U.N. war crimes experts urge Turkey to rein in rebels in Syria

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Turkey must rein in Syrian rebels it supports in northern Syria who may have carried out kidnappings, torture and looting of civilian property, United Nations war crimes investigators said on Tuesday.

The panel also said transfers of Syrian nationals detained by the opposition Syrian National Army to Turkish territory for prosecution may amount to the war crime of unlawful deportation.

In a report covering the first half of 2020, the U.N. Commission of Inquiry on Syria said assassinations and rapes of civilians by all sides, marked by “sectarian undertones”, were on the rise in the conflict that began in 2011.

“In Afrin, Ras al Ain and the surrounding areas, the Turkey-backed Syrian National Army may have committed the war crimes of hostage-taking, cruel treatment, torture and rape,” panel chair Paulo Pinheiro told a news briefing.

“Turkey should act to prevent these abuses and ensure the protection of civilians in the areas under its control,” he said.

Turkey’s Defense Ministry says it goes to great lengths to avoid civilian casualties during military operations in Syria.

Ankara and Moscow back opposing sides in Syria. Russia, along with Iran, supports President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and Turkey backs rebels trying to oust him. Turkey seized control of the border town of Ras al Ain last year in an offensive to push back Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters, which Ankara views as a terrorist group.

Turkey wields influence as it funded, trained and allowed the rebel force known as the Syrian National Army to enter Syria from Turkey, panelist Hanny Megally said.

“Whilst we can’t say Turkey is in charge of them and issues orders and has command control over them, we think that it could use its influence much more to bring them into check and certainly to pressure them to desist from the violations being committed and to investigate them,” he said.

Investigations carried out so far by the Syrian National Army are insufficient, even as violations increase, he added.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

COVID-19 can wipe out health care progress in short order: WHO

By Emma Farge

GENEVA (Reuters) – More than 90% of countries have seen ordinary health services disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with major gains in medical care attained over decades vulnerable to being wiped out in a short period, a World Health Organization survey showed.

The Geneva-based body has frequently warned about other life-saving programs being impacted by the pandemic and has sent countries mitigation advice, but the survey yielded the first WHO data so far on the scale of disruptions.

“The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on essential health services is a source of great concern,” said a report on the study released on Monday. “Major health gains achieved over the past two decades can be wiped out in a short period of time…”

The survey includes responses from between May and July from more than 100 countries. Among the most affected services were routine immunizations (70%), family planning (68%) and cancer diagnosis and treatment (55%), while emergency services were disturbed in almost a quarter of responding countries.

The Eastern Mediterranean Region, which includes Afghanistan, Syria and Yemen, was most affected followed by the African and Southeast Asian regions, it showed. The Americas was not part of the survey.

Since COVID-19 cases were first identified in December last year, the virus is thought to have killed nearly 850,000 people, the latest Reuters tally showed.

Researchers think that non-COVID deaths have also increased in some places due partly to health service disruptions, although these may be harder to calculate.

The WHO survey said it was “reasonable to anticipate that even a modest disruption in essential health services could lead to an increase in morbidity and mortality from causes other than COVID-19 in the short to medium and long-term.” Further research was needed.

It also warned that the disruptions could be felt even after the pandemic ends. “The impact may be felt beyond the immediate pandemic as, in trying to catch up on services, countries may find that resources are overwhelmed.”

(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

UK court lifts bar on evidence transfer over Islamic State ‘Beatles’

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted a bar which prevented the government from giving evidence to U.S. authorities about an alleged Islamic State execution squad, nicknamed “the Beatles”, after reassurances were given that the men would not face the death penalty.

The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking the extradition of Britons Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, who are accused of the killing and torture of Western hostages in Syria.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr said last week that U.S. prosecutors would not seek the death penalty against the men or carry out executions if they were imposed, an issue which had been a stumbling block for Britain handing over captured militants.

In March, Britain’s Supreme Court had ruled that data protection laws meant Britain could not provide material to the United States or other foreign countries in cases which could lead to a death penalty. That decision followed legal action brought by Elsheikh’s mother, Maha El Gizouli.

The British courts imposed a block on the transfer of evidence while her case was ongoing. But the Supreme Court said it had released an order on Wednesday which formally ended El Gizouli’s action and thus ended the legal prohibition.

“The order concludes the proceedings in the Supreme Court, which means that the stay or the stop on providing material to the U.S. government is removed,” a court spokeswoman said.

There was no immediate response from Britain’s Home Office (interior ministry).

