Freed Yazidi woman in Syria endured years of Islamic State slavery

Yazidi woman Salwa Sayed al-Omar, who escaped from the Islamic State, talks during an interview with Reuters near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, in Syria March 7, 2019. REUTERS/STRINGER

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – Salwa Sayed al-Omar spent years as a Yazidi prisoner of Islamic State but she escaped its clutches this week, fleeing its last populated enclave in east Syria along with two Iraqi boys pretending to be her brothers.

Islamic State overran the Yazidi faith’s heartland of Sinjar in northern Iraq in 2014, forcing young women into servitude as “wives” for its fighters and massacring men and older women.

The Yazidis are a religious sect whose beliefs combine elements of several ancient Middle Eastern religions. Islamic State considers them devil worshippers and its attacks on the group were condemned as a “genocide” by the United Nations.

“They took women, abused them and killed them,” said Omar, describing how jihadists bought and sold their Yazidi captives or passed them around as sexual slaves.

“A woman was shifted from one man to another unless it was to one who had a bit of mercy… if she was in good condition, she would carry on. If not, she would get married to avoid being abused,” she said.

Omar was eventually married to a Tajik jihadist.

As the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) besieged the enclave at Baghouz, some surviving Yazidi women and children emerged among many thousands of others fleeing deprivation and bombardment, including the group’s own unrepentant supporters.

The SDF is waiting to evacuate all civilians from the Baghouz enclave before forcing the remaining jihadists there to surrender or storming the tiny area by force.

Omar escaped along with two Iraqi children, Mustafa and Dia, who had been her neighbors for two years as their respective households moved through Syria together during Islamic State’s long retreat to Baghouz.

EATING GRASS

As Islamic State’s many enemies advanced against it, the group would move its captives from place to place. “They were hiding us in different places so we couldn’t be seen or helped,” Omar said.

Their Islamic State captors were “rigorous” in checking who left, said the teenage boys, Mustafa and Dia, who said they had stayed longer in the enclave to help Omar leave.

After a month of siege in the tiny pocket at Baghouz, a cluster of hamlets and farmland on the banks of the Euphrates at the Iraqi border, they were reduced to eating grass and hiding in holes when there was fighting, they said.

They all managed to get away from her “husband” by paying him money. Many Islamic State fighters remained in Baghouz as they left on Thursday, dug into tunnels under the area, the boys said.

Speaking in the desert outside Baghouz, where people who had left the enclave were searched, questioned and sorted between civilians and fighters, Omar spoke of how she had been captured.

“They took me from Iraq. They captured us on the road and said ‘we won’t do anything bad to you, but you must convert to Islam’. We were afraid to be killed so we converted,” she said.

It did not save them. After months of capture, the women were split from the men, whom she never saw again. Captured boys aged 7-15 were taken to be brainwashed and trained as Islamic State fighters, she said.

She was taken to Raqqa, the group’s Syrian “capital”, which fell to the SDF during Islamic State’s year of big defeats in 2017, and then down the Euphrates to Baghouz.

“Today I reached the democratic forces and they said ‘we will let you go out of the Islamic State’… and thank God, they helped me and let me out,” she said.

(Reporting By Reuters TV; additional reporting by Omar Fahmy in Cairo; writing by Angus McDowall in Beirut; Editing by Gareth Jones)

No pressure to withdraw from Syria by specific date: U.S. general

FILE PHOTO: General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) speaks during the Change of Command U.S. Naval Forces Central Command 5th Fleet Combined Maritime Forces ceremony at the U.S. Naval Base in Bahrain, May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The general overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East said on Thursday that he was under no pressure to withdraw forces from Syria by any specific date, after President Donald Trump ordered the drawdown of most U.S. troops from Syria.

“What is driving the withdrawal of course is our mission, which is the defeat of ISIS and so that is our principal focus and that is making sure that we protect our forces, that we don’t withdraw in a manner that increases the risk to our forces,” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

“There is not pressure on me to meet a specific date at this particular time,” Votel said.

Trump had ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria in December after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants in Syria. The abrupt decision sparked an outcry from allies and U.S. lawmakers and was a factor in Jim Mattis’ resignation as defense secretary.

But Trump was persuaded by advisers that about 200 U.S. troops would join what is expected to be a total commitment of about 800 to 1,500 troops from European allies to set up and observe a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria.

