‘Very, very nasty’: Trump clashes with Macron before NATO summit

By Michel Rose and Estelle Shirbon

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump and French leader Emmanuel Macron clashed over the future of NATO on Tuesday before a summit intended to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Western military alliance.

In sharp exchanges underlining discord in a transatlantic bloc hailed by backers as the most successful military pact in history, Trump demanded that Europe pay more for its collective defense and make concessions to U.S. interests on trade.

Macron, the French president, stood by comments he made last month describing NATO as suffering from a lack of strategic purpose akin to “brain death”, and criticized fellow NATO member Turkey, which he accused of working with Islamic State proxies.

Washington and Paris have long argued over NATO’s purpose – France opposed the 2003 Iraq war – but the new tensions will add to doubts over the alliance’s future that have grown with Trump’s ambivalence over U.S. commitments to defend Europe.

Trump said Macron’s criticism of NATO was “very, very nasty” and questioned whether the U.S. military should defend any countries that were “delinquent” on alliance targets for national military spending.

“It’s not right to be taken advantage of on NATO and also then to be taken advantage of on trade, and that’s what happens. We can’t let that happen,” Trump said of transatlantic disputes on issues ranging from the aerospace sector to a European digital services tax on U.S. technology giants.

All 29 member states have a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic product on defense and Trump has singled out Germany for falling short of that goal.

But Macron stood by his criticism of NATO and said its real problem was a failure to forge a clear purpose since the end of the Cold War.

“If we invest money and put our soldiers’ lives at risk in theaters of operation we must be clear about the fundamentals of NATO,” he said in a tweet at the end of a day overshadowed by tensions between the French and U.S. leaders.

A French presidency official said Trump often makes strident statements ahead of bilateral meetings and cools his rhetoric later. He noted that Macron and Trump “exchanged jokes and were very relaxed” at a joint news conference in London.

COLLECTIVE DEFENSE AT STAKE

Turkey threatened to block a plan to defend Baltic states and Poland against Russian attacks unless NATO backed Ankara in recognizing the Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists.

The YPG’s fighters have long been U.S. and French allies against Islamic State in Syria. Turkey considers them an enemy because of links to Kurdish insurgents in southeastern Turkey.

“If our friends at NATO do not recognize as terrorist organizations those we consider terrorist organizations … we will stand against any step that will be taken there,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said before traveling to London.

Erdogan has already strained alliance ties with a move to buy Russian air defense systems. Trump said he was looking at imposing sanctions on Ankara over the issue.

The uncertainty over the plan for Poland and the Baltic states, drawn up at their request after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, raises issues about security on all of NATO’s frontiers.

Under the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s 1949 founding treaty, an attack on one ally is an attack on all its members, and the alliance has military strategies for collective defense across its territory.

The summit, in a hotel in Hertfordshire just outside London, begins on Wednesday.

On Tuesday evening, alliance leaders attended a reception hosted by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace.

The British monarch, in a teal-colored matching jacket and skirt, greeted the summiteers and accompanying partners, including former fashion model Melania Trump, who was wearing a bright yellow dress with matching cape and purple sleeves.

They were then welcomed to 10 Downing Street by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, host of the summit a little over a week before the country faces an election.

Several hundred protesters gathered in London’s Trafalgar Square, holding placards reading: “Dump Trump” and “No to racism, no to Trump”. A police line divided them from a small group of Trump supporters wearing Make America Great Again caps, waving American flags and shouting: “Build the wall”.

In Washington on Tuesday, Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives laid out their impeachment case against Trump, accusing him of using the powers of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election.

Hoping to placate Trump, Europe, Turkey and Canada will pledge at the summit some $400 billion in defense spending by 2024, and agree to a reduction of the U.S. contribution to fund the alliance itself.

The allies will approve a new strategy to monitor China’s growing military activity, and identify space as a domain of warfare, alongside air, land, sea and computer networks.

Trump said he believed Russia wanted deals on arms control and nuclear issues, and that he would be willing to bring China into such accords.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, Phil Stewart, Robin Emmott and Iona Serrapica in London, Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Joanna Plucinska in Warsaw and Vladimir Soldatkin in Moscow; Writing by Mark John and John Chalmers; Editing by Timothy Heritage and Peter Cooney)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. senators want Turkey sanctioned over Russia missile system: letter

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Republican U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen called on the Trump administration on Monday to impose sanctions on Turkey over its purchase of a Russian missile defense system, saying the failure to do so sends a “terrible signal” to other countries.