Kotey and Elsheikh are being held by the U.S. military in an unidentified overseas location after they were captured in 2019 but Barr said it was becoming untenable to continue to hold them.

The pair were members of a four-strong Islamic State unit that was known as the Beatles because they were English speakers.

They are alleged to have detained or killed Western hostages, including U.S. journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig.

One member, Mohammed Emwazi, known as “Jihadi John”, was believed to have been killed in a 2015 U.S.-British missile strike.

The U.S. Justice Department wants Britain to turn over evidence it has on Kotey and Elsheikh to allow them to be tried in the United States.

Barr had said if Britain did not turn over the material by Oct. 15, the United States would turn over the men for prosecution in the Iraqi justice system.

(Reporting by Michael Holden; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Hezbollah leader says Israel turns attention to hitting missile-making sites in Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday that Israel is now concentrating its attacks in Syria on missile-manufacturing sites.

Israel has conducted many raids inside Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. It sees the presence of Hezbollah and its ally Iran there as a strategic threat.

The heavily armed Lebanese Shi’ite movement has played a vital role in the war, helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reclaim much of the country.

In rare comments on Israeli attacks in Syria, Nasrallah said that with Assad firmly in control, Israel has turned its attention more recently to striking Syrian targets for precision missile manufacturing seen as a threat.

He denied that Israeli airstrikes have pushed either Hezbollah or Iran to retreat from Syria, calling Israel’s insistence that they have done so “imaginary victories”.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in April that the Israeli military was working to drive Tehran out of Syria.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Jon Boyle and Angus MacSwan)

Syrian air force behind chemical attacks, investigation team finds

A U.N. chemical weapons expert, wearing a gas mask, holds a plastic bag containing samples from one of the sites of an alleged chemical weapons attack in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus, Syria August 29, 2013.

By Anthony Deutsch

(Reuters) – Syrian Arab Air Force pilots flying Sukhoi Su-22 military planes and a helicopter dropped bombs containing poisonous chlorine and sarin nerve gas on a village in the country’s western Hama region in March 2017, a new team at the global chemical weapons watchdog concluded in its first report.

The special investigative unit was established by members of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in 2018 to identify perpetrators of illegal attacks. Until now the OPCW had only been authorised to say whether chemical attacks occurred, not who perpetrated them.

Officials in the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and its military backer Russia have repeatedly denied using chemical weapons and accuse insurgents of staging attacks to implicate Syrian forces.

Syria’s mission to the United Nations in New York did not immediately respond to a request for comment and there was no immediate reaction from Damascus to the report. In Moscow the Russian Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The OPCW Investigation and Identification Team (IIT) said more than 100 people were affected by the attacks, carried out on March 24, 25 and 30 in 2017 in the town of Ltamenah.

According to the ITT report, the 50th Brigade of the 22nd Air Division of the Syrian Air Force dropped M4000 aerial bombs containing sarin on the town and a cylinder containing chlorine on a hospital. The raids were conducted from the Sharat and Hama air bases, it said.

“Military operations of such a strategic nature as these three attacks only occur pursuant to orders from the highest levels of the Syrian Arab Armed Forces,” it said.

While individuals were identified by the OPCW investigators, their names have been redacted from the report, which was to be circulated to the OPCW’s 193 member states on Wednesday.

“There are reasonable grounds to believe that the perpetrators … were individuals belonging to the Syrian Arab Air Force,” OPCW team leader Santiago Onate-Laborde said.

The OPCW’s identification team is not a judicial body and it will be up to OPCW’s members, the U.N. Secretary General and the international community to “take any further action they deem appropriate and necessary”, OPCW chief Fernando Arias said.

An attack on the Syrian town of Douma led U.S. President Donald Trump to carry out missile strikes on Syrian government targets in April 2018 with the backing of France and Britain.

Created in 1997, the OPCW was initially a technical body to enforce a global non-proliferation treaty. It has become the focus of diplomatic conflict between Syria and Russia on one side and the United States, France and Britain on the other.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; Additional reporting by Michelle Nichols at the United Nations in New York; Editing by Jon Boyle, William Maclean)

Without soap or sanitizer, Syrian refugees face coronavirus threat

By Walid Saleh and Laila Bassam

AKKAR, Lebanon/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syrian refugee Mohamed al-Bakhas is doing his best to protect his family from coronavirus by keeping their camp as clean as he can. But without enough soap or the money to buy sanitizer or face masks, there is only so much he can do.

“They gave us an awareness session and one bar of soap each, but this is not enough,” said Bakhas, 40, referring to aid workers who visited his camp in northern Lebanon this week.