About 200 other U.S. troops will remain at the U.S. military outpost of Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Thousands of people could still be left inside Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said, as waves of evacuations from the tiny area continued on Thursday.

The SDF has said it wants to ensure all civilians have been evacuated before launching a final assault on the besieged enclave of Baghouz. It is the last shred of populated territory held by Islamic State, which once controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Votel said he believed that Islamic State militants being evacuated from the remaining territory controlled the militant group were largely “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized.” He said the militant group was waiting “for the right time to resurge.”

“We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and toxic ideology,” Votel added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Kushner, in Gulf, says U.S. Mideast peace plan addresses borders issue

ABU DHABI (Reuters) – White House adviser Jared Kushner, giving a broad outline of a U.S. peace plan for the Middle East, said it will address final-status issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including establishing borders.

In an interview broadcast on Monday on Sky News Arabia during a visit to U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states, Kushner made no specific mention of a Palestinian state, whose creation had been at the foundation of Washington’s peace efforts for two decades.

But he said the long-awaited peace proposal would build on “a lot of the efforts in the past”, including the 1990s Oslo accords that provided a foundation for Palestinian statehood, and would require concessions from both sides.

U.S. officials said that Kushner, who is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is expected to focus on the economic component of the plan during the week-long trip.

But in the interview, Kushner said the proposal also contained a “political plan, which is very detailed” and “really about establishing borders and resolving final-status issues”.

Kushner was given responsibility over Washington’s Israel-Palestinian policy, along with other top postings, after his father-in-law was inaugurated in January 2017.

Kushner’s reference to borders heated up Israel’s election campaign on Tuesday. Far-right politicians portrayed his comments as a harbinger to a Palestinian state they oppose.

Kushner said Washington would present the plan only after the April 9 vote.

Palestinians, who have refused to discuss any peace blueprint with the United States in the wake of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, also viewed Kushner’s comments with suspicion.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator in talks that collapsed in 2014, said on Twitter that “Trump’s map” envisaged “isolated territories for the Palestinians”.

REGIONAL TOUR

Israel has long rejected any return to what it has described as indefensible boundaries that existed before it captured the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip in the 1967 Middle East war.

Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel pulled troops and settlers out of the Gaza Strip, now controlled by Hamas Islamists, in 2005.

Kushner, Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, and Brian Hook, the State Department envoy for Iran, are due in Bahrain on Tuesday and will make stops in Oman, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. They are not expected to visit Israel.

The countries are the focus of U.S. efforts to widen the scope of its peace plan to include an economic element in which Gulf states could help the Palestinian economy.

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman last year provided private assurances to Palestinian President Mohammed Abbas that Riyadh would not endorse any peace plan that fails to address Jerusalem’s status or refugees’ right of return, diplomats said.

On the first leg of their regional tour, the U.S. officials held talks on Monday in the United Arab Emirates with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the U.S. Embassy said.

“We want to get advice from them (countries in the region) on what is the best way to proceed and share with them some of the details of what we will be pursuing, especially on the economic vision for all the opportunity that exists if there is peace,” Kushner told Sky News Arabia in Abu Dhabi.

In Israel, Naftali Bennett, leader of the New Right party, said Kushner remarks on borders proved “what we already know” – that Washington would press Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, should he win the ballot, to “allow the establishment of a Palestinian state”.

Responding to Bennett, a spokesman for Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, said the prime minister protected Israel and the “Land of Israel” – a reference to the occupied West Bank – “from the hostile Obama administration and will continue to do so with the friendly Trump administration”.

(Reporting by Stanley Carvalho; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alison Williams)

Coalition warplanes hit last Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria

A member of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands on a pick up truck mounted with a weapon near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/ Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-led coalition warplanes struck Islamic State’s last stronghold in eastern Syria and hundreds of civilians fled the besieged enclave on Monday as U.S.-backed fighters pressed their campaign to seize it.

Coalition jets roared overhead as columns of white smoke rose from the Islamic State-held Baghouz area a short distance from the Iraqi border, a Reuters witness said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have driven Islamic State (IS) from swathes of northern and eastern Syria with U.S.-led coalition support, launched an offensive on Saturday to capture the enclave in Deir al-Zor province.

The jihadists are putting up stiff resistance and had sought to counter-attack again on Monday morning, according to Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office. Around 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday, he added.

SDF combatants watched as a column of at least 17 trucks filled with men, women and children left Baghouz along a dusty track into SDF-held territory. Women and children were crammed into the back of one of the trucks.

