Russia, Turkey may have committed war crimes in Syria, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Russia killed civilians in air strikes in Syria last year while rebels allied to Turkey carried out murder and pillage in Kurdish areas, U.N. investigators said on Monday – actions it said could amount to war crimes by both Moscow and Ankara.

A report by a U.N. commission found that Russia – the Syrian government’s main ally against rebels and militants – conducted air strikes on a popular market and a camp for displaced people that killed dozens of civilians in July and August.

“In both incidents, the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas,” the report said.

It also described abuses by rebels allied to Turkey during an assault on Kurdish-held areas, and said that if the rebels were acting under the control of Turkish military forces, those commanders may be liable for war crimes.

Paulo Pinheiro, the commission’s chairman, said it had added names linked to the latest crimes to its confidential list of suspected perpetrators. It has received 200 requests from judicial authorities worldwide for information on crimes committed during Syria’s nine-year war, he told a news briefing.

In the report, which covered the period from July 2019 to February 2020, investigators denounced “deliberate” attacks by the Syrian government and allied forces on protected civilian sites, including hospitals and schools.

“There is a war crime of intentionally terrorizing a population to force it to move. We are seeing that picture emerging very clearly for example in Idlib where, because these places are being bombed, people are having to move out,” said panel member Hanny Megally.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces have thrust deep into Idlib province in the far northwest in a campaign to retake the last country’s significant rebel pocket. The onslaught has forced around one million civilians to flee.

Up to 10 children have died from the cold in the last weeks due to living in the open at the Turkish border, Megally said.

The U.N. report blamed Russia for an air strike in the city of Maarat al-Numan on July 22 when at least 43 civilians were killed. Two residential buildings and 25 shops were destroyed after at least two Russian planes left Hmeimim air base and circled the area, it said.

Weeks later, an attack on the Haas compound for displaced killed at least 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injured 40 others, the report said.

It also called on Turkey to investigate whether it was responsible for an air strike on a civilian convoy near Ras al Ain that killed 11 people last October. Turkey has denied a role in the strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said was conducted by Turkish aircraft.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Turkey to give harshest response if border threatened after Iraq referendum: PM

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim addresses his supporters in Kirsehir, Turkey, August 23, 2017. Mustafa Aktas/Prime Minister's Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey said on Thursday it had stopped training peshmerga forces in northern Iraq in response to a Kurdish independence vote there, whose backers had thrown themselves “into the fire”.

The Kurdish peshmerga have been at the forefront of the campaign against Islamic State and been trained by NATO-member Turkey’s military since late 2014.

Northern Iraq’s main link to the outside world, Turkey views Monday’s vote – which final results on Wednesday showed overwhelming in favour of independence from Baghdad – as a clear security threat.

Fearing it will inflame separatism among its own Kurds, Ankara had already threatened military and economic measures in retaliation. Government spokesman Bekir Bozdag reiterated on Thursday any such actions would be coordinated with the Iraqi central government.

Bozdag, also a deputy prime minister, told broadcaster TGRT in an interview that more steps would follow the peshmerga decision and that the prime ministers of Turkey and Iraq would meet soon.

Turkey, which is home to the region’s largest Kurdish population, is battling a three-decade Kurdish insurgency in its southeast, which borders northern Iraq.


President Tayyip Erdogan said it was inevitable that the referendum “adventure” in northern Iraq, carried out despite Turkey’s warnings, would end in disappointment.

“With its independence initiative, the northern Iraq regional government has thrown itself into the fire,” he said in a speech to police officers at his palace in Ankara.

Earlier this week, Erdogan said Iraqi Kurds would go hungry if his country halted the flow of trucks and oil across the border, near where Turkish and Iraqi soldiers have been carrying out military exercises this week.

Hundreds of thousands of barrels of oil a day flow through a pipeline in Turkey from northern Iraq, connecting the region to global oil markets.

