Turkey should again consider criminalizing adultery, Erdogan says

ILE PHOTO: Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan looks on ahead of a meeting at the EU Parliament in Brussels, Belgium October 5, 2015. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

By Gulsen Solaker

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey should again consider criminalizing adultery, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday, revisiting an issue that caused outrage among secular Turks and warnings from the European Union when his party raised it more than a decade ago.

The Islamist-rooted AK Party floated the idea in 2004, two years after it first came to power, as part of a broad overhaul of the Turkish penal code. But the proposal caused a backlash from the secular opposition and EU officials said it could jeopardize Turkey’s efforts to join the union.

While Turkey is still technically a candidate to join the union, its accession talks were frozen in the wake of a widespread crackdown that followed a failed coup in 2016. In return, Erdogan has been angered by what he sees as EU stalling of the bid and has threatened to walk away from the talks.

“I think it would be very, very well-timed to again discuss the adultery issue, as our society is in a different position with regards to moral values,” Erdogan told reporters following a speech in parliament.

“This is a very old issue, far-reaching. It should be discussed. It was already in our legal proposals (in 2004) in the first place. At that time we took a step in accordance with the EU’s demands, but we made a mistake,” he said.

Erdogan’s comment that by meeting EU standards Turkey made a mistake underscores the growing divide between Ankara and Brussels and may not bode well for a coming summit with the bloc in March.

Turkey decriminalized adultery for women in the late 1990s. It had long been legal for men.

Erdogan, who is accused by critics of crushing democratic freedoms with tens of thousands of arrests and a clampdown on the media since the failed coup, has previously spoken of his desire to raise a “pious generation”.

He has spent his career fighting to bring religion back into public life in constitutionally secular Turkey and has cast himself as the liberator of millions of pious Turks whose rights and welfare were neglected by a secular elite.

Last year, the government announced a new school curriculum that excluded Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, feeding opposition fears that Erdogan was subverting the republic’s secular foundations.

A Reuters investigation last month showed that while students at religious schools make up only 11 percent of the total upper school population, they receive 23 percent of funding, double the spending per pupil at mainstream schools.

While European leaders have robustly criticized Turkey for what they see as rapid backsliding on democracy and human rights, especially the crackdown, Europe still relies on Turkey as a NATO ally on Europe’s southern flank.

Perhaps more immediately, European countries need Turkey to hold up its end of a deal to halt the mass influx of Syrian refugees into the bloc.

(Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by David Dolan and Hugh Lawson)

Turkey demands U.S. expel Kurdish militia from anti-Islamic State force

U.S. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis poses with Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli during a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, February 14, 2018. REUTERS/Virginia Mayo/Pool

By Idrees Ali and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Turkey said on Thursday it had demanded that the United States expel a Kurdish militia from the ground forces it backs in Syria, underscoring the widening gulf between the NATO allies since Ankara launched a new Syrian offensive last month.

Ties between Turkey and the United States, both allies in a U.S.-led coalition fighting against Islamic State, have been strained to the breaking point by Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Ankara sees as terrorists.

The issue is expected to dominate a visit to Turkey by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Thursday and Friday at a time when relations between Washington and Ankara are fraying over a range of other issues as well.

Turkey launched an air and ground operation in northwest Syria’s Afrin region to drive the YPG from its southern border.

Ankara considers the YPG to be an arm of the PKK, a banned group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey. The YPG is the main ground element of the Syrian Defence Forces (SDF), which the United States has armed, trained and aided with air support and special forces to fight Islamic State.

“We demanded this relationship be ended, I mean we want them to end all the support given to the Syrian arm of PKK, the YPG,” Turkish Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli told reporters in a briefing in Brussels, a day after meeting U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis on the sidelines of a NATO meeting.

“We demanded this structure be removed from SDF,” he said.

Speaking with reporters on the sidelines of the NATO meeting, Mattis said his talks with his Turkish counterpart were open and honest, but acknowledged the differences.

