Iran launches nuclear enrichment at underground Fordow plant, IAEA confirms

Iran launches nuclear enrichment at underground Fordow plant, IAEA confirms
VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has begun enriching uranium at its underground Fordow site in the latest breach of its deal with major powers, the U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed on Monday, adding that Tehran’s enriched uranium stock has continued to grow.

Iran is contravening the deal’s limits on its nuclear activities step by step in response to Washington’s withdrawal from the accord last year and its renewed sanctions on Tehran. Tehran says it can quickly undo those breaches if Washington lifts its sanctions.

In a quarterly report, the International Atomic Energy Agency policing the deal confirmed Iran’s announcement last week that it had begun enriching uranium at its Fordow site buried inside a mountain, something prohibited by the deal. “Since 9 November…, Iran has been conducting uranium enrichment at the plant,” said the confidential IAEA report, obtained by Reuters.

Iran’s stock of enriched uranium has increased, to 372.3 kg, well above the deal’s 202.8 kg cap. The maximum fissile purity to which Iran has enriched uranium so far, however, remains 4.5 %, above the deal’s 3.67% cap but still well below the 20% Iran has achieved before and the 90% required for atomic bomb fuel.

Iran has continued to enrich with centrifuge machines other than its most basic model, the IR-1, which is not allowed under the deal, the IAEA report added. It has enriched with more advanced centrifuges and even installed small numbers of centrifuges not mentioned in the deal, the report showed.

Iran said last week it was working on a advanced prototype of centrifuge that could enrich 50 times as fast as the IR-1, deemed by experts as antiquated and prone to breakdown.

(Reporting by Francois Murphy; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Iran further distances itself from 2015 deal by fueling Fordow centrifuges

Iran further distances itself from 2015 deal by fueling Fordow centrifuges
GENEVA (Reuters) – Iran will start injecting uranium gas into centrifuges at its underground Fordow enrichment facility, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Tuesday, a highly symbolic breach that will complicate European efforts to salvage Tehran’s nuclear deal.

Under the 2015 agreement between Iran and world powers, Iran agreed to turn Fordow into a “nuclear, physics and technology center” where 1,044 centrifuges are used for purposes other than enrichment, such as producing stable isotopes, which have a variety of civil uses.

Iran has gradually scaled back its commitments to the deal, under which it curbed its nuclear program in exchange for the removal of most international sanctions, after the United States reneged on the agreement and reimposed sanctions.

The pact allows Iran only to spin the centrifuges at Fordow, located inside a mountain near the Shi’ite holy city of Qom, without injecting gas. Uranium gas injection could allow production of enriched uranium, banned at the facility under the pact.

“Starting from Wednesday, gas will be injected into centrifuges at Fordow as part of part of our fourth step to reduce our nuclear commitments to the deal,” Rouhani said in a televised speech.

He did not specify what kind of gas would be injected into centrifuges at Fordow.

But Kazem Gharibabadi, Iran’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Iran had informed the agency over “the start of injecting UF6 (uranium hexafluoride) into centrifuges at Fordow on Wednesday”.

The deal bans nuclear material from Fordow and by injecting UF6 into centrifuges, the facility will become an active nuclear site rather than a research plant as permitted under the pact.

“The IAEA was requested to send its inspectors to monitor the process,” Gharibabadi said, quoted by state television. The IAEA monitors Tehran’s compliance with the deal.

The measure will further complicate the chances of saving the accord, which European powers have called on Iran to respect.

“The announcement by Iran on November 5 to increase its enrichment capacity goes against the Vienna agreement, which strictly limits activities in this area,” French foreign ministry spokeswoman Agnes von der Muhll said.

Iran said on Monday 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 the IR-1 centrifuges”.

“The deal has become a no man’s land. We’re controlling less and less as it crumbles around us,” a senior European diplomat said. “In terms of credibility it becomes harder and harder to not react.”

Rouhani gave another two-month deadline to Britain, France and Germany to salvage the deal by protecting Iran’s economy from crippling U.S. sanctions reimposed in May after Washington’s withdrawal from the deal.

