Israel faces new election after Netanyahu misses coalition deadline

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli lawmakers voted early Thursday to dissolve parliament and set the country on the path to a second election within months after right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to put together a ruling coalition before a midnight deadline.

In April Netanyahu appeared set for a fifth term after his Likud Party won 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, even though he faces possible indictment in three corruption cases. He has denied any wrongdoing and accused his opponents of mounting a witch-hunt.

But despite weeks of negotiations he failed to overcome divisions between secular and religious allies and in the early hours of Thursday, parliament voted by 74-45 to dissolve itself. Another election could be held in September.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell)

France’s Macron welcomes U.S. reversal on keeping troops in Syria

French President Emmanuel Macron waits for the arrival of a guest at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 25, 2019. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) – French President Emmmanuel Macron on Monday welcomed the United States’ decision to leave American troops in Syria, a reversal by U.S. President Donald Trump that came after an outcry from coalition allies such as France.

“On the U.S. decision, I can only but welcome this choice,” Macron told a news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih. “The U.S. decision is a good thing. We will continue to operate in the region within the coalition.”

In December, Trump ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 troops in Syria after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants, an abrupt decision that sparked consternation among allies and was a factor in his defense secretary’s resignation.

Macron had personally sought to convince Trump to maintain troops in Syria, French diplomats said at the time, warning him about the risks of pulling out too early.

The United States will leave about 400 U.S. troops split between two different regions of Syria, a senior administration official said last Friday.

(Reporting by Michel Rose; Marine Pennetier and Jean-Baptiste Vey, Editing by Sarah White)

Israel’s Netanyahu takes over defense job as coalition falters

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a session of the plenum of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take over the defense portfolio in his government after his defense minister resigned this week, a spokesman for his Likud Party said on Friday, fuelling speculation of an early election.

Earlier Netanyahu met with key coalition partner Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, who had sought the post for himself, but the two men emerged without an agreement.

Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government was rocked by Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation on Wednesday in protest at a ceasefire reached between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beitenu party has quit the coalition and its five MPs have withdrawn support for the government.

After Bennett and Netanyahu’s meeting, a spokesman for the PM’s Likud Party said that for now, Netanyahu would handle the defense portfolio himself.

The premier then spoke by phone with the rest of his coalition partners, urging them to “make every effort not to bring down the right-wing government” and to prevent the left from getting into power, the spokesman said.

A source close to Bennett said that after his meeting with Netanyahu “it became clear … there was a need to go to elections as soon as possible with no possibility of continuing the current government.”

Israeli media reported that other coalition partners would oppose Bennett, who leads an ultra-nationalist, religious party, becoming defense minister.

An election date would be decided on Sunday, the source close to Bennett said.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, has also called for a vote to be held before the scheduled date next November.

Before the crisis, Netanyahu’s coalition had 66 seats in the 120-seat parliament. The loss of Lieberman’s five has brought him down to a perilous 61. Losing Bennett’s eight means Netanyahu would lose his majority.

Opinion polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud would be likely to remain the dominant party after a parliamentary election.

Netanyahu, a conservative serving his fourth term as premier, is under investigation for corruption. Commentators say he may agree to bring the ballot forward in order to win a renewed mandate before the attorney-general decides whether to indict him.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Roche)

Turkey says could act in Syria unless U.S. withdraws support for Kurdish force

A Turkish military tank arrives at an army base in the border town of Reyhanli near the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 17, 2018.

By Dominic Evans and Tuvan Gumrukcu

HATAY, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey said on Wednesday it would not hesitate to take action in Syria’s Afrin district and other areas unless the United States withdrew support for a Kurdish-led force there, but Washington denied such plans and said “some people misspoke”.

Turkish President Erdogan has repeatedly warned of an imminent incursion in Afrin after Washington said it would help the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG militia, set up a new 30,000-strong border force.

The plan has infuriated Turkey, which considers the Syrian YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) militant group, which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the European Union, Turkey and the United States.

Deputy Prime Minister and Government Spokesman Bekir Bozdag told reporters after a Cabinet meeting the planned U.S.-backed force posed a threat to Turkey’s national security, territorial integrity and the safety of its citizens.

“We emphasized that such a step was very wrong,” he said. “Turkey has reached the limits of its patience. Nobody should expect Turkey to show more patience.”

