Turkey denies allegation of chemical attack in Syria

Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army fighter stands on rubble in Northern Afrin countryside, Syria, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Khalil Ashaw

MUNICH (Reuters) – Turkey never used chemical weapons in its operations in Syria, and takes the utmost care of civilians, its foreign minister said, after Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group accused it of carrying out a gas attack in Syria’s Afrin region.

“It’s just a fabricated story. Turkey has never used any kind of chemical weapons,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.

Cavusoglu dismissed the reports as propaganda by organizations close to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil.

He said Turkey took the utmost care to protect civilians in the military operation, while the YPG was using civilians as “human shields” in areas under its control.

Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group said the Turkish military carried out a suspected gas attack that wounded six people in Syria’s Afrin region on Friday.

Turkey launched an air and ground offensive last month on the Afrin region, opening a new front in the multi-sided Syrian war, to target Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.

The White House said it was aware of the reports but could not confirm them.

“We judge it is extremely unlikely that Turkish forces used chemical weapons,” a spokesman for the U.S. National Security Council said. “We continue to call for restraint and protection of civilians in Afrin.”

Birusk Hasaka, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin, told Reuters that a Turkish bombardment hit a village in the northwest of the region, near the Turkish border. He said it caused six people to suffer breathing problems and other symptoms indicative of a gas attack.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that Turkish forces and their Syrian insurgent allies hit the village on Friday with shells. The Britain-based war monitoring group said medical sources in Afrin reported that six people in the attack suffered breathing difficulties and dilated pupils, indicating a suspected gas attack.

Syrian state news agency SANA, citing a doctor in a Afrin hospital, said Turkish shelling of the village caused choking in six people.

On Feb. 6, the United Nations called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria.

Since the onset of the conflict in 2011, the YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous cantons in the north, including Afrin. Their sphere of influence expanded as they seized territory from Islamic State with U.S. help, though Washington says it opposes their autonomy plans.

U.S. support for Kurdish-led forces in Syria has infuriated Ankara, which views them as a security threat along its frontier. Turkey sees the YPG as terrorists and an extension of the banned PKK.

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Graff)

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

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

By Tom Perry

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

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

The Syrian government denies using chemical weapons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

GHOUTA AND IDLIB

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“U.S. CALCULATIONS”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey detains nearly 600 for opposing Syrian offensive

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

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Dominic Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iran urges Turkey to stop army offensive in northern Syria

Smoke rises from the Syria's Afrin region, as it is pictured from near the Turkish town of Hassa, on the Turkish-Syrian border in Hatay province, Turkey January 20, 2018.

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran urged Turkey on Monday to stop its military offensive in Syria, saying the operation in the northern Afrin region breached Syrian sovereignty and would increase tension in the war-damaged country.

Turkey last month launched an air and ground campaign, dubbed Operation Olive Branch, against the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin.

“Turkey should stop its operation and respect Syria’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.

“Turkey’s actions can bring back insecurity, instability and terrorism to Syria,” he added.

Qasemi said any solution to the Syrian crisis should be discussed in talks in the Kazakh capital Astana that are sponsored by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.

He said Iran was in continuous talks with both Turkey and Russia about the latest developments in Syria.

Russia and Iran back Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, while Turkey supports Assad’s opponents.

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

The Syrian government last week called the Turkish offensive in Afrin an illegal “aggression” and said it would deal with it accordingly.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, Editing by William Maclean)

Turkey dismisses French marks on Syria campaign as ‘insults’

A Turkish Army vehicle leaves from a military post near the Turkish-Syrian border in Kilis province, Turkey January 31, 2018.

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey on Thursday dismissed cautionary remarks from France about its military operation in northern Syria as “insults”, signaling continued strain between Ankara and its NATO allies over the incursion.

French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday warned Turkey that the operation in the northern Afrin region should not become an excuse to invade Syria and that he wanted Ankara to coordinate its action with its allies.

Turkey launched the air and ground offensive, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch”, nearly two weeks ago to target the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin. But the incursion has put pressure on relations with the West, particularly the United States, which has backed the Kurdish fighters and has its own troops on the ground supporting them in other parts of Syria.