Women and children sit at a back of a bus near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Women and children sit at a back of a bus near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Some of those fleeing identified themselves as Iraqis.

“It seems there are still many civilians inside Baghouz,” Bali said. “We are compelled to go cautiously and accurately in this battle.”

On the outskirts of Baghouz, the people who had left stood in lines to be questioned by coalition and SDF forces apparently trying to identify whether any were jihadists.

Ahead of launching the attack, the SDF said more than 20,000 civilians had left Baghouz in the preceeding 10 days.

The SDF believes 400 to 600 jihadists may be holed up there, including foreigners and other hardened militants.

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large tracts of Syria and Iraq. But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.

The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province after capturing Raqqa. Their operations have been focused in areas east of the Euphrates River.

To the west of the Euphrates, in territory otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies, Islamic State retains a foothold in mountainous terrain.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.

The top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday that the United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal.

Islamic State is still widely seen as a threat, however.

A top U.S. general said last week IS would be an enduring menace following the U.S. withdrawal, as it retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel further insurgency.

Italian freelance photographer Gabriele Micalizzi was wounded on Monday while covering the battles, Italian media reported. The reports said Micalizzi was badly hurt but had not suffered life-threatening injuries and was being flown to Baghdad where he would be evacuated to Italy.

(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

As revolution turns 40, Iran taunts U.S., vaunts military

Iranians burn U.S. flags during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Hundreds of thousands of Iranians marched and some burned U.S. flags on Monday to mark the 40th anniversary of the triumph of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Shi’ite cleric who toppled the Shah in an Islamic Revolution that rattles the West to this day.

On Feb 11, 1979, Iran’s army declared its neutrality, paving the way for the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the United States’ closest ally in the Middle East.

 

Iranian people gather during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Masoud Shahrestani/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

Iranian people gather during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Masoud Shahrestani/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

State TV showed crowds defying cold rainy weather and carrying Iranian flags while shouting “Death to Israel, Death to America,” trademark chants of the revolution which ousted the United States’ most important ally in the Middle East.

“Much to the dismay of America, the revolution has reached its 40th year,” read one banner.

Soldiers, students, clerics and black-clad women holding small children thronged streets across Iran, many carrying portraits of Khomeini, who died in 1989, and Iran’s current Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The large turnout in state-sponsored rallies came as Iranians face mounting economic hardships many blame on the country’s clerical leaders.

Last year, Iran cracked down on protests over poor living standards that posed the most serious challenge to its clerical leadership since a 2009 uprising over disputed elections.

Prices of basic foodstuffs, particularly meat, have soared since President Donald Trump withdrew Washington from the 2015 nuclear deal last year and reimposed sanctions.

In January, President Hassan Rouhani said Iran was facing its worst economic crisis since the Shah was toppled. But he remained defiant as Iranians recalled the end of a monarch who catered to the rich and unleashed secret police on dissenters.

In a speech at Tehran’s Azadi (Freedom) square, Rouhani said U.S. efforts to isolate Iran would fail.

“We will not let America become victorious. Iranian people have and will have some economic difficulties but we will overcome the problems by helping each other,” he said.

Iranians burn U.S. flags during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

Iranians burn U.S. flags during a ceremony to mark the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran, Iran February 11, 2019. Meghdad Madadi/Tasnim News Agency/via REUTERS

U.S. AND ISRAELI “DOGS”

Marchers carried cardboard cutouts of dogs. One had the face of Trump and the other the face of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Yadollah Javani, the Revolutionary Guards’s deputy head for political affairs, said Iran would demolish cities in Israel to the ground if the United States attacked the Islamic Republic.

“The United States does not have the courage to shoot a single bullet at us despite all its defensive and military assets,” he was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

State TV showed a cartoon of the Shah being thrown into the “dustbin of history”, wearing clothes in U.S. colors and holding Iranian newspapers headlined “The Shah has left!”

Khomeini returned from exile in France two weeks after the Shah and his wife flew to Aswan, Egypt. He was greeted by millions of supporters in Tehran. Revolutionaries later began executing supporters of the Shah including four top generals.

Washington and the Arab world have viewed Iran with

great suspicion since the Islamic Revolution, fearing Khomeini’s radical ideology would inspire militants across the Middle East.

Today, the United States and its Arab allies are trying to counter Tehran’s growing influence in the Middle East, where it has proxies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen.

