Turkey, Russia can tackle Syria escalation ‘without anger’: Erdogan

By Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday Turkey and Russia should resolve differences over the conflict in Syria’s Idlib without anger, after a deadly flare-up in violence challenged the fragile cooperation between Moscow and Ankara.

The two countries support opposing sides in Syria’s nearly nine-year war, as well as in Libya’s escalating conflict, but have worked together to contain some of the bloodshed and have forged close defense ties in recent years.

An attack by Russian-backed Syrian government forces that killed eight Turkish military personnel on Monday posed the biggest challenge to Russian-Turkish ties since their 2018 deal to stem fighting in Syria’s northwest Idlib region.

Erdogan told Russian forces on Monday there to “stand aside” while Turkey struck dozens of targets in retaliation. Moscow and Ankara then argued about whether Turkey had told Russia it was sending waves of reinforcements into Idlib.

“There is no need for us to be engaged in a conflict or a serious contradiction with Russia at this stage,” he was quoted as telling reporters on a flight from Ukraine.

“We will of course sit down and discuss everything. Not with anger, though. Because those who sit down with anger, get up with losses,” Erdogan added.

Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad in the war in Syria while Turkey backs rebels who once aimed to topple him.

Analysts said the relationship should survive the testy spell even while risks remained on the ground in Syria. Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees, fears Russian air strikes and a recent northward surge by Syrian troops threaten to send millions more refugees towards its border.

A Turkish security official said clashes between Turkish and Syrian forces continued intermittently on Tuesday around Saraqeb, a town 15 km (9 miles) east of Idlib city.

“Now we see more clearly the limits of the Turkey-Russia cooperation in Syria…and the question is have we reached a different level of escalation” given the attacks on Turkish troops, said Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat who chairs the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies.

NO “PERMANENT BREAK”

But “this episode is not going to lead to a permanent break between Ankara and Moscow. They will find ways to overcome this… because both sides continue to rely on each other” to contain the situation in Idlib, he said.

Turkey’s foreign minister told his Russian counterpart to rein in Syrian forces and again warned of retaliation against provocative attacks on Turkish observation posts in Idlib set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran.

“We also don’t accept the excuse of ‘we cannot fully control the regime’ here,” Mevlut Cavusoglu said of Russia.

The Turkish security official said Ankara had no plans to withdraw from its 12 observation posts in the area, even though some are now surrounded by Syrian government forces.

Moscow says it is concerned about attacks by militants who control Idlib, Syria’s last remaining major rebel stronghold.

Konstantin Kosachev, a senior Russian lawmaker, called the heightened fighting a “serious test of the strength of the existing Russian-Turkish agreements” in both Idlib and in northeast Syria, where the two countries have jointly patrolled.

The Idlib violence has accelerated in recent months despite several ceasefire efforts, including as recently as January.

United Nations regional spokesman David Swanson said 520,000 people had been displaced since the beginning of December and the numbers could swell further.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Ankara and Eric Knecht in Beirut; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen and Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Cold and humiliated, Syrians displaced yet again by new Assad campaign

IDLIB, Syria (Reuters) – Khaled Sabri and his family huddle in the makeshift shelter in northern Idlib, still shell-shocked after fleeing the sudden bombardment of their rebel-held town earlier this week.

They are part of an exodus that has shaken northwest Syria, the last rebel redoubt in the country’s nine-year civil war, as hundreds of thousands push toward Turkey to escape a sudden and fast-moving advance by government forces.

Backed by heavy Russian airstrikes, President Bashar al-Assad’s forces have recaptured dozens of towns since last Friday in a major campaign that has stoked tensions between Ankara and Moscow and raised the specter of a new refugee crisis.

A view of the trucks carrying belongings of displaced Syrians, in northern Idlib, Syria January 30, 2020. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

“We fled with just the clothes we were wearing because of the heavy bombing,” said 55-year-old Sabri. His city Maarat al-Numan, the second biggest in Idlib, was re-captured on Tuesday in a major milestone for Assad’s stated goal of reclaiming all of Syria.

At the camp outside Maarat Misrin, a northern Idlib town about 20 km (12 miles) south of the Turkish frontier, dozens of families sheltered in plastic white tents, many unsure of where they would wind up.

Jennah, 10, said it was the second time her family had been displaced. Like many others, they had sought refuge in Idlib after being ousted from other areas earlier in the war.