“The time for patience has long expired. It is time you applied the law,” Van Hollen and Graham said in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo seen by Reuters. “Failure to do so is sending a terrible signal to other countries that they can flout U.S. laws without consequence,” they said.

Ankara and Washington have been at loggerheads over NATO ally Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 system, which Washington says is not compatible with NATO defenses and poses a threat to its F-35 stealth fighter jets, which Lockheed Martin Corp is developing.

Infuriating many members of Congress, Turkey shrugged off the threat of U.S. sanctions and began receiving its first S-400 deliveries in July. In response, Washington removed Turkey from the F-35 program.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has held off on imposing sanctions despite Trump signing a sweeping sanctions law, known as CAATSA, in 2017 mandating them for countries that do business with Russia’s military.

U.S. lawmakers’ anger toward Turkey deepened after Ankara crossed into Syria for an offensive against Kurdish militias that had helped U.S. forces combat Islamic State militants.

Normally an ardent defender of fellow-Republican Trump, Graham and some others in his party have been harshly critical of the president’s decision to withdraw troops from northeastern Syria, paving the way for the Turkish move against Kurdish fighters.

Van Hollen and Graham have been among the most vocal senators calling for Washington to push back against Turkey.

Trump hosted his Turkish counterpart, Tayyip Erdogan, at the White House for a meeting last month that Trump described as “wonderful.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter. Pompeo said on Nov. 26 that Turkey carrying out tests on the Russian defense system was “concerning,” and that talks to resolve the issue were still under way.

The same day, the head of Russia’s state arms exporter, Rosoboronexport, was cited as saying that Moscow hoped to seal a deal to supply Turkey with more S-400 missile systems in the first half of 2020.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

In gesture to Trump, US allies close to deal to pay more for NATO running costs

By Robin Emmott

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – NATO allies are closing in on a deal to contribute more to allied running costs to reduce the United States’ share of funding, three diplomats familiar with the matter said.

Agreement would meet a demand by U.S. President Donald Trump, though France has made clear it will have no part in the deal, which the alliance hopes to reach before its 70th anniversary summit in London next week.

Trump has accused European allies, especially Europe’s biggest economy Germany, of taking U.S. protection for granted and says they need to spend much more on their own defense.

The reform of financing for the U.S.-led military alliance would seal months of negotiations after NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg put forward a proposal.

The agreement would mean European allies, Turkey and Canada contribute more towards the annual $2.5-billion budget to run the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation headquarters, international staff and military assets under NATO command.

Compared to the hundreds of billions of dollars that allies spend on their armed forces each year, it is a small sum. But it is one that allies hope would silence Trump’s statement in July 2018 that the United States “pays tens of billions of dollars too much to subsidize Europe”.

“It is a political gesture,” one senior NATO diplomat of the possible deal. “There is no alliance without the Americans.”

France opposed the proposal long before President Emmanuel Macron described the alliance on Nov. 7 as “experiencing brain death”, French diplomats have said.

With 30,000 troops deployed and ships across the world, Paris says it already does more than its fair share in defense, maintaining a high level of combat readiness of French forces and pouring billions of euros into defense research.

Paris will not block the proposal, but will abstain, the three NATO diplomats said.

France’s defense spending is higher than Germany’s as a percentage of economic output, data shows. Paris says it will also meet a NATO target to spend 2% of national output on defense by 2025 at the latest, while Germany will reach that level only in 2031, according to French and German officials.

NUMBERS GAME

Canada has said its support for the funding agreement should not set a precedent for other international organizations, the diplomats said. Italy has yet to decide its position, they said.

All 29 NATO member states contribute to the budget on an agreed formula based on gross national income, but this formula would change after the proposed reform.

“It will be a more cumbersome mechanism,” a second NATO diplomat said.

Under the proposal being negotiated for the 2021 budget, the U.S. contribution to the alliance’s annual budget would fall to around 16% from 22%. Germany’s would rise to the same level as the United States and others’ contributions would also rise.

Only seven NATO countries currently meet or exceed the NATO target of spending 2% of national output on defense – the United States, Britain, Greece, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Turkey starts repatriating Islamic State detainees

Turkey starts repatriating Islamic State detainees
By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey said on Monday it had deported two captives from Islamic State, a German and an American, starting a program to repatriate detainees that has caused friction with its NATO allies since it launched an offensive in northern Syria.

