Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of violations, Russia says peace plan on track

Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of violations, Russia says peace plan on track
By Tom Perry and Maria Kiselyova

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkey on Thursday of launching a large land offensive targeting three villages in northeast Syria despite a truce, but Russia said a peace plan hammered out this week was going ahead smoothly.

Under the plan, agreed by presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, Syrian Kurdish forces are to withdraw more than 30 km (19 miles) from the Turkish border, a goal Russia’s RIA news agency, quoting an SDF official, said was already achieved.

Russia said it was sending more military policemen and heavy equipment to help implement the deal, which has already prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to lift sanctions against Turkey and has drawn lavish praise for Erdogan in the Turkish media.

Ankara views the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component in the SDF, as terrorists linked to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. It launched a cross-border offensive against them on Oct. 9 after Trump ordered U.S. forces out of northeast Syria.

The deal agreed with Putin, which builds on and widens a previous U.S.-brokered ceasefire, helped end the fighting.

But the SDF said in its statement on Thursday that Turkish forces had attacked three villages “outside the area of the ceasefire process,” forcing thousands of civilians to flee.

“Despite our forces’ commitment to the ceasefire decision and the withdrawal of our forces from the entire ceasefire area, the Turkish state and the terrorist factions allied to it are still violating the ceasefire process,” it said.

“Our forces are still clashing,” it said, urging the United States to intervene to halt the renewed fighting.

Turkey’s defense ministry did not comment directly on the SDF report but said five of its military personnel had been wounded in an attack by the YPG militia around the border town of Ras al Ain, near where the three villages are located.

Turkey has previously said it reserves the right to self-defense against any militants who remain in the area despite the truce, a pledge repeated by Erdogan on Thursday.

“If these terrorists don’t pull back and continue their provocations, we will implement our plans for a (new) offensive there,” he said in a speech to local administrators.

‘EVERYTHING IS BEING IMPLEMENTED’

Russia, which as a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad has emerged as the key geopolitical player in Syria, has begun deploying military policemen near the Turkish border as part of the deal agreed on Tuesday in the Russian city of Sochi.

“We note with satisfaction that the agreements reached in Sochi are being implemented,” Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin as saying.

“Everything is being implemented,” he said.

RIA, citing an SDF official, said the Kurdish fighters had already withdrawn to 32 km (20 miles) away from the border. It also said the Kurds were ready to discuss joining the Syrian army once the crisis in Syria has been settled politically.

Russia will send a further 276 military policemen and 33 units of military hardware to Syria in a week, RIA news agency cited a defense ministry source as saying.

Next Tuesday, under the terms of the Sochi deal, Russian and Turkish forces will start to patrol a 10 km strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops had for years been deployed along with their former Kurdish allies.

The arrival of the Russian police marks a shift in the regional balance of power just two weeks after Trump pulled out U.S. forces, in a move widely criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of the Americans’ former Kurdish allies.

The Russian deployments have also further highlighted increasingly close ties between Russia and NATO member Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking in Brussels on Thursday ahead of a NATO meeting, said Turkey – which annoyed Washington this year by buying Russian-made S400 missile defense systems – was moving in the wrong direction.

“We see them spinning closer to Russia’s orbit than in the Western orbit and I think that is unfortunate,” Esper said.

‘SUPER-POWER OF PEACE’

Despite Trump’s lifting of sanctions on Turkey, distrust persists between Ankara and Washington, and a top Erdogan aide on Thursday criticized U.S. politicians for treating SDF commander Mazloum Kobani as a “legitimate political figure.”

The aide, Fahrettin Altun, told Reuters that Mazloum was a senior leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey and which Ankara’s Western allies also deem a terrorist group.

Republican and Democratic U.S. senators urged the State Department on Wednesday to quickly provide a visa to Mazloum so he can visit the United States to discuss the situation in Syria.

The Turkish public has shown strong support for the military operation, encouraged by an overwhelmingly pro-government media.

“The super-power of peace, Turkey,” said the main headline in Thursday’s edition of the pro-government Sabah newspaper.