Erdogan has repeatedly threatened economic sanctions, but has given few details.

Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said Turkey would not shy away from giving the harshest response to a national security threat on its border, but that this was not its first choice.

Speaking in the central Turkish province of Corum, Yildirim said Turkey, Iran and Iraq were doing their best to overcome the crisis caused by the referendum with the minimum damage.

Iraq, including the Kurdish region, was Turkey’s third-largest export market in 2016, according to IMF data. Turkish exports to the country totalled $8.6 billion, behind Germany and Britain.

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay, Ercan Gurses and Ezgi Erkoyun; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan and John Stonestreet)

Iraqi Kurdish leader says ‘yes’ vote won independence referendum

Kurds celebrate to show their support for the independence referendum in Erbil, Iraq September 25, 2017. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

By Maher Chmaytelli and Ahmed Rasheed

BAGHDAD/ERBIL, Iraq (Reuters) – Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani said on Tuesday that Kurds had voted “yes” to independence in a referendum held in defiance of the government in Baghdad and which had angered their neighbors and their U.S. allies.

The Kurds, who have ruled over an autonomous region within Iraq since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, consider Monday’s referendum to be an historic step in a generations-old quest for a state of their own.

Iraq considers the vote unconstitutional, especially as it was held not only within the Kurdish region itself but also on disputed territory held by Kurds elsewhere in northern Iraq.

The United States, major European countries and neighbors Turkey and Iran strongly opposed the decision to hold the referendum, which they described as destabilizing at a time when all sides are still fighting against Islamic State militants.

In a televised address, Barzani said the “yes” vote had won and he called on Iraq’s central government in Baghdad to engage in “serious dialogue” instead of threatening the Kurdish Regional Government with sanctions.

The Iraqi government earlier ruled out talks on Kurdish independence and Turkey threatened to impose a blockade.

“We may face hardship but we will overcome,” Barzani said, calling on world powers “to respect the will of millions of people” who voted in the referendum.

Earlier, the Kurdish Rudaw TV channel said an overwhelming majority, possibly over 90 percent, had voted “yes”. Final results are expected by Wednesday.

Celebrations continued until the early hours of Tuesday in Erbil, capital of the Kurdish region, which was lit by fireworks and adorned with Kurdish red-white-green flags. People danced in the squares as convoys of cars drove around honking their horns.

In ethnically mixed Kirkuk, where Arabs and Turkmen opposed the vote, authorities lifted an overnight curfew imposed to maintain control. Kirkuk, located atop huge oil resources, is outside the Kurdish region but controlled by Kurdish forces that occupied it in 2014 after driving out Islamic State fighters.

In neighboring Iran, which also has a large Kurdish minority, thousands of Kurds marched in support of the referendum, defying a show of strength by Tehran which flew fighter jets over their areas.

The referendum has fueled fears of a new regional conflict. Turkey, which has fought a Kurdish insurgency within its borders for decades, reiterated threats of economic and military retaliation.

Barzani, who is president of the Kurdish Regional Government, has said the vote is not binding, but meant to provide a mandate for negotiations with Baghdad and neighboring countries over the peaceful secession of the region from Iraq.


Baghdad said there would be no such talks.

“We are not ready to discuss or have a dialogue about the results of the referendum because it is unconstitutional,” Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said on Monday night.

Abadi ordered the Kurds to hand over control of their airports to the central government within three days or face an international embargo on flights.

Abadi, a moderate from Iraq’s Shi’ite Arab majority, is coming under pressure at home to take punitive measures against the Kurds. Hardline Iranian-backed Shi’ite groups have threatened to march on Kirkuk.

“We as Popular Mobilisation would be fully prepared to carry out orders from Abadi if he asks to liberate Kirkuk and the oilfields from the separatist militias,” said Hashim al-Mouasawi, a spokesman for the al-Nujabaa paramilitary group.