“We ask for disinfectants, sanitizers for the camp. We are a big group,” said Bakhas, who fled to Lebanon from Homs in Syria eight years ago and lives with his wife and child.

Lebanon has recorded 149 cases of coronavirus. Four people have died from the virus so far.

No cases have been recorded yet among Syrian refugees, who number around 1 million of Lebanon’s population of 6 million.

As Lebanon’s public health system struggles with the outbreak, the government is worried about the virus spreading to camps for both Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

Health Minister Hamad Hassan said refugee health care was a responsibility shared by the state and United Nations agencies but he said the international community had been slow to react to the crisis.

“The international community with its U.N. agencies is a bit late in putting plans, thinking about establishing a field hospital or supporting the health ministry so that it can carry out its obligations toward its people: Lebanese society in addition to the Palestinian and Syrian brothers,” Hamad said.

The UNHCR refugee agency said efforts to fight the spread of coronavirus to refugee communities had started early on.

Awareness campaigns and the distribution of hygiene materials were underway and preparations were being made for additional hospitalization capacity that may be needed.

“We are all working around the clock,” said Lisa Abou Khaled, communications officer at UNHCR in Lebanon.

Given the high population density of the camps, Hamad noted the difficulties of maintaining personal hygiene and said the spread of coronavirus was a real danger.

Field hospitals would allow for the isolation and treatment of the infected.

“The international community and U.N. institutions must without delay prepare the ground to save these communities in case the virus spreads among them,” he said.

Lebanon was grappling with a financial and economic crisis before coronavirus hit. The government is appealing for foreign aid for its public health system.

Coronavirus poses a host of new difficulties to refugees who have been struggling in poverty for years in Lebanon.

With water mostly trucked to their camps, refugees do not have enough for regular handwashing, relief workers say.

As it currently stands, accessing health care can also be a big problem: if refugees need to go to hospital, they cannot afford the ride or pay for treatment.

“We are exploring all options including setting up additional facilities in existing hospitals or separate field hospitals…its likely that a combination of both will be needed,” Abou Khaled said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry and Laila Bassam in Beirut; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Turkey says U.S. offering Patriot systems if S-400s remain unboxed

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States has offered to sell Turkey its Patriot missile defense system if Ankara promises not to operate a rival Russian system, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said, in what he called a significant softening in Washington’s position.

Two Turkish officials told Reuters that Turkey was evaluating the U.S. offer but that Ankara had not changed its plans for the Russian S-400 systems, which it has said it will start to activate next month.

NATO allies Turkey and the United States have been at odds over Ankara’s purchase last year of the S-400s, which Washington says are incompatible with the alliance’s defense systems.

After heavy fighting in northwestern Syria’s Idlib region this year Turkey asked Washington to deploy Patriots along its border with Syria for protection but the United States said Turkey cannot have both the S-400s and the Patriots.

Speaking to reporters on his return flight from Brussels, Erdogan said Ankara had told Washington to deploy Patriot systems to Turkey and that it was ready to purchase the systems from the United States as well.

“We made this offer to the United States on the Patriot: If you are going to give us Patriots, then do it. We can also buy Patriots from you,” he said.

“They also softened significantly on this S-400 issue. They are now at the point of ‘promise us you won’t make the S-400s operational’,” Erdogan added.

Previous talks between Turkey and the United States on the purchase of the Patriots have collapsed over a host of issues, from the S-400s to Ankara’s dissatisfaction with Washington’s terms. Turkey has said it will only agree to an offer if it includes technology transfer and joint production terms.

While ties between Ankara and Washington have been strained, the United States has offered support for its ally as it battle to stop Russia-backed Syrian government advances in Idlib.

But U.S. officials said on Tuesday Ankara had to clarify its position on the S-400s for their security ties to advance.

U.S. special representative for Syria James Jeffrey and U.S. Ambassador to Turkey David Satterfield told reporters on a conference call from Brussels that Washington was discussing with NATO what support it can offer Turkey militarily.

Jeffrey also said they had considered possible responses should Russia and the Syrian government break a ceasefire in Idlib, officials said.

He suggested other NATO states could individually or as an alliance provide military support to help Turkey. But he ruled out sending ground troops and said there still needed to be a resolution to the S-400 issue for the security relationship to move forward.

“You can forget ground troops. Turkey has demonstrated that it and its opposition forces are more than capable of holding ground on their own,” Jeffrey said. “The issue is the situation in the air and it’s what we are looking at,” he said.