Ankara says it has captured 287 militants in northeast Syria and already holds hundreds more Islamic State suspects. It has accused European countries of being too slow to take back citizens who traveled to fight in the Middle East.

Allies have been worried that Islamic State militants could escape as a result of Turkey’s assault against Syrian Kurdish militia who have been holding thousands of the group’s fighters and tens of thousands of their family members.

Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu had said last week Turkey would begin to send foreign Islamic State militants back to their home countries starting on Monday, even if the nations the fighters came from had revoked their citizenship.

Ministry spokesman Ismail Catakli said one American and one German were deported on Monday. He did not specify where they were sent, although Turkey has repeatedly said detainees would be sent to their native countries.

The 23 others to be deported in coming days were all European, including a Dane expected to be sent abroad later on Monday, as well as two Irish nationals, nine other Germans and 11 French citizens.

“Efforts to identify the nationalities of foreign fighters captured in Syria have been completed, with their interrogations 90% finished and the relevant countries notified,” Catakli said, according to state-owned Anadolu news agency.

Germany’s foreign ministry said Ankara had informed Berlin of 10 people – three men, five women and two children. A spokesman said he did not know whether any were Islamic State fighters, but did not contest their citizenship. The ministry said seven were expected on Thursday and two on Friday.

“Citizens can rest assured that each individual case will be carefully examined by the German authorities,” Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said. “We will do everything possible to prevent returnees with links to IS becoming a threat in Germany.”

The Danish Public Prosecutor said on Monday that Denmark and Turkey were in contact over a Danish citizen convicted of terrorism charges in Turkey.

While German and Danish authorities have confirmed they were aware of the Turkish plans, French Defence Minister Florence Parly said she was not aware of them.

A Dutch court in The Hague ruled on Monday that the Netherlands must help repatriate children of women who joined IS, but the mothers do not need to be accepted back.

SYRIA OFFENSIVE

Turkey launched its offensive into northeastern Syria against the Kurdish YPG militia last month, following President Donald Trump’s decision to move U.S. troops out of the way.

The YPG, the main element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and a U.S. ally against Islamic State, has kept thousands of jihadists in jails across northeast Syria and has also overseen camps where relatives of fighters have sought shelter. Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist group.

The Turkish offensive prompted concern over the fate of the prisoners, with Turkey’s Western allies and the SDF warning it could hinder the fight against Islamic State and aid its resurgence.

Turkey has rejected those concerns and vowed to combat Islamic State with its allies. It has also accused the YPG of vacating some Islamic State jails.

European states are trying to speed up a plan to move thousands of jihadists out of Syrian prisons and into Iraq. Denmark, Germany and Britain have revoked the citizenship of some fighters and family members.

Last week Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan was quoted as saying there were 1,201 Islamic State prisoners in Turkish jails, while Turkey had captured 287 militants in Syria.

On Monday, state broadcaster TRT Haber said Turkey aimed to repatriate around 2,500 militants, mostly to EU countries. It said there were 813 militants at 12 deportation centers.

Erdogan said Turkey had captured 13 people from the inner circle of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who died during a U.S. raid last month.

(Additional reporting by Michael Nienaber and Thomas Escritt in Berlin, Nikolaj Skydsgaard and Stine Jacobsen in Copenhagen, Sophie Louet in Paris, Anthony Deutsch and Toby Sterling in Amsterdam; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Peter Graff)

Pompeo says NATO must change, or risk becoming obsolete

Pompeo says NATO must change, or risk becoming obsolete
By Paul Carrel

BERLIN (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday NATO must grow and change or risk becoming obsolete, a day after French President Emmanuel Macron said the alliance was dying.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has rejected Macron’s comments, in an interview with British weekly The Economist, as “drastic” and Pompeo said on Thursday the alliance was perhaps one of the most important “in all recorded history”.

But he acknowledged the need for NATO to evolve in a question-and-answer session after delivering a speech in Berlin on Friday, one day before the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

“Seventy years on … it (NATO) needs to grow and change,” he replied. “It needs to confront the realities of today and the challenges of today.”

“If nations believe that they can get the security benefit without providing NATO the resources that it needs, if they don’t live up to their commitments, there is a risk that NATO could become ineffective or obsolete,” he said.