The Kurds, who speak their own language related to Persian, were left without a state of their own when the Ottoman empire crumbled a century ago. Around 30 million are scattered in northern Iraq, southastern Turkey and parts of Syria and Iran.

The autonomous region they control in Iraq is the closest the Kurds have come in modern times to a state. It has flourished, largely remaining at peace while the rest of Iraq has been in a continuous state of civil war for 14 years.

Since the fall of Saddam, they have had to carefully balance their ambitions for full independence with the threat of a backlash from their neighbors and the reluctance of Washington to redraw borders.

In the past four years they achieved a measure of economic independence by opening a route to sell oil through pipelines to a port in Turkey. But that still leaves them at the mercy of Ankara, which draws a firm line at formal independence.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan warned that Iraqi Kurds would go hungry if Turkey imposed sanctions, and said military and economic measures could be used against them.

“This referendum decision, which has been taken without any consultation, is treachery,” he said, repeating threats to cut off the pipeline.

The Kurds say the referendum acknowledges their contribution in confronting Islamic State after it overwhelmed the Iraqi army in 2014 and seized control of a third of Iraq.

Voters were asked to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the question: “Do you want the Kurdistan Region and Kurdistani areas outside the (Kurdistan) Region to become an independent country?”

Iraqi soldiers joined Turkish troops for military exercises in southeast Turkey on Tuesday near the border with the Kurdistan region. Turkey also took the Rudaw TV channel off its satellite service TurkSat.


Iraq’s Kurds have been close allies of the United States since Washington offered them protection from Saddam in 1991. But the United States has long encouraged the Kurds to avoid unilateral steps so as not to jeopardize the stability of Iraq or antagonize Turkey.

The U.S. State Department said it was “deeply disappointed” by the decision to conduct the referendum but Washington’s relationship with region’s people would not change.

Asked about the referendum, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Monday: “We hope for a unified Iraq to annihilate ISIS (Islamic State) and certainly a unified Iraq to push back on Iran.”

The European Union regretted that the Kurds had failed to heed its call not to hold the referendum and said Iraqi unity remained essential in facing the threat from Islamic State.

The Kremlin said Moscow backed the territorial integrity of countries in the region. Unlike other powers, Russia had not directly called on the Kurds to cancel the referendum. Moscow has quietly pledged billions of dollars in investment in the past year, becoming the biggest funders of the Kurds.

Iran banned flights to and from Kurdistan on Sunday, while Baghdad asked foreign countries to stop oil trading with the Kurdish region and demanded that the KRG hand over control of its international airports and border posts with Iran, Turkey and Syria.

Iranian Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top adviser to the Supreme Leader, called on “the four neighboring countries to block land borders” with the Iraqi Kurdish region, according to state news agency IRNA. Tehran supports Shi’ite Muslim groups that are powerful in Baghdad.

Syria, embroiled in a civil war and whose Kurds are pressing ahead with their own self-determination, also rejected the referendum.

KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani said he hoped to maintain good relations with Turkey.

“The referendum does not mean independence will happen tomorrow, nor are we redrawing borders,” he said in Erbil on Monday. “If the ‘yes’ vote wins, we will resolve our issues with Baghdad peacefully.”

(Additional reporting by Ece Toksabay in ANKARA and Umit Bektas in HABUR, Turkey; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Peter Graff and Giles Elgood)

U.S.-backed forces capture Islamic State-held airport near Euphrates dam

Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters walk near damaged ground east of Raqqa city, Syria.

By Angus McDowall and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – A U.S.-backed Syrian alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias on Sunday took a military airport in northern Syria held by Islamic State, close to the country’s largest dam that may be in danger of collapse.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by a U.S.-led international coalition, said in a statement it had seized the air base.

Earlier, SDF spokesman Talal Silo said its fighters had seized “60 to 70 percent” of the airport but were still engaged in intense clashes with the ultra-hardline militants inside the air base and on its outskirts.