“I was forcibly displaced from eastern Ghouta, and then we went to Maarat al-Numan and the Syrian regime launched a military campaign on Maarat al-Numan, so we came here.”

A United Nations report on Thursday estimated that 390,000 people have fled northwest Syria from Dec. 1-Jan. 27, 80% of them women and children.

Moscow and Damascus say they are fighting jihadist militants who have stepped up attacks on civilians in Aleppo in northern Syria, but rights groups and rescue workers say air strikes and shelling have demolished hospitals, schools and homes.

Turkey, which fears a fresh wave of migrants piling into it territory, adding to the more than 3.6 million Syrians already there, said on Friday it would not tolerate new threats near its border and would act militarily if needed.

Trucks crowded with civilians’ furniture, mattresses and rugs were seen on Friday hauling out of towns across much of Idlib and western Aleppo, another area of northern Syria hit hard over the past week.

“Today we are homeless, humiliated, oppressed and cold. We want to be returned to our homes and towns,” said a woman who called herself Um Abdallah, or Abdullah’s mother, 30, from Maarat al-Numan.

(Reporting by Reuters TV in Idlib; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Erdogan says Turkey may launch Syria offensive if Idlib attacks continue

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey may launch a military operation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region unless fighting there is quickly halted, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday as attacks by Syrian government forces risked a new wave of refugees.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, backed by Russian air power, have made rapid advances in Idlib, the last major rebel-held stronghold in Syria’s nearly nine-year war, in an offensive which has displaced hundreds of thousands of people.

The recent campaign has also raised tensions between Ankara and Moscow, which back opposing sides in the conflict.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria, fears a fresh wave of migrants from Idlib. It has 12 military observation posts around Idlib, set up under a 2017 agreement with Russia and Iran, and several of them have since been surrounded by advancing Syrian government forces.

Erdogan accuses Russia of violating agreements to reduce the fighting in Idlib, a charge Moscow denied on Friday. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Idlib was a haven for militants targeting Syrian troops and a Russian airbase in Syria.

Speaking in Ankara, Erdogan repeated Turkey could not handle a fresh influx of migrants and would not allow new threats near its borders, even if it meant resorting to military power as it did in three previous cross-border operations in northern Syria.

“We will do what is necessary when someone is threatening our soil. We will have no choice but to resort to the same path again if the situation in Idlib is not returned to normal quickly,” Erdogan said.

He also appeared to hold out the option of another operation in northeastern Syria, where in October Ankara targeted the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia that it calls a terrorist group.

“We will not refrain from doing what is necessary, including using military force,” he said, adding Turkey wants stability and security in Syria.

Later on Friday, the Kremlin said Russia was fully compliant with its obligations in Idlib, but that it was deeply concerned about what it said were aggressive militant attacks on Syrian government forces and Russia’s Hmeimim air base.

Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting to oust Assad, has repeatedly called for Assad to step down, even while Iran, Russia and Turkey have said they seek a political solution to the conflict.

“We will not allow the regime to put our country under the constant threat of migrants by tormenting, attacking, spilling the blood of… its people,” Erdogan said.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul and Alexander Marrow in Moscow; Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu; Editing by Dominic Evans, Jonathan Spicer and Hugh Lawson)

Turkey’s Erdogan says Russia not abiding by Syria agreements: NTV

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said that Ankara is losing patience with the military assault in Syria’s Idlib region, adding that Russia is violating agreements aimed at stemming conflict there, broadcaster NTV reported on Wednesday.

Renewed bombardments by Russia-backed Syrian government forces on Idlib have raised concern of a new refugee wave from the area which borders Turkey and is home to 3 million people.

Turkey and Russia, which support opposing sides in Syria, agreed to work toward de-escalating the fighting in Idlib and creating a demilitarized zone under agreements in 2017 and 2018 known as the Astana and Sochi accords.

But fighting has continued in the last remaining rebel bastion in country’s nearly nine-year war despite several other agreements for a ceasefire, as recently as this month.

“Currently, Russia is not abiding by Astana or Sochi,” NTV quoted Erdogan as saying.

Speaking to reporters on his flight back from Senegal, he said Turkey, which is building houses in northern Idlib to shelter civilians fleeing the bombing, has told Russia that it is running out patience.

“If we are loyal partners with Russia on this, they have to put forth their stance… Our wish is that Russia immediately makes the necessary warnings to the regime which it sees as a friend,” he said.