“I believe we are finding common ground and there are areas of uncommon ground, where sometimes war just gives you bad alternatives to choose from…. We continue to collaborate on ways to ensure their legitimate concerns are addressed.”

RENEWED FOCUS

A U.S. statement said Mattis had urged Turkey to keep attention on fighting Islamic State: “He called for a renewed focus on the campaign to defeat ISIS, and to preventing any vestige of the terrorist organization from reconstituting in Syria,” it said, using an acronym for Islamic State.

Islamic State fighters were driven last year from all the population centers they occupied in both Syria and Iraq, but Washington still considers them a threat, capable of carrying out an insurgency and plotting attacks elsewhere.

Ankara has placed greater emphasis in recent months on the need to combat the Kurdish militia and has said the United States is merely using one terrorist group to combat another.

Turkey says the United States has yet to honor several pledges: to stop arming the YPG, to take back arms after Islamic State was defeated in Syria, and to pull YPG forces back from Manbij, a Syrian town about 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin.

Canikli also said that Mattis had told him the United States was working on a plan to retrieve weapons given to the YPG, especially heavy weapons. However, Tillerson later said that Washington had “never given heavy arms” to the YPG and there was therefore “nothing to take back”.

POWERFUL FRIENDS

Turkey is the main Muslim ally of the United States within NATO and one of Washington’s most powerful friends in the Middle East dating back to the Cold War era. But widening differences on Syria policy are just one of a number of issues that have caused a rupture in that strategic relationship.

It also accuses Washington of sheltering a cleric it blames for plotting a failed coup in 2016. The United States convicted a Turkish banker mast month for violating sanctions on Iran in a case that included testimony alleging corruption by top Turkish officials. The two countries also halted issuing visas for months after locally hired U.S. consular staff were detained on suspicion of links to alleged coup plotters.

The Turkish authorities have jailed tens of thousands of people and ordered 150,000 fired or suspended from their jobs since the failed coup. President Tayyip Erdogan has increasingly used stridently anti-European and anti-American rhetoric.

The Turkish offensive against the YPG in Syria has so far been limited to Afrin, a border region where the United States is not believed to have troops on the ground. But Turkey has openly discussed extending it to other areas where its forces could potentially come into contact with units supported by the Americans. It says Washington should pull its forces out of the way; the United States says it has no plans to withdraw.

Canikli said he disputed Washington’s characterization of the U.S.-backed SDF as controlled by ethnic Arabs rather than the Kurdish fighters.

“Mattis said the SDF is largely controlled by Arab elements. We said on the contrary, the SDF is completely controlled by the PYD and YPG,” he said in comments broadcast live on television. “The other elements are for show only.”

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Ezgi Erkoyun and Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Lisa Barrington in Beirut; Editing by Peter Graff)

Syrian frontline town divides NATO allies Turkey and U.S.

American army vehicles drive north of Manbij city, in Aleppo Governorate, Syria March 9, 2017.

By Dominic Evans

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A dispute between Turkey and the United States over control of a north Syrian town has put the NATO allies on opposing sides of the conflict’s front line, deepening a diplomatic rift ahead of a visit to Turkey by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.

This week’s talks, already challenging given disagreements over President Tayyip Erdogan’s crackdown after a failed 2016 coup, the detention of U.S. consulate staff and citizens, and the trial of a Turkish bank executive for evading U.S. sanctions on Iran, have been given added edge by the dispute over Syria.

Turkish and U.S. troops, deployed alongside local fighters, have carved out rival areas of influence on Syria’s northern border. To Ankara’s fury, Washington allied itself with a force led by the Kurdish YPG, a militia which Turkey says is commanded by the same leaders overseeing an insurgency in its southeast.

The dispute has come to a head over the Syrian town of Manbij, where Turkey has threatened to drive out a YPG-led force and warned the United States – which has troops there – not to get in the way.