“We can’t unilaterally accept that we completely fulfill our commitments and they don’t follow up on their commitments,” Rouhani said.

Tehran says talks are possible if Washington lifts sanctions and returns to the deal.

“All these measures are reversible if other parties fulfill their commitments … We should be able to sell our oil and to transfer its money into the country,” Rouhani said, referring to U.S. sanctions on Iran’s oil and banking sectors.

(Additional reporting by John Irish in France, Francois Murphy in Vienna, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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)

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say

Venezuela exodus set to top 5 million as long-term needs grow, officials say
By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The exodus of Venezuelans is on track to reach 5 million people, as pressure grows on neighboring countries to provide them with long-term support, United Nations and European Union officials said on Wednesday.

Some 4.5 million refugees and migrants have fled Venezuela since 2015, according to official figures, but more are using illegal crossing points because they lack identity papers, said Eduardo Stein, joint special representative of the U.N. refugee and migration agencies.

The crisis has worsened since the United States imposed sanctions, including on the pivotal oil industry, in an effort to oust leftist President Nicolas Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido. Dozens of nations recognize Guaido as interim president, saying Maduro rigged a 2018 election.

Roughly 5,000 people leave Venezuela daily, although the number fluctuates as more states require visas, Stein said.

“The experience of other crises in the world shows us that those who would want to go back to Venezuela if the crisis in political terms were to be solved today, it will take a good two years or maybe even more,” Stein told a news conference.

A U.N. regional humanitarian response plan of $739 million for this year is expected to nearly double for 2020, he added.

The initially welcoming attitude to Venezuelans around South America has soured amid accusations they bring crime, crowd the job market, and strain social services.

The United Nations and European Union are hosting a meeting on Oct. 28-29 in Brussels to raise awareness of needs. Donors and officials from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank are due to attend, but no Venezuelan representatives.

“This is the most severe and fastest-growing refugee migrant crisis in Latin American history, at least recent history,” said Walter Stevens, EU ambassador to the U.N. in Geneva. “There are estimates also that it could further increase if the situation does not change, quickly reaching 5 million.”

Colombia is the top destination for Venezuelan migrants fleeing the long-running crisis, which has caused widespread shortages of food and medicine. Some 1.4 million Venezuelans live in Colombia.

The flow is overwhelming the financial and administrative capacities of host countries to provide education and health services, Stein said.

“Nine receiving countries have agreed to accept expired (Venezuelan) passports as valid documents. And so with an expired passport you can get a temporary permit sometimes for two years,” he stated.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay, editing by Larry King)

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence arrives at Esenboga International Airport in Ankara, Turkey, October 17, 2019. REUTERS/Huseyin Aldemir

Pence meets Erdogan to urge halt to Turkey’s Syria offensive
By Orhan Coskun and Humeyra Pamuk

ANKARA (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence met President Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey on Thursday on a mission to persuade him to halt an offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, but Turkish officials said the action would continue regardless.

The assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 200,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for President Donald Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish-led fighters, Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Ankara launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump defended his move on Wednesday as “strategically brilliant”. He said he thought Pence and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan would have a successful meeting, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise.

The White House released a letter from Trump to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!” Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict and the letter was “thrown in the trash”.

A Turkish official told Reuters: “The letter Trump sent did not have the impact he expected in Turkey because it had nothing to take seriously.

“What is clear is that Turkey does not want a terrorist organization on its border and the operation will not stop because of the reaction that has been coming.”

Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did not speak to reporters before the start of the meeting with Erdogan, but the official said they were likely to convey the same U.S. demands, adding: “However, negotiating with a terrorist organization or turning back from the ongoing operation are not on the agenda.”

On Monday, White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told CNBC that the United States was prepared to levy additional sanctions on if necessary “to keep Turkey in line”.

A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, said Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate for the sanctions by its NATO ally.

UNTIL GOALS MET

Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish militia Ankara views as terrorists.

Turkey will end its operation when Kurdish forces withdraw from the “safe zone” and “no power” can deter the operation until it reaches its goals, the Turkish leader said.