“The world saw when Iran decided to help people of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Yemen, they achieved victory. The enemies are now confessing to their defeat,” said Rouhani.

Some Iranians criticize their leaders for what they say are foreign adventures which squander funds. Iranian leaders say they are protecting national interests.

Tehran was determined to expand its military power despite pressure from hostile states, Rouhani said.

Iran displayed its ballistic missile capabilities during a parade marking the anniversary, including the Zolfaqar, a ground-to-ground missile with a 700 km (435 miles) range and the Qiam, with a range of 800 km, according to Tasnim news agency.

Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the Revolutionary Guards deputy head, said Tehran would not withdraw forces from the region, dismissing U.S. calls for Iranian clout to be curbed.

(Additional reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafeddin in London and Babak Dehghanpisheh; Writing by Michael Georgy, Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, William Maclean)

U.S. to host Iran-focused global summit in Poland Feb. 13-14

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa after arriving at Manama International Airport in Manama, Bahrain, Jan. 11, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States plans to jointly host a global summit focused on the Middle East, particularly Iran, next month in Poland, the U.S. State Department said on Friday.

The gathering will take place in Warsaw from Feb. 13 to Feb. 14, it said in a statement.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News in an interview to air on Friday that the meeting would “focus on Middle East stability and peace and freedom and security here in this region, and that includes an important element of making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.”

Pompeo said the meeting would “bring together dozens of countries from all around the world, from Asia, from Africa, from Western Hemisphere countries, Europe too, the Middle East of course.”

The State Department did not immediately respond when asked which countries would attend. Its statement said there were strong shared interests in Middle East stability.

“The ministerial will address a range of critical issues including terrorism and extremism, missile development and proliferation, maritime trade and security, and threats posed by proxy groups across the region,” it said.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s top diplomat is visiting a number of Middle Eastern countries this week in an effort to shore up support in the region on a number of fronts, from the U.S. troop withdrawal from Syria to the Saudi-Qatar rift to the killing of U.S.-based Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Pompeo, in the middle of his eight-day trip through the region, has said the United States is “redoubling” its efforts to put pressure on Iran and sought to convince allies in the region that it was committed to fighting Islamic State despite Trump’s recent decision to pull U.S. troops out of Syria.

Pompeo told Fox News the summit would include representatives from countries around the world to address Iran’s regional influence as the Trump administration has sought to pressure Tehran.

Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Iran nuclear accord and moved to reimpose sanctions on Tehran, even as other partners in the deal – including China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom – have sought to maintain the agreement.

In a shift earlier this week, the European Union moved to impose some sanctions on Iran.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Brunnstrom in Washington and Lesley Wroughton in Cairo; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe, Susan Thomas and Jonathan Oatis)

U.S. withdrawal from Syria does not jeopardize efforts to counter Iran, Pompeo says

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) holds a news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi at the start of a Middle East tour in Amman, Jordan, January 8, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

MMAN (Reuters) – The U.S. decision to withdraw troops from Syria will not jeopardize Washington’s efforts to counter threats in the region, which come from Iran and Islamic State, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.

Pompeo was in Jordan, making his first visit to the Middle East since President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement that he will pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which caused alarm among U.S. allies in the region and prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The U.S. troops in Syria have been fighting against Islamic State and also served as a counterweight to the Syrian government, which is backed by Iran and Russia.

Many of Trump’s domestic and international critics have said that withdrawing the troops abruptly could expose Washington’s Kurdish allies to repression from Turkey, and also allow Iran to solidify its influence in Syria.

But Pompeo said Washington was not stepping down from its efforts to challenge Iran. American policymakers were “redoubling not only our diplomatic but our commercial efforts to put real pressure on Iran,” he said.

“There is enormous agreement on the risk that Iran poses to Jordan and other countries in the region,” Pompeo added.

Jordan, which has expressed worries in the past about Iranian influence, particularly near the Jordanian border in southern Syria, said Tehran should refrain from meddling in the affairs of its neighbors Syria and Iraq.

“We all have problems with Iran’s expansionist policies in the region,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.

(Reporting By Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Syrian surprise: How Trump’s phone call changed the war

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Orhan Coskun and Lesley Wroughton

ANKARA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s declaration in a phone call with Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border.

In the phone call two weeks ago, Trump had been expected to deliver a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to launch a cross-border attack targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, U.S. officials say.

Instead, in the course of the conversation, Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.

“Trump asked: ‘If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?'”, a Turkish official told Reuters. He said Erdogan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task.

