‘Nasty’, ‘two-faced’, ‘brain dead’: NATO pulls off summit despite insults

By Robin Emmott and Andreas Rinke

WATFORD, England (Reuters) – NATO leaders set aside public insults ranging from “delinquent” to “brain dead” on Wednesday, declaring at a 70th anniversary summit they would stand together against a common threat from Russia and prepare for China’s rise.

Officials insisted the summit was a success: notably, Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan backed off from an apparent threat to block plans to defend northern and eastern Europe unless allies declared Kurdish fighters in Syria terrorists.

But the meeting began and ended in acrimony startling even for the era of U.S. President Donald Trump, who arrived declaring the French president “nasty” and left calling Canada’s prime minister “two-faced” for mocking him on a hot mic.

“We have been able to overcome our disagreements and continue to deliver on our core tasks to protect and defend each other,” NATO’s ever-optimistic Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told a news conference.

In a joint declaration, the leaders said: “Russia’s aggressive actions constitute a threat to Euro-Atlantic security; terrorism in all its forms and manifestations remains a persistent threat to us all.”

The half-day summit at a golf resort on the outskirts of London was always going to be tricky, with officials hoping to avoid acrimony that burst forth at their meeting last year when Trump complained about allies failing to bear the burden of collective security.

But this year’s meeting was made even more difficult by Erdogan, who launched an incursion into Syria and bought Russian missiles against the objections of his allies, and by French President Emmanuel Macron, who had described the alliance’s strategy as brain dead in an interview last month.

In public it seemed to go worse than expected, beginning on Tuesday when Trump called Macron’s remarks “very, very nasty” and described allies who spend too little on defense as “delinquents” — a term officials said Trump used again on Wednesday behind closed doors during the summit itself.

At a Buckingham Palace reception on Tuesday evening, Canada’s Justin Trudeau was caught on camera with Macron, Britain’s Boris Johnson and Mark Rutte of the Netherlands, laughing at Trump’s long press appearances. “You just watched his team’s jaws drop to the floor,” said Trudeau.

By the time the summit wound up on Wednesday, Trump had decided not to hold a final press conference, saying he had already said enough. “He’s two-faced,” Trump said of Trudeau.

HUAWEI SECURITY RISK

Nevertheless, officials said important decisions were reached, including an agreement to ensure the security of communications, including new 5G mobile phone networks. The United States wants allies to ban equipment from the world’s biggest telecoms gear maker, Chinese firm Huawei.

“I do think it’s a security risk, it’s a security danger,” Trump said in response to a question on Huawei, although the leaders’ declaration did not refer to the company by name.

“I spoke to Italy and they look like they are not going to go forward with that. I spoke to other countries, they are not going to go forward,” he said of contracts with Huawei.

Ahead of the summit, Johnson — the British host who faces an election next week and chose to avoid making any public appearances with Trump — appealed for unity.

“Clearly it is very important that the alliance stays together,” he said. “But there is far, far more that unites us than divides us.”

Macron held his ground over his earlier criticism of NATO’s strategy, saying as he arrived that it was important for leaders to discuss issues in an open and forthright manner if they were to find solutions.

“I think it’s our responsibility to raise differences that could be damaging and have a real strategic debate,” he said. “It has started, so I am satisfied.”

One of Macron’s chief complaints is that Turkey, a NATO member since 1952 and a critical ally in the Middle East, has increasingly acted unilaterally, launching its incursion in Syria and buying Russian S-400 anti-aircraft missiles.

In his comments to the press, Stoltenberg said that while Russia was a threat, NATO also wanted to ensure a constructive dialogue with it. He added, in a reference to Turkey, that the S-400 system was in no way compatible with NATO’s defense.

At the summit, Europe, Turkey and Canada pledged to spend an extra $400 billion on defense by 2024, responding to Trump’s accusations that they spend too little. Germany, a frequent target of Trump’s blandishments, has promised to spend 2% of national output by 2031.

France and Germany also won backing for a strategic review of NATO’s mission, with the alliance set to establish a “wise persons” group to study how the organization needs to reposition for the future. That could involve shifting its posture away from the East and toward threats in the Middle East and Africa.

(Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, John Chalmers and Johnny Cotton in Watford, and Estelle Shirbon in London; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by John Chalmers and Peter Graff)

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)

U.S. accuses Russia of helping Syria cover up chemical weapons use

By Anthony Deutsch

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday accused Russia of helping Syria conceal the use of banned toxic munitions in the civil war by undermining the work of the global chemical weapons agency trying to identify those responsible.

