadim, Alexander and Svetlana Kostenko said their son had sounded cheerful over the phone as recently as Saturday, the day he died while working at an air base on the Syrian coast.

“I will never believe this version (suicide),” said Svetlana, who was wearing a black head scarf. “We spoke every day by phone for half an hour. (On Saturday) he was cheerful, happy, and he laughed,” she said.

Alexander, Vadim's father, speaking in a low voice, agreed: “We were told he had hanged himself because of a girl. He would never have done it. I know my son really well.”

The body was delivered later on Tuesday afternoon in a military truck. Soldiers carried the body into the house inside a wooden box. Shortly afterwards, a woman could be heard loudly sobbing. A little later, a polished wooden coffin was delivered to the house.

After the family saw the body, Vadim's younger sister Katya, 14, told Reuters the corpse had marks on his neck and otherwise appeared undamaged. 

Kostenko was one of the Russian air force's support staff. He signed a contract on June 20 and was dispatched to Syria by plane on Sept. 14, two weeks before the Kremlin's air campaign began, his father said. He said they had only discovered Vadim was in Syria when he was already there.

Interfax news agency quoted a source in the defense ministry's press service confirming the death.

“A contract serviceman stationed at the Hmeimim airbase (in Latakia) as a technician committed suicide while he was resting after duty,” the source told Interfax. 

“According to preliminary information, in particular the analysis of text messages in his phone, the reason for the death of the contract serviceman is problems in his personal relationship with a girl,” the source said.

The ministry did not respond to written questions from Reuters.

Opinion polls show strong public backing at home for the Kremlin's air campaign in support of the government of President Bashar al-Assad; one survey put support above 70 percent.

Kostenko's death was first flagged by Conflict Intelligence Team (CIT), a group of bloggers who have previously worked to uncover information about Russian military deaths in Ukraine, where Russia denies its troops are fighting despite what Western countries say is overwhelming evidence. 

Kostenko's social network account, which contains an image of him in air force uniform, was filled with condolences, as well as disrespectful abuse from some users.

 

WOULD-BE PILOT

A Reuters reporter was told she could not enter the base of the air force unit, in Primorsko-Akhtarsk, where Kostenko served, and where CIT says Sukhoi-25 jets operational in Syria are usually based. 

Standing in front of their house in the village of Grechanaya Balka in southernRussia as hens clucked around them before the body arrived, the Kostenkos said their son's battalion commander had broken the bad news personally, telling them Vadim had hanged himself on Saturday, Oct. 24.

The funeral would take place on Wednesday.

Vadim's sister and his aunt, Anna Musienko, said they also did not believe he had killed himself. Vadim was planning to marry his girlfriend and that the two got along well, they said.

Musienko painted a picture of her nephew as someone who was enthused by serving in the military, saying Vadim had nursed ambitions to train as a pilot. Vadim had told his relatives he and his friends could not refuse the order to go to Syria when it came, she said.

President Vladimir Putin ordered in May that deaths of Russian soldiers during special operations in peacetime should be classified as a state secret. 

Before Tuesday, reports of Russian deaths in Syria had been unconfirmed.

On Oct. 20, a senior pro-Syrian government military source told Reuters at least three Russian citizens fighting with Syrian government forces had been killed by a shell. Russian authorities strongly denied at the time that any of their military personnel had been killed.

An unnamed Russian defense ministry source also told the Wall Street Journal on Oct. 23 that a Russian soldier had been killed in an incident related to careless weapons handling.

Syrian rebels to Russia: Stop bombing us


An alliance of Free Syrian Army-related insurgent groups said on Monday it was skeptical about a Russian proposal to help rebels, and that Moscow must stop bombing rebels and civilians and withdraw its support for President Bashar Assad.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on Saturday the Russian air force, which has been bombing insurgents in Syria since Sept. 30, would be ready to help the “patriotic” Syrian opposition.