“This is what we have to say to all our allies: don’t get in between us and terrorist organizations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences,” Erdogan said last month, days before launching a military offensive against the YPG in the northwestern Syrian region of Afrin.

Turkey would turn its attention to Manbij, about 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, “as soon as possible”, he said.

But Washington says it has no plans to withdraw its soldiers from Manbij, and two U.S. commanders visited the town last week to reinforce that message.

It has also warned that Turkey’s air and ground offensive in Afrin risks exacerbating a humanitarian crisis in Syria and disrupting one of the few corners of the country that had remained stable through seven years of civil war.

In a blunt but possibly understated assessment of Tillerson’s visit, a U.S. State Department official said Washington expected “a difficult conversation” in Ankara.

For Turkey, the dispute has pushed relations with the United States to breaking point.

“We will discuss these issues during Tillerson’s visit, and our ties are at a very critical stage,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Monday. “Either we will improve our ties, or they will completely deteriorate.”

“GUNG-HO” MILITARY

As the grievances between Washington and Ankara have escalated, Turkey has built bridges with rival powers Russia and Iran – even though their support has put Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in the ascendancy while Turkey still backs the weakened rebels seeking his downfall.

The three countries agreed a so far ineffectual plan to wind down the fighting between the Syrian army, which is supported by Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, and jihadist fighters and Turkish-backed rebels.

Turkey says it also won agreement to launch its Afrin operation from Russia, which controls most of the air space in western Syria.

In contrast, it says the United States has yet to honor several pledges: for Washington to stop arming the YPG, to take back those arms after Islamic State was defeated in Syria, and to pull back YPG forces from Manbij.

Last week’s visit to Manbij by U.S. military commanders was a short-sighted and thoughtless “military gung-ho gesture”, according to Erdogan’s senior foreign policy adviser, Gulnur Aybet.

“It is not helpful, at a time when the United States and Turkey are trying to find common ground … for U.S. generals in the field to undertake a flippant and provocative display in Manbij next to the YPG,” she told Reuters.

Relations with the United States were “fragile and frustrating because pledges have been unfulfilled and there is a lack of coherence between the White House and the military”, Aybet said.

U.S. VIEWED UNFAVORABLY

Erdogan has also said Turkey will “strangle” a force which the United States plans to develop in the large sweep of northern Syria which the YPG and its allies currently control, including more than 400 km (250 miles) of the border with Turkey.

His tough language, a year before presidential and parliamentary elections, resonates in a country where 83 percent of people view the United States unfavorably, according to a poll published on Monday.

The poll for the Center for American Progress also found that 46 percent of Turks think their country should do more to confront the United States, compared with 37 percent who believe it should maintain the alliance.

That sentiment has underpinned Erdogan’s unyielding response to other disputes with Washington.

He has dismissed criticism of Turkey’s crackdown since the failed July 2016 coup, in which 250 people were killed, saying the response is justified by the security challenges Turkey faces.

The president has also said the U.S. court conviction of an executive of Turkey’s state-owned Halkbank for evading Iran sanctions was a “political coup attempt” which showed the U.S.-Turkish partnership was eroding.

In October he accused the U.S. consulate in Istanbul of sheltering an employee with links to U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, blamed by Ankara for last year’s failed coup. Turkey has sought the extradition of Gulen, who has denied any link to the coup attempt.

Turkey’s detention of two locally employed U.S. consulate workers – without providing evidence, according to Washington – led to the two countries suspending visa services. Even when services were resumed, they disagreed publicly over what assurances had been made to resolve their differences.

“The U.S.-Turkey alliance can no longer be taken for granted,” Ozgur Unluhisarcikli of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, which promotes transatlantic cooperation, wrote in a report published ahead of Tillerson’s trip.

“That this relationship has endured several stress tests in the past is no guarantee that it will survive this one”.