An opinion poll published by pollster Areda Survey last week showed more than three quarters of Turks supported the so-called Operation Peace Spring.

However, the incursion has deepened a sense of alienation among Turkey’s Kurds, which is also being fueled by a crackdown on the country’s main pro-Kurdish party.

Kurds make up some 18% of Turkey’s 82 million people.

Turkey’s military operation was widely condemned by its NATO allies, which said it was causing a fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year conflict and could let Islamic State prisoners held by the YPG escape and regroup.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

Russia warns Syrian Kurdish YPG to pull back as its forces move in

Russia warns Syrian Kurdish YPG to pull back as its forces move in
By Andrew Osborn and Ece Toksabay

MOSCOW/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russian military police arrived in the strategic Syrian city of Kobani on Wednesday as Moscow warned Kurdish YPG forces that they face further armed conflict with Turkey if they fail to withdraw from Syria’s entire northeastern border.

Russia’s warning came a day after it struck an accord with Turkey calling for the complete pullout of the YPG fighters, which were once U.S. allies but which Ankara calls terrorists.

The police arrival in Kobani marked the start of a period when Russian and Syrian security forces will oversee the removal of YPG fighters at least 30 km (19 miles) into Syria, under the deal struck by presidents Vladimir Putin and Tayyip Erdogan.

A complete pullout of the YPG would mark a victory for Erdogan, who launched a cross-border offensive on Oct. 9 to drive the Syrian Kurdish militia from the border and create a “safe zone” for the return of Syrian refugees.

Russia’s Defence Ministry, quoted by TASS news agency, said the police would help facilitate the YPG withdrawal from Kobani, a border city to the west of Turkey’s military operations. It was vacated by U.S. troops after President Donald Trump’s abrupt decision this month to pull out.

Kobani is of special significance to the Kurdish fighters, who fought off Islamic State militants trying to seize the city in 2014-15 in one of the fiercest battles of Syria’s civil war.

Tuesday’s accord, which expands on a U.S.-brokered ceasefire deal last week, underlines Putin’s dominant influence in Syria and seals the return of his ally President Bashar al-Assad’s forces to the northeast for the first time in years.

Under the deal, Syrian border guards were to deploy there from noon (0900 GMT) on Wednesday.

Six days later, Russian and Turkish forces will jointly start to patrol a 10 km strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops had long been deployed along with their former Kurdish allies.

Those changes reflect the dizzying pace of changes in Syria since Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal on Oct. 6, shaking up the military balance across a quarter of the country after more than eight years of conflict.

Kurdish militia commanders have yet to respond to the deal reached in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi, and it was not immediately clear how their withdrawal could be enforced.

RUSSIAN WARNING

The joint Turkish-Russian statement issued after six hours of talks between Putin and Erdogan said they would establish a “joint monitoring and verification mechanism” to oversee implementation of the agreement.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov was more blunt. If Kurdish forces did not retreat, Syrian border guards and Russian military police would have to fall back. “And remaining Kurdish formations would then fall under the weight of the Turkish army,” he said.

In a swipe at Washington, which has called into question how the deal will be guaranteed, Peskov said: “Now they (the Americans) prefer to leave the Kurds at the border and almost force them to fight the Turks.”

The Kurdish-led SDF were Washington’s main allies in the fight to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria. Trump’s decision to pull troops out was criticized by U.S. lawmakers, including fellow Republicans, as a betrayal.

Trump said the ceasefire agreed between Turkey and the United States last week had held, hailing what he called a big success. “Kurds are safe and have worked very nicely with us,” Trump tweeted, adding he would say more later on Wednesday.

In a further sign of growing ties between Ankara and Moscow, which have alarmed Washington, the head of Russia’s defense sales agency was quoted by Interfax news agency as saying Moscow could deliver more S-400 missile defense systems to Turkey.

Turkey, a NATO member, has already been frozen out of a programmer’s to buy and help produce F-35 jets and faces possible U.S. sanctions for buying the S-400 systems, which Washington says are incompatible with NATO’s defenses and threaten the F-35 if operated near the stealth fighter.