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied that the United States had any intention of building a Syria-Turkey border force and said the issue had been “misportrayed, misdescribed”.

“Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all,” Tillerson told reporters on board an aircraft taking him back to Washington from Vancouver, where he had attended a meeting on North Korea.

“I think it’s unfortunate that comments made by some left that impression,” he said, without giving details. “That is not what we’re doing.”

He said Turkish officials had been told U.S. intentions were only “to ensure that local elements are providing security to

liberated areas”.

The Pentagon said in an earlier statement it was training “internally focused” Syrian fighters with a goal of preventing the Islamic State group’s resurgence and ensuring Syrians displaced by the war could return to their communities.

“We are keenly aware of the security concerns of Turkey, our coalition partner and NATO ally. Turkey’s security concerns are legitimate,” it said.

TANKS DEPLOYED

Some Turkish troops have been in Syria for three months after entering northern Idlib province following an agreement with Russia and Iran to try to reduce fighting between pro-Syrian government forces and rebel fighters.

The observation posts which the Turkish army says it has established are close to the dividing line between Arab rebel-held land and Kurdish-controlled Afrin.

Turkey’s National Security Council said earlier on Wednesday Turkey would not allow the formation of a “terrorist army” along its borders.

As the council met, a Reuters reporter witnessed the Turkish army deploying nine tanks to a military base just outside the city of Hatay, near the border with Afrin, to the west of the area where the border force is planned. That followed earlier reports of a military buildup in the area.

“When the Turkish people and Turkish state’s safety is in question, when it is necessary to remove risks and destroy threats, Turkey will do so without hesitation,” Bozdag said.

On Monday, with relations between the United States and Turkey stretched close to breaking point, Erdogan threatened to “strangle” the planned U.S.-backed force in Syria “before it’s even born”.

Turkey and the United States, both allies in NATO, were on the same side for much of Syria’s civil war, both supporting rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But a decision by Washington to back Kurdish forces fighting against Islamic State in recent years has angered Ankara.

The United States has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria.

Bozdag reiterated Ankara’s demand that Washington cease its “inexplicable” and “unacceptable” support of the YPG.

“In the case that Turkey’s demands are not met, we will take determined steps in Afrin and other regions to protect our interests. We will take these steps without considering what anyone can say,” Bozdag said. “When will this happen? Suddenly.”

The Cabinet also agreed to extend a state of emergency imposed after a failed 2016 coup attempt from Jan. 18, Bozdag said, in a move likely to prolong a post-putsch crackdown that saw more than 50,000 people arrested and 150,000 others sacked or suspended from their jobs.

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart in Washington and David Brunnstrom on board a U.S. government aircraft; Editing by Peter Graff, James Dalgleish and Paul Tait)

Syrian war will drag into next decade: senior Kurdish leader

Aldar Khalil, a Kurdish politician is seen in the town of Rmeilan, Hasaka province, Syria September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A Russian-led effort to end the war in Syria will fail and the conflict looks set to extend into the next decade, a top Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters in an interview.

Aldar Khalil, an architect of Kurdish-led plans for autonomous rule in northern Syria, also said the United States appears in “no hurry” to leave areas where it has helped Kurdish-led forces fight Islamic State, and that he expects ties with Washington to develop as U.S. recovery efforts proceed.

The Syrian Kurds are among the few winners in the almost seven-year-old war, having established control over large parts of the north with a powerful militia that has partnered with the U.S.-led coalition against IS.

Russia, President Bashar al-Assad’s ally, has asked them to take part in an international peace conference on Syria for the first time — a peace congress scheduled in the Russian city of Sochi on Jan. 29-30.

“Yes we are invited and we might take part in the show but it will not succeed,” Khalil, co-chair of the Movement for a Democratic Society, a coalition of Syrian Kurdish parties, said by telephone.

He questioned what the hundreds of anticipated attendees could accomplish in two days and said more preparation was required.

U.N.-led diplomacy in Geneva was also set for more failure, he said, adding that the war would “ebb and flow” until at least 2021, the end of Assad’s current seven-year presidential term.

“I don’t expect any breakthrough in the Syrian situation before 2021 … it might even go on until ’25,” he said.