“The Astana process has fallen into silence now. We need to look at what Turkey, Russia and Iran can do to revive the Astana process,” he said.

On Tuesday, Syrian government forces entered a town in the south of Idlib city, in a significant advance for President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey said it would retaliate against any attack on its 12 observation posts around Idlib.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor, said a Turkish military convoy of 30 vehicles, including 12 armored vehicles, entered Syria on Monday evening and was expected to establish a new observation post south of the town of Saraqeb in Idlib.

(Reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu; Writing by Ali Kucukgocmen; Editing by Dominic Evans)

Putin proposes 2020 summit with leaders of Russia, France, China, U.S. and UK

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday proposed holding a summit between the leaders of Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain in 2020 to discuss the conflict in Libya and other global problems.

Putin, who was speaking during a trip to Israel, said Moscow was ready for a “serious conversation” with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, that there was much to discuss and that the summit could happen anywhere in the world.

“In any country, at any point of the world that is convenient for our colleagues. Russia is ready for this kind of serious conversation,” he said.

“There are many tasks before us. We discussed one of them very recently in Berlin…That is Libya. And we need to return to this problem at the Security Council and adopt the corresponding resolution,” he said.

Putin, who was in Israel on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said holding such a summit would be an important symbolic step ahead of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two.

“We discussed (this) with several colleagues and as far as I understand in general we saw a positive reaction to holding a meeting of the heads of the permanent members of the UN Security Council…” he said.

(Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Putin speeds up Russian political shake-up, details new power center

By Tom Balmforth and Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin accelerated a shake-up of Russia’s political system on Monday, submitting a constitutional reform blueprint to parliament that will create a new center of power outside the presidency.

Putin also replaced Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, who had held the role since 2006, a move suggesting his planned changes could reach beyond the political system and the government.

In a surprise move, Putin announced plans for reforms last week. Long-time ally Dmitry Medvedev then resigned as prime minister along with the government, saying he wanted to allow room for the president to make the changes.

Putin’s proposed changes are widely seen as giving him scope to retain influence once his term expires in 2024 though he said at the weekend he did not favor the Soviet-era practice of having leaders for life who die in office.

In draft amendments submitted to the State Duma lower house, Putin offered a glimpse of how his reforms look on paper. Under his plan, some of the president’s broad powers would be clipped and parliament’s powers expanded.

In one of the biggest changes, the status of the State Council, now a low-profile body that advises the president, would for the first time be enshrined in the constitution.

Putin, 67, has not disclosed what he plans to do once he leaves the Kremlin. One option could be to head the beefed-up State Council once he leaves the presidency.

Under his proposals, the president would pick the make-up of the State Council which would be handed broader powers to “determine the main directions of domestic and foreign policy.”

His changes also envisage preventing any future president serving more than two terms. Putin first became president in 2000 and is now in his fourth term as head of state.

OPPOSITION PROTEST MARCH

Chaika, 68, has long been one of the most powerful figures in the Russian justice system and has faced allegations of corruption from the political opposition which he denies.

The Kremlin said Chaika was moving to another, unspecified, job and proposed Igor Krasnov, deputy head of the Investigative Committee, which handles major crimes, to replace him.

Krasnov, 44, has led high-profile criminal investigations including the inquiry into the murder of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, who was shot dead near the Kremlin in 2015.

Russia’s opposition said on Monday it planned to stage a protest march next month against the reforms.

“Society needs a big and genuinely mass protest,” wrote opposition politician Ilya Yashin, who said Putin’s changes amounted to a move to “rule forever”.

The Duma is due to discuss Putin’s amendments on Thursday.

Putin has said the public will be invited to vote on the proposed changes.

Andrei Klishas, a senior lawmaker involved in drafting the legislation, said the vote might be held once parliament approved the legislation, the RIA news agency reported.

(Additional reporting by Andrey Kuzmin, Alexander Marrow and Anton Zverev, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Erdogan says up to 250,000 Syrians flee toward Turkey as crisis worsens

ANKARA (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday up to 250,000 migrants were fleeing toward Turkey from Syria’s northwest Idlib region after weeks of renewed bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces.

Turkey already hosts some 3.7 million Syrian refugees, the largest refugee population in the world, and Erdogan said it was taking steps with some difficulty to prevent another wave from crossing its border.