Overnight, Turkey’s defense ministry said the United States had told Ankara the YPG had completed its withdrawal from the area of Turkey’s military offensive.

There was no need to initiate another operation outside the current area of operation at this stage, the ministry said, effectively ending a military offensive that began two weeks ago and drew global criticism.

Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, called on Wednesday for an inquiry into whether war crimes were committed during the offensive.

Further criticism of Turkey’s offensive came from European Parliament members who called in a draft resolution for “appropriate and targeted economic measures” against Ankara.

TURKEY REVIEWS MILITARY PLANS

While Tuesday’s deal addresses Turkey’s call for the YPG to be pushed back from the border, it also means Ankara will have to deepen its security coordination with Damascus after years of hostility between Erdogan and Assad.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday that Turkey had no direct contact with Assad’s government, but “there could be contact at the intelligence level, this is natural.”

Three Turkish officials told Reuters this week Ankara was already holding covert contacts with Damascus to avert direct conflict in northeast Syria.

Ankara may also have to moderate its own military ambitions in the region. Turkish security sources said Ankara was re-evaluating a plan to set up 12 observation posts in northeastern Syria in the wake of the deal.

That change reflects the fact that Turkey, which had aimed to be the dominant force in the “safe zone” area, will now have to share that territory with Assad and Putin, who have both said Turkish forces cannot remain in Syria in the long term.

“The most significant part of the Russian-Turkish agreement is the arrival of the Syrian border guard to the northeast, something both Damascus and Russia sought for a long time,” said Yury Barmin, a Middle East specialist at Moscow Policy Group.

“This also means de facto recognition of Assad by Erdogan.”

(Additional reporting by Maxim Rodionov in Moscow and Ezgi Erkoyun, Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Russia says ‘unacceptable’ Turkish incursion into Syria must be temporary

FILE PHOTO: Russia's special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev attends a meeting during consultations on Syria at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 11, 2018. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool via REUTERS

By Olesya Astakhova and Andrew Osborn

ABU DHABI/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia called Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria “unacceptable” and said on Tuesday the operation had to be limited in time and scale, a rare broadside that suggests Moscow’s patience with Ankara is wearing thin.

In Russia’s strongest criticism since Turkey launched its military operation last week, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Syria indicated Moscow wanted Ankara to wrap up its offensive soon.

“We didn’t agree with the Turks any questions about their presence in Syria and we don’t approve of their actions,” envoy Alexander Lavrentiev told reporters in Abu Dhabi during an official visit there by Putin.

He said Turkish troops had the right under an agreement struck between Damascus and Ankara in 1998, the Adana pact, to temporarily push up to a maximum of 10 km (six miles) into Syria to conduct counter-terrorism operations.

“But it doesn’t give them (Turkish troops) the right to remain on Syrian territory permanently and we are opposed to Turkish troops staying on Syrian territory permanently,” he said.

Lavrentiev made his comments as Turkey pressed ahead with its offensive in northern Syria despite U.S. sanctions and growing calls for it to stop, while Syria’s Russia-backed army moved on the key city of Manbij that was abandoned by U.S. forces.

Lavrentiev earlier on Tuesday told Russian news agencies that Moscow had always considered any kind of Turkish military operation on Syrian territory unacceptable.

His comments, which suggest growing tensions between Turkey and Russia, came a day after the Kremlin complained that Turkey’s incursion was “not exactly” compatible with Syrian territorial integrity.

“The security of the Turkish-Syrian border must be ensured by the deployment of Syrian government troops along its entire length,” said Lavrentiev. “That’s why we never spoke in favor or supported the idea of Turkish units (being deployed there) let alone the armed Syrian opposition.”

Lavrentiev said Turkey’s actions risked upsetting delicate religious sensitivities in northern Syria.

In particular, he said the area was populated by Kurds, Arabs and Sunnis who would not take kindly to their lands being resettled by people who had never lived there, a reference to Turkey’s plan to house refugees from other parts of Syria there.

