Operation to end last IS Syria pocket hits evacuation snag

A fighter from the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) gives bread to children near the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – The operation to destroy Islamic State’s final vestige of rule in Iraq and Syria hit a temporary snag on Thursday, as an expected evacuation of the remaining civilians from its last enclave in eastern Syria did not go ahead.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has steadily driven the jihadists down the Euphrates, has surrounded them at Baghouz near the Iraqi border but does not want to mount a final attack until all civilians are out.

Iraqi sources said the SDF handed over more than 150 Iraqi and other foreign jihadists to Iraq on Thursday, under a deal involving a total of 502.

The SDF had expected to pull the last civilians from Baghouz on Thursday, but trucks it sent in left empty. “We can’t get into details, but today no civilians came out,” SDF official Mustafa Bali told Reuters.

Baghouz is all that remains for Islamic State in the Euphrates valley region that became its final populated stronghold in Iraq and Syria after it lost its major cities of Mosul and Raqqa in 2017.

In Paris, a French source said the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State was verifying whether an air strike killed French jihadist Fabien Clain, who voiced the recording claiming the November 2015 attacks on Paris.

A second French source close to the matter said Clain had been killed and his brother Jean-Michel seriously wounded after a coalition strike on Wednesday in Baghouz.

In the 2015 attacks, gunmen and suicide bombers killed 129 people in the French capital. France’s military, foreign ministry and president’s office declined to comment. The coalition said it could not confirm the information at this time.

The capture of Baghouz will nudge the eight-year-old Syrian war towards a new phase, with U.S. President Donald Trump’s pledge to withdraw troops leaving a security vacuum that other powers are seeking to fill.

Though the fall of Baghouz marks a milestone in the campaign against IS and the wider conflict in Syria, Islamic State is still seen as a major security threat.

The group has steadily turned to guerrilla warfare and still holds territory in a remote, sparsely populated area west of the Euphrates River – a part of Syria otherwise controlled by the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies.

Bali told Reuters the SDF would attack Baghouz once the civilian evacuation was complete. He did not say how much more time was needed to finish off the remaining Islamic State militants or give a new estimate of how many fighters remained.

The SDF has previously estimated several hundred fighters – believed mostly to be foreign jihadists – are still inside.

A Reuters witness saw warplanes in the sky over Baghouz on Thursday though there was no sound of fighting or shelling.

The U.S.-led coalition said on Wednesday “the most hardened” jihadists remain in Baghouz.

More than 2,000 civilians left the enclave on Wednesday, the SDF said. It has said more than 20,000 civilians left Baghouz in the days leading up to the start of the SDF’s final push to capture the enclave this month.

The SDF has not ruled out the possibility that some Islamic State fighters had left Baghouz with the civilians.

SDF and coalition forces are recording the names and questioning everyone who has left in the civilian convoys.

Many of the people who left the enclave in civilian convoys have been Iraqis, some of whom said they had crossed from Iraq into Syria as Iraqi government forces made gains against Islamic State on the other side of the frontier.

FACING THE CONSEQUENCES

Two Iraqi military sources told Reuters the handover of Islamic State fighters on Thursday was the first of several.

“The majority of the fighters are Iraqi,” said a military colonel whose unit is stationed at the Syrian border. “But we have a few foreigners.”

Islamic State, whose leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared himself “caliph”, or leader of all Muslims, in 2014, attracted members from all over the world, including many Western states.

A Turkish official said Turkey was doubling down its own security measures to make it harder for foreign fighters still in Syria or Iraq to pass through Turkey, noting that the threat was much greater than the 800 that the SDF says it is holding.

Western countries refusing to repatriate jihadists were not living up to their responsibilities and leaving countries like Turkey to face the consequences, the official added.

Britain has stripped the citizenship of a teenager who went to Syria aged 15 to join Islamic State. But interior minister Sajid Javid said he would not take a decision that would leave anyone stateless, after Bangladesh said it would not accept her.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said a woman born in the United States who joined Islamic State did not qualify for U.S. citizenship and had no legal basis to return to the country.

(Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad, Raya Jalabi in Erbil, Tom Perry in Beirut and Tulay Karadeniz, Writing by Tom Perry, Editing by Angus MacSwan, Angus McDowall, William Maclean)

Britain strips citizenship from teenager who joined Islamic State in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Renu Begum, sister of teenage British girl Shamima Begum, holds a photo of her sister as she makes an appeal for her to return home at Scotland Yard, in London, Britain February 22, 2015. REUTERS/Laura Lean/Pool/File Photo

By Guy Faulconbridge and Paul Sandle

LONDON (Reuters) – Britain stripped a teenager who traveled to join Islamic State of her citizenship on security grounds, triggering a row over the ramifications of leaving a 19-year-old mother with a jihadist fighter’s child to fend for herself in a war zone.