(THis story corrects spelling of adviser’s name in paragraph 16)

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz and Orhan Coskun in Ankara, and Yara Bayoumy in Washington; editing by Giles Elgood)

Turkey, Russia and Iran leaders to discuss Syria in Istanbul: Turkish source

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani together with his counterparts, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Turkey's Tayyip Erdogan, attend a joint news conference following their meeting in Sochi, Russia November 22, 2017.

ANKARA (Reuters) – The leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran agreed on Wednesday to meet in Istanbul to discuss the conflict in Syria, a Turkish presidential source said.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the meeting in two phone calls on Wednesday with the Russian and Iranian presidents, the source said. The date of the summit would be set in coming weeks.

The three countries have worked together in recent months to try to reduce violence in Syria, even though they have backed rival sides in the nearly seven-year civil war and remain deeply involved in the conflict.

Iran-backed militias and Russian air power have supported a Syrian army offensive in Syria’s northwestern province of Idlib since November, and Turkish forces last month launched an offensive in northern Syria’s Kurdish region of Afrin.

On Monday, Iran urged Turkey to halt the Afrin operation, saying it breached Syrian sovereignty and would increase tension. It was not immediately clear whether Erdogan and Rouhani discussed Afrin in their telephone call on Thursday.

Erdogan and Putin also agreed to speed up the establishment of military observation posts in Syria’s Idlib region under an accord reached by Ankara, Tehran and Moscow last year to reduce fighting between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels.

After the phone call, the Kremlin said in a statement that Putin and Erdogan agreed to strengthen coordination between the two countries’ military and security services in Syria in the fight against terrorism.

(Reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Ece Toksabay; Editing by Dominic Evans)

European Union leaders to host Turkey’s Erdogan, the estranged uncle they can’t shut out

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan greets his supporters during a meeting of the ruling AK Party in Corum, Turkey January 28, 2018.

By Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – European Union leaders are so discomfited by their relationship with Turkey these days that they relegated their summit next month to Varna, a Bulgarian Black Sea port, rather than hold it in Brussels.

But despite their wariness over President Tayyip Erdogan, who has cracked down hard on critics at home and lashed out at the West, they need him too much to turn their backs.

Turkish and European Union officials both expect an uneasy atmosphere at the summit on March 26. But the European hosts will have little choice but to hear Erdogan out as he asks for more money for Syrian refugees, a deeper customs union and progress in talks on letting Turks visit Europe without visas.

On the one hand, European leaders have robustly criticized Turkey for what they see as rapid backsliding on democracy and human rights, especially during a crackdown in the wake of a failed coup in 2016. Some of Erdogan’s hostile rhetoric toward Europe last year, including comparing the Dutch and German governments to Nazis, has been, for EU leaders, beyond the pale.

But on the other hand, European countries still rely on Turkey as a NATO ally on Europe’s southern flank. And an EU deal with Erdogan that halted the mass influx of Syrian refugees into the bloc means the Turkish leader is like an estranged relative that you can’t disinvite from a family dinner, no matter how badly you think he has behaved.

“You intensely dislike the person you have in front of you, but you just cannot do without him,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and now an analyst at Carnegie Europe think-tank.

Turkey says it is in Europe’s interest to be warm.

“If the EU gives positive signals to Turkey, the more Turkey will do in terms of reforms,” said Ankara’s envoy to the European Union, Faruk Kaymakci.

“But the more the EU isolates Turkey, the more inward-looking and nationalist it will turn,” he told reporters, calling for more “trust and confidence at the top level”.

A senior EU official said Turkey had sought to have the summit in Brussels, but the bloc decided to hold it in Varna instead to lower its profile. Bulgaria, Turkey’s neighbor, has better relations with Ankara than some other EU states and holds the rotating EU presidency for the first half of 2018.

“INCREDIBLY UNCOMFORTABLE”

The senior EU official described European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who will chair the Varna meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk, as furious over Erdogan’s crackdown. Some 50,000 people, including journalists, have been arrested and 150,000, including teachers, judges and soldiers, sacked or suspended from their jobs.