The comments by the U.S. representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), Kenneth Ward, drew a rapid denial from Moscow and came as Western powers and Russia clashed at the agency’s annual conference in The Hague.

Moscow has for months cited dissent by two former OPCW employees who leaked a document and an email as evidence that the OPCW doctored the conclusions of a March 1 report which found that a toxic chemical containing chlorine was used in a 2018 attack near Damascus.

More than 40 people were killed in that attack in Douma, a town on the outskirts of the capital then held by rebels, on April 7, 2018.

The United States, Britain and France retaliated a week later by firing missiles at Syrian government targets, the biggest Western military action against the Damascus authorities of the eight-year-old war.

Syria and Russia deny there ever was a chemical attack in Douma, saying the event was staged using bodies brought from elsewhere, and that the OPCW’s report on Douma was doctored to justify Western military intervention.

The OPCW has become the battleground for a diplomatic clash on Syria after Russia in 2017 vetoed a resolution to extend the mandate of the U.N.-OPCW Joint Investigative Mechanism (JIM), which concluded in a series of reports that the Syrian military used both nerve agent sarin and chlorine as weapons.

The OPCW’s own Investigation and Identification Team (IIT), which was established by a clear majority vote by its member states in June 2018, is looking into who was responsible for the Douma attack, among several other incidents.

Its first report is expected next year.

Russian Ambassador to the OPCW, Alexander Shulgin, repeated objections to the creation of the IIT, saying it was illegal and politicized. Syria’s representative to the OPCW on Thursday vowed not to cooperate with the IIT’s investigations.

Ward said Russia and Syria were merely seeking to cover up the use of chemical weapons by undermining the OPCW.

“Unfortunately the Russian Federation has played a central role in this cover-up,” Ward told delegates. “Russia and Syria may sit with us here, but they stand apart from us in a fundamental way. They continue to embrace chemical weapons.”

Shulgin rejected the U.S. claim that Russia was helping Syria cover up chemical crimes carried out by the Syrian regime.

“It is exquisite rhetoric… But these assertions do not hold water. We disagree,” Shulgin said.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. rejects proposal for spy swap of ex-Marine held in Russia

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – The United States rejected on Wednesday a suggestion it seek a prisoner swap involving a former U.S. Marine jailed in Russia for nearly a year over spying allegations, and called for his immediate release.

Paul Whelan, who holds U.S., British, Canadian and Irish passports, was detained by agents from Russia’s Federal Security Service in a Moscow hotel room on Dec. 28 last year.

After a U.S. diplomat visited him in jail on Wednesday, the U.S. embassy complained about Whelan’s declining health and called Russia’s treatment of him “shameful”, saying Moscow had refused to allow the diplomat to bring him Thanksgiving dinner.

Moscow says Whelan was caught red-handed with a computer flash drive containing classified information. Whelan says he was set up in a sting and had thought the drive, given to him by a Russian acquaintance, contained holiday photos.

He has been held in pre-trial detention while investigators look into his case.

Whelan’s Russian lawyer earlier this month urged the United States and other countries to push for a prisoner swap with Moscow that could get his client released.

But Julie Fisher, the chargée d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, dismissed any such exchange.

“There is no need to discuss a swap,” Fisher told reporters after visiting Whelan in prison. “There is no evidence, no crime,” said Fisher. “They need to release him. Paul has not been charged with a crime.”

Fisher also complained about what she said was Whelan’s declining health and about what she said was the Russian refusal to allow an outside doctor into prison to examine him.

He had not been allowed a single phone call to his family during the 11 months of his detention, and the U.S. Embassy said Fisher had not been allowed even to deliver Whelan a Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday.

“Russian authorities denied Paul Whelan the minor comfort of a Thanksgiving dinner today. As American families around the world gather, Paul marks 11 months in prison and can’t even call his parents. This is shameful treatment,” tweeted Rebecca Ross, the U.S. Embassy’s spokeswoman.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Trump predicts report on origins of Russia probe will be ‘historic’

By Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump predicted on Friday that a government watchdog report on the origins of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, which engulfed two years of his presidency, will be historic.