The SDF, backed by U.S. special forces in a campaign that has driven Islamic State from large swathes of northern Syria, fights separately from other rebel groups that seek to topple President Bashar al-Assad’s rule.

The SDF has been battling the militants near the Tabqa dam and air base west of the Syrian city of Raqqa in an accelerating campaign to capture Islamic State’s stronghold.

Hundreds of families were fleeing the city of Tabqa to the relative safety of outlying areas as U.S.-led coalition air strikes intensified in the past few days, according to former residents in touch with relatives.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war in Syria, said a week-long campaign of U.S-led strikes on Tabqa and the western countryside of Raqqa province had killed at least 90 civilians, a quarter of them children, while injuring dozens.

A media representative for the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State said it was looking into the Observatory’s assertion.

Last week, the Pentagon said there were no indications a U.S.-led coalition air strike near Raqqa had hit civilians, in response to an Observatory statement that at least 33 people were killed in a strike that hit a school sheltering displaced people near the city. The Pentagon added it would carry out further investigations.

A group of civic bodies and local and tribal notables from Raqqa province warned of an impending humanitarian crisis in the city of Raqqa as a result of the escalating campaign to seize the de facto capital of the militants.

“We call for immediate efforts to save people and protect them,” the statement of the Turkey-based opposition-run Local Council of Raqqa Province said, urging the international coalition to provide safe passage to civilians and ending bombing of infrastructure in the fight against Islamic State.


The Pentagon said last Wednesday it had for the first time airdropped local ground forces behind enemy lines near Tabqa in a move aimed at retaking the major dam.

Islamic State said on its social media channels that Tabqa dam had been put out of service and all flood gates were closed. It said the dam was at risk of collapse because of air strikes and increased water levels.

Islamic State captured the Tabqa Dam, also known as the Euphrates Dam, which is about 40 km (25 miles) upstream from Raqqa and the air base, at the height of its expansion in Syria and Iraq in 2014.

The United Nations warned this year of catastrophic flooding in Syria from the Tabqa dam, which is at risk from high water levels, deliberate sabotage by Islamic State and further damage from air strikes by the U.S.-led coalition.

The director of the Syrian government’s General Authority of Euphrates Dam that formerly operated the huge project blamed U.S. strikes in the past two days for disrupting internal control systems and putting the dam out of service, and warned of growing risks that could lead to flooding and future collapses.

“Before the latest strikes by the Americans, the dam was working. Two days ago, the dam was functioning normally,” Nejm Saleh told Reuters.

“God forbid … there could be collapses or big failures that could lead to flooding,” Saleh said.

An SDF spokesman denied that coalition strikes hit the structure of the dam and said the air drop landing last week was conducted to prevent any damage to the main structure by engaging the militants away from the dam.

“The capture of the dam is being conducted slowly and carefully and this is why the liberation of the dam needs more time,” Silo said, adding that militants dug inside the dam knowing they would not be hit for fear of damaging the dam.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it had also learned from its own sources that the dam had stopped functioning but that Islamic State remained in control of its main operational buildings and turbines.

The dam is about 4.5 km (2.8 miles) long. The SDF has advanced a small distance along the dam from the northern bank but its progress is slow because Islamic State has heavily mined the area, the Observatory said.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut and Suleiman Al-Khalidi in Amman; Additional reporting by Kinda Makieh in Damascus and Jason Lange in Washington; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Peter Cooney)

Sunni tribesmen battling Islamic State demand federalism in Iraq

Members of the Lions of the Tigris, a group of Sunni Arab fighters and part of the Hashid Shaabi (Popular Mobilization Comimittee) take part during a military operation against Islamic State militants in Shayyalah al-Imam, Iraq

SHAYYALAH AL-IMAM, Iraq (Reuters) – As mortar bombs landed ever closer, Sunni tribal fighters preparing to attack Islamic State seemed more preoccupied by the failures of Iraq’s political class than the militants trying to kill them.