Lavrentiev confirmed that Russia had brokered an agreement between the Syrian government and Kurdish forces that saw the Kurds cede control of territory to Syrian troops.

Those talks had taken place at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria among other places, he said.

Russia’s influence in Syria and the Middle East is widely seen to have been boosted in the last week thanks to Washington scaling back its Syria operation and the Syrian Kurds striking a deal with President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s closest ally in the region.

Lavrentiev said Moscow was hoping that the United States would withdraw all of its forces from Syria. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to his U.S. counterpart about Syria on Tuesday evening.

Russian military police are patrolling the line of contact between Syrian and Turkish government troops.

Lavrentiev estimated there were around 12,000 Islamic State prisoners being held in northeast Syria.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Maxim Rodionov and Tom Balmforth; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Alistair Bell)

Kremlin critic wants film to open West’s eyes about Putin’s Russia

FILE PHOTO: Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oil tycoon who fell foul of Vladimir Putin's Kremlin, is seen during an interview with Reuters at his office in central London, Britain, August 13, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo

By Hanna Rantala

VENICE, Italy (Reuters) – Kremlin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky hopes a new documentary film about his life chronicling his journey from being Russia’s richest man to an exiled dissident will open the West’s eyes to the nature of modern Russia.

The film, “Citizen K”, was made by Oscar-winning U.S. filmmaker Alex Gibney and premiered at the Venice Film festival this weekend. It was based on more than 24 hours of interviews that Khodorkovsky, who is now based in Britain, gave over a period of months.

It tells the story of Khodorkovsky’s dramatic 2003 arrest on an icy Siberian runway by armed men and his fall from grace, punishment for what he and his supporters believe was his interest in Russian politics and fighting corruption.

The bespectacled tycoon, then head of the now defunct Yukos oil company, went on to serve a decade in jail on fraud charges he says were politically motivated before being freed in 2013 after President Vladimir Putin pardoned him.

“Today’s Kremlin regime has learned the art of window dressing very well, but it’s important to understand that behind these beautiful windows there is not just an ordinary authoritarian state but a real mafia, which has taken over this state,” Khodorkovsky, 56, told Reuters.

“If we look at how these methods are applied in relation to the West, we will see corruption, blackmail, compromising materials and even violence. While negotiating with the current Russian regime the West should understand it’s dealing with a criminal organization.”

Russia, which rejects his criticism as false, has issued an international arrest warrant for Khodorkovsky, accusing him of ordering at least one successful contract killing in the 1990s, something Khodorkovsky denies.

Putin has said he regards the former businessman as a common thief, while Russian authorities have moved to curb the activities of Open Russia, a pro-democracy movement founded by Khodorkovsky.

“A VERY TALENTED KGB GUY”

In “Citizen K,” Khodorkovsky says he misread Putin when the former Soviet intelligence officer first came to power.

“It seemed to me ideologically that he was one of us. A person who gets it and wants to push Russia in the same direction that we want to. That is towards openness, towards democracy,” said Khodorkovsky.

“Boy was I mistaken. He’s a very talented KGB guy.”

Despite living in Britain, Khodorkovsky said he “lived for Russia” and that it occupied his thoughts for 12 out of every 16 waking hours a day, adding that he and his supporters were acutely aware of the risks they ran.

“If the Kremlin decides to kill somebody, it is very difficult for this person to avoid this fate,” he said, a reference to allegations that Moscow has assassinated some of its critics abroad, a charge the Kremlin flatly rejects.

“I tell all my colleagues that the only thing we can do for you is to help you not to be forgotten, as I was not forgotten during 10 years in prison. But it will be difficult, or even impossible, to save you if anything happens.”

(Additional reporting by Marie-Louise Gumuchian in Venice and Maria Stromova in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Ahead of meeting, Turkey expects Russia to help rein in Syrian forces

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan watch demonstration flights during the opening of the MAKS-2019 International Aviation and Space Salon in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, Russia, August 27, 2019. Maxim Shipenkov/Pool via REUTERS

By Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan will seek steps from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to safeguard Turkish troops in the face of an offensive by the Syrian army in the country’s northwest when the two leaders meet on Tuesday, a senior Turkish official said.

