Archive for September 12th, 2018

Erdogan: Turkey to keep pushing Kurds out of Syria’s north

April 04, 2018

ANKARA, Turkey (AP) — Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that his military “won’t stop” trying to oust Syrian Kurdish fighters from northern Syria, as he met with the leaders of Russia and Iran for talks on trying to resolve the conflict.

The three countries, which have teamed up to work for a Syria settlement despite their differences, reaffirmed their commitment to Syria’s territorial integrity and the continuation of local cease-fires. They called on the international community to provide more aid for war-ravaged Syria.

Erdogan, President Vladimir Putin of Russia and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani were holding their second summit to discuss Syria’s future since attending a similar meeting in Sochi, Russia, in November. Russia and Iran have provided crucial support to President Bashar Assad’s forces, while Turkey has backed the rebels seeking to overthrow him.

Speaking at a joint news conference, Erdogan said Turkish troops, which last month took control of the northwestern Kurdish enclave of Afrin, would move eastward into Manbij and other areas controlled by the U.S.-backed Kurdish militia, the Peoples’ Protection Units, or YPG, which Turkey considers to be terrorists.

“I say here once again that we will not stop until we have made safe all areas controlled by the (YPG), starting with Manbij,” Erdogan said. He stressed that Turkey’s fight against the YPG would not distract from efforts to eliminate remnants of the Islamic State group from the country.

Wednesday’s summit came as the White House said its military mission to eradicate IS in Syria was coming to a “rapid end,” though it offered no timetable for withdrawal of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops currently in Syria as part of an American-led coalition fighting the Islamic militants since 2014. President Donald Trump had said a day earlier that the U.S.’s primary mission was to defeat IS and “we’ve almost completed that task.”

With allies anxious about a hasty U.S. withdrawal, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said Wednesday that the U.S. would stay in war-torn Syria to finish off the job of defeating the Islamic State group and was committed to eliminating the militants’ “small” presence that “our forces have not already eradicated.”

But Sanders suggested that would not be a long-term endeavor, and she described the extremist group that once controlled vast swaths of Syria and Iraq as “almost completely destroyed.” Trump’s comments conflict with views of his top military advisers, some of whom spoke at a separate event in Washington on Tuesday about the need to stay in Iraq and Syria to finish off the militant group, which once controlled large swaths of territory in both countries.

Asked about a possible U.S. pullout, Rouhani suggested Wednesday that the U.S. threat to withdraw from Syria was an excuse for soliciting money from countries that want U.S. forces to remain there. “One day they say they want to pull out of Syria. … Then it turns out that they are craving money,” he said. “They have told Arab countries to give them money to remain in Syria.”

It was unclear what Rouhani was referring to. But Trump in recent weeks has asked Saudi Arabia to contribute $4 billion for reconstruction in Syria as part of his efforts to get other countries to help pay for stabilizing the country, according to a U.S. official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the conversations publicly.

Rouhani also reiterated that there can be no military solution to the Syrian crisis. “It should be resolved through political solutions,” he said. Russia, Iran and Turkey have sponsored several rounds of talks between the Syrian government and the opposition, and brokered local truces in four areas, helping to reduce hostilities. Their next tripartite meeting will be held in Tehran.

Erdogan said the Turkish and Russian militaries were discussing the possibility of establishing field hospitals in Syria’s Tal Abyad town to care for people injured in the Syrian government offensive on the rebel-held Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta. “Be it the Turkish armed forces, be it the Russian armed forces, (we) want to quickly establish a field hospital so that initial treatment can be provided,” Erdogan said.

Meanwhile, the Russian military said Wednesday that it expects a rebel evacuation from the suburbs of the Syrian capital to be completed in the coming days. The Russian Defense Ministry and Syrian rebels struck a deal on Sunday for the Army of Islam, the biggest opposition group in eastern Ghouta, to leave the area for the rebel-controlled north.

The rebels were still leaving the town of Douma, but the evacuation was expected to wrap up in the coming days, said Col. Gen. Sergei Rudskoy of the Russian General Staff. Earlier, Russia’s Defense Ministry said that more than 3,000 rebels and their family members had evacuated Douma since Sunday.

The evacuation comes after a blistering five-week government offensive in February and March that killed hundreds of people and caused catastrophic damage in the besieged suburbs.

Associated Press writers Josh Lederman in Washington, Zeina Karam and Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow, Cinar Kiper in Istanbul and Amir Vahdat in Tehran contributed to this report.

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Diplomats from Iran, Russia, Turkey meet UN envoy on Syria

September 11, 2018

GENEVA (AP) — The U.N. envoy for Syria hosted key diplomats from Iran, Russia and Turkey on Tuesday to discuss work toward rewriting the country’s constitution, amid concerns about a possibly devastating military offensive on rebel-held Idlib province.

The talks led by Staffan de Mistura started and ended with little or no comment to reporters at the U.N. offices in Geneva, and offered a sideshow to the concerns about a looming battle for the northern province — the last remaining rebel stronghold in Syria after 7½ years of war and now home to some 3 million civilians.

De Mistura’s spokesman, Michael Contet, said in an email that any debriefing by the envoy about the meeting will be “reserved” for comments that he plans to make to U.N. Security Council next Tuesday.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said the diplomats discussed the formation of the constitutional committee, “which constitutes a significant step in the struggle to find a political solution to the Syrian crisis,” as well as procedural rules.