The fate of Shamima Begum, who was found in a detention camp in Syria last week, has illustrated the ethical, legal and security conundrum that governments face when dealing with the families of militants who swore to destroy the West.

With Islamic State depleted and Kurdish-led militia poised to seize the group’s last holdout in eastern Syria, Western capitals are trying to work out what to do with battle-hardened foreign jihadist fighters, and their wives and children.

Begum, who gave birth to a son at the weekend, prompted a public backlash in Britain by appearing unrepentant about seeing severed heads and even claiming the 2017 Manchester suicide attack – that killed 22 people – was justified.

She had pleaded to be repatriated back to her family in London and said that she was not a threat.

But ITV News published a Feb. 19 letter from the interior ministry to her mother that said Home Secretary Sajid Javid had taken the decision to deprive Begum of her British citizenship.

“In light of the circumstances of your daughter, the notice of the Home Secretary’s decision has been served of file today, and the order removing her British citizenship has subsequently been made,” the letter said.

The letter asked Begum’s mother to inform her daughter of the decision and set out the appeal process.

When asked about the decision, a spokesman said Javid’s priority was “the safety and security of Britain and the people who live here”.

Begum was one of three outwardly studious schoolgirls who slipped away from their lives in London’s Bethnal Green area in February 2015 to fly to Turkey and then over the border into the cauldron of the Syrian civil war.

LONDON TO SYRIA

Islamic State propaganda videos enticed her to swap London for Raqqa, a step she still says she does not regret. She fled the self-styled caliphate because she wanted to give birth away from the fighting.

“When I saw my first severed head in a bin it didn’t faze me at all. It was from a captured fighter seized on the battlefield, an enemy of Islam,” she told The Times which first discovered her in the camp in Syria.

She was equally harsh when describing the videos she had seen of the beheaded Western hostages, The Times said.

Begum has named her newborn, Jerah, in accordance with the wishes of her jihadist husband, Yago Riedijk, a Dutch convert from Arnhem. He was tortured on suspicion of spying by Islamic State but later released.

Another son, also called Jerah, died at eight months old. A daughter, Sarayah, also died aged one year and nine months, The Times said.

Her family’s lawyer said he could seek to challenge the British government’s decision to deprive her of citizenship.

“We are considering all legal avenues to challenge this decision,” said lawyer, Tasnime Akunjee.

British law does allow the interior minister to deprive a person of British citizenship when conducive to the public good, though such decisions should not render the person stateless if they were born as British citizens.

Police in Bangladesh said they were checking whether Begum was a Bangladeshi citizen, and Britain’s opposition Labour Party said the government’s decision was wrong.

“If the government is proposing to make Shamima Begum stateless it is not just a breach of international human rights law but is a failure to meet our security obligations to the international community,” Diane Abbott, Labour spokeswoman on home issues.

Ken Clarke, a former Conservative minister, said he was surprised that Javid’s lawyers had given him such advice.

“What you can’t do is leave them in a camp in Syria being even more radicalised… until they disperse themselves through the world and make their way back here,” he said.

“I think the Germans, the French and ourselves have got to work out how to deal with this difficult and, I accept, dangerous problem,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ruma Paul in Dhaka, Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Explainer: Does Islamic State still pose a threat?

FILE PHOTO: Islamic state members walk in the last besieged neighborhood in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Islamic State looks about to lose its last foothold on the banks of the Euphrates in Syria, but though its era of territorial rule may have been expunged for now, there is near universal agreement that the group remains a threat.

WHAT HAS ITS TERRITORIAL DEFEAT ACCOMPLISHED?

Islamic State’s possession of land in Iraq and Syria set it apart from other like-minded groups such as al Qaeda and became central to its mission when it declared a caliphate in 2014, claiming sovereignty over all Muslim lands and peoples.

Destroying the quasi-state it built there denies the group its most potent propaganda and recruiting tool as well as a logistical base from which it could train fighters and plan coordinated attacks overseas.

It also freed its former subjects from summary executions and draconian punishment for breaking its strict laws or, for some minorities, sexual slavery and slaughter.

Warfare wiped out thousands of its fighters. And, financially, its defeat deprives it of greater resources than any modern jihadist movement has enjoyed, including taxes on its inhabitants and the proceeds of oil sales.

WHAT THREAT DOES ISLAMIC STATE STILL POSE IN IRAQ AND SYRIA?

In its previous guise as an al Qaeda offshoot in Iraq a decade ago, it navigated adversity by going underground, biding its time to rise suddenly again.

Since suffering devastating territorial losses in 2017, IS has steadily turned again to such tactics. Sleeper cells in Iraq have staged a scatter-gun campaign of kidnappings and killings to undermine the Baghdad government.

The group has also carried out many bombings in northeast Syria, which is controlled by U.S.-backed Kurdish forces, including one that killed four Americans in January. Kurdish and U.S. officials say its threat there persists.