Erdogan, who is making a one-day visit to Russia, told Putin last week that attacks by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were causing a humanitarian crisis and threatened Turkey’s national security.

The official told Reuters that the security of Turkish soldiers in Syria would be one of the key topics at the meeting. The meeting is due to start at 1:30 p.m. (1030 GMT), with a joint statement to be issued at 4 p.m. (1300 GMT).

“We expect Russia to use its influence over the regime on this matter. If there is even the smallest attack on Turkish soldiers, we will retaliate against this,” the official said.

Syrian troops have encircled rebels and a Turkish military post in northwest Syria in an offensive to reclaim territory and towns the government lost early in the war. Turkey has supported some rebel factions in the northwestern Idlib region, while Russia and Iran back Assad.

The military observation post near the town of Morek is one of 12 that Ankara established in northwest Syria under a deal with Moscow and Tehran two years ago to reduce fighting between Assad’s forces and rebels.

“Any step or attack that would violate the agreement should be avoided, but unfortunately we see examples of these in recent times,” the official said. “We expect Putin to take steps that will alleviate the problem there.”

Erdogan and Putin hold frequent talks and have forged close ties focused on energy and defense cooperation. In July, Turkey began taking delivery of Russian S-400 missile defense systems – a move that strained ties with Ankara’s NATO ally the United States.

Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said on Monday that delivery of the second battery of the S-400 system would begin on Tuesday.

As well as putting Turkish troops in the region in the firing line, the advances of Assad’s forces have threatened Ankara’s hopes of preventing a fresh wave of refugees – including fighters – on its southern border.

The United Nations says more than 500,000 people have been uprooted since the Syrian army began its offensive in late April, most of them escaping deeper into the rebel bastion and toward the border. Turkey opened its border at the start of the Syrian conflict in 2011 and now hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

“The necessary measures need to be taken to prevent a migrant wave from there to Turkey. Measures should be taken against any problems that may arise on this issue,” the official also said.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Frances Kerry)

Putin says deadly military accident occurred during weapons systems test

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks during a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the Presidental Palace in Helsinki, Finland, August 21, 2019. Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva/via REUTERS

By Olesya Astakhova and Anne Kauranen

HELSINKI (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that a deadly blast at a military site in northern Russia earlier this month had taken place during the testing of what he called promising new weapons systems.

Putin said that Moscow could not reveal everything about the blast because of its military nature, but that information exchanges about such accidents should be improved.

“When it comes to activities of a military nature, there are certain restrictions on access to information,” Putin told a news conference in Helsinki, standing alongside Finnish President Sauli Niinisto.

He did not reveal which weapons system was being tested at the time of the blast on Aug. 8.

“This is work in the military field, work on promising weapons systems. We are not hiding this,” Putin said. “We must think of our own security.”

Russia’s state nuclear agency said this month that five of its staff members were killed and three others injured in a blast involving “isotope power sources” that took place during a rocket test on a sea platform. Two Russian military personnel were also reported to have been killed.

Putin said this week that there was no risk of increased radiation levels following the blast and that all necessary preventive measures were being taken.

(Reporting by Olesya Astakhova and Anne Kauranen; Writing by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber; Editing by Andrew Osborn)

Putin: U.S. in position to deploy new cruise missile in Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a joint news conference with Finnish President Sauli Niinisto in the Presidental Palace in Helsinki, Finland, August 21, 2019. Markku Ulander/Lehtikuva/via REUTERS

HELSINKI (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin said on Wednesday that the United States was in a position to deploy a new land-based cruise missile in Romania and Poland and that Russia considered that a threat which it would have to respond to.

The Pentagon said on Monday it had tested a conventionally-configured cruise missile that hit its target after more than 500 km (310 miles) of flight, its first such test since the demise of a landmark nuclear pact this month.