Trump has defended his move to withdraw troops from Syria as part of a wider effort to bring U.S. soldiers home from “endless wars”, despite criticism by members of his own Republican Party.

Turkey’s operation has allowed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to send his Russian-backed forces to an area that had been beyond his control for years in the more than eight-year-old Syrian war.

It also prompted the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), of which the Kurdish YPG is the main component, to strike a deal with Damascus for its help in countering Turkish forces.

Russia has promised Turkey that the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia targeted by the offensive will not be in the Syrian territories across the border, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told the BBC on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Russia’s foreign ministry spokeswoman said Syria should get control over its border with Turkey as part of any settlement of the conflict in the region.

Assad vowed that Syria would respond to the Turkish offensive on any part of its territory with “all legitimate means” available, Syrian state media said on Thursday.

Ankara views the U.S.-backed YPG as a terrorist organization because of its link to Kurdish militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey, and had been infuriated by Washington’s support.

A Reuters cameraman along the Turkish border with Syria said clashes continued around the border town of Ras al Ain on Thursday and that Turkish warplanes were flying overhead after a lull in fighting overnight.

Ankara had previously said it has taken control of Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, two key towns along the frontier.

The region’s Kurdish-led authority called for a corridor “to evacuate dead and wounded civilians” from Ras al-Ain. It said people were trapped in the town, urging foreign powers including the U.S.-led coalition and Russia, to intervene to get them out.

Syrian troops accompanied by Russian forces have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the British-based monitor the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hezbollah’s al-Manar TV said from the Tabqa military air base near Raqqa that Syrian government troops had advanced in that area.

“We entered the Tabqa military airport easily, there was no difficulty,” an army officer told the channel from the base, where Islamic State fighters executed scores of Syrian troops and circulated a video of their corpses in 2014.

Soldiers entered Tabqa and nearby villages on Monday, state media said, a deployment that restored the state’s foothold in that part of Syria for the first time in years.

With U.S. air power and special forces, the SDF had battled for weeks in 2017 to take Tabqa and a nearby hydroelectric dam – the country’s largest dam – from Islamic State.

CIVILIAN CASUALTIES

The Kurdish-led administration in the region said theTurkish offensive had killed 218 civilians, including 18 children since it started a week ago. The fighting has also wounded more than 650 people, it said.

Turkish authorities say 20 people have been killed in Turkey by bombardment from Syria, including eight people who were killed in a mortar attack on the town of Nusaybin by YPG militants on Friday, according to the local governor’s office.

In Geneva, humanitarian agencies said they were struggling to meet the needs of up to 200,000 civilians who had fled the fighting and reported water shortages in the Syrian city of Hasaka.

The operation has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition Kurdish areas that were formerly under U.S protection.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale.

(Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Beirut and Susan Heavey in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

France worried by new phase in Iran’s breaching of nuclear pact

France worried by new phase in Iran’s breaching of nuclear pact
By John Irish

PARIS (Reuters) – France urged Iran on Wednesday not to scale back further on its commitments to a 2015 nuclear deal, saying Tehran’s new threat to speed up uranium enrichment next month was “especially worrying”.

Iran is breaching restrictions of the pact with major powers step-by-step in response to tough sanctions imposed by the United States, which pulled out of the deal last year.

Tehran has said its next move would be taken on Nov. 6 and diplomats fear this could force a response from European powers, who have been trying to salvage the accord. Britain, France and Germany, all signatories, have refrained from acting so far.

“Iran must abstain from crossing an especially worrying new phase of new measures that could contribute to an escalation in tensions,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnès von der Muhll told reporters in a daily briefing.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said on Monday that Tehran was working on advanced IR-9 centrifuges for uranium enrichment.

The nuclear deal only lets Iran accumulate enriched uranium with just over 5,000 of its first-generation IR-1 centrifuges at Natanz. It lets Iran use small numbers of more advanced models for research, without producing enriched uranium.

Iran is now enriching uranium with advanced centrifuges and installing more that should come online in coming weeks.

Rouhani’s remarks suggested Iran was developing a new centrifuge, the IR-9, violating the deal which specifies the centrifuges Iran can use and making no mention of an IR-9.