“We consider a country like France giving us reminders about an operation we are carrying out in accordance with international laws to be insults,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.

“We are using our right to self defense, this is in line with UN Security Council decisions and not an invasion. They shouldn’t be two-faced,” he said.

France, like the United States, has extended arms and training to a YPG-led militia in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. That has infuriated Turkey, which considers the YPG terrorists and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

The PKK, considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union, has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast.

Cavusoglu said Syrian peace talks in Geneva needed to be revived, adding that the Syrian government needed to start negotiating in order to do so, after a Russian-sponsored conference on reaching peace in Syria was held this week in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi.

The talks, which Russia has called a Syrian Congress on National Dialogue, ended on Tuesday with a statement calling for democratic elections, but ignoring key opposition demands after a day marred by squabbles and heckling of the Russian foreign minister.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by David Dolan and Peter Graff)

Turkey detains 300 people over criticism of Syrian offensive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkey’s Erdogan says military operation to make big sweep east across Syria

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan attends a meeting of the ruling AK Party in Ankara, Turkey January 26, 2018. Yasin

By Ece Toksabay and Lisa Barrington

ANKARA/BEIRUT (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday Turkish forces would sweep Kurdish fighters from the Syrian border and could push all the way east to the frontier with Iraq — a move which risks a possible confrontation with U.S. forces allied to the Kurds.

The Turkish offensive in northwest Syria’s Afrin region against the Kurdish YPG militia has opened a new front in the multi-sided Syrian civil war but has strained ties with NATO ally Washington.

Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group but the militia has played a prominent role in U.S.-led efforts to combat the hardline Islamic State in Syria.

Since the start of the incursion, dubbed “Operation Olive Branch” by Ankara, Erdogan has said Turkish forces would push east towards the town of Manbij, potentially putting them in confrontation with U.S. troops deployed there.

“Operation Olive Branch will continue until it reaches its goals. We will rid Manbij of terrorists, as it was promised to us, and our battles will continue until no terrorist is left until our border with Iraq,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara.

Any drive by Turkish forces toward Manbij, part of Kurdish-held territory some 100 km (60 miles) east of Afrin, could threaten U.S. efforts in northern Syria.

The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria, officially as part of the international, U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.

U.S. forces were deployed in and around Manbij to deter Turkish and U.S.-backed rebels from attacking each other and have also carried out training missions in the area.

Washington has angered Ankara by providing arms, training and air support to the Syrian Kurdish forces. Turkey sees the YPG as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a deadly insurgency in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast for three decades.

“How can a strategic partner do this to its partner?” Erdogan said, referring to the United States. “If we will wage a battle against terror together, we will either do this together or we will take care of ourselves.”

HUMAN TOLL

Although the campaign is now in its seventh day, Turkish soldiers and their Free Syrian Army rebel allies appear to have made limited gains, held back by poor weather that has limited air support.

Three Turkish soldiers and 11 of their Syrian rebel allies have been killed in clashes so far, Turkey’s health minister said on Friday. A further 130 people were wounded, he said, without saying if they were civilians or combatants.

Turkey said it had killed at least 343 militants since the operation started. The Kurdish-led forces have said Turkey was exaggerating the number it had killed.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an alliance spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG, said 308 fighters from the Turkish side had been killed in the first week of the incursion.

Forty-three SDF fighters had died, including eight women, the SDF said. In addition, 134 civilians had been wounded and 59 killed, it said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based monitoring group, said at least 38 civilians have been killed since the start of the operation, two of them by SDF shelling.

Seven members of one family died and one was injured when a house collapsed under Turkish shelling in the early hours of Friday in the town of Maatala in Afrin region, the head of the Kurdish Red Crescent in Afrin, Nuri Sheikh Qanbar, said.

U.S. POLICY RETHINK?

Military action by Turkey against the Kurdish fighters should prompt Washington to rethink its policy and address Turkish security concerns, President Tayyip Erdogan’s chief diplomacy adviser said.

“The moment Turkey starts using its military power instead of soft power in the region, however sour ties are at that moment, it encourages Washington to stop and think,” Gulnur Aybet told Reuters in an interview.