“Daesh (IS) might expand in other areas, and of course the Turks might try to stir up problems in some areas.”

The Syrian Kurds’ ascendancy in Syria has alarmed neighboring Turkey. Ankara views the dominant Syrian Kurdish groups as an extension of Kurdish parties in Turkey that have been fighting Ankara for more than three decades.

U.S. support for Syrian Kurdish fighters has also strained ties between the NATO allies: Turkey on Wednesday summoned a top U.S. diplomat in Ankara to protest over U.S. support of Kurdish fighters in Syria.

Khalil is seen as a key figure in plans to establish a federal region in northern Syria – a plan Washington has opposed despite backing the Syrian Kurdish YPG in the war with IS.

The Syrian Kurds say independence is not their goal. But Khalil said the Kurdish-led authorities would press ahead with unilateral autonomy plans, though elections to a new regional parliament have been postponed to allow more time to prepare.

WARNING TO ASSAD

With the fight against IS winding down, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said last month he expected to see a larger U.S. civilian presence in Syria, including contractors and diplomats to focus on stabilization and ensuring IS does not return.

Khalil declined to say how long the United States might maintain a foothold in northern Syria, but said that achieving U.S. goals of helping cities such as Raqqa to recover implied a commitment of at least 18 months to two years.

“These matters will not be completed in less time than this,” he said.

“I can’t confirm to you a long-term relationship, but at least for the foreseeable time, it seems they are not in a hurry to leave,” he said. Pointing to the Mattis remarks, he said he expected U.S. ties to northern Syria to develop further.

The Kurdish-led authorities have held two local elections since September, part of their plan to build new governing structures. Discussions are underway to decide when a third vote — aimed at electing a regional parliament — will happen.

Khalil said the delay was aimed partly at giving a chance for areas recently captured from IS to decide whether to participate.

Though Assad recently condemned the U.S.-backed Kurdish forces and their allies as “traitors”, Khalil said the Syrian government was incapable of attacking areas they control and warned that if it tried to “all its forces will be killed”.

He warned that Islamic State sleeper cells posed a big threat. “The Daesh campaign is not over, now the more difficult phase has started,” he said.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Coalition says fewer than 3,000 IS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria

Coalition says fewer than 3,000 IS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria

By Ahmed Aboulenein

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The United States-led international coalition fighting Islamic State estimates that fewer than 3,000 fighters belonging to the hardline Sunni militant group remain in Iraq and Syria, its spokesman said on Tuesday.

Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliphate has crumbled this year in Syria and Iraq, with the group losing the cities of Mosul, Raqqa and swathes of other territory.

“Current estimates are that there are less than 3,000 #Daesh fighters left – they still remain a threat, but we will continue to support our partner forces to defeat them,” U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon tweeted, using an Arabic acronym for Islamic State.

Dillon’s tweet was part of his responses to an online question and answer session in which he also said the coalition had trained 125,000 members of Iraqi security forces, 22,000 of which were Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.

When asked if the United States planned to build permanent military bases in Iraq or Syria the defeat of Islamic State, Dillon said it would not. “No – the Government of #Iraq knows where and how many from Coalition are here to support operation to defeat #Daesh; all bases are #Iraqi led,” he tweeted.

The coalition will begin a transition from focusing on retaking territory to consolidating gains, it later said in a statement following a meeting of its leaders with Iraqi military commanders.

“We will continue to support our Iraqi partners in the battle against ISIS (Islamic State) with training, equipment, advice and assistance,” said Major General Felix Gedney, the coalition’s Deputy Commander for Strategy and Support.

“The next phase will focus on the provision of lasting security, while developing Iraqi sustainability and self-sufficiency,” he said.

The coalition was responsible for “liberating more than 4.5 million Iraqis and over 52,200 square kilometres of territory,” the statement said. It has come under fire, however, for the number of civilian casualties resulting from the air strikes it carries out in support of local forces.

The coalition says its strikes have unintentionally killed at least 801 civilians between August 2014 and October 2017, a far lower figure than figures provided by monitoring groups.

The monitoring group Airwars says at least 5,961 civilians have been killed by coalition air strikes.

The coalition says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties and that it is still assessing 695 reports of such casualties from strikes in Iraq and in Syria.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein; Eediting by Mark Heinrich)