With winter worsening an escalating crisis, the United Nations has said some 284,000 people had fled their homes as of Monday. Up to 3 million people live in Idlib, the last rebel-held swathe of territory after Syria’s nearly nine year civil war.

“Right now, 200,000 to 250,000 migrants are moving toward our borders,” Erdogan told a conference in Ankara. “We are trying to prevent them with some measures, but it’s not easy. It’s difficult, they are humans too.”

Towns and villages have been pounded by Russian jets and Syrian artillery since a renewed government assault last month, despite a deal agreed last September by the leaders of Turkey, Russia and Iran to ease tensions.

At least eight people, including five children, were killed on Wednesday in on Idlib town when the Syrian army launched missiles that struck a shelter for displaced families, witnesses and residents said.

In a report, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said the city of Maarat al-Numan and the surrounding countryside “are reportedly almost empty.”

“Displacement during winter is further exacerbating the vulnerability of those affected. Many who fled are in urgent need of humanitarian support, particularly shelter, food, health, non-food and winterization assistance,” the OCHA said.

It said those displaced in December were fleeing toward Turkey, other parts of northern Idlib or toward other areas in northern Syria such as Afrin and al-Bab that Turkey seized in previous cross-border military operations.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, backed by Russia and Iran, has vowed to recapture Idlib. Turkey has for years backed Syrian rebels fighting to oust Assad.

Erdogan said last month his country could not handle a fresh wave of migrants from Syria, warning Europe that it will feel the impact of such an influx if the bombing is not stopped.

Moscow and Damascus both deny allegations of indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas and say they are fighting al Qaeda-inspired Islamist militants. However, their advances also pile pressure on Turkey, which has 12 military posts in the area.

On Tuesday, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said it was out of the question for Turkey to evacuate its observation posts in Idlib.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay; Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Editing by Daren Butler and Jonathan Spicer)

Putin thanks Trump for tip Russia says foiled attacks

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia said on Sunday it had thwarted terrorism attacks reportedly planned in St. Petersburg thanks to a tip from Washington, bringing personal thanks again from President Vladimir Putin to his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump.

Russian news agencies cited the Federal Security Service (FSB) as saying that thanks to the information, two Russians were detained on Dec. 27 on suspicion of plotting attacks during New Year festivities in St. Petersburg.

The Kremlin said Putin passed on his gratitude to Trump during a phone call on Sunday for the tip from U.S. special services. It gave no more details.

Diplomatic ties between Washington and Moscow are fraught over disagreements from Ukraine to Syria and allegations of Russian meddling in the U.S. presidential election, but Trump and Putin have managed to keep personal lines open.

Two years ago, the Russian leader also phoned Trump to thank him for a tip that Russia said helped prevent a bomb attack on a cathedral in St Petersburg. Russia has repeatedly been the target of attacks by militant groups including Islamic State.

Sunday’s Kremlin statement said Putin and Trump agreed to continue bilateral cooperation to tackle terrorism.

(Reporting by Vladimir Soldatkin; Editing by Alison Williams and Andrew Cawthorne)

Timeline: Vladimir Putin – 20 tumultuous years as Russian president or PM

Timeline: Vladimir Putin – 20 tumultuous years as Russian president or PM
MOSCOW (Reuters) – Vladimir Putin was named acting president on Dec. 31, 1999, by then-president Boris Yeltsin. He has been in office as president or prime minister ever since, a period spanning two decades.

Here are some highlights of Putin’s 20 years in power:

Aug. 9, 1999 – During an economic crisis, President Yeltsin names little-known security chief Vladimir Putin as his fifth acting prime minister in less than a year, and says he wants Putin to succeed him as president. In the following weeks, bombings of apartment blocks across Russia kill more than 300 people, in attacks Putin blames on Chechen militants. His popularity is boosted by his tough response, which includes the aerial bombing of parts of Chechnya and an assault to recapture the breakaway southern province. Some Kremlin critics question if Chechen militants were really behind the apartment bombings.

Dec. 31, 1999 – An ailing Yeltsin resigns and names Putin acting president.

March 26, 2000 – Putin wins his first presidential election.

Aug. 12, 2000 – The Kursk nuclear-powered submarine sinks to the bottom of the Barents Sea, killing all 118 crew after an explosion onboard. Putin’s image suffers a jolt after he comments on the crisis only after four days.

2002 – Chechen militants take more than 800 people hostage at a Moscow theater. Special forces end the siege, but use a poison gas in the process which kills many of the hostages.