Putin, who was speaking during a visit to Helsinki, said that Washington could potentially use its launch systems in Romania and Poland to fire the missile and that Russia would have to respond in an appropriate and reciprocal manner.

(Reporting by Olesya Astakhova; Writing by Tom Balmforth; editing by Andrew Osborn)

Global network’s nuclear sensors in Russia went offline after mystery blast

FILE PHOTO: Antennas of a testing facility for seismic and infrasound technologies of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) are shown in the garden of their headquarters in Vienna, Austria, September 28, 2017. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – The operator of a global network of radioactivity sensors said on Monday its two Russian sites closest to a mysterious explosion on Aug. 8 went offline two days after the blast, raising concern about possible tampering by Russia.

The Russian Defense Ministry, which operates the two stations, did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

Russia’s state nuclear agency Rosatom has acknowledged that nuclear workers were killed in the explosion, which occurred during a rocket engine test near the White Sea in far northern Russia.

The explosion also caused a spike in radiation in a nearby city and prompted a local run on iodine, which is used to reduce the effects of radiation exposure.

Russian authorities have given no official explanation for why the blast triggered the rise in radiation. U.S.-based nuclear experts have said they suspect Russia was testing a nuclear-powered cruise missile vaunted by President Vladimir Putin last year.

“We’re … addressing w/ station operators technical problems experienced at two neighboring stations,” Lassina Zerbo, head of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO), said on Twitter overnight.

The CTBTO’s International Monitoring System includes atmospheric sensors that pick up so-called radionuclide particles wafting through the air. Zerbo said data from stations on or near the path of a potential plume of gas from the explosion were still being analyzed.

“COMMUNICATION AND NETWORK ISSUES”

The two Russian monitoring stations nearest the explosion, Dubna and Kirov, stopped transmitting on Aug. 10, and Russian officials told the CTBTO they were having “communication and network issues”, a CTBTO spokeswoman said on Monday.

“We’re awaiting further reports on when the stations and/or the communication system will be restored to full functionality.”

While the CTBTO’s IMS network is global and its stations report data back to CTBTO headquarters in Vienna, those stations are operated by the countries in which they are located.

It is not clear what caused the outage or whether the stations might have been tampered with by Russia, analysts said.

“About 48 hours after the incident in Russia on Aug. 8 these stations stopped transmitting data. I find that to be a curious coincidence,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based think tank.

He and other analysts said any Russian tampering with IMS stations would be a serious matter but it was also likely to be futile as other IMS or national stations could also pick up telltale particles.

“There is no point in what Russia seems to have tried to do. The network of international sensors is too dense for one country withholding data to hide an event,” said Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute in California.

The CTBTO’s Zerbo also posted a simulation of the explosion’s possible plume, showing it reaching Dubna and Kirov on Aug. 10 and Aug. 11, two and three days after the explosion.

Rosatom has said the accident, which killed five of its staff, involved “isotope power sources”.

The CTBTO’s IMS comprises more than 300 seismic, hydroacoustic, infrasound and radionuclide stations dotted around the world that together are aimed at detecting and locating a nuclear test anywhere. Its technology can, however, be put to other uses, as in the Russian case.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Assad hits a wall in Syrian war as front lines harden – analysis

FILE PHOTO: A man with a gun holds the hand of a child as they walk in a souk in the city of Idlib, Syria May 25, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

By Tom Perry and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

BEIRUT/AMMAN (Reuters) – President Bashar al-Assad’s assault in the northwest has been met with a painful rebel counterpunch that underlines Turkish resolve to keep the area out of his hands and shows why he will struggle to take back more of Syria by force.

More than two months of Russian-backed operations in and around Idlib province have yielded little or nothing for Assad’s side. It marks a rare case of a military campaign that has not gone his way since Russia intervened in 2015.

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: Turkish soldiers stand on a watch tower at the Atmeh crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border, as seen from the Syrian side, in Idlib governorate, Syria May 31, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

While resisting government attacks, the insurgents have managed to carve out small advances of their own, drawing on ample stocks of guided anti-tank missiles that opposition and diplomatic sources say have been supplied by Turkey.