NATO was founded in 1949 to provide collective security against the Soviet Union and is preparing for a summit in London on Dec. 4.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg wants to project an image of unity when Chinese military might is growing and Russia is accused of trying to undermine Western democracies through cyber attacks, disinformation campaigns and covert operations.

CRITICISM OF CHINA, RUSSIA, IRAN

In his speech, Pompeo criticized Russia’s treatment of political foes and said China used methods against its people that would be “horrifyingly familiar to former East Germans.”

Reflecting on the lessons learnt from the Wall coming down, he said “the West – all of us – lost our way in the afterglow of that proud moment.”

“We thought we could divert our resources away from alliances, and our militaries. We were wrong,” he said. “Today, Russia – led by a former KGB officer once stationed in Dresden ‒ invades its neighbors and slays political opponents.”

Europe’s energy supplies should not depend on Russian President Vladimir Putin, he said.

Pompeo said it would be irrational to consider Russia a “worthy partner” in the Middle East though Washington wanted other countries’ help put pressure on Iran to resume negotiations over its nuclear program and to “cut off its ability to fund terrorist proxies”.

Pompeo said the Chinese Communist Party was “shaping a new vision of authoritarianism” and warned Germany about using Chinese telecom equipment vendor Huawei Technologies <HWT.UL> to build its fifth-generation data network (5G).

In Beijing, China’s Foreign Ministry criticized Pompeo over earlier comments about the Chinese Communist Party, saying those remarks had been “extremely dangerous” and exposed his “sinister intentions”.

(Editing by Thomas Escritt and Timothy Heritage)

On Norway’s icy border with Russia, unease over military buildup

On Norway’s icy border with Russia, unease over military buildup
By Gwladys Fouche

SETERMOEN/KIRKENES, Norway (Reuters) – Under a soft winter sun in northern Norway, U.S. Marines train in the ice and snow as they learn how to fight in the freezing cold.

“Which country is to the northeast?” Staff Sergeant Daniel Croak bellows at a group of 20 soldiers in camouflaged combat jackets and white trousers in a pine forest near the town of Setermoen.

“Russia!” they shout back.

The troops are part of a contingent of 650 Marines staging a recent joint military exercise with 3,000 soldiers from NATO-member Norway at a time when both NATO and Russia have increased their military presence in the Arctic.

A few hundred kilometers from Setermoen, Russia is modernizing its forces on the Kola Peninsula, home to its Northern Fleet. Russia has also carried out maneuvers in recent weeks, staging a major submarine exercise in the North Atlantic, according to intelligence sources cited by Norwegian media.

“Do not use your GPSes. They may be jammed,” Croak barks to the Marines, a warning stemming from NATO accusations – denied by Russia – that Moscow has in the past jammed GPS systems in Norway.

The rising tension is unsettling many Norwegians, not least in the town of Kirkenes, which for three decades has been trying to foster cooperation with Russia.

Residents can cross the nearby border quickly with a visa-free permit. Many go to the nearby Russian town of Nikel to buy petrol because it is much cheaper there, and street signs use both the Cyrillic and Latin scripts.

“I don’t like it that they build up the military on both sides of the border. We don’t want rising tensions,” said Eirik Wikan, co-owner of the Kimek shipyard in Kirkenes, which gets two-thirds of its revenues from repairing Russian vessels.

“Here in the north, we work together to reduce tensions … We are trying not to be part of them.”

“A RUSSIAN TOWN IN NORWAY”

About a third of the company’s 180 employees are Russian, 22 of whom work in the Russian port city of Murmansk.

Nikolai Chagin, a mechanic from the Russian town of Severodvinsk, has worked at the shipyard in Kirkenes since 2006.

“I don’t have those problems I used to have in Russia before: I have a good job, a normal salary,” he said.

About 10% of Kirkenes residents are now from the Kola Peninsula.

Kirkenes’ Samovar theater company performs in both Norway and Russia, and has Russian and Norwegians employees. Russian choreographer Nikolai Shchetnev feels at home and is thinking of applying for dual nationality.

“Kirkenes is a Russian town in Norway,” said Rune Rafaelsen, the mayor of Soer-Varanger municipality which includes Kirkenes.

He said he would not welcome more tanks on the border though he saw Norway’s NATO membership as “a guarantee that I can do my job.”

