Turkey to oppose NATO plan if it fails to recognize terrorism threats: Erdogan

Turkey to oppose NATO plan if it fails to recognize terrorism threats: Erdogan
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey will oppose NATO’s plan for the defense of Baltic countries if the alliance does not recognize groups that Turkey deems terrorists, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, ahead of a NATO alliance summit in London.

Relations between Turkey and its NATO allies have been strained over a host of issues, ranging from Ankara’s decision to procure Russian air defense systems to Syria policy. Several NATO members condemned Turkey’s decision to launch an offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia.

Ankara has refused to back a NATO defense plan for the Baltics and Poland until it receives more support for its battle with the YPG, which it views as a terrorist organization.

Ahead of his departure from Ankara for the NATO summit, Erdogan said he had spoken to Polish President Andrzej Duda on the phone on Monday and had agreed to meet with him and leaders of Baltic countries in London to discuss the issue.

“With pleasure, we can come together and discuss these issues there as well,” he said. “But if our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there.”

A Turkish security source said on Monday that Turkey is not “blackmailing” NATO with its rejection of the plans and that it has full veto rights within the alliance.

Turkey, France, Germany and the United Kingdom are expected to hold a separate meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit. Erdogan said they would mainly discuss Turkish plans to establish a safe zone in northeast Syria, which has until now been met with criticism from Ankara’s European allies.

Separately, Turkey has been at odds with Greece and Cyprus over ownership of offshore natural resources in the eastern Mediterranean. Erdogan said he will also meet with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in London.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Crowd pelts with stones Turkish-Russian patrol in Syria: local media

Crowd pelts with stones Turkish-Russian patrol in Syria: local media
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish and Russian troops on Tuesday began their second joint patrol in northern Syria near Kobani, under a deal that has forced a Kurdish militia away from Turkey’s border, while local media released footage of angry crowds pelting a convoy with stones.

Nearly a month ago, Turkey and Syrian rebel allies launched a cross-border incursion against Kurdish YPG fighters, seizing control of 120 km (75 miles) of land along the frontier.

Under a subsequent deal, Russia and Turkey agreed to push the YPG militia to a depth of at least 30 km (19 miles) south of the border and to hold joint patrols to monitor the agreement.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that the YPG had not withdrawn from that planned “safe zone”, despite Turkey’s agreements with both Russia and the United States.

Ankara considers the YPG – which helped the United States smash the Islamic State caliphate in Syria – a terrorist group because of its ties to militants who have waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984.

Tuesday’s patrol was launched 7 km (4.4 miles) east of Kobani, a Syrian border town of special significance to the YPG, which fought off Islamic State militants trying to seize it in 2014-15 in one of the fiercest battles of the Syrian war.

Armored vehicles crossed through a gap in the border wall to the Syrian side and headed east, a witness said. Security sources said the patrol would cover a distance of 72 km (45 miles) at a depth of 5 km (3 miles) from the border.

Near Kobani, crowds pelted passing Turkish and Russian armored vehicles of the patrol with stones from a roadside and chanted slogans, footage from local North Press Agency showed.

Several dozen people managed to stop two Russian armored vehicles and some of them climbed onto one of the cars with Russian military police insignia, a video released by local news outlet Anha showed.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday there were no incidents during the patrol mission.

The Turkish Defense Ministry shared photos on Twitter showing Turkish and Russian soldiers meeting at the border and studying maps before the start of the patrol. It said drones were also taking part.

Russia is the Syrian government’s most powerful ally and since 2015 has helped it retake much of the country from rebels, turning the tide in the civil war. The Turkish-Russian deal enabled Syrian government forces to move back into border regions from which they had been absent for years.

Russian military police arrived in Kobani on Oct. 23 under the deal reached by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The first patrol, on Friday, was held around the Syrian border town of Darbasiya, east of the region from where Turkish and their Syrian rebel allies forced out the YPG fighters.

Erdogan said last week that Turkey planned to establish a “refugee town or towns” in that region between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain, part of a project that state media have said would cost 151 billion lira ($26 billion).

Ankara launched its offensive against the YPG following President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria in early October.

(Reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Editing by John Stonestreet and Peter Cooney)

Russia says Kurdish fighters have left Syrian border area as deadline expires

Russia says Kurdish fighters have left Syrian border area as deadline expires
By Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber and Tuvan Gumrukcu

MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – Syrian Kurdish fighters completed their withdrawal from a strip of land on the Syrian-Turkish border ahead of a Tuesday evening deadline agreed between Moscow and Ankara, Russia’s defense minister said.

A senior aide to Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said Ankara would now discover through planned joint patrols with Russia whether the Kurdish YPG forces had really pulled out of the area or not.

Under the accord clinched a week ago between the presidents of Turkey and Russia, Syrian border guards and Russian military police were meant to clear all YPG forces and their weapons from a 30 km (19 mile) band of territory south of the border by 6 pm local time (1500 GMT) on Tuesday.

“The withdrawal of (Kurdish) armed forces from the territory where a safety corridor is supposed to be created has been completed ahead of schedule,” TASS news agency quoted Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as saying.

“Both Syrian border guards and our military police have gone there,” he added.

The deal, clinched in the Russian Black Sea town of Sochi, reinforced an existing U.S.-brokered ceasefire that had halted Turkey’s offensive, dubbed Operation Peace Spring, in northeast Syria targeting the YPG, which Ankara views as a terrorist organization linked to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

After the Tuesday evening deadline, Russian and Turkish forces are scheduled to start joint patrols of a narrower, 10 km strip of land on the Syrian side of the border.

A Russian delegation is currently in Turkey for talks on how those patrols will work and on the wider security situation in northeast Syria. Turkey’s defense ministry said the delegation held a second day of talks on Tuesday, without saying whether the two countries had yet agreed how to carry out the patrols.

“Turkey and Russia had set a 150-hour deadline for the YPG terrorists to leave the safe zone. The time is up. We will establish, through joint patrols, whether or not the terrorists have actually withdrawn,” said Fahrettin Altun, Erdogan’s communications director.

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Earlier on Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar had complained that some Kurdish YPG forces remained in the area of the Turkish-Syrian border.

“This fight (against terrorism) is not over. We are aware that it will not end,” he also told the Sabah newspaper.

Asked about the joint patrols planned with Russian forces in the border area, Akar said: “The rules of engagement, (the question of) which vehicles are to be used, the authorities and directives are to be determined.”

Akar said there were still around 1,000 YPG fighters in the border town of Manbij and a further 1,000 in nearby Tel Rifat. The two towns are located to the west of the strip of territory that Turkey wants to turn into a “safe zone” but Syrian and Russian forces are also meant to clear them of YPG forces.

Turkey launched its offensive in northeast Syria after President Donald Trump said he was pulling 1,000 U.S. military personnel from the area. Turkey’s NATO allies, including the United States, have criticized Ankara’s actions, fearing it will undermine the fight against Islamic State.

The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has been a key ally of the United States against the Islamic State militants.

Russia, a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has emerged as the key foreign power in Syria, its influence further bolstered by the withdrawal of U.S.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Amnesty says Turkey deporting Syrians to planned ‘safe zone’ region

Amnesty says Turkey deporting Syrians to planned ‘safe zone’ region
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey is forcibly sending Syrian refugees to an area of Syria near the border where it aims to set up a “safe zone” even though the conflict there has not ended, Amnesty International said in a report published on Friday.

Human Rights Watch said in a separate report Friday that authorities had arbitrarily detained and deported dozens of Syrians to northern Syria between January and September.

Turkey currently hosts some 3.6 million refugees who fled Syria’s eight-year-long civil war. But, with Turkish public sentiment toward them souring, Ankara hopes to resettle up to two million in the planned safe zone in northeast Syria.

Ankara says more than 350,000 Syrian refugees have already voluntarily returned to their country.

In its report, Amnesty said refugees it had spoken to complained of being threatened or physically forced by Turkish police to sign documents stating that they were voluntarily returning to Syria.

“In reality, Turkey put the lives of Syrian refugees under serious danger by forcing them to return to a war zone,” the British-based human rights group said.

Amnesty said it believed the number of forced returns in recent months to be in the hundreds, based on interviews it conducted between July and October, but said it was able to confirm 20 cases.

There was no immediate reaction from Ankara to the Amnesty report but it has previously denied sending any Syrians home against their will.

