U.S. plan to arm Kurdish militia casts shadow over Trump-Erdogan talks

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends the Roundtable Summit Phase One Sessions of Belt and Road Forum at the International Conference Center in Yanqi Lake on May 15, 2017 in Beijing, China REUTERS/Lintao Zhang/Pool/File Photo *** Local Caption *** Aung San Suu Kyi

By Orhan Coskun and Daren Butler

ANKARA (Reuters) – Angered by a U.S. decision to arm Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan heads to Washington this week for talks with Donald Trump seeking either to change the president’s mind or to “sort things out ourselves”.

Trump’s approval of plans to supply the YPG as it advances toward the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa, just days before his first meeting with Erdogan, has cast a shadow over Tuesday’s planned talks between the two NATO allies.

Ankara, a crucial partner in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, considers the YPG an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged an insurgency in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast for three decades and is designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the European Union and United States.

Washington sees the YPG as distinct from the PKK and as a valuable partner in the fight against Islamic State.

“If we are strategic allies we must take decisions as an alliance. If the alliance is to be overshadowed we’ll have to sort things out for ourselves,” Erdogan told reporters on Sunday, according to the pro-government Sabah newspaper.

Erdogan was speaking during a visit to China, ahead of his trip to Washington for his first meeting with Trump.

Turkey had hoped that Trump’s inauguration would mark a new chapter in ties with Washington after long-running tensions with the Obama administration over Syria policy and Ankara’s demands for the extradition of U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen.

Erdogan blames Gulen supporters for a failed coup attempt last July and has conducted a large-scale crackdown on them, drawing criticism from Washington. Gulen, who has denied involvement in the coup, remains in the United States.

Erdogan welcomed Trump’s election victory last November and said he hoped it would lead to “beneficial steps” in the Middle East. When Erdogan narrowly won sweeping new powers in an April referendum, Trump rang to congratulate him, unlike European politicians who expressed reservations about the vote.

DYNAMITE

But hopes for rapprochement took a hit last week. The decision to arm the YPG was “tantamount to placing dynamite under Turkey-USA relations”, a senior Turkish official said.

“Just as it was being said that relations (which were) seriously harmed during the Obama period are being repaired, Turkey moving apart from one of its biggest allies would be an extremely bad sign,” the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told Reuters.

Erdogan portrays U.S. support for the Kurdish militia – instead of Syrian Arab rebels – as a leftover policy from the Obama administration, which he said had wrongly accused Turkey of doing too little in the fight against Islamic State.

“It is a slander of the Obama administration. Unfortunately now they have left the Syria and Iraq problem in Trump’s lap,” Erdogan said in China.

Erdogan will tell Trump that backing a Kurdish force to retake Arab territory held by Islamic State will sow future crises, and that other forces in the region including Kurdish Iraqi leaders also oppose the YPG, the Turkish official said.

Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said after talks in London last week with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis that Trump’s meeting with Erdogan would be an opportunity to “correct the mistake” of support for the YPG.

“Now we will conduct the final talks,” Erdogan said. “After that we will make our final decision.”

The United States sees few alternatives to supporting the YPG, which forms a major part of the Syrian Democratic Forces advancing on Raqqa, if it is to achieve the goal of crushing Islamic State in Syria.

Erdogan did not spell out what actions Turkey might take if Washington does press ahead with its plans.

Officials have suggested it could step up air strikes on PKK bases in northern Iraq, or YPG targets in Syria. It could also impose limits on the use of its Incirlik air base as a launchpad for the air campaign against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

But that would hamper operations against jihadis who also menace Turkey and have claimed responsibility for attacks including the bombing of Istanbul airport in June 2016.

“Naturally (Turkey) would have to consider the aftermath of closing the Incirlik base to (U.S.) use,” said Soli Ozel, a lecturer at Turkey’s Kadir Has university.

“It will not be very easy to put relations back on track,” Ozel said. “I think ultimately a formula will be found. I think neither side wants to cut relations.”

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Trump’s offer to Russia: an end to sanctions for nuclear arms cut – London Times

Donald Trump speaking at news conference on Russia foreign policy

By Guy Faulconbridge and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – U.S. President-elect Donald Trump will propose offering to end sanctions imposed on Russia over its annexation of Crimea in return for a nuclear arms reduction deal with Moscow, he told The Times of London.

Criticizing previous U.S. foreign policy in an interview published on Monday, he described the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 as possibly the gravest error in the history of the United States and akin to “throwing rocks into a beehive”.

But Trump, who will be inaugurated on Friday as the 45th U.S. president, raised the prospect of the first big nuclear arms control agreement with Moscow since the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed by President Barack Obama in 2010.

“They have sanctions on Russia — let’s see if we can make some good deals with Russia,” the Republican president-elect was quoted as saying by The Times.

“For one thing, I think nuclear weapons should be way down and reduced very substantially, that’s part of it. But Russia’s hurting very badly right now because of sanctions, but I think something can happen that a lot of people are gonna benefit.”

The United States and Russia are by far the world’s biggest nuclear powers. The United States has 1,367 nuclear warheads on deployed strategic missiles and bombers, and Russia has 1,796 such deployed warheads, according to the latest published assessment by the U.S. State Department.

Under the 2010 New START treaty, Russia and the United States agreed to limit the number of long-range, strategic nuclear weapons they can deploy.

Trump has said he will seek to improve relations with Moscow despite criticism that he is too eager to make an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The United States and other Western powers imposed sanctions on Russia in 2014 over its annexation of the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and its support for pro-Russia separatists in eastern Ukraine.

Asked whether he would trust German Chancellor Angela Merkel or Putin more, Trump said: “Well, I start off trusting both –but let’s see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all.”

His relations with Moscow have faced renewed scrutiny after an unsubstantiated report that Russia had collected compromising information about Trump.

The information was summarized in a U.S. intelligence report which was presented to Trump and Obama this month.

The report concluded Russia tried to sway the outcome of the Nov. 8 election in Trump’s favor by hacking and other means. It did not make an assessment on whether Russia’s attempts affected the election’s outcome.

Trump accused U.S. intelligence agencies of leaking the information from the unverified dossier, which he called “fake news” and phony stuff.” Intelligence leaders denied the charge and Moscow has dismissed the accusations against it.

RUSSIAN RELATIONS

In the interview with The Times, Trump was also critical of Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war which, along with the help of Iran, has tilted the conflict in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

“I think it’s a very rough thing,” Trump said of Russian intervention in Syria. “Aleppo has been such a terrible humanitarian situation.”

The war has killed more than 300,000 people, created the world’s worst refugee crisis and aided the rise of the Islamic State militant group.

On NATO, Trump repeated his view that the military alliance was obsolete but said it was still very important for him.

“I took such heat, when I said NATO was obsolete,” Trump told The Times, referring to comments he made during his presidential election campaign. “It’s obsolete because it wasn’t taking care of terror. I took a lot of heat for two days. And then they started saying Trump is right.”

Trump said many NATO member states were not paying their fair share for U.S. protection.

“A lot of these countries aren’t paying what they’re supposed to be paying, which I think is very unfair to the United States,” Trump said. “With that being said, NATO is very important to me. There’s five countries that are paying what they’re supposed to. Five. It’s not much.”

Trump said he would appoint his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, to try to broker a Middle East peace deal, urged Britain to veto any new U.N. Security Council resolution critical of Israel and criticized Obama’s handling of the deal between Iran and six world powers including the United States which curbed Tehran’s nuclear program.

On Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, Trump said: “Brexit is going to end up being a great thing” and said he was eager to get a trade deal done with the United Kingdom.

(Editing by Peter Cooney and Timothy Heritage)