“The word is it’s historic,” Trump told Fox News Channel about an upcoming Justice Department watchdog report on the FBI’s adherence to Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act requirements during the 2016 campaign.

“That’s what I hear. If it’s historic, you’re going to see something,” Trump said, declining to say how he knew.

Trump supporters have claimed the report from the Justice Department’s inspector general, which is expected to be released on Dec. 9, will raise questions about the legitimacy of FBI investigations into alleged links to Russia by Trump and some of his campaign advisers.

A central issue the inspector general’s office said the report looked into is how closely the FBI stuck to the law and rules when it went to a secret court beginning in 2016 to obtain authorization to conduct electronic monitoring of “a certain U.S. person.”

Carter Page, a onetime foreign policy adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign, recently sued the Justice Department, accusing it of violating his privacy by failing to give him an opportunity to examine the report before publication.

(Reporting By Steve Holland and Lisa Lambert; Editing by Alex Richardson and Jonathan Oatis)

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)

Iran distances itself further from nuclear deal, alarming Russia, France

Iran distances itself further from nuclear deal, alarming Russia, France
By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran has stepped up activity at its underground Fordow nuclear plant, state TV said on Wednesday, a move France said showed for the first time that Tehran explicitly planned to quit a deal with world powers that curbed its disputed nuclear work.

In another development that could also aggravate tensions between Iran and the West, diplomats said Iran briefly held an inspector for the U.N. nuclear watchdog and seized her travel documents, with some describing this as harassment.

The incident involving an International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) inspector appeared to be the first of its kind since Tehran’s landmark deal with major powers was struck in 2015, imposing restraints on its uranium enrichment program in return for the lifting of international sanctions.

Iran’s decision to inject uranium gas into centrifuges at Fordow, a move that further distances Iran from the accord, was described by Moscow as extremely alarming. Iran once hid Fordow from the IAEA until its exposure by Western spies in 2009.

“With the presence of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, Iran started injecting (uranium) gas into centrifuges in Fordow,” TV reported.

A central aim of the agreement was to extend the time the Islamic Republic would need to assemble a nuclear weapon, if it chose to do so, to a year from about 2-3 months. Iran has repeatedly denied any such intention.

The 2015 deal bans Fordow from producing nuclear material. But, with feedstock gas entering its centrifuges, the facility – built inside a mountain – will move from the permitted status of research plant to being an active nuclear site.

A spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Behrouz Kamalvandi, told state TV later that the injection of uranium gas would start at midnight (2030 GMT). He said the centrifuges there would enrich uranium up to 4.5% fissile purity. Ninety percent purity is required for bomb-grade fuel.

President Hassan Rouhani, an architect of the 2015 deal, blamed Washington for Iran’s rolling back of its commitments, saying Fordow would soon fully resume uranium enrichment work.

“Iran’s fourth step in reducing its commitments under the JCPOA (the 2015 nuclear deal) by injecting gas to 1,044 centrifuges begins today. Thanks to U.S. policy and its allies, Fordow will soon be back to full operation,” Rouhani tweeted.

Last year, U.S. President Donald Trump exited the deal, saying it was flawed to Iran’s advantage. Washington has since renewed and intensified sanctions on Iran, slashing its economically vital crude oil sales by more than 80%.

“PROFOUND SHIFT”

Speaking in China, French President Emmanuel Macron called Iran’s latest move “grave”, saying it explicitly signaled Iran’s intent for the first time to leave the deal.

“I think that for the first time, Iran has decided in an explicit and blunt manner to leave the JCPOA, which marks a profound shift,” said Macron, who has been at the forefront of efforts by European signatories to salvage the deal after the United States withdrew.

When asked whether Paris would support triggering a dispute mechanism enshrined in the deal, Macron said technical and ministerial meetings would be held to discuss the wider implications of Iran’s actions.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said events unfolding around the nuclear deal were deeply disturbing and called on Iran to stick to the terms of the deal.

But he added that Moscow understood why Tehran was cutting back on its commitments, and blamed the situation on the U.S. decision to pull out of the pact.

Responding to Washington’s “maximum pressure” policy, Iran has bypassed the restrictions of the deal step-by-step – including by breaching both its cap on stockpiled enriched uranium and on the fissile level of enrichment.

“Iran has taken its fourth step to decrease its nuclear commitments to the deal in reaction to the increased U.S. pressure and inactivity of European parties to the deal to save it,” Iranian state TV added.