“Their words are not like their actions. How can we talk to them while they are hitting us?” Issam Rayyes, spokesman for the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, told Reuters.

Russian warplanes have bombed a number of FSA-affiliated groups in northern areas of Syria since intervening in the war on the side of Assad. The Russian air force is providing air cover for several major ground offensives being waged by the Syrian army and allied Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters.

Rayyes added that there was no contact between the rebels and the Russians, clarifying an earlier remark to the BBC that the rebels had not turned down a Russian offer. “There is no offer, there is no communication,” Rayyes said. 

“We don't need the help now, they should stop attacking our bases and then we can talk about future cooperation,” Rayyes said in his earlier BBC interview.

His comments echo the views of other Syrian rebels towards the Russian statement, with Assad's opponents suspicious that Moscow is working purely to shore up its ally. 

The Southern Front alliance operates mostly near the border with Jordan and Israel – an area thus far not targeted in the Russian air strikes, but where the rebels are continuously fighting the Syrian army and allied militias.

The FSA is a loose alliance of groups, some of which have received military aid from Assad's foreign enemies. They are often led by former Syrian army officers and espouse a nationalist vision for the country.

Such groups have, however, been eclipsed in much of Syria by jihadists including the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State group – the stated target of the Russian intervention in the war.

U.N. says it is pushing Russia, US for urgent agreement on Syria


The U.N. mediator trying to convene Syria peace talks said on Monday it was urgent for Russia and the United States to reach an understanding to avert a military escalation that could effectively dismember the country.

The two powers are pivotal to ushering Syria's warring sides into talks, Staffan de Mistura said, though their differences seem so deep Moscow and Washington may not be able to establish a cohesive steering group of countries with peacemaking clout.

He said he would hold talks in Russia on Tuesday and then in Washington. De Mistura said intensifying fighting coinciding with Russia's military intervention in Syria made it more urgent to get Syrian government and opposition groups talking.

“What we must all avoid at all cost at this stage … is a continuation of conflict… and a partition which de facto is already being seen as a possibility – and we consider that a tragedy,” he told a news conference in Geneva.

“At the same time the situation could move into a toxic type of cocktail, a combination of a creeping Afghanistan with shades of Libya and Somalia. Hence the need for an urgent political process to start now.”

Russia's entry into the civil war on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's side had “introduced new dynamics into the situation” and quickly displaced 40,000 civilians, Mistura said, and more could flee if they feared intensified fighting.

“I am going to Washington immediately after Moscow – after all it makes sense since the two countries have been discussing, and need to discuss the future steps,” he said.

De Mistura said Assad's government had signalled its readiness to join four working groups that he planned to convene in Geneva to tackle aspects of post-conflict Syria. But the opposition Syrian Opposition Coalition has said it would not attend because of Russia's heavy air strikes on rebels.

The U.N. plan is for the talks to be supported by a contact group of interested countries that de Mistura said would include the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey and other regional players.

“If some countries don't want to talk to each other, one could imagine separate contact groups that then are facilitated to discuss through the help of the U.N.,” he said.

He urged Damascus to end its barrel-bombing campaign against rebels and said its forces and the Russian military must respect a stalled, regional U.N.-brokered ceasefire deal that would allow evacuations of civilians and wounded from the town of Zabadani and villages of Kufreya and al-Foua.

Kerry told Lavrov concerned Russia’s targets in Syria not Islamic State


Secretary of State John Kerry had a 30-minute telephone call with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, on Thursday to express concern that Russia's targets in Syria were not related to Islamic State.

“The Secretary repeated our concerns about the preponderance of targets that are being struck by Russian military forces that are not ISIL-related,” said spokesman John Kirby on Thursday, using an acronym for the militant group fighting within Syria.

There were “no tactical level decisions” made during the call, Kirby added.

He also said he could not confirm report that Russian missiles had crashed in Iran.

“I can't confirm it but I think it points all the more towards the need to have proper de-confliction procedures in place.”