Syrians who are deported are generally told they are not registered or live outside the Turkish province in which they are registered, the report said, adding that people were also deported from provinces in which they had been registered.

Anna Shea, Amnesty’s Researcher on Refugee and Migrant Rights, said Turkey deserved recognition for hosting so many Syrians over many years, adding: “But it cannot use this generosity as an excuse to flout international and domestic law by deporting people to an active conflict zone.”

A plan agreed between Turkey and Russia this week envisages Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters being removed from a 30 km (19 mile) strip of territory along the Turkish border and refugees being allowed to return there “in a safe and voluntary manner”.

Addressing world leaders at the United Nations in September, President Tayyip Erdogan set out ambitious proposals to build dozens of new villages and towns in the planned safe zone along the Turkish border.

Pro-government newspaper Yeni Safak said on Friday that life would “normalize” in the Syrian border towns of Tel Abyad and Ras Al Ain, now that Turkey has taken control of the area from the YPG.

It said Turkey would reconstruct the two towns ravaged by years of war, establish security forces and a judiciary there and work to bring economic stability to the region.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Gareth Jones)

As options narrow on Syria, Trump prepares to drop sanctions hammer on Turkey

By Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration is set to impose economic sanctions on Ankara, potentially as early as this week, for its incursion into northern Syria, one of the few levers the United States still has over NATO-ally Turkey.

Using the U.S. military to stop the Turkish offensive on U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters was never an option, defense officials have said, and Trump asked the Pentagon on Sunday to begin a “deliberate” withdrawal of all U.S. troops from northern Syria.

After Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday that Trump had authorized “very powerful” new sanctions targeting Turkey, the administration appeared ready to start making good on Trump’s threat to obliterate Turkey’s economy.

On Sunday, Trump said he was listening to Congress, where Republicans and Democrats are pushing aggressively for sanctions action.

“Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey,” Trump said on Twitter, referring to the loyal Trump ally and U.S. senator who lambasted the president last week.

“Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought. There is great consensus on this. Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!” he added.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that sanctions were “being worked out at all levels of the government for rollout.”

Trump is struggling to quell harsh criticism, including from some of his staunchest Republican backers, that he gave Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a green light to attack the Kurds last Sunday when he decided to pull a small number of U.S. troops out of the border area.

Turkey’s offensive aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the SDF has also been Washington’s key ally in fighting that has dismantled Islamic State’s jihadist “caliphate” in Syria.

Trump’s decision, rooted in his long-stated aim to get the United States out of “endless wars,” has prompted bipartisan concerns that it opens the door to the revival of Islamic State.

While sanctions appear to be the strongest tool of deterrence, the United States and its European allies could also ponder arms sales bans and the threat of war crimes prosecutions.

“Good decision by President @realDonaldTrump to work with Congress to impose crippling sanctions against Turkeys outrageous aggression/war crimes in Syria,” Graham tweeted.

‘MONUMENTAL FAILURE’

It is unclear what sanctions are in the order drafted last week, which Mnuchin said was ready for activation at any moment, and whether they would be as severe as what lawmakers are proposing.

Representatives Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Mike McCaul, the committee’s senior Republican, introduced a bill last Friday that would sanction Turkish officials involved in the Syria operation and banks involved with Turkey’s defense sector until Turkey ends military operations in Syria.

It also would stop arms from going to Turkish forces in Syria, and require the administration to impose existing sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a Russian S-400 missile-defense system.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said late on Friday that Turkey would retaliate against any steps aimed at countering its efforts to fight terrorism, in response to the announcement of possible U.S. sanctions against Turkey.

The United States has successfully gone after Turkey with sanctions and tariffs before, hitting Ankara last year to pressure authorities to return an American pastor on trial for terrorism charges.

The United States could look at targeting arm sales to Turkey, something a number of European countries have already done. France said on Saturday that it had suspended all weapon sales to Turkey and warned Ankara that its offensive in northern Syria threatened European security.

The White House could also look at increasing pressure on Turkey over reports of human rights abuses during the offensive, with a threat of war crimes prosecutions.

The United States is looking into reports that a Kurdish politician and captured Kurdish fighters were killed in northeastern Syria amid Turkey’s offensive, a State Department spokesman told Reuters, adding that Washington found the reports disturbing.