French President Emmanuel Macron attempted and failed last month to broker talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and Rouhani in New York. Prospects of any talks in coming weeks seem slim with Tehran demanding U.S. sanctions are lifted first.

The nuclear deal aimed to extend the so-called “breakout time” Iran would need to obtain enough fissile material for a bomb, if it sought one, to a year instead of two or three months.

“Nov. 6 will be Iran’s fourth violation. Until now they have been political and symbolic with a limited impact on the breakout time, but the more they violate, the less choice and latitude they have that doesn’t impact the breakout time,” said a French diplomatic source.

“After November, the world doesn’t end, but it becomes much harder to save the deal,” the source added.

Iran says it has enriched uranium for civilian purposes and has never sought nuclear weapons, but the United States and IAEA believe it once had a nuclear weapons program that it ended.

“Iran is underscoring that it will no longer be hemmed in by the nuclear agreement, nor is it particularly alarmed by the increasingly concerned statements coming out of Europe,” Eurasia’s Iran analyst Henry Rome said.

“This is a recipe for a significant nuclear escalation in early November, not just another incremental step.”

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Catherine Evans and Edmund Blair)

Trump officials rush to Turkey as Moscow advances to fill Syria void from U.S. retreat

Trump officials rush to Turkey as Moscow advances to fill Syria void from U.S. retreat
By Tuvan Gumrukcu

ANKARA (Reuters) – The Trump administration dispatched its top officials to Turkey on Wednesday for emergency talks to try to persuade Ankara to halt an assault on northern Syria, while Russian troops swept into territory abandoned by Washington in a sudden retreat.

Robert O’Brien, White House national security adviser since last month, arrived in Turkey aiming to meet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday. Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expecting to meet the following day with President Tayyip Erdogan.

The administration is trying to contain the fallout from Erdogan’s decision to send forces last week to attack Syrian Kurdish militia that were Washington’s close allies.

Erdogan again insisted there would be no ceasefire, and said he might call off a visit to the United States next month because of the “very big disrespect” shown by U.S. politicians.

He also denounced the United States for taking the “unlawful, ugly step” of imposing criminal charges against a Turkish state bank over allegations it broke sanctions on Iran.

Turkey’s assault, launched after a call between Erdogan and President Donald Trump, forced Washington to abandon a strategy in place for five years and pull its troops from northern Syria.

It has spawned a humanitarian crisis, with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump, accused by congressional leaders, including fellow Republicans, of betraying loyal U.S. allies, the Kurds.

Syrian government forces, backed by Washington’s adversaries Russia and Iran, have meanwhile taken advantage of the power vacuum left by retreating U.S. troops to advance swiftly into the largest swath of territory previously outside their grasp.

Trump played down the crisis on Wednesday, saying the conflict was between Turkey and Syria and that it was “fine” for Russia to help its ally Damascus. Sanctioning Turkey would be better than fighting in the region, he said.

Washington announced sanctions to punish Turkey on Monday, but Trump’s critics said the steps, mainly a steel tariffs hike and a pause in trade talks, were too feeble to have an impact.

A day later U.S. prosecutors’ charges were unveiled against Turkey’s majority state-owned Halkbank for taking part in a scheme to evade Iran sanctions. Washington says the case is unrelated to politics. Halkbank denies wrongdoing and called the case part of the sanctions against Turkey.

U.S. “SHOW OF FORCE”

The Turkish advance, and Washington’s need to swiftly evacuate its own forces, have brought the two biggest militaries in NATO close to confrontation on the battlefield. Washington has complained about Turkish artillery fire near its troops.

In the latest potential flashpoint, U.S. military aircraft made a “show of force” over the border city of Kobani after Turkish-backed fighters came close to American troops there, a U.S. official said.

Pence said Erdogan had promised Trump by phone that Turkey would not attack Kobani, a strategically important border city where U.S. forces first came to the aid of Kurds against Islamic State, which massacred Kurdish civilians there in 2014.

Erdogan said he had not broken his promise to Trump: “Mr Trump’s remark on Kobani was ‘Don’t strike there’,” Erdogan told reporters late on Tuesday. “We said that we had only done an encircling operation there at the moment.”