“They’re even targeting personnel with these missiles … it means they are comfortably supplied,” a rebel source said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing rebel military capabilities. Turkey’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on reports that Ankara has stepped supplies of arms to rebels.

With Turkey committed to the rebels, the battle for the northwest stands in stark contrast to a campaign in the southwest a year ago, when Western and Arab states stood by as Assad and his Russian- and Iranian-backed allies took the area.

Despite Russian backing in the latest fighting, questions have arisen over whether Assad and his allies are entirely on the same page when it comes to the northwest, where Turkey has deployed forces in agreement with Russia and Iran.

Moscow has appeared keen to preserve its ties with Ankara even as its air force bombs in support of Assad: Turkey says Russia has intervened to stop attacks on Turkish forces from Syrian government-held territory.

And this time there has been no sign of a major role for Iranian-backed Shi’ite forces that have helped Assad to victories in parts of Syria that are of greater interest to Iran, including territory near Iraq, Lebanon and Israel.

The capture of the southwest a year ago remains Assad’s last big gain. The prospects of further advances have been obstructed not only by Turkish interests in the northwest but also the presence of U.S. forces in the east and northeast.

American troops are still supporting Kurdish-led fighters following a reversal of President Donald Trump’s decision last December to pull them all out.

After more than eight years of war, this leaves Syria carved up into areas of U.S., Russian, Turkish and Iranian influence that seem unlikely to be stitched back together any time soon.

“We could see the front lines harden and remain like that for some time, where either the appetite or capability to fight through them is not there on the part of the regime or its allies,” said a Western diplomat speaking anonymously in order to offer a candid assessment.

“BONE-BREAKING BATTLE”

The Idlib area is dominated by Tahrir al-Sham, the jihadists formerly known as the Nusra Front. Proscribed as a terrorist group by the U.N. Security Council, the group has set aside past conflict with Turkish-backed rebels to defend the northwest.

Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Izza rebel group, said coordination among rebels was a major factor in foiling government attacks.

“I expect the battles to continue for a time because it has become a bone-breaking battle,” he said in written answers to questions from Reuters.

The government campaign of airstrikes and barrel bombing that began in late April was followed by the capture of around 20 villages. This led to a rebel counter-attack in early June that seized ground the government has been unable to recover.

The Syrian government has described its operations as a response to militant violations of ceasefire agreements.

Russia says action was needed to stop attacks from being launched from Idlib, including drone strikes on its nearby airbase. President Vladimir Putin said in April a full-scale operation in Idlib was impractical for now.

Though the government has not declared the goals of the campaign, rebel sources believe it was to capture two highways that pass through rebel-held territory.

Some 300,000 people fleeing bombardment have moved toward the Turkish border since April, prompting the United Nations to warn that Idlib was on the brink of a “humanitarian nightmare”.

For Ankara, the Syrian opposition’s last major state sponsor, preventing another major influx of Syrian refugees is of paramount importance: Turkey already hosts 3.6 million of them.

While accusing the Syrian government of targeting civilians and its military observation posts in the Idlib area, Turkey has stopped short of blaming Russia, instead saying it would continue to cooperate with Moscow over the northwest.

The Turkish foreign ministry, in a written response to questions from Reuters, also said “necessary messages have been sent to Russian officials to end the attacks on our observation points and civilians” in the Idlib area.

Hundreds of civilians have been killed, as have many fighters on both sides, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Observatory Director Rami Abdulrahman described the operation as “a failure on all levels” for Russia and Damascus.

A Russian private military contractor who was based near Idlib province told Reuters that rebel fighters there are far more professional and motivated than their adversary. Pro-government forces cannot win the battle for Idlib unless Moscow helps them on the ground, he said.

A second Western diplomat said the government had suffered heavy casualties for minimal gains, which was “deeply embarrassing”. “Turkey is trying to tell them ‘you cannot take this militarily. You have to negotiate’,” the diplomat said.