In response to the reports, the U.S. official said: “This is awful. All these are among the issues that is addressed

by our executive order,” referring to the sanctions.

Experts doubted that any of the U.S. punishments would make Erdogan change his mind, given his long-held belief that the Kurdish fighters in Syria threaten national security and whom Ankara sees as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“This is a monumental failure on behalf of the United States,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank.

Stein said it would be the Syrian government or Russia, not American sanctions, that could stop the Turkish operation.

“The only thing that will stop them is if the regime or the Russians move in significant numbers to where they stop,” Stein said.

The Syrian army will deploy along the length of the border with Turkey in an agreement with the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria to help repel a Turkish offensive, the Kurdish-led administration said on Sunday.

The United States does have one person that Erdogan has long wanted extradited: the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of orchestrating a failed 2016 military coup against Erdogan.

U.S. officials have said the courts would require sufficient evidence to extradite the elderly Gulen, who has denied any involvement in the coup and has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

Turkey says it strikes Syria-Iraq border ahead of offensive

By Orhan Coskun and Daren Butler

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s military struck the Syrian-Iraqi border to prevent Kurdish forces using the route to reinforce northeast Syria, as Ankara prepares to launch an offensive there after a surprise U.S. troop pullback, Turkish officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

Turkey says it is ready to advance into northeast Syria, after the United States began pulling back troops from the Turkey-Syria frontier in an abrupt policy shift widely criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s allies.

The U.S. move will leave Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington vulnerable to attack by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which brands them terrorists because of their links to Kurdish militants who have waged a long insurgency in Turkey.

Giving details of the overnight strike, a security official said one of the main goals was to cut off transit route between Iraq and Syria often used by Kurdish armed groups “before the operation in Syria”.

“In this way, the group’s transit to Syria and support lines, including ammunition, are shut off,” the official said.

It was not clear what damage was done or whether there were casualties. Details of the strike, a joint operation by Turkey’s intelligence service and the military, were hazy. One official described them as an air strike, while the other said the site was made “unusable through various means”.

President Donald Trump meanwhile denied he had abandoned the Kurdish forces, the most effective U.S. partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria. But he praised Turkey as a trade partner, in a softening of tone hours after threatening Ankara’s economy if it acted “off limits” in Syria.

Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.

Signaling a further potential shift in the region’s power balance, the Kurdish-led forces said they might start talks with Damascus and Russia to fill a security vacuum in the event of a full U.S. withdrawal from the Turkish border area.

Turkey sought to underscore its determination to act. “The TSK will never tolerate the establishment of a terror corridor on our borders. All preparations for the operation have been completed,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said.

ROCKET SYSTEMS

But a Reuters witness saw no sign of military activity near the Turkish border town of Akcakale, across from Syria’s Tel Abyad. Howitzers were placed behind earth embankments on Turkey’s side of the border, pointed toward Syria.

Some 60 km (40 miles) to the west, multiple launch rocket systems mounted on two trucks were deployed behind earth embankments near Suruc, opposite the Syrian border town of Kobani. Artillery was also stationed in the area, and soldiers wandered around a nearby military camp.

U.S. forces evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain on Monday, a U.S. official said.

Trump’s warning on Turkey’s economy on Monday appeared aimed at placating critics who accused him of abandoning the Syrian Kurds by pulling out U.S. forces. The decision drew criticism from Democrats and a rebuke from some of his fellow Republicans in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)” Trump tweeted.

His remarks, reiterated on Tuesday in slightly modified form, met an angry response in Turkey, including from opposition party politicians such as Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener.

“Threatening Turkey’s economy is a diplomatic catastrophe,” she told her party’s lawmakers in a speech in parliament. “The best response to this insolence is to go into the east of the Euphrates and break the terror corridor.”

But on Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States … They have been good to deal with.”

“WONDERFUL FIGHTERS”

As for the Kurds, Trump said their “wonderful fighters” continued to receive U.S. help with finance and weapons.

The Kurdish-led forces have denounced the major U.S. policy shift as “stab in the back”.

Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the continued Turkish military buildup on the border, together with information about further mobilization of Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, indicated that “an attack is imminent”.