Washington did not believe that Russia and Syrian had any interest in a permanent ceasefire in Idlib, he said.

“They are out to get a military victory in Syria and our goal is to make it difficult for them to do that,” Jeffrey said.

“Our goal is…to make them think twice. If they ignore our warnings and preparations and move forward, then we will react as rapidly as possible in consultation with our NATO and European allies on what the package of sanctions and other reactions will be.”

POSITION “UNCHANGED”

While Erdogan has frequently referred to the S-400 purchase as a “done deal” and said Turkey will not turn back from it, he did not repeat that stance in his comments on Tuesday. Turkish officials, however, said Turkey’s position remained unchanged.

“The United States has once again brought up the Patriot offer. The United States’ previous strong stance isn’t the case any more. They are approaching Turkey more empathetically now,” a senior official said.

“The core condition is that the S-400s are not activated, or in other words that they are not unboxed. This offer is being evaluated, but there is no change of stance on the S-400s,” the official, speaking on condition of anonymity said.

A separate Turkish official told Reuters the latest offer by Washington also included Turkey’s return to the F-35 stealth fighter jet program, which Turkey was involved in both as manufacturer of plane parts and customer for the jets.

After Ankara bought the S-400s, Washington suspended its involvement in the program and threatened sanctions.

“There is a U.S. offer for Patriots, but this offer includes the F-35s,” the Turkish official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Air defense systems can be purchased, but Turkey’s conditions are clear: there has to be issues like the know-how transfer and joint production.”

Turkey has said it plans to activate the S-400s it received from Russia in April. The United States has warned that such a move will trigger U.S. sanctions, though Ankara has repeatedly said good ties between Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump may be able to avert this.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay, additional reporting by John Irish in Paris; Editing by Daren Butler, Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

Russia-Turkey ceasefire broadly holds despite clashes in Syria’s Idlib

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Jonathan Spicer

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Deadly clashes erupted in parts of northwest Syria on Friday but a ceasefire deal between Russia and Turkey aimed at ending months of intense conflict was largely holding elsewhere in the country’s last rebel-held enclave.

A war monitor and rebel sources said the fighting broke out in the Jabal al-Zawiya region in the south of Idlib province between Syrian government forces and jihadist insurgents of the Turkistan Islamic Party. Fifteen people were killed, the Syrian Observatory said.

Residents and opposition forces said the violence had abated elsewhere.

The clashes, while limited, underline the fragility of Thursday’s deal between Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, and Turkey. Ankara supports rebel fighters but has less sway over hardline jihadists who control large parts of Idlib.

The ceasefire aims to contain a conflict that has displaced nearly a million people in three months in Idlib, which borders Turkey. But analysts and residents said they feared it would not hold in part because it did not address the humanitarian crisis nor air protection in any detail.

“The deal is a failure and a joke,” said Amar Ahmed, 32, a farmer who has been displaced for nearly two months and lives in a destroyed building. “We want to go back home, to our lands, and for the (Assad) regime to leave our home towns.”

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan had vowed repeatedly in recent weeks to reverse advances by Assad’s forces in Idlib. However, Thursday’s deal froze the conflict along existing front lines, cementing significant gains by Syrian government forces.

“There may be criticism but our priority was for a ceasefire and we achieved it. Some goals were not reached but that goes for both sides,” a senior Turkish official said.

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

The recent fighting sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has tried to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border. It already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Russia had repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring troops and equipment into Idlib since early last month. About 60 Turkish troops have been killed in that time.

The ceasefire deal establishes a security corridor stretching 6 km (3.7 miles) to the north and south of Idlib’s east-west M4 highway, where joint Russian-Turkish patrols will begin on March 15, effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into the province.

Several previous deals to end the fighting in Idlib have collapsed. The latest one did not detail a “safe zone” or describe how displaced people could return to their homes.

“Any ceasefire arrangement in Idlib, unless it has a no-fly zone dimension, is bound to fail. Deals in the past never de-escalated. They merely froze the crisis until the next escalation,” said Galip Dalay, IPC-Mercator fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Ahead of a meeting of European Union foreign ministers in Zagreb, Dutch minister Stef Blok said the ceasefire should be cemented with a no-fly zone to stop any further bombing of hospitals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped the deal “will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone”.

Erdogan said the sides would work together to supply aid to Syrians in need, but that Turkey retained the right to “respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

TENSE CALM

Residents and fighters in the region said the front lines – which have seen heavy air strikes by Russian and Syrian jets, and intense Turkish artillery and drone strikes – were largely quiet after the midnight ceasefire came into effect.