“For the EU, this is incredibly uncomfortable. They are backsliding on everything,” the senior EU official said.

Juncker has warned Turkey that it cannot count on any significant rapprochement with the EU as long as it keeps journalists in jail.

The Netherlands formally withdrew its ambassador to Ankara this month, after 2017 was marked by Erdogan calling German and Dutch officials “fascists” for stopping rallies in support of a referendum in Turkey to grant Erdogan broader powers. Germany is particularly angry that some German citizens are among those arrested in Erdogan’s purge.

Turkey is still a candidate to join the EU, having applied decades ago. But after years of on-and-off progress, including under Erdogan who first took power in 2003, the EU froze the accession talks over the crackdown since the botched coup.

Brussels is deeply skeptical that Ankara would reverse the crackdown to deliver the democratic and judicial reforms that would be required to restart those negotiations.

But Kaymakci, the Turkish envoy, said he still hoped the bloc would commit another 3 billion euros ($3.7 bln) for Syrian refugees in Turkey at the Varna summit, and move forward with talks on letting Turks enter Europe without visas.

EU officials say Turkey does not meet criteria for visa-free travel. When it comes to money for refugees, the bloc is looking at how to accommodate Turkey, acknowledging its role in hosting them and committing to look into funding.

Turkey’s request to deepen its customs union, which already allows tariff-free trade with the EU for most goods, is also likely to be politely rebuffed. Germany in particular has opposed further talks on customs for now.

The price Erdogan will have to pay for being invited to Varna, EU officials say, will be listening to his hosts speak frankly. Just weeks after the summit, the European Commission will release what is certain to be a damning report on the situation in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Ankara; Writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Peter Graff)

Erdogan says U.S. has ‘calculations’ against Turkey, Iran, Russia in Syria

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan addresses members of parliament from his ruling AK Party (AKP) during a meeting at the Turkish parliament in Ankara, Turkey, February 6, 2018.

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States is working against the interests of Turkey, Iran and maybe Russia in northern Syria, where it is sending in military supplies to an area controlled by Kurdish-dominated forces, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday.

“If the United States says they are sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh (Islamic State), we don’t believe this,” Erdogan told members of his ruling AK Party in parliament.

“It means you have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia,” he said, repeating a call for U.S. troops to withdraw from the Syrian town of Manbij.

(Reporting by Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans)

U.N. demands Syria ceasefire as air strikes pound rebel-held areas

A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings after an airstrike in the besieged town of Hamoria, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria Janauary 9, 2018.

By Tom Perry

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United Nations called on Tuesday for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria of at least a month as heavy air strikes were reported to have killed at least 40 people in rebel-held areas near Damascus and in the northwest.

Separately, U.N. war crimes experts said they were investigating multiple reports of bombs allegedly containing chlorine gas being used against civilians in the rebel-held towns of Saraqeb in the northwestern province of Idlib and Douma in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus.

The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons.

The latest air strikes killed 35 people in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs after 30 died in bombardments of the same area on Monday, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. Air strikes in rebel-held Idlib killed six.

“Today there is no safe area at all. This is a key point people should know: there is no safe space,” Siraj Mahmoud, the head of the Civil Defence rescue service in opposition-held rural Damascus, told Reuters.

“Right now, we have people under rubble, the targeting is ongoing, warplanes on residential neighborhoods.”

Insurgent shelling of government-held Damascus killed three people, the Observatory and Syrian state media reported.

U.N. officials in Syria called for the cessation of hostilities to enable humanitarian aid deliveries, and the evacuation of the sick and wounded, listing seven areas of concern including northern Syria’s Kurdish-led Afrin region, being targeted by a Turkish offensive.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, helped by Iranian-backed militias and the Russian air force, is pursuing military campaigns against insurgents in the last major pockets of territory held by his opponents in western Syria.