Syrian Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said Kurdish-led authorities in northern Syria may open talks with Damascus and Russia U.S. forces fully withdrew from the Turkish border area.

His comments to Reuters reflect the predicament of Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria after the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops who in effect shielded the area from Turkish attack.

“At that time we may hold talks with Damascus or the Russian side to fill the void or block the Turkish attack,” he said.

Syria insisted it would defend itself against any Turkish assault. Damascus, however, was unable to prevent Turkey taking control of a swathe of northwestern Syria earlier in the war.

Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, said it was not told in advance by Washington or Turkey about any agreements to pull U.S. troops from the northeast, adding it was watching the situation very closely. Iran, another Assad ally, voiced opposition to any Turkish operation in Syria.

Germany and Britain expressed concern about Turkey’s plans for military action. German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said a military intervention would “have fatal security, political and humanitarian consequences”.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, plans to resettle two million refugees in northern Syria. Turkey’s lira <TRYTOM=D3> lost 2% of its value against the dollar to hit its weakest since early September, but edged off its lows to 5.8195 on Tuesday.

Ties between Ankara and Washington have long been tense over a range of issues including Syria policy and Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Rodi Said in Qamishli, Syria, Mert Ozkan in Akcakale, Turkey and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Damascus; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean)

Turkey rejects U.S. ultimatums, says it will not back down on Russian S-400s

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo - RC1BFE102410

By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey will not back down from its decision to buy Russian S-400 missile defense systems despite U.S. warnings that it will lead to Ankara’s exclusion from the F-35 fighter jet program, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday.

In what has become the main source of tension between Ankara and Washington, the NATO allies have sparred publicly for months over Turkey’s purchase of the S-400s, which Washington has said could trigger U.S. sanctions.

U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan last week sent his Turkish counterpart a letter warning that Ankara would be pulled out of the F-35 jet program unless it changes course from its plans to install the defenses.

In what was Turkey’s first direct response to the letter, Cavusoglu said no one can give Turkey ultimatums.

“Turkey will not back down from its decisions with these kinds of letters,” he said. “Turkey bought S-400, it is going to be delivered and stationed in Turkey.”

The S-400s are not compatible with NATO’s defense systems and Washington says they would compromise its F-35s, which Turkey also plans to buy. Turkey has proposed that the allies form a working group to asses the impact of the S-400s, but has yet to receive a response from the United States.

Cavusoglu on Thursday repeated Turkey’s call for the joint working group, saying experts from both countries should come together to evaluate U.S. concerns.

A day earlier, President Tayyip Erdogan said that Turkey had completed the deal with Russia and that the systems will be delivered in July. Russia has said it will begin the delivery of the systems in July.

Erdogan also said that Ankara would challenge its potential removal from the F-35 program on every platform and hold those who exclude Turkey accountable.

The United States has threatened to impose sanctions on Ankara under its Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), the possibility of which has spooked investors and caused a selloff in the lira this year.

The lira stood at 5.8460 at 1029 GMT on Thursday, weakening from around 5.8320, where it stood prior to Cavusoglu’s speech. It was down some 0.7% from Wednesday’s close.

While Turkey has dismissed the U.S. warnings, Washington has said discussions are taking place with Ankara on selling Turkey rival Raytheon Co-Patriot defense systems. But, Erdogan has said the U.S. offer was not “as good as the S-400s”.

Defense Minister Hulusi Akar has said Turkey is working on a response to Shanahan’s letter and that it will be delivered in coming days.

The ministers later spoke by telephone on Thursday and discussed the letter, Turkey’s defense ministry said, adding that Akar had “emphasized the improper wording not in line with the spirit of the Alliance” in the letter during the call.

Israel’s deputy Defense Minister Eli Ben-Dahan said the strains between Turkey and the United States could help strengthen ties with Israel and boost the country’s participation in the F-35 program.

“It could also very much be that..the State of Israel will get another portion within the framework of the F-35 and additional things which, in part, were meant to have been transferred to factories in Turkey,” he told Army Radio.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ali Kucukgocmen; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Angus MacSwan)

Turkey says buying Russian defense system should not trigger U.S. sanctions

FILE PHOTO: New S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia. Picture taken March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo/File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Turkey’s purchase of a Russian air defense missile system should not trigger U.S. sanctions because Ankara is not an adversary of Washington and remains committed to the NATO alliance, Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday.