“There is a ceasefire but there are violations,” said Abdul Ghani al Sheikh, a rebel fighter from the Turkey-backed Failaq Sham rebel group. He said government forces were shelling Jabal al Zawya and Atareb, to the south and east of Idlib.

“But the situation overall is better. Everyone thinks this is all temporary and Turkish reinforcements are still coming,” he added.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group reported that the first eight hours of the ceasefire had passed with “relative calm”, and the skies had been free of Syrian government and Russian warplanes.

A Syrian state reporter, broadcasting from the town of Saraqeb recaptured by Syrian forces last week, said they were reinforcing positions at the front lines.

Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions called the National Liberation Front, said government forces had violated the ceasefire with shelling and attempts to storm a front line, leaving little trust between the sides.

Ahmad Rahhal, a former general in Syria’s government forces who defected to the opposition, said: “There is no pullout, and where will the displaced go (who) would never accept going to (Assad) regime areas? What we have heard is not comforting.”

(Additional reporting by Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Samar Hassan in Cairo and Tom Perry and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Tattersall)

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Turkey and Russia agreed a ceasefire deal on Thursday in Syria’s Idlib region, their two leaders said after lengthy talks in Moscow to contain a conflict which has displaced nearly a million people in three months.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, standing next to his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan, said he hoped their agreement would lead to a halt of military action in Syria’s last rebel stronghold in the far northwest of the country.

“I express hope that these agreements will serve as a good basis for a cessation of military activity in the Idlib de-escalation zone (and) stop the suffering of the peaceful population and the growing humanitarian crisis,” Putin said.

Erdogan told reporters the truce would come into effect at midnight on Thursday. “We will work together to supply aid for the Syrians in need,” he said, adding that Turkey retained the right “to respond to all (Syrian) regime attacks in the field.”

Russia and Turkey back opposing sides in Syria’s nine-year conflict, with Moscow supporting President Bashar al-Assad and Turkey backing some rebel groups. They have in recent years reached several ceasefire deals in Idlib which have collapsed.

Russian air strikes have propelled an offensive by Assad’s forces in Idlib that sparked what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis yet in a war that has driven millions from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands.

The Russian military has, however, repeatedly played down any talk of a refugee crisis and accused Turkey of violating international law by pouring enough troops into Idlib to make up a mechanised division.

Turkey, which has the second largest army in the transatlantic NATO alliance, has funnelled troops and equipment into the region in recent weeks to resist the Syrian government advance and prevent a wave of refugees over its southern border.

Russia also raced to reinforce its troops in Syria by sea and air before the Putin-Erdogan talks.

MORE DEATHS

The Kremlin said the two leaders had spoken for three hours on their own before being joined by their officials.

The two leaders also agreed to establish a secure corridor near the M4 highway, which runs east to west through Idlib, and hold joint patrols along the road from March 15.

In a joint statement read out by the Turkish and Russian foreign ministers, the two sides said the corridor would stretch 6 km to the north and 6 km to the south of the M4 – effectively advancing Russia’s presence further north into Idlib.

They said their defence ministers would agree on the parameters of the corridor within seven days.

The fighting, which has raised the prospect of a direct clash between Russia and Turkey, has killed 60 Turkish troops in the region since last month, including the death of a Turkish soldier reported by a regional governor on Thursday.

Putin expressed his regret to Erdogan about the recent killing of 34 Turkish troops in an air strike, saying the Syrian military had not known of their location.

Ahead of the talks, at least 16 civilians were killed when Russian air strikes hit a gathering of displaced people near the town of Maarat Misrin in Idlib, according to civil defence workers helping clear the rubble and search for survivors.

Russia denies targeting civilians.

Two witnesses also reported seeing more Turkish military reinforcements deploying into Idlib, and Russia’s RIA news agency said rebels had resumed shelling the strategic town of Saraqeb in Idlib where Russian military police are based.

The Turkish defence ministry said it had destroyed four tanks, five rocket launchers and a dozen military vehicles in artillery and air strikes in the last 24 hours.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrian refugees and says it cannot handle more. Seeking to extract more funding and support from Europe over Idlib, Ankara said last week it would no longer abide by a 2016 deal in which it stopped migrants crossing into the European Union in return for billions of euros in aid.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Andrey Ostroukh and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Daren Butler in Istanbul, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Osborn; Editing by Dominic Evans and Mark Heinrich)

Syrian government forces reenter strategic town, Turkey vows to keep up strikes

By Orhan Coskun and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

ANKARA/AMMAN (Reuters) – Syrian government forces entered parts of a strategic rebel-held town on Monday, and Turkey said it would keep hitting President Bashar al-Assad’s troops after ramping up operations in its biggest intervention yet into the Syrian civil war.