SPEEDING UP ENRICHMENT

In Vienna, the U.N. nuclear watchdog said IAEA inspectors remained on the ground in Iran and would report back on relevant activities.

Iranian authorities said on Tuesday that Tehran will enrich uranium to 5% at Fordow, which will further complicate the chances of saving an accord that European powers, Russia and the European Union have urged Iran to respect.

The agreement capped the level of purity to which Iran can enrich uranium at 3.67% – suitable for civilian power generation and far below the 90% threshold of nuclear weapons grade.

On Monday, Iran said it had accelerated enrichment by doubling the number of advanced IR-6 centrifuges in operation, adding that it was working on “a prototype called the IR-9, which works 50 times faster than IR-1 centrifuges”.

The deal, under which international sanctions against Iran were lifted, was tailored to extend the “breakout time” – how long Iran would need to accumulate enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb.

Iran has given another two-month deadline to Britain, France and Germany to salvage the deal. Leaving room for diplomacy, Tehran says talks are possible if Washington lifts all the sanctions and itself returns to the nuclear deal.

The incident involving the IAEA inspector is due to be discussed at a meeting of the agency’s 35-nation Board of Governors on Thursday convened at short notice to discuss “two safeguards matters” not specified in the agenda.

“The agency wants to show how seriously they are taking this. It is a potentially damaging precedent,” one Western official said. An IAEA spokesman and Iran’s ambassador to the U.N. watchdog declined to comment.

(Additional reporting by Marine Pennetier, Maria Kiselyova, Francois Murphy and John Irish; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean and Mark Heinrich)

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)

Crowd pelts with stones Turkish-Russian patrol in Syria: local media

Crowd pelts with stones Turkish-Russian patrol in Syria: local media
ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish and Russian troops on Tuesday began their second joint patrol in northern Syria near Kobani, under a deal that has forced a Kurdish militia away from Turkey’s border, while local media released footage of angry crowds pelting a convoy with stones.

Nearly a month ago, Turkey and Syrian rebel allies launched a cross-border incursion against Kurdish YPG fighters, seizing control of 120 km (75 miles) of land along the frontier.

Under a subsequent deal, Russia and Turkey agreed to push the YPG militia to a depth of at least 30 km (19 miles) south of the border and to hold joint patrols to monitor the agreement.

President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday that the YPG had not withdrawn from that planned “safe zone”, despite Turkey’s agreements with both Russia and the United States.

Ankara considers the YPG – which helped the United States smash the Islamic State caliphate in Syria – a terrorist group because of its ties to militants who have waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984.

Tuesday’s patrol was launched 7 km (4.4 miles) east of Kobani, a Syrian border town of special significance to the YPG, which fought off Islamic State militants trying to seize it in 2014-15 in one of the fiercest battles of the Syrian war.

Armored vehicles crossed through a gap in the border wall to the Syrian side and headed east, a witness said. Security sources said the patrol would cover a distance of 72 km (45 miles) at a depth of 5 km (3 miles) from the border.

Near Kobani, crowds pelted passing Turkish and Russian armored vehicles of the patrol with stones from a roadside and chanted slogans, footage from local North Press Agency showed.

Several dozen people managed to stop two Russian armored vehicles and some of them climbed onto one of the cars with Russian military police insignia, a video released by local news outlet Anha showed.

The Russian Defense Ministry said on Tuesday there were no incidents during the patrol mission.

The Turkish Defense Ministry shared photos on Twitter showing Turkish and Russian soldiers meeting at the border and studying maps before the start of the patrol. It said drones were also taking part.

Russia is the Syrian government’s most powerful ally and since 2015 has helped it retake much of the country from rebels, turning the tide in the civil war. The Turkish-Russian deal enabled Syrian government forces to move back into border regions from which they had been absent for years.

Russian military police arrived in Kobani on Oct. 23 under the deal reached by Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The first patrol, on Friday, was held around the Syrian border town of Darbasiya, east of the region from where Turkish and their Syrian rebel allies forced out the YPG fighters.

Erdogan said last week that Turkey planned to establish a “refugee town or towns” in that region between Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain, part of a project that state media have said would cost 151 billion lira ($26 billion).

Ankara launched its offensive against the YPG following President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of 1,000 U.S. troops from northern Syria in early October.

(Reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow; Editing by John Stonestreet and Peter Cooney)

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)