Speaking at a U.S.-Turkey conference in Washington amid rising tensions between the two NATO allies over Ankara’s plan to buy the Russian S-400 missile system, Akar adopted a relatively conciliatory tone and urged to resolve issues via dialogue.

“Turkey is clearly not an adversary of the United States,” Akar said and added that therefore its procurement of the S-400 system should not be considered within the scope of U.S. sanctions designed to target America’s enemies.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week that Washington had told Ankara it could face retribution for buying the S-400s under a sanctions law known as Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CATSAA).

“This procurement decision does not signify a change in Turkey’s course. I’d like to reiterate strongly that there is no change in Turkey’s commitment to NATO,” Akar said.

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: A Lockheed Martin F-35 aircraft at the ILA Air Show in Berlin, Germany, April 25, 2018. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt/File Photo/File Photo

The disagreement over the F-35 is the latest of a series of diplomatic disputes between the United States and Turkey including Turkish demands that the United States extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, and sanctions on Iran.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has refused to back down from Ankara’s planned purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system that the United States has said would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft, made by Lockheed Martin Corp . Turkey has said it will take delivery of the S-400s in July.

In early April, the United States halted delivery of equipment related to the stealthy F-35 fighter aircraft to Turkey, marking the first concrete U.S. step to potentially blocking the delivery of the jet to the NATO ally.

Akar said Turkey was puzzled by the move and expected U.S. and other partners in the program to fulfill their obligations.

“We firmly believe that linking the S-400 to the F-35 project is unfortunate … We are one of the investors and partners and not just a buyer. We have invested over $1 billion … and fulfilled all our obligations,” he said.

Akar repeated Turkey’s offer to hold technical talks with the United States to address “technical concerns” over the S-400 purchase.

Turkey is also assessing a renewed offer from the United States to buy Patriot missile defense systems, Akar added.

“Recently we received the restated offer for the Patriots. This offer is now on the table, we are studying it carefully,” he said.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Dominic Evans and Phil Berlowitz)

Erdogan’s AK Party challenges Istanbul, Ankara election results

Supporters of Ekrem Imamoglu, main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) candidate for mayor of Istanbul, wait for him to visit Anitkabir, the mausoleum of modern Turkey's founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, Turkey, April 2, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Daren Butler and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party has submitted objections to local election results in all districts of Istanbul and Ankara, party officials said on Tuesday, after results showed the opposition earned narrow victories in both cities.

The AK Party is on track to lose control of what are Turkey’s two biggest cities, its commercial hub of Istanbul and the capital Ankara, in a surprise election setback that may complicate Erdogan’s plans to combat recession.

In Istanbul, the mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP), Ekrem Imamoglu, and his AKP rival, ex-prime minister Binali Yildirim, both said on Monday Imamoglu was around 25,000 votes ahead. Istanbul has an estimated total population of 15 million.

The AKP had previously said it would use its right to object to the results where there were voting irregularities, adding that the errors at the ballots had affected the outcome.

On Tuesday, Bayram Senocak, the AKP’s Istanbul head said that objections had been submitted by the 3 p.m. (1200 GMT) deadline for appeals, and added that legal action would be taken against electoral officials who made the errors.

“We have submitted all our appeals to the district electoral councils,” Senocak said, as he waved ballot records in which he said vote count irregularities could be seen.

An AKP deputy chairman later said the difference between Imamoglu and Yildirim was down to 20,509 votes and would keep falling as a result of their appeals. He said the elections were “the biggest blemish in Turkish democratic history.”

The CHP’s Istanbul head Canan Kaftancioglu said her party submitted objections in 22 districts, adding they expected to receive 4,960 more votes after the appeals were resolved.

“They are trying to steal the will of the people as it was reflected in the ballots,” she told reporters in Istanbul.

The CHP’s Imamoglu said on Tuesday he was saddened by the AKP failure to congratulate him after the election board count put him ahead.

“I’m watching Mr Binali Yildirim with regret. You were a minister of this nation, the parliament speaker and a prime minister,” Imamoglu said in Istanbul. “What could be more noble than congratulating?”