Russia denies responsibility for the rise in tensions. It blames the recent basing of U.S. Marines in Norway, which it sees as a security challenge.

But Norway’s worries grew after Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 and then staged Arctic military exercises including maritime maneuvers with ballistic missile-capable vessels present.

“These were clear messages from Moscow,” said Lieutenant-General Rune Jakobsen, Commander of the Norwegian Joint Headquarters — the Norwegian Armed Forces operational command center. “Do not be part of (NATO’s) ballistic-missile defense.”

Despite the tensions, he says Russian forces are behaving less aggressively on the frontier with Norway than in some other border zones between Russia and NATO, such as the Baltic Sea.

In efforts to build trust, Jakobsen has in recent weeks had talks with the regional head of Russia’s FSB security service in the Kola Peninsula, and met the new head of the Northern Fleet, Alexander Moiseyev, in Kirkenes.

“As a small nation neighboring a superpower, you have to strike the right balance between deterrence and reassurance,” Jakobsen said.

But the military exercises are also important for Norway.

“Working together is what makes it possible to fight together, if we have to,” said Brigadier Lars Lervik, commander of the Northern Brigade based in Setermoen.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Syrian army, Turkish force clash near border: state media

Syrian army, Turkish force clash near border: state media
By Nevzat Devranoglu and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian army troops clashed with Turkish forces near the border town of Ras al Ain on Wednesday, Syrian state media reported, as Ankara said it reserved the right to launch another cross-border offensive against Kurdish YPG militia.

The state media gave no details but Turkish-backed rebels said similar, intermittent clashes had occurred in recent days with Syrian troops south of the town, which Turkey seized from Syrian Kurdish-led forces earlier this month.

The report underscores the risk that violence in northeast Syria could rekindle after Ankara and Moscow struck a deal a week ago in which Russia agreed to move the YPG at least 30 km (18.64 miles) south of the border by late on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, Syrian troops have with the agreement of Kurdish forces headed north to take up positions in a region Damascus has not controlled since early on in the country’s eight-and-a-half-year-old war.

In Ankara, President Tayyip Erdogan told lawmakers from his AK Party that Turkey has information the YPG has not completed its pull-out, despite assurances from Russia that they had left ahead of the deal’s deadline.

“Even though the information in our hands suggests this has not been succeeded in a full sense, we will give our response to them after our field assessments,” he said, adding Turkey reserved the right to return to military operations against the YPG in the area.

Ankara views the YPG as a terrorist organization because of its links to Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey, and aims establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria cleared of the YPG.

The YPG is the main component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that fought for years alongside U.S. forces to shatter the declared “caliphate” of Islamic State militants that spanned a swathe of northern and eastern Syria.

Turkish-backed forces crossed the border into northeast Syria on Oct. 9 to attack the YPG after President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces there a few days earlier, drawing international condemnation of Ankara.

Trump’s decision has been condemned in Washington by Democrats and his fellow Republicans alike for abandoning Kurdish fighters who helped rout Islamic State.

On Tuesday, the House of Representatives voted decisively to sanction Turkey, a NATO ally.

Joint Russian-Turkish patrols had been set to begin on Tuesday at a depth of 10 km (6.2 miles) inside northern Syria, but Erdogan said they would begin on Friday and at a depth of just 7 km (4.3 miles).

“If we see that the members of the terrorist organization have not been moved out of the 30 km, or if attacks continue, no matter from where, we reserve our right to carry out our own operation,” Erdogan said.

On Tuesday, the Turkey-backed Syrian rebels said they had captured an undisclosed number of Syrian army soldiers near Tel Hawa, in the countryside around Ras al Ain. A spokesman for the rebels said that the YPG had not fully withdrawn from the border area and that a new round of clashes were expected.

Some 300,000 people have been displaced by Turkey’s offensive and 120 civilians have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor.

The U.S. House voted 403-16 for a resolution calling on Trump to impose sanctions and other restrictions on Turkey and Turkish officials over its offensive in Syria.

In Geneva, Assad’s government condemned what it called the occupation of its land while the Syrian opposition demanded justice at the opening of a U.N.-backed panel meant to usher in reconciliation, political reforms and free and fair elections as a basis for a lasting peace.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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

By Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘MONUMENTAL FAILURE’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

by our executive order,” referring to the sanctions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Border on fire’ as Turkey intensifies Syria campaign

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey stepped up its air and artillery strikes on Kurdish militia in northeast Syria on Friday, escalating an offensive that has drawn warnings of humanitarian catastrophe and turned Republican lawmakers against U.S. President Donald Trump.