U.S. officials say Russian cruise missiles aimed at Syria crashed in Iran


U.S. officials said four Russian cruise missiles fired at Syria from a warship in the Caspian Sea on Wednesday had crashed in Iran while Russia insisted they had reached their targets in Syria.

The White House declined to comment on the report from the officials, who asked not to be identified, and the State Department said it could not confirm it.

If confirmed, the crashes would be a blow to the military strength Russia aimed to display in launching what it said were 26 missiles at Islamic State targets in Syria some 1,500 km (900 miles) from the Caspian Sea on Wednesday.

The Russian defense ministry denied any of the missiles had fallen short of their targets after reports of crashes first emerged on U.S. television.

“In contrast to CNN, we do not talk with reference to anonymous sources,” the Russian Defence Ministry said. “We show the launch of our rockets and the targets they struck.”

Russia had displayed graphics of the missiles flying over Iran and Iraq on Wednesday.

U.S. officials have already disputed Russian reports that the missiles stuck Islamic State fighters in Syria.

Moscow says it shares the West's aim of fighting the extremists, who have seized much of Syria, but fighters on the ground and western states have accused it of targeting U.S.-backed rebels to support Syrian President Bashar Assad.

After Syria coordination talks with Israel, Russia beckons to Turkey, U.S.


Russia ended high-level military talks with Israel on Wednesday with a call on other countries, including a suspicious United States and aggrieved Turkey, to coordinate operations in Syria.

The two countries discussed how they can avoid accidentally clashing while operating in Syria. Israel has been worried that Russia's deployment there, which includes advanced anti-aircraft units and warplanes, could lead to unwanted confrontation.

The talks followed a meeting in Moscow between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin at which the two men agreed to set up teams as Russia stepped up military support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia's most senior diplomat in Israel said on Wednesday that Israel had no reason to fear Russia's presence or actions in Syria.

“Russia will not take any action that will endanger Israel's national security,” Alexey Drobinin, minister-counsellor at the Russian Embassy, told Israel Radio in an interview in Hebrew.

The Russian delegation was led by First Deputy Chief of General Staff General Nikolai Bogdanovsky, who met his Israeli counterpart, Deputy Chief of Staff Major-General Yair Golan.

The swift emergence of face-to-face contacts between Israeli and Russian generals was in stark contrast to the tenser ties between Moscow, Washington and Ankara.

U.S Defense Secretary Ash Carter said on Wednesday that the United States would not cooperate militarily with Russia in Syria, although it was willing to hold discussions to secure the safety of its own pilots bombing Islamic State targets in Syria.

Turkey, also a neighbour of Syria, has complained of repeated violations of its airspace. Ankara summoned Russia's ambassador for the third time in four days over the reported violations, which NATO has said appeared to be deliberate and “extremely dangerous”.

Drobinin said Russia was starting similar military talks with Turkey and he hoped these would take place too with other countries, including the United States.

“We have a full understanding of Turkey's worries and we think that the right way to allay these fears is to allow professional soldiers to have in-depth discussions. Such a proposal has been made and I think that we are now at the start of such talks between the Russian and Turkish armies,” Drobinin said.

“It is important that there should be such talks between Russia and all the countries who are interested in exchanging intelligence and operational information … including the United States,” he added.

Israel has attacked Syrian armed forces and arch-foe Lebanese Hezbollah, a Damascus ally, during the four-year civil war in its hostile neighbour. It says it holds the Syrian government responsible for any spillover of violence.

“I think it is a good opportunity to meet and exchange information and to take steps that will allow (the countries) to operate on matters that interest them,” Drobinin said.

Russia took Israeli interests into account, not least because of the large Russian-speaking community of over a million who have emigrated to the Jewish state since the mid-1980s, he said.

“We understand that Israel has national security interests and we take these into account when we formulate our regional policies. There are over a million former Soviet citizens living in Israel and we need to take this into account,” he said.