It said the sides confirmed their “agreement in principle” to lists of participants proposed by the Syrian government and the opposition and held consultations on which civil society groups would also participate in the committee.

The ministry said the Turkish, Russian and Iranian officials would hold more talks on the issue at a “technical level.” On Monday, the head of the U.N. humanitarian agency, Mark Lowcock, warned that Idlib could see “the worst humanitarian catastrophe, with the biggest loss of life of the 21st century.”

Iran and Russia have backed a military campaign on Idlib involving Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces, despite Turkey’s pleas for a cease-fire. Before Tuesday’s meeting, Hossein Jaberi Ansari, a special envoy for Iran’s foreign minister, said a “good result” could emerge. Asked whether Iran shared the concerns about a possible humanitarian catastrophe in Idlib, Jaberi Ansari replied: “We are worried too. We are trying to avoid this.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, declined to answer a question on his way into the talks about whether Russia would stop its airstrikes. De Mistura met informally with members of the three delegations on Monday.

The talks are set to focus on creating a constitutional committee under Syria’s Russian- and Iranian-backed government. Russia, Turkey and Iran have been working together as “guarantors” for a series of talks around ending Syria’s war. Turkey has taken in 3.5 million refugees from its neighbor.

On Monday, airstrikes on Idlib and Hama provinces forced some people to flee their homes, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Bombings and air raids kill 4 in Syria’s rebel-held Idlib

September 08, 2018

BEIRUT (AP) — Syrian government and Russian warplanes on Saturday targeted the southern edge of Idlib province in what activists described as the most intense airstrikes in weeks, ratcheting up military pressure on the densely populated rebel-held bastion.

More than 60 air raids killed at least four civilians in southern Idlib, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and rescue workers. The bombings also included indiscriminate barrel bombs, dropped from choppers, invariably blamed on the government.

The bombings, including shelling from government areas, came a day after Iran and Russia backed a military campaign in the rebel-held area despite Turkey’s pleas for a cease-fire. Turkey has troops and 12 observations points that circle Idlib.

State-run Al-Ikhbariya TV said the government was retaliating against overnight shelling from rebel-held areas on a government-held town in Hama province, south of Idlib. The shelling late Friday in Mhradah killed nine civilians, according to state media. The state news agency SANA said government forces have shelled “terrorist” posts in northern Hama.

But the government and Russian raids targeted a wide swath of rebel-held area in the southern edge of the rebel-held enclave that includes most of Idlib province and northern Hama province. More than 3 million people live in the area, nearly half of them already displaced from fighting elsewhere in Syria.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported 68 air raids and 19 barrel bombs dropped Saturday on several of towns and villages in southwestern Idlib and Hama province. The area targeted over the past few days overlooks government-controlled areas.

The Observatory described the attacks on the rebel-held areas as the “most intense” since August and said they killed four in Abdeen, west of Khan Sheikhoun town, including two children and a woman. The raids forced schools to close in Khan Sheikhoun, a town under attack, according to the Observatory.

The White Helmets, a team of first responders, also reported on the four people killed in Abdeen. A video posted by the White Helmets from the town shows their rescuers pulling a woman who was still alive from under the rubble of a caked building, as other team members warn of government helicopters hovering above them.

The rescuers said another was killed in Halba, a village farther north. The group said one of its already damaged centers had been hit in the wave of airstrikes. In another village in central Idlib, Hass, an area hospital was hit by the airstrikes, putting it out of service and injuring two of its staff members, according to Coordinators of Response, a group of volunteers operating in northern Syria. The group also said the airstrikes caused a limited amount of internal displacement, uprooting nearly 700 families from their homes in several parts of Idlib.

The local council of Morek, a town that serves as a crossing between Hama and Idlib, sent an urgent appeal, asking Turkey to intervene. “We need a quick solution or our town will burn!” the official pleaded in an audio recording shared on social media platforms.

Separately, clashes broke out in eastern Syria in Qamishli, a town close to the border with Turkey, between government and Kurdish security members. The Observatory said the clashes left 10 government security personnel and seven Kurdish fighters dead.

The town is run by Kurdish-led administrators and forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport. Occasional clashes erupt there over turf control and authority, reflecting deepening political tension between the uneasy partners.

Kurdish security forces, known as Asayish, said in a statement that a government patrol entered the areas controlled by the Kurdish militia in Qamishli and began arresting civilians, then shot at a Kurdish checkpoint sparking the gun battle. The Asayish said seven of its members and 11 government personnel were killed.

A journalist and area resident, Arin Sheikmos, said the government security troops carried out an arrest campaign in Kurdish-controlled areas, detaining people it accused of dodging military conscription. This prompted the clashes that lasted no more than 20 minutes, Sheikmos said.

There was no immediate comment on the clashes by the government. The U.S.-backed Kurdish administration has recently begun talking with the Syrian government, seeking government recognition of its self-rule areas. But in recent days, the Damascus government announced that it will be holding local administration elections, including in Kurdish-ruled areas, undermining the negotiations with the Kurds and their proposal for self-rule.

The Kurdish-led administration control nearly 30 percent of Syria, mostly in the northeastern part of the country, including some of Syria’s largest oil fields. They seized the territories, with the backing of the U.S.-led coalition, after driving out Islamic State militants.

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