In Syria, its fighters still hold out in the remote desert area near the road from Damascus to Deir al-Zor.

WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO ITS LEADERS, FIGHTERS AND FOLLOWERS?

The fate of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, remains a mystery. The U.S. government’s top experts strongly believe he is alive and possibly hiding in Iraq, U.S. sources recently said. Other top-echelon leaders have been killed in air strikes.

Thousands of its fighters and civilian followers have also been killed and thousands more captured. An unknown number remain at large in both Syria and Iraq.

Iraq is putting on trial, imprisoning and often executing Islamic State detainees. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds around 800 foreign fighters. More than 2,000 Islamic State wives and children are in its hands too. Many low-level local operatives have been released in Syria.

The SDF complains that Western states are reluctant to take back the foreign fighters, who are widely seen as a security threat at home but who might be hard to legally prosecute.

CAN IT STILL ORGANIZE OR INSPIRE ATTACKS OVERSEAS?

As Islamic State clung to its last scrap of land, the head of Britain’s spy agency MI6 warned that the group would return to “asymmetric” attacks.

Even after it began losing ground militarily, the group still claimed responsibility for attacks made in different countries, though often these have been blamed on “lone wolves” without its direction.

It started years ago to call on followers abroad to plan their own attacks, rather than focusing purely on ones staged by trained operatives supported by the group’s hierarchy.

In early 2018 the head of U.S. military central command said Islamic State was resilient and remained capable of “inspiring attacks throughout the region and outside of the Middle East”.

WHAT DOES ITS FALL MEAN FOR THE FUTURE OF GLOBAL JIHAD?

Although Islamic State’s core territory was in Iraq and Syria, jihadists fighting in other countries, notably Nigeria, Yemen and Afghanistan, pledged their allegiance to it.

Whether those groups will still wear its mantle, especially if Baghdadi is captured or killed, is an open question, but there seems little chance they will soon end their campaigns.

Al-Qaeda also retains numerous franchises around the world and other militant Islamist groups operate in countries where normal governance has broken down.

Jihadist ideology has long proven itself able to mutate as circumstances change, and there is no shortage of warfare, injustice, oppression, poverty, sectarianism and naked religious hatred for it to exploit.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall; Editing by Tom Perry and Gareth Jones)

U.S. cannot back Syrian forces who align with Assad: U.S. commander

FILE PHOTO: A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on the main road to the airport in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Phil Stewart

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The United States will have to sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling Islamic State if the fighters partner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russia, a senior U.S. general said on Sunday.

The remarks by Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, underscore the tough decisions facing the SDF as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Syria.

Syrian Kurdish leaders have sought talks with Assad’s state, hoping to safeguard their autonomous region after the withdrawal of U.S. troops currently backing them.

They fear an attack by neighboring Turkey, which has threatened to crush the Kurdish YPG militia. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey.

But LaCamera warned that U.S. law prohibits cooperation with Russia as well as Assad’s military.

“We will continue to train and arm them as long as they remain our partners,” LaCamera said, praising their hard-won victories against Islamic State militants.

When asked if that support would continue if they aligned themselves with Assad, LaCamera said: “No.” “Once that relationship is severed, because they go back to the regime, which we don’t have a relationship with, (or) the Russians … when that happens then we will no longer be partners with them,” LaCamera told a small group of reporters.

President Donald Trump’s surprise December decision to withdraw all of the more than 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria has triggered deep concern among U.S. allies about the risk of a resurgence of Islamic State.

With U.S.-backing, the SDF has routed Islamic State and is on the verge of recapturing the final bits of its once sprawling territory. But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks.

On Friday, the four-star U.S. general overseeing U.S. troops throughout the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told Reuters that he backed supporting the SDF as needed as long as it kept the pressure on Islamic State militants.

But LaCamera’s comments make clear that the SDF may have to choose between backing from Assad, Russia or the United States.

Kurdish forces and Damascus have mostly avoided combat during the war. Assad, who has vowed to recover the entire country, has long opposed Kurdish ambitions for a federal Syria.

Earlier on Sunday, Assad warned the United States would not protect those depending on it, in reference to the Kurdish fighters.

“We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,” he said without naming them. “The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with (it).”

Reuters has reported that Trump’s decision was in part driven by an offer by Turkey to keep the pressure on Islamic State once the United States withdrew.

But current and former U.S. officials warn Ankara would be unable to replicate the SDF’s success across the areas of Syria that the militias captured with U.S. support including arms, airstrikes and advisers.

Brett McGurk, who resigned in December as Trump’s special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, warned last month that the SDF could not be replaced as the provider of stability in areas of Syria formerly held by the militant group. He also cautioned that Turkey, a NATO ally, was not a reliable partner in the fight in Syria.