2003 – Oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky is arrested and charged with fraud. He is later found guilty and jailed in a case his supporters say was punishment for his meddling in politics. He is only released in 2013 after Putin pardons him.

March 2004 – Putin wins second term as president with more than 70 percent of the vote after oil prices fuel a consumer boom and raise living standards, a trend that continues for another four years.

September 2004 – Islamist fighters seize more than 1,000 people in a school in Beslan, southern Russia, triggering a three-day siege that ends in gunfire. A total of 334 hostages are killed, more than half of them children. Some parents say the authorities botched the handling of the siege and blame Putin.

December 2004 – Putin scraps direct elections for regional governors, effectively making them Kremlin appointees. Putin says the move is needed to keep Russia united.

2005 – Putin describes the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union as the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century.

2006 – Investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, a critic of rights abuses in Chechnya, is murdered in Moscow on Putin’s birthday. Kremlin critic Alexander Litvinenko dies in London that same year after being poisoned with a radioactive substance. A British inquiry years later concludes he was killed by Russian agents.

2007 – Putin gives a speech in Munich in which he lashes out at the United States, accusing Washington of the “almost uncontained hyper use of force in international relations”.

May 2008 – Constitutional limits on him serving more than two consecutive presidential terms see Putin become prime minister after his ally, Dmitry Medvedev, becomes president.

August 2008 – Russia fights and wins a short war with Georgia. Tbilisi loses control over two breakaway regions that are garrisoned with Russian troops.

2012 – Putin returns to the presidency, winning re-election with over 60% of the vote after a decision to extend presidential terms to six from four years. Large anti-Putin protests take place before and after the vote, with critics alleging voter fraud.

Feb. 7-23, 2014 – Russia hosts the winter Olympic games in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Feb. 27, 2014 – Russian forces start annexing Ukraine’s Crimea region after Ukrainian protesters oust their country’s Russia-friendly president Viktor Yanukovich. Russia incorporates Crimea the following month after a referendum condemned by the West. The United States and EU go on to impose sanctions on Moscow.

April 2014 – A pro-Russian separatist revolt breaks out in eastern Ukraine which results in a conflict, still ongoing, which hands the rebels control of a vast swath of territory and leaves more than 13,000 people dead. Western nations accuse Russia of backing the revolt; Moscow denies direct involvement.

Sept. 30, 2015 – Russia launches air strikes in Syria in its biggest Middle East intervention in decades, turning the tide of the conflict in President Bashar al-Assad’s favor.

November 2016 – Donald Trump is elected president of the United States after promising to improve battered ties with Moscow. However, U.S. authorities determine Russia tried to interfere in the election in Trump’s favor, casting a pall over U.S-Russia ties despite Moscow’s denials.

March 4, 2018 – A former Russian spy, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter are poisoned in England with a nerve agent. They survive but a woman who lives nearby dies after her partner brings home the poison found in a discarded perfume bottle. Britain accuses Russia, which denies involvement.

March 19, 2018 – Putin wins a landslide re-election victory and a mandate to stay in office until 2024.

June/July 2018 – Russia hosts the men’s soccer FIFA World Cup.

July 2019 – Protests break out in Moscow over a municipal election which the anti-Kremlin opposition says is unfair. Those protests grow into Moscow’s biggest sustained protest movement in years before fizzling out.

December 2019 – Putin boasts of his country’s lead in hypersonic weapons and says other countries are trying to catch up.

(Writing and reporting by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Russian court extends detention of ex-Marine Moscow calls a spy

MOSCOW (Reuters) – A Russian court on Tuesday extended by three months the detention of Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine accused by Moscow of spying, a decision his family and U.S. officials condemned as unjust.

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.

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. A Moscow court on Tuesday ruled to extend his detention by three months until March 29.

Whelan’s sister Elizabeth said on social media that no credible evidence of a crime had been presented and described what was happening to her brother as part of “a nasty political game”.

Whelan, who is not allowed to speak to reporters in court, on Tuesday held up signs protesting his innocence and asking U.S. President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to help him.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Rebecca Ross complained that he had not been allowed to speak in court.

“Enough is enough. Let Paul go home,” Ross wrote on social media.

(Reporting by Andrey Kuzmin; Writing by Anastasia Teterevleva/Andrew Osborn; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Alex Richardson)