LAND RUSH

Washington’s hasty exit has created a land rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition the formerly U.S.-protected Kurdish area.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the eight-year Syrian war, said on Wednesday Russian troops had crossed the Euphrates River to advance to Kobani’s outskirts.

Lebanon’s al-Mayadeen TV reported that Russian-backed Syrian forces had also set up outposts in Raqqa, the one-time capital of Islamic State’s caliphate, which the Kurds captured in 2017 at the peak of their campaign with U.S. support.

Hours after Washington announced its pullout on Sunday, the Kurds made a rapid deal with Washington’s adversaries, the Russia- and Iran-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

Russia-backed Syrian troops have swiftly moved across the breadth of the Kurdish-held area including Manbij city, a target of Turkey which U.S. forces said on Tuesday they had quit.

Reuters journalists traveling with Syrian government forces on Tuesday entered Manbij and saw Russian and Syrian flags on buildings nearby. Russian state media said on Wednesday Syrian government forces had occupied bases abandoned by U.S. troops.

Erdogan, due in Moscow later this month, said he had told President Vladimir Putin that Russia could move forces into Manbij, provided that the Kurdish YPG militia was cleared out.

Erdogan says Trump approved his plan for a “safe zone” about 30 km (20 miles) inside Syria. Trump says he did not endorse the plan but Washington could not stay to police the Middle East.

“They say ‘declare a ceasefire’. We will never declare a ceasefire,” Erdogan told reporters. “Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

The Turkish campaign shows no sign of abating on the ground, with most fighting so far around two border cities, Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad. A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar reported the sound of heavy gunfire just across the frontier in Ras al Ain, which Turkey’s Defence Ministry had earlier said its forces controlled.

(Additional reporting by Mert Ozkan; Writing by Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Alison Williams)

Trump sanctions fail to slow Turkey assault; Syrian troops move on Manbij

Smoke rises over the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain as seen from the Turkish border town of Ceylanpinar, Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 15, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nen

MANBIJ, Syria (Reuters) – Turkey ignored U.S. sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by U.S. forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.

Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the centre of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where U.S. troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.

Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.

U.S. forces announced they had pulled out of the city.

A week after reversing U.S. policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.

But the measures – mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks – were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.

The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher U.S. measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.

Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of U.S. policy in the Middle East.

The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.

The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.

TROOPS ENTER MANBIJ

Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.

“We are out of Manbij,” said Colonel Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”

A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.

However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.

Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organised by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.

Trump’s pullout ends joint U.S.-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.

Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance towards Manbij.

A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras al Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.

SANCTIONS ANNOUNCEMENT “FALLS VERY SHORT”

Trump has defended his reversal of U.S. policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.

But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Islamic State.

The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.

“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”

Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.

The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.

The U.N. Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.

Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.

Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.

“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union – and the world – should support what Turkey is trying to do.”

The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.

Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a ceasefire.

“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”

Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small – around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to U.S. financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.

“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.

In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.

European countries have criticised the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.

Trump said U.S. troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Islamic State. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main U.S. theatre.

(Additional reporting by Ellen Francis and Tom Perry in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Can Sezer and Behiye Selin Taner in Istanbul; Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Mike Collett-White)

‘Border on fire’ as Turkey intensifies Syria campaign

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey stepped up its air and artillery strikes on Kurdish militia in northeast Syria on Friday, escalating an offensive that has drawn warnings of humanitarian catastrophe and turned Republican lawmakers against U.S. President Donald Trump.

The incursion, launched after Trump withdrew U.S. troops who had been fighting alongside Kurdish forces against Islamic State militants, has opened a new front in the eight-year-old Syrian civil war and drawn fierce international criticism.

In Washington, Trump – fending off accusations that he abandoned the Kurds, loyal allies of the United States – suggested that Washington could mediate in the conflict, while also raising the possibility of imposing sanctions on Turkey.

On Friday, Turkish warplanes and artillery struck around Syria’s Ras al Ain, one of two border towns that have been the focus of the offensive. Reuters journalists heard gunfire there from across the frontier in the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar.