“The Syrian opposition forces (Turkey) backs are marbled with extremists and number too few to constitute an effective challenge to Assad or a plausible alternative to the SDF,” McGurk wrote.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; editing by David Evans)

Russia moves to mask its soldiers’ digital trail

FILE PHOTO: A Russian Army member, dressed in a historical uniform, takes a selfie as he attends a rehearsal for a military parade to mark the anniversary of a historical parade in 1941, when Soviet soldiers marched towards the front lines at the Red Square in Moscow, Russia November 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

By Tom Balmforth

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is moving to ban its soldiers from sharing information on the internet, a step that follows the use of social media posts by investigative journalists to shine a light on Moscow’s clandestine role in foreign conflicts.

Draft legislation proposes banning servicemen and reserve troops from posting anything online that would allow outsiders to glean their whereabouts or role in the military.

The bill, which was approved by lawmakers in its second of three readings in parliament on Tuesday, says the ban would cover photographs, video, geolocation data or other information.

It would also prohibit soldiers sharing information about other servicemen or the relatives of servicemen, while those who break the ban would be subject to disciplinary measures.

“Information shared by soldiers on the internet or mass media is used…in certain cases to form a biased assessment of Russia’s state policy,” the bill’s explanatory note said.

The move comes with online investigative journalism sites drawing on open source data to probe Russia’s alleged role in clandestine operations abroad.

Investigative site Bellingcat used social network posts extensively in reports concluding that Russian soldiers were involved in the downing of passenger flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014.

A Dutch criminal investigation concluded last year that the plane was shot down with a surface-to-air missile belonging to the 53rd brigade of the Russian army. Moscow denies involvement.

“Social networks were used in many other investigations about the war in Ukraine and the war in Syria, for instance when fellow servicemen or relatives spoke about deceased soldiers,” said Roman Dobrokhotov, chief editor of investigative site The Insider.

Reuters has used social network posts to identify Russians fighting in eastern Ukraine at a time when Moscow denied its soldiers were fighting there.

If passed, the legislation will formally institute defense ministry recommendations that pro-Kremlin newspaper Izvestia says were issued to soldiers in 2017.

The lower house still has to vote on the bill once more before it is sent to the upper house for a vote and is then signed into law by President Vladimir Putin.

(Editing by Peter Graff)

Coalition warplanes hit last Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria

A member of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands on a pick up truck mounted with a weapon near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/ Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-led coalition warplanes struck Islamic State’s last stronghold in eastern Syria and hundreds of civilians fled the besieged enclave on Monday as U.S.-backed fighters pressed their campaign to seize it.

Coalition jets roared overhead as columns of white smoke rose from the Islamic State-held Baghouz area a short distance from the Iraqi border, a Reuters witness said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have driven Islamic State (IS) from swathes of northern and eastern Syria with U.S.-led coalition support, launched an offensive on Saturday to capture the enclave in Deir al-Zor province.

The jihadists are putting up stiff resistance and had sought to counter-attack again on Monday morning, according to Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office. Around 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday, he added.

SDF combatants watched as a column of at least 17 trucks filled with men, women and children left Baghouz along a dusty track into SDF-held territory. Women and children were crammed into the back of one of the trucks.

Women and children sit at a back of a bus near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Women and children sit at a back of a bus near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Some of those fleeing identified themselves as Iraqis.

“It seems there are still many civilians inside Baghouz,” Bali said. “We are compelled to go cautiously and accurately in this battle.”

On the outskirts of Baghouz, the people who had left stood in lines to be questioned by coalition and SDF forces apparently trying to identify whether any were jihadists.

Ahead of launching the attack, the SDF said more than 20,000 civilians had left Baghouz in the preceeding 10 days.

The SDF believes 400 to 600 jihadists may be holed up there, including foreigners and other hardened militants.

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large tracts of Syria and Iraq. But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.

The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province after capturing Raqqa. Their operations have been focused in areas east of the Euphrates River.

To the west of the Euphrates, in territory otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies, Islamic State retains a foothold in mountainous terrain.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.

The top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday that the United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal.

Islamic State is still widely seen as a threat, however.

A top U.S. general said last week IS would be an enduring menace following the U.S. withdrawal, as it retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel further insurgency.

Italian freelance photographer Gabriele Micalizzi was wounded on Monday while covering the battles, Italian media reported. The reports said Micalizzi was badly hurt but had not suffered life-threatening injuries and was being flown to Baghdad where he would be evacuated to Italy.

(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.S.-backed Syrian fighters advance in clashes with Islamic State: official

FILE PHOTO: Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces ride on trucks as their convoy passes in Ain Issa, Syria October 16, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have seized ground from Islamic State in a fierce battle to capture its last enclave in eastern Syria, an SDF official said on Sunday.

The SDF, backed by a U.S.-led coalition, began the assault on Saturday, seeking