“Then you do it,” Trump told him abruptly. To his national security adviser John Bolton, also on the call, Trump said: “Start work for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.”

“I have to say it was an unexpected decision. The word ‘surprise’ is too weak to describe the situation,” said the official, one of five Turkish sources who spoke to Reuters about the Dec. 14 call between the two leaders.

Trump’s decision was also a shock in Washington, where senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, tried for days to change the president’s mind, U.S. officials said. When Trump made clear he would not back down, Mattis and a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, both resigned.

On a visit to a U.S. air base in Iraq this week, Trump said that military commanders had repeatedly requested extensions for the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria – requests that he finally turned down because he said Islamic State was largely beaten.

“We’ve knocked them silly. I will tell you I’ve had some very good talks with President Erdogan who wants to knock them out also, and he’ll do it,” he told American troops.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

RISK FOR TURKEY

For Turkey, Trump’s decision offers opportunity and risk.

Ankara has complained bitterly for years that the United States, a NATO ally, had chosen the Kurdish YPG militia as its main partner on the ground in Syria against Islamic State.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey in which 40,000 people have been killed.

The U.S. withdrawal potentially frees Turkey’s military to push the YPG back from 500 km of the border without risking a confrontation with American forces. It also removes a main cause of this year’s diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

But it also opens up an area of Syria far larger than anything Turkey had expected to fill, potentially pitting it against not just Kurdish forces but also the Damascus government – which is committed to regaining control of all of Syria – and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The YPG on Friday asked the Syrian government to take over the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish militia currently controls with U.S. support, to protect it from Turkish attack.

And if Turkish forces are to take on Islamic State in its last pocket of Syrian territory near the Iraqi border, they would first have to cross 250 km of territory controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Erdogan got more than he bargained for,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute. “He had asked the U.S. to drop the YPG, but not withdraw from Syria”.

Erdogan has for years backed rebels who once hoped to topple Bashar al-Assad, but the Syrian president’s survival has been assured by support from Tehran and Moscow even though the north and east – including Syrian oilfields – remain beyond Assad’s control for now.

As it takes stock of the new challenge, Turkey is launching intensive talks with Washington and Moscow. Ankara expects U.S. military officials to visit within days, as well as Bolton and possibly the U.S. special Syria envoy, James Jeffrey.

Turkey’s intelligence chief and defense and foreign ministers are also due in Moscow on Saturday, the spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party said.

“Of course it will be difficult. The whole issue needs to be planned again from the start,” a Turkish security official said.

A U.S. official said military planners were drafting plans that could see a withdrawal over the course of several months. One of the proposals under consideration is a 120-day withdrawal period, according to a person familiar with discussions.

Washington is also grappling with what to do with weapons it provided to the YPG militia and promised to take back after the campaign against Islamic State ended.

Turkey says the weapons must be collected so they are not used against Turkish troops, but U.S. officials say they cannot disarm their own allies when the fight is not yet over.

Erdogan announced last week Turkey is postponing its planned military operation against the YPG in light of Trump’s decision.

The Turkish military has already carried out two incursions into north Syria, backed by pro-Turkey Syrian rebels. In 2016 they targeted Islamic State and Kurdish fighters, and earlier this year took control of the YPG-held Afrin region.

But Ankara and its Syrian rebel allies alone do not have the capacity to take over the whole region which the United States is abandoning, Cagaptay said. Turkey’s priority, therefore, may be to secure its southern frontier.

“Distancing the YPG from the border and wiping out these elements is of critical importance,” the security official said.

He stressed the need for careful coordination over who should fill other areas which departing U.S. forces will leave, and warned of problems ahead if agreement could not be reached.

“Is it a big victory for Turkey?” another official said. “I’m not sure right now.”

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Humeyra Pamuk and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

U.S. to end air war against Islamic State in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Ellen Francis

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United States will end its air campaign against Islamic State in Syria when it pulls out troops, U.S. officials said, sealing an abrupt reversal of policy which has alarmed Western allies as well as Washington’s Kurdish battle partners.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been fighting Islamic State with U.S. support for three years, said President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of troops would grant the militants breathing space to regroup at a critical stage in the conflict and leave Syrians stuck between “the claws of hostile parties” fighting for territory in the seven-year-old war.

Trump’s announcement on Wednesday upended a central pillar of American policy in the Middle East and stunned U.S. lawmakers and allies.