Turkey and Russia, which have come closer than ever to direct confrontation in Syria in recent days, traded threats over air space after Turkish forces shot down two Syrian government warplanes and struck a military airport.

Fighting has escalated dramatically in recent days in northwest Syria, where Turkey has sent thousands of troops and military vehicles in the last month to counter Syrian government forces’ advances in the last remaining bastion held by rebels.

A million people have been displaced since December near Turkey’s southern border, causing what the United Nations says may be the worst humanitarian crisis in nine years of war.

A Syrian state television correspondent in the town of Saraqeb said the army was combing the town after the retreat of Turkey-backed rebels. Rebel sources said clashes were continuing in western parts of the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor group said rebels were trying to regain control.

Saraqeb has already changed hands twice in less than a month, reflecting its importance as a gateway to the government-controlled northern city of Aleppo and to rebel-held Idlib city to the west.

Rebels said Turkish drones had been striking Syrian army positions on the Saraqeb frontline, hitting at least two rocket launchers.

Turkey, which has backed rebels fighting Assad for much of Syria’s nine-year civil war, stepped up its intervention in response to the killing of 34 Turkish soldiers in Idlib last week, the deadliest strike against the Turkish army in decades.

On Sunday it shot down two Syrian planes in Idlib and struck at least one military airport in Aleppo province, taking the battle deep into territory controlled by forces loyal to Assad.

“The (Syrian) regime’s human and equipment losses are just the beginning,” Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in Ankara. “If they do not withdraw to the borders Turkey has determined as soon as possible, they will not have a head left on their shoulders.”

Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said Turkish forces had so far destroyed eight helicopters, scores of tanks and five air defense systems.

Russia, for its part, said it could not guarantee the safety of Turkish aircraft over Syria, and Damascus said it was closing Syrian air space over the Idlib region.

HOPES FOR PUTIN TALKS

Erdogan and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are due to meet in Moscow on Thursday to seek agreement on Idlib.

“We will go to Moscow to evaluate these developments with Mr Putin. My hope is that we take the necessary steps there, whether it is a ceasefire or any other steps needed,” Erdogan said.

Turkey has insisted it seeks no conflict with Moscow, but its barrage of strikes on the Russian-backed forces around Idlib have raised the risk of a direct confrontation.

“A solution is expected to emerge from the talks but attacks and attempts which the (Syrian) regime carries out in this period will not go unanswered,” a senior Turkish security official told Reuters.

Backed by Turkish shelling and drone strikes, rebels say they have now retaken several villages that they lost last week in the Syrian government offensive.

Erdogan demanded in early February that Syrian forces withdraw by the end of the month from a “de-escalation zone” around Idlib agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran in 2017, or face being driven back by the Turkish military.

“The (Syrian) regime will be forced to leave the de-escalation zone before the Putin-Erdogan meeting,” a senior Syrian opposition source said.

Already hosting 3.6 million Syrian refugees, Ankara is determined to prevent any further influx of migrants from Syria.

Turkey opened its western borders on Friday to let migrants reach Europe, in an apparent move to demand EU support in Syria by repudiating a 2016 agreement to shut the frontier.

The European Union’s chief executive, Ursula von der Leyen, expressed sympathy with Turkey over the conflict in Syria, but said sending migrants to Europe cannot be the answer.

Turkey had shut the border in return for EU funds under a 2016 deal to end a crisis in which more than a million people entered Europe and 4,000 drowned in the Aegean Sea. On Monday, a child died after being pulled from the sea when a boat capsized off the Greek island of Lesbos, Greek officials said, the first reported fatality since Turkey re-opened its border last week.

Two Turkish security sources told Reuters a Syrian migrant also died from injuries on Monday after Greek security forces acted to stop migrants entering Greece by land. Athens denied the incident.

More than 1,000 migrants have arrived by sea on Greek islands since Sunday and more than 10,000 have attempted to cross by land at the border, where guards from both sides have fired tear gas into crowds caught in no-man’s land.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Khalil Ashawi in Azaz, Syria, Anton Kolodyazhnyy and Tom Balmforth in Moscow, Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott in Brussels, Ezgi Erkoyun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Turkey; Writing by Dominic Evans and Daren Butler; Editing by Alex Richardson and Peter Graff)