The incursion, launched after Trump withdrew U.S. troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces against Islamic State militants, has opened a new front in the eight-year-old Syrian civil war and drawn fierce international criticism.

In Washington, Trump – fending off accusations that he abandoned the Kurds, loyal allies of the United States – suggested that Washington could mediate in the conflict, while also raising the possibility of imposing sanctions on Turkey.

On Friday, Turkish warplanes and artillery struck around Syria’s Ras al Ain, one of two border towns that have been the focus of the offensive. Reuters journalists heard gunfire there from across the frontier in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.

A convoy of 20 armored vehicles carrying Turkish-allied Syrian rebels entered Syria from Ceylanpinar. Some made victory signs, shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and waving Syrian rebel flags as they advanced towards Ras al Ain.

Some 120 km (75 miles) to the west, Turkish howitzers resumed shelling near the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, a witness said.

“In these moments, Tel Abyad is seeing the most intense battles in three days,” Marvan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.

Overnight, clashes erupted at different points along the border from Ain Diwar at the Iraqi frontier to Kobani, more than 400 km to the west. Turkish and SDF forces exchanged shelling in Qamishli among other places, the SDF’s Qamishlo said.

“The whole border was on fire,” he said.

Turkish forces have seized nine villages near Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.

At least 32 fighters with the SDF and 34 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels have been killed in fighting, while 10 civilians have been killed, Abdulrahman said. The SDF said 22 of its fighters were killed on Wednesday and Thursday.

Turkey says it has killed hundreds of SDF fighters in the operation and one Turkish soldier has been killed.

In Syria’s al Bab, some 150 km west of the offensive, some 500 Turkish-backed Syrian fighters were set to head to Turkey to join the operation, CNN Turk reported. It broadcast video of them performing Muslim prayers in military fatigues, their rifles laid down in front of them, before departing for Turkey.

“HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHE”

Turkey says the purpose of its assault is to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an enemy for its links to insurgents in Turkey. It says it aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria, where it can resettle many of the 3.6 million refugees it has been hosting.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan criticized Europe for failing to support the Turkish offensive and threatened to send refugees to Europe if the EU did not back him.

European Council President Donald Tusk responded on Friday by chastising Erdogan for making the threat.

“Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

The International Rescue Committee aid group says 64,000 people in Syria have fled in the first days of the campaign.

The Kurdish YPG is the main fighting element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which have acted as the principal allies of the United States in a campaign that recaptured territory held by the Islamic State group.

The SDF now holds most of the territory that once made up Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of Islamic State fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

A camp sheltering more than 7,000 displaced people in northern Syria is to be evacuated and there are talks on moving a second camp for 13,000 people including Islamic State fighters’ families, after both were shelled, Kurdish-led authorities said.

Medecins Sans Frontieres said a hospital in Tel Abyad had been forced to shut after most of its staff fled from bombings over the past 24 hours.

RARE REPUBLICAN CRITICISM OF TRUMP

In the United States, Trump’s decision to withhold protection from the Kurds has been one of the few issues to prompt criticism from his fellow Republicans, including leading allies on Capitol Hill such as Senator Lindsey Graham.

Trump said in a Twitter post on Thursday: “We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!”.

“I hope we can mediate,” Trump said when asked about the options by reporters at the White House.

Without elaborating, he said the United States was “going to possibly do something very, very tough with respect to sanctions and other financial things” against Turkey.

Western countries’ rejection of the Turkish offensive creates a rift within the NATO alliance, in which Turkey is the main Muslim member.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after talks with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Istanbul that he expected Turkey to act with restraint in Syria. Cavusoglu said Ankara expected “strong solidarity” from the alliance.

Stoltenberg also told reporters the international community must find a sustainable solution for Islamic State prisoners in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called for an emergency meeting of the U.S.-led coalition of more than 30 countries created to fight Islamic State. France’s European affairs minister said next week’s EU summit will discuss sanctions on Turkey over its action in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Islamic State militants could escape from jail as a result of the Turkish offensive, the Interfax news agency reported.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Tom Perry; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Emma Farge in Geneva, Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow, Jan Strupczewski in Brussels and Reuters correspondents in the region; Editing by Peter Graff)