GHOUTA AND IDLIB

There were air strikes on towns across the Eastern Ghouta, including Douma, where an entire building was brought down, a local witness said. In Idlib, where pro-government forces are also on the offensive, at least five people were killed in the village of Tarmala, the Observatory said.

Khalil Aybour, a member of a local council, said rescue workers were under enormous pressure “because the bombing is all over the Ghouta”.

The U.N. representatives noted that Eastern Ghouta had not received inter-agency aid since November.

“Meanwhile, fighting and retaliatory shelling from all parties are impacting civilians in this region and Damascus, causing scores of deaths and injuries,” said their statement, released before the latest casualty tolls emerged on Tuesday.

They said civilians in Idlib were being forced to move repeatedly to escape fighting, noting that two pro-government villages in Idlib also continued to be besieged by rebels.

Syria’s protracted civil war, which spiraled out of street protests against Assad’s rule in 2011, will soon enter its eighth year, having killed hundreds of thousands of people and forced millions to leave the country as refugees.

Paulo Pinheiro, head of the International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, said the government siege of Eastern Ghouta featured “the international crimes of indiscriminate bombardment and deliberate starvation of the civilian population”.

Reports of air strikes hitting at least three hospitals in the past 48 hours “make a mockery of so-called “de-escalation zones”, Pinheiro said, referring to a Russian-led truce deal for rebel-held territory, which has failed to stop fighting there.

The conflict has been further complicated since January by a major offensive by neighboring Turkey in Afrin against the Kurdish YPG militia.

“U.S. CALCULATIONS”

The YPG has been an important U.S. ally in the war against Islamic State militants, but Ankara sees it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is listed as a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and Washington.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan ramped up his verbal assault on the U.S. role in Syria on Tuesday, saying U.S. forces should leave Manbij, a Syrian city held by YPG-allied forces with support from a U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition.

“If the United States says it is sending 5,000 trucks and 2,000 cargo planes of weapons for the fight against Daesh (Islamic State), we don’t believe this,” Erdogan told members of his AK Party in parliament.

“It means you have calculations against Turkey and Iran, and maybe Russia.”

In agreement with Iran and Russia, the Turkish military is setting up observation posts in parts of Idlib and Aleppo province. But tensions have flared as Turkish forces moved to set up one such post south of Aleppo.

The Turkish military said a rocket and mortar attack by militants had killed one Turkish soldier while the post was being set up on Monday.

It was the second attack in a week on Turkish soldiers trying to establish the position, near the front line between rebels and pro-Syrian government forces.

In an apparent warning to Ankara, a commander in the military alliance supporting Assad said the Syrian army had deployed new air defenses and anti-aircraft missiles to front lines with rebels in the Aleppo and Idlib areas.

“They cover the air space of the Syrian north,” the commander told Reuters. That would include the Afrin area where Turkish warplanes have been supporting the ground offensive by the Turkish army and allied Free Syrian Army factions.

(Reporting Tom Perry and Lisa Barrington in Beirut, Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; writing by Tom Perry; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey detains nearly 600 for opposing Syrian offensive

Turkish military armoured vehicles arrive at a border village near the town of Hassa in Hatay province, Turkey, January 21, 2018

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dominic Evans

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has so far detained 573 people for social media posts and protests criticizing its military offensive in Syria, the government said on Monday.

The crackdown, which has extended to the national medical association, has deepened concerns about free speech under President Tayyip Erdogan, who has criticized opponents of the military intervention as “traitors”.

Turkey last month launched an air and ground offensive, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, against the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region. Authorities have repeatedly warned they would prosecute those opposing, criticizing or misrepresenting the incursion.

“Since the start of Operation Olive Branch, 449 people have been detained for spreading terrorist propaganda on social media and 124 people detained for taking part in protest action,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

The operation has been widely supported by Turkey’s mainly pro-government media and by most political parties, with the exception of the pro-Kurdish opposition.

Last week, a prosecutor ordered the detention of 11 senior members of the Turkish Medical Association, including its chairman, after the organization criticized the incursion, saying: “No to war, peace immediately”.