“I believe the U.S. will put forward some truly satisfying alternative solutions to ease Turkey’s security concerns,” she said.

While Aybet did not elaborate on what such measures could include, she said they would follow on from a recent U.S. proposal to establish a “safe zone” in northern Syria.

Turkey has said the United States has offered to work on a 30 km (19 mile) safe zone, but it says trust between the NATO allies must be restored for such a proposal to be considered.

Aybet said Turkey was aware that a confrontation on the ground in Manbij carried risks of pushing ties to a breaking point.

“Everyone is aware of that risk. We hope that the Americans are aware, too,” she said.

The Kurdish-led autonomous administration that runs Afrin on Thursday called on the Syrian government to defend its border with Turkey in Afrin despite Damascus’ stance against Kurdish autonomy.

The Syrian government has said it is ready to target Turkish warplanes in its airspace, but has not intervened so far. It suspects the Kurds of wanting independence in the long-run.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul; Tuvan Gumrukcu and Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

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

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

By Idrees Ali and Arshad Mohammed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

DIVERGING INTERESTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Erdogan says Turkey will crush ‘terror army’ in northern Syria

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Ankara, Turkey, January 10, 2018

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday the United States was trying to create a “terror army” on Turkey’s southern frontier by training a Syrian border force that includes a Kurdish militia, and pledged to crush it before it came into being.

“A country we call an ally is insisting on forming a terror army on our borders,” Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “What can that terror army target but Turkey?”

“Our mission is to strangle it before it’s even born.”

On Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition said it was working with the mainly Kurdish YPG-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to set up a new 30,000-strong border force.

The plan has infuriated Turkey, which considers the YPG to be an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish group waging an insurgency in southern Turkey and deemed a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the United States and European Union.

“This is what we have to say to all our allies: don’t get in between us and terrorist organisations, or we will not be responsible for the unwanted consequences,” Erdogan said.

“Either you take off your flags on those terrorist organisations, or we will have to hand those flags over to you …Our operations will continue until not a single terrorist remains along our borders, let alone 30,000 of them.”

Erdogan also said that Turkey’s armed forces had completed preparations for an operation against the Kurdish-controlled region of Afrin in northwest Syria and the town of Manbij.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ece Toksabay; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by David Dolan)

U.S., Turkey mutually lift visa restrictions, ending months-long row

General view of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2016

By Ece Toksabay and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey lifted all visa restrictions on Thursday after Washington said Ankara had kept to assurances no further U.S. mission staff would be targeted for performing official duties, following detention of two earlier this year.

But Turkey swiftly denied having granted such assurances in the affair that has tested relations since the two local employees of the U.S. consulate in Istanbul were held on suspicion of ties to last year’s failed coup against President Tayyip Erdogan.

The United States suspended visa services at its missions in Turkey in October and Turkey reciprocated. In November, Washington said it was resuming limited services upon getting assurances on the safety of its local staff.

“Based on adherence to these assurances, the Department of State is confident that the security posture has improved sufficiently to allow for the full resumption of visa services in Turkey,” the U.S. Embassy in Ankara said on Thursday.

It said the United States continued to have concerns about the two employees detained.

Turkey, while announcing the end of restrictions on the issue of visas to U.S. citizens, took issue with the U.S. declaration.

“We do not find it right for the United States to claim it had received assurances from Turkey and misinform the U.S. and Turkish publics,” the Turkish Embassy in Washington said in a statement.

Turkey’s lira firmed to 3.78 against the U.S. dollar after the statement, its highest level since Oct. 31, and the main share index BIST100 climbed 2.08 percent to reach its highest closing level ever.

Relations between the two NATO allies have become strained in the last year with Turkey angered by what it sees as the U.S. reluctance to hand over Fethullah Gulen, whom Turkey blames for the coup attempt in July of 2016.

Turkey was further annoyed by U.S. military support for Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria, considered by Ankara to be an extension of the banned PKK which has waged an insurgency for three decades in southeast Turkey.

More recently, Turkey took a leading role in the United Nations to pass a resolution denouncing a U.S. move to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.

(Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Kevin Liffey)