A regional source close to Damascus described the escalation since April as a limited confrontation, saying Russia’s ties with Turkey were the main brake on any full-scale assault to take the entire northwest.

“Of course the regime has the desire to recover Idlib by force, but … without the Russians it can’t, because there are many militants and the Russians are completely committed to the Turks,” the source said. “It is expected that the situation in Idlib will stay as it is for a long time.”

 

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun, Zeynep Arica and Ece Toksabay in Turkey, Laila Bassam in Beirut and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Putin, after three days, says fire-hit Russian submarine was nuclear-powered

Russia's President Vladimir Putin meets with Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu to discuss a recent incident with a Russian deep-sea submersible, which caught fire in the area of the Barents Sea, in Moscow, Russia July 4, 2019. Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn and Andrey Kuzmin

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin disclosed on Thursday for the first time that a secret military submarine hit by a fatal fire three days ago was nuclear-powered, prompting the defense minister to assure him its reactor had been safely contained.

Russian officials have faced accusations of trying to cover up the full details of the accident that killed 14 sailors as they were carrying out what the defense ministry called a survey of the sea floor near the Arctic.

Moscow’s slow release of information about the incident has drawn comparisons with the opaque way the Soviet Union handled the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power station disaster, and another deadly submarine accident — the 2000 sinking of the nuclear-powered Kursk, which claimed 118 lives.

Russia, which says the details of the submarine involved in the latest accident are classified, said the fire took place on Monday, though it was only officially disclosed late on Tuesday.

Until Thursday there was also no official word on whether the vessel had a nuclear reactor, despite strong interest from neighboring Norway.

Putin revealed that the submarine had been nuclear-powered by asking Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu during a Kremlin meeting about the reactor’s condition after the fire.

“The nuclear reactor on the vessel is completely isolated,” Shoigu told Putin, according to a Kremlin transcript. “All the necessary measures were taken by the crew to protect the reactor, which is in complete working order.”

The fire erupted in the submarine’s battery compartment, Shoigu added, and later spread.

Although the Kremlin publicized the meeting on Thursday morning, it was not immediately clear when the men had met.

“There has not been any formal communication from Russia to us about this,” Per Strand, a director at the Norwegian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority, told Reuters when asked if it had been informed that the submarine was nuclear-powered.

“We understand they brought the situation under control quickly, under difficult conditions, and there was, as such, no nuclear incident that they were obligated to tell us about.

“Still, we would have been happy to have been informed of such incidents,” he added.

TOP-SECRET SUBMARINE

Russian servicemen attended a memorial service on Thursday in the port city of Kronstadt near St Petersburg in honor of the 14 dead submariners.

Held in the hulking Russian Orthodox Naval Cathedral of St Nicholas, sailors cradled lit candles and looked on as priests read out prayers and a choir chanted in the background.

Shoigu, a close Putin ally, told the president that the submarine, which authorities said had been operating in the Barents Sea area, would be fully repaired.

“Right now, we are assessing how long it will take, how much work there is, and how we can carry it out,” he said.

Shoigu’s ministry has released photographs of the deceased sailors, hailing them as “real patriots of the Motherland”.

Separately, a photograph of a tribute to them circulated on social media which appeared to have been hung on the wall of a Russian military facility. Reuters could not immediately confirm its authenticity, but it said the men had served on board a deep-sea submersible known by the designation AS-31.

Russian media have previously reported, without official confirmation, that the vessel was designated as either AS-31 or AS-12 and is designed to carry out special operations at depths where regular submarines cannot operate.

The submarine is made up of a series of inter-connected spheres that allow it to resist water pressure at great depths. Western military experts have suggested it is capable of probing and possibly even severing undersea communications cables.

Putin ordered Shoigu to prepare posthumous state awards for the dead submariners. An official investigation into the accident, likely to be shrouded in secrecy, is already underway.

(Additional reporting by Tom Balmforth and Gabrielle Ttrault-Farber in Moscow and by Gwladys Fouche in Oslo; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Jon Boyle and Gareth Jones)