Erdogan criticized the body as traitors. All of the doctors have since been released on probation, the association said on Twitter. Detention orders have been issued for another 13 people for supporting the medics.

“There are laws that prohibit the glorification of terrorism, support for terrorism through propaganda and media. The prosecutors are implementing the laws,” Erdogan’s spokesman, Ibrahim Kalin, told reporters in Istanbul at the weekend.

Ankara considers the U.S.-backed YPG, which controls Afrin, to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984.

Turkey is in the midst of a widening crackdown that began after a failed coup attempt in July 2016. Some 50,000 people have been jailed and 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs.

Critics, including rights groups and some Western allies, say Erdogan is using the coup as a pretext to muzzle dissent. The latest arrests have also drawn criticism from the European Union.

Turkey says its measures are necessary due to the gravity of the security threats it faces.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by David Dolan and Janet Lawrence)

Turkey detains 300 people over criticism of Syrian offensive

Turkish military armoured vehicles arrive at a border village near the town of Hassa in Hatay province, Turkey.

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey has detained more than 300 people for social media posts criticizing its military offensive in Syria, the government said on Monday, a day after President Tayyip Erdogan accused doctors who opposed the campaign of betrayal.

Since launching its 10-day-old air and ground offensive against the Kurdish YPG militia in Syria’s northwestern region of Afrin, Turkish authorities have warned they would prosecute those opposing, criticizing or misrepresenting the incursion.

The Interior Ministry said on Monday a total of 311 people had been held for “spreading terrorist propaganda” on social media in the last 10 days. Detainees have included politicians, journalists and activists.

Turkey considers the U.S.-backed YPG, which controls Afrin, to be a terrorist group and an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has fought an insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast since 1984.

The military operation has been widely supported by Turkey’s mainly pro-government media and by most political parties, with the exception of the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP). But there have been dissenting voices.

Over the weekend, Turkish media reported that 170 artists had written an open letter to lawmakers from Erdogan’s ruling AK Party calling for an immediate end to Turkey’s incursion.

Last week the Turkish Medical Association (TTB) denounced the cross-border operation, saying “No to war, peace immediately.”

On Sunday, Erdogan accused the union of treason. “Believe me, they are not intellectuals at all, they are a gang of slaves. They are the servants of imperialism,” he told AK Party members in the northern province of Amasya.

“This ‘No to war’ cry by this mob … is nothing other than the outburst of the betrayal in their souls … This is real filth, this is the honorless stance that should be said ‘no’ to,” Erdogan said.

Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Twitter on Saturday that the TTB and the Turkish Engineer and Architect Chambers Association (TMMOB), which has backed the medics, cannot use the word “Turkish” in their names, saying they did not represent Turkish medics, engineers and architects.

In a statement on Friday, the TTB said it rejected the accusations directed at it, adding remarks by senior government officials had made it a target of attacks. The Interior Ministry said later it had started an investigation into the association’s actions.

On Monday, prosecutors launched an investigation into 11 members of the TTB’s central administration over the association’s “war is a public problem” remarks, the Hurriyet newspaper reported.

Since a failed coup in 2016, Ankara has enforced a crackdown that saw more than 50,000 people jailed and 150,000 sacked or suspended from their jobs, including members of the pro-Kurdish opposition party. The government says the moves were necessary given the security threats Turkey faces.

Critics accuse the government of unjustly targeting pro-Kurdish politicians. Some lawmakers from the pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) have been jailed on terrorism charges, which they deny.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Janet Lawrence and Toby Chopra)

Trump warns Erdogan to avoid clash between U.S., Turkish forces

Fighters from the self-defence forces of the Kurdish-led north hold their weapons during a rally in Hasaka, northeastern Syria. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Idrees Ali and Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump urged Turkey on Wednesday to curtail its military operation in Syria and warned it not to bring U.S. and Turkish forces into conflict, but a Turkish source said a White House readout did not accurately reflect the conversation.