A convoy of 20 armored vehicles carrying Turkish-allied Syrian rebels entered Syria from Ceylanpinar. Some made victory signs, shouting “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) and waving Syrian rebel flags as they advanced towards Ras al Ain.

Some 120 km (75 miles) to the west, Turkish howitzers resumed shelling near the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, a witness said.

“In these moments, Tel Abyad is seeing the most intense battles in three days,” Marvan Qamishlo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said.

Overnight, clashes erupted at different points along the border from Ain Diwar at the Iraqi frontier to Kobani, more than 400 km to the west. Turkish and SDF forces exchanged shelling in Qamishli among other places, the SDF’s Qamishlo said.

“The whole border was on fire,” he said.

Turkish forces have seized nine villages near Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.

At least 32 fighters with the SDF and 34 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels have been killed in fighting, while 10 civilians have been killed, Abdulrahman said. The SDF said 22 of its fighters were killed on Wednesday and Thursday.

Turkey says it has killed hundreds of SDF fighters in the operation and one Turkish soldier has been killed.

In Syria’s al Bab, some 150 km west of the offensive, some 500 Turkish-backed Syrian fighters were set to head to Turkey to join the operation, CNN Turk reported. It broadcast video of them performing Muslim prayers in military fatigues, their rifles laid down in front of them, before departing for Turkey.

“HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHE”

Turkey says the purpose of its assault is to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as an enemy for its links to insurgents in Turkey. It says it aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria, where it can resettle many of the 3.6 million refugees it has been hosting.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan criticized Europe for failing to support the Turkish offensive and threatened to send refugees to Europe if the EU did not back him.

European Council President Donald Tusk responded on Friday by chastising Erdogan for making the threat.

“Turkey must understand that our main concern is that their actions may lead to another humanitarian catastrophe,” he said.

The International Rescue Committee aid group says 64,000 people in Syria have fled in the first days of the campaign.

The Kurdish YPG is the main fighting element of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) which have acted as the principal allies of the United States in a campaign that recaptured territory held by the Islamic State group.

The SDF now holds most of the territory that once made up Islamic State’s “caliphate” in Syria, and has been keeping thousands of Islamic State fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

A camp sheltering more than 7,000 displaced people in northern Syria is to be evacuated and there are talks on moving a second camp for 13,000 people including Islamic State fighters’ families, after both were shelled, Kurdish-led authorities said.

Medecins Sans Frontieres said a hospital in Tel Abyad had been forced to shut after most of its staff fled from bombings over the past 24 hours.

RARE REPUBLICAN CRITICISM OF TRUMP

In the United States, Trump’s decision to withhold protection from the Kurds has been one of the few issues to prompt criticism from his fellow Republicans, including leading allies on Capitol Hill such as Senator Lindsey Graham.

Trump said in a Twitter post on Thursday: “We have one of three choices: Send in thousands of troops and win Militarily, hit Turkey very hard Financially and with Sanctions, or mediate a deal between Turkey and the Kurds!”.

“I hope we can mediate,” Trump said when asked about the options by reporters at the White House.

Without elaborating, he said the United States was “going to possibly do something very, very tough with respect to sanctions and other financial things” against Turkey.

Western countries’ rejection of the Turkish offensive creates a rift within the NATO alliance, in which Turkey is the main Muslim member.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said after talks with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Istanbul that he expected Turkey to act with restraint in Syria. Cavusoglu said Ankara expected “strong solidarity” from the alliance.

Stoltenberg also told reporters the international community must find a sustainable solution for Islamic State prisoners in Syria.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has called for an emergency meeting of the U.S.-led coalition of more than 30 countries created to fight Islamic State. France’s European affairs minister said next week’s EU summit will discuss sanctions on Turkey over its action in Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin warned that Islamic State militants could escape from jail as a result of the Turkish offensive, the Interfax news agency reported.

(Reporting by Daren Butler and Tom Perry; Additional reporting by John Irish in Paris, Emma Farge in Geneva, Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow, Jan Strupczewski in Brussels and Reuters correspondents in the region; Editing by Peter Graff)