“The world is watching us with shame right now. We are ready to manage the big city of Istanbul. Let go and congratulate us with honor, so we can do our job,” he said.

“MOMENT OF BEGINNING”

Ahead of the elections, the CHP had formed an electoral alliance with the Iyi (Good) Party to rival that of the AKP and their nationalist MHP partners. The alliances nominated joint candidates in certain cities, including Ankara and Istanbul.

Imamoglu, who laid a wreath at the mausoleum of modern Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in Ankara, later went to CHP headquarters to meet Mansur Yavas, the opposition’s candidate in the capital. Speaking at the CHP building, Imamoglu said the elections marked a “moment of beginning” for Turkey.

In Ankara, Yavas received 50.9 percent of votes, ahead of his AKP rival and former minister Mehmet Ozhaseki in Sunday’s local elections by nearly 4 percentage points. The AKP said it had also submitted objections to results across Ankara.

Defeats in Ankara and Istanbul would be a significant setback for Erdogan, who has dominated Turkish politics for more than 16 years. He had campaigned relentlessly ahead of the vote, describing it as a “matter of survival” for the country.

Erdogan’s political success has rested on years of stellar economic growth in Turkey, but an economic recession that has brought surging inflation and unemployment and a plunging lira currency have taken their toll on his popularity.

Uncertainty generated by the local elections has added to pressure on the lira, which weakened sharply last week as a lack of confidence in the currency among Turks led them to snap up record holdings of dollars and gold.

On Tuesday the lira weakened more than 2 percent against the dollar on concerns about tensions with the United States after it halted delivery to Turkey of equipment related to the F-35 fighter aircraft.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans. Gareth Jones, William Maclean)

Turkish lira down as U.S. halts fighter parts delivery, threatens sanctions

FILE PHOTO: Turkish Lira banknotes are seen in this October 10, 2017 picture illustration. REUTERS/Murad Sezer/Illustration/File Photo

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The lira dropped nearly 3 percent on Tuesday after the United States halted delivery of equipment related to a Turkish order of F-35 fighter planes, warning Ankara’s insistence on buying Russian defense systems risked triggering sanctions.

At 1634 GMT, the lira stood at 5.6590 against the dollar, having earlier fallen 3.3 percent to as low as 5.6800.

The Turkish currency lost nearly 30 percent against the dollar last year in a sell-off sparked by concerns over the independence of the central bank and exacerbated by worsening ties with Washington.

“Factors behind last year’s currency crisis have reared their heads again,” said Jason Tuvey, senior emerging markets economist at Capital Economics.

Washington and other NATO allies are concerned that radar on the Russian S-400 missile system that Turkey is also buying will learn how to track the F-35, making it less able to evade Russian weapons.

A senior U.S. official said the purchase of the S-400 risked triggering sanctions.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said later on Tuesday he expected to resolve the dispute, but his comments had little impact on the lira.

The row marks the latest in a series of bilateral disputes, notably over Turkish demands that the United States extradite Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen, differences over Middle East policy and the war in Syria, and sanctions on Iran.

STRUCTURAL PROBLEMS

The lira has also been under pressure from domestic political developments.

Currency volatility in the run-up to local elections on Sunday led the central bank to suspend one-week repo auctions, a move seen by analysts as a “back door” tightening that reignited worries that the central bank was under pressure from politicians to lower its policy rate.

The lira lost as much as 2.5 percent against the dollar on Monday after results showed President Tayyip Erdogan’s AK Party on track to lose control of both Ankara and Istanbul, his popularity hit by the recession that the lira’s losses in large part triggered.

The AKP submitted objections to the results in all districts of both cities, party officials said on Tuesday.

“The lira is under pressure as now the focus is back on structural problems for the Turkish economy,” said Nikolay Markov, a senior economist at Pictet Asset Management.

A widening current account deficit could deepen the recession through a further lira depreciation, leading to higher inflation and borrowing costs, Markov said.

“The central bank should raise policy rates but that won&rsquo;t happen because of pressure from the government,” although AKP electoral losses could reduce that pressure, he said.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Sarah Dadouch; Additional Reporting by Tom Arnold in London; Editing by Dominic Evans and John Stonestreet)