Turkey’s air and ground operation in Syria’s Afrin region, now in its fifth day, targets U.S.-backed Kurdish YPG fighters, which Ankara sees as allies of Kurdish insurgents who have fought in southeastern Turkey for decades.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said he would extend the operation to Manbij, a separate Kurdish-held enclave some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, possibly putting U.S. forces there at risk and threatening U.S. plans to stabilize a swath of Syria.

Speaking with Erdogan by telephone, Trump became the latest U.S. official to try to rein in the offensive and to pointedly flag the risk of the two allies’ forces coming into conflict.

“He urged Turkey to deescalate, limit its military actions, and avoid civilian casualties,” a White House statement said. “He urged Turkey to exercise caution and to avoid any actions that might risk conflict between Turkish and American forces.”

The United States has around 2,000 troops in Syria.

However, a Turkish source said the White House statement did not accurately reflect the content of their phone call.

“President Trump did not share any ‘concerns about escalating violence’ with regard to the ongoing military operation in Afrin,” the source said, referring to one comment in the White House summary of their conversation.

“The two leaders’ discussion of Operation Olive Branch was limited to an exchange of views,” the source said.

Trump said in response to Erdogan’s call on the United States to end the delivery of weapons to the YPG that the United States no longer supplied the group with weapons and pledged not to resume the weapons delivery in the future, the source said.

The offensive has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided, seven-year-old civil war and complicated U.S. efforts in Syria.

The United States hopes to use the YPG’s control of the area to give it the diplomatic muscle it needs to revive U.N.-led talks in Geneva on a deal that would end Syria’s civil war and eventually lead to the ouster of President Bashar Assad.

DIVERGING INTERESTS

The United States and Turkey, while themselves allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, have diverging interests in Syria, with Washington focused on defeating the Islamic State militant group and Ankara keen to prevent Syria’s Kurds from gaining autonomy and fueling Kurdish insurgents on its soil.

In the short-term, analysts say, the United States has little pressure it can apply on Turkey given the U.S. military’s heavy dependence on a Turkish base to carry out air strikes in Syria against Islamic State.

Its sway is further limited by the United States not having reliable military partners in Syria other than the Kurds, said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at Washington’s Middle East Institute think tank.

“The U.S. needs Turkey not to spoil things … until now, Washington has walked a very fine line between working with the Kurdish militia and also preventing a complete breakdown in relations with Ankara,” Tol said.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Trump values his relationship with Erdogan, but conceded that the United States has limited leverage and that the Trump administration was unlikely to commit more troops or covert operators to Syria, even if Turkey made a move from Afrin to Manbij.

“The U.S. has effectively said you can do this operation against Afrin because it is outside my area, but please keep it limited,” said Bulent Aliriza, director of the Turkey Project at the Washington-based think tank CSIS. “So it has not felt the need to go beyond the rhetorical means that it has employed.”

Erdogan has looked to bolster ties with Russia and Iran in recent years, in part because of frustration with Washington’s support for the YPG in the fight against Islamic State.

Ankara sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) insurgent group, which is deemed a terrorist organization by the United States, the EU and Turkey.

In a clear sign of rapprochement, Ankara is buying an S-400 missile defense system from Russia – unnerving NATO officials, who are already wary of Moscow’s military presence in the Middle East. The S-400 is incompatible with NATO’s systems.

However, analysts say those moves are largely tactical and ultimately Turkey will be open to listening to U.S. concerns about its military operation, given that Ankara needs the European Union for trade and NATO partners for its security.

“I think behind closed doors, he really would not want a complete break in Turkey’s relations with the West,” Tol said.

Max Hoffman, with the Center for American Progress, said the United States still had considerable leverage and could look at imposing sanctions on Turkey in the future, should Turkish forces disregard warnings on Manbij.

(Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Alistair Bell and Paul Tait)