Western allies including France, Britain and Germany described Trump’s assertion of victory as premature. France, a leading member of the U.S.-led coalition, said it would keep its troops in northern Syria for now because Islamic State militants had not been wiped out.

Trump defended his decision on Thursday, tweeting that he was fulfilling a promise from his 2016 presidential campaign to leave Syria. The United States was doing the work of other countries, including Russia and Iran, with little in return and it was “time for others to finally fight,” he wrote.

U.S. officials said Trump’s order to withdraw troops also signifies an end to the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, which has been critical to rolling back the militants there and in neighboring Iraq, with more than 100,000 bombs and missiles fired at targets in the two countries since 2015.

The SDF, supported by about 2,000 U.S. troops, are in the final stages of a campaign to recapture areas seized by the militants.

But they face the threat of a military incursion by Turkey, which considers the Kurdish YPG fighters who spearhead the force to be a terrorist group, and Syrian forces – backed by Russia and Iran – committed to restoring President Bashar al-Assad’s control over the whole country.

The SDF said the battle against Islamic State had reached a decisive phase that required more support, not a precipitate U.S. withdrawal.

THREAT ALIVE

France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said: “For now, of course we are staying in Syria because the fight against Islamic State is essential.”

France has about 1,100 troops in Iraq and Syria providing logistics, training and heavy artillery support as well as fighter jets. In Syria, it has dozens of special forces, military advisers and some foreign office personnel.

A British junior defense minister said he disagreed with Trump. “(Islamic State) has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” Tobias Ellwood said.

Islamic State declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

According to U.S. estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 square kms (39,000 square miles) of territory, with about 8 million people under Islamic State control. It had estimated revenues of nearly $1 billion a year.

A senior U.S. official last week said the group was down to its last 1 percent of the territory it once held. It has no remaining territory in Iraq, although militants have resumed insurgent attacks since the group’s defeat there last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he largely agreed with Trump that Islamic State had been defeated in Syria but added there was a risk it could recover.

He also questioned what Trump’s announcement would mean in practical terms, saying there was no sign yet of a withdrawal of U.S. forces whose presence in Syria Moscow says is illegitimate.

Israel will continue to act “very aggressively against Iran’s efforts to entrench in Syria,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Neighboring Turkey, which has threatened an imminent military incursion targeting the U.S.-allied Kurdish YPG fighters in northern Syria, has not commented directly on Trump’s decision, although an end to the U.S.-Kurdish partnership will be welcomed in Ankara.

Kurdish militants east of the Euphrates in Syria “will be buried in their ditches when the time comes”, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey has intervened to sweep YPG and Islamic State fighters from parts of northern Syria that lie west of the Euphrates over the past two years. It has not gone east of the river, partly to avoid direct confrontation with U.S. forces.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Ten die of MERS in Saudi Arabia among 32 cases in last three months: WHO

The headquarters of the World Health Organization are pictured in Geneva

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Ten people have died among 32 infected with Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in Saudi Arabia since June in a series of clusters of the viral disease, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Wednesday.

The latest cases, recorded between June 1 and September 16, bring the global total of laboratory-confirmed MERS cases to 2,254, with 800 deaths, the United Nations agency said in a “disease outbreak” statement on its website.

MERS first emerged in humans in Saudi Arabia in 2012 and has since spread to cause outbreaks in dozens of countries around the world. The vast majority of the cases – around 1,800 of them – have been in Saudi Arabia.

The virus MERS can cause severe respiratory disease in people and kills one in three of those it infects. It is thought to be carried by camels and comes from the same family as the coronavirus that caused China’s deadly Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.

Most of the known human-to-human transmission of the disease has occurred in healthcare settings, and the WHO has warned hospitals and medical workers to take stringent precautions to stop the disease from spreading.

The WHO said these latest cases did not change its overall assessment that the virus poses a risk of spreading both within and beyond the Middle East.

“WHO expects that additional cases … will be reported from the Middle East, and that cases will continue to be exported to other countries,” its statement said.

The disease spread into South Korea in 2015 and killed 38 people in a major outbreak. And in its first case in three years, South Korea said last month that a 61-year-old man had been diagnosed with MERS.

Among the 32 latest Saudi cases, 12 were part of “five distinct clusters”, the WHO said. Four of these were within households or families, and the fifth was in a hospital in Buraidah, a city in Qassim Province north of the capital Riyadh.

(Reporting by Kate Kelland, Editing by William Maclean)