The men – and one woman – from the Lions of the Tigris unit gathered on Wednesday in Shayyalah al-Imam, a village near Mosul, with some of their leaders expressing deep distrust of the politicians and saying Iraq’s governance must change once Islamic State is defeated.

“Iraq needs serious reforms,” said Sheikh Mohammed al-Jibouri, the top commander of the tribesmen. “Only serious reforms will lead to the unity of Iraq.”

The unit is part of the Popular Mobilisation Committee, or Hashid Shaabi, which was formed to take on Islamic State after the hardline Sunni group swept through northern Iraq in 2014, facing little resistance from the army.

Hashid Shaabi is mostly comprised of Shi’ites but there are also Sunnis, such as the 655-strong Lions of the Tigris unit.

Their efforts along with government soldiers to capture several villages are part of an offensive to oust Islamic State from its stronghold of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

On the surface, their participation lends credibility to the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, accused by Sunnis of marginalising their minority community. It denies the accusation.

Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi has been struggling to persuade Sunni tribesmen who helped U.S. forces defeat Al Qaeda during the 2003-11 occupation to join the battle against Islamic State. He has declared a war on corruption in government and army but faces resistance.

The show of force in Shayyalah al-Imam points to progress, with soldiers and tribesmen standing side-by-side.

But some of the men doubted the politicians have the resolve or desire to unify Iraq, gripped by sectarian bloodshed since the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein.

Another tribal commander, Abdel Rahman Ali, even saw Islamic State as part of an elaborate plot to weaken Sunnis, underlining the pervasive mistrust in Iraq.

“Everyone knows Islamic State will be defeated. The conspiracy was designed to hurt Iraq, especially Sunnis, after we liberate Mosul,” he told Reuters. “Our own politicians are behind it.”


Officials have said the Mosul offensive, the biggest ground operation since 2003, could make or break Iraq. If it inflames sectarian tensions in the predominantly Sunni city, the fighting could lead to Iraq’s partition, they warn.

But if the campaign goes smoothly and a new administration in Mosul is seen as non-sectarian, that could help the country to unite.

Ali said federalism modelled on the autonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq is the best option, even though that has created friction with Baghdad over oil resources.

Like many Sunnis, the minority who dominated under Saddam and then watched the majority Shi’ites rise to power, he is disillusioned with a governing system that allocates posts according to sects. Sunnis themselves are divided and lack a strong leadership, adding to Iraq’s fragmentation.

As the men spoke, Islamic State militants fired more mortar bombs towards their unit. One day earlier, suicide bombers attacked the area, a collection of bland cement houses choked by dust, overlooking the desert.

A few hundred metres away, soldiers stood on a rooftop, focused on two suspected car bombs in the distance.

Nashwan Sahn, a Sunni tribesmen who has been fighting Islamist militants in Iraq for 11 years, taking on al Qaeda and then Islamic State, kept warm at a small campfire where freshly-slaughtered chickens had been barbecued. A few raw livers lay scattered on a tray. Beside him was a Shi’ite soldier.

Both said they support Iraqi unity but neither had any faith in the politicians to manage the sectarian tensions which provoked a civil war in 2006-2007.

“Federalism would be good but only if we have good leaders,” said Sahn, who criticised all politicians including fellow Sunnis. “We liberate these villages where Sunnis live. Yet Sunni politicians who have constituents here have never visited us at the frontline.”

Miaad Madaad, the only female member of the Lions of the Tigris, clutched an AK-47 assault rifle and vowed to defeat Islamic State. “The last time they came to my house and threatened me I threw rocks at them and called them dogs,” she said proudly.

Islamic State militants beheaded her father-in-law and brother-in-law. But her story illustrates the sectarian and ethnic complexities and mistrust facing Iraq.

When she and her husband fled to the relatively stable Kurdish region earlier this year, he was arrested by Kurdish fighters who suspected him of being an Islamic State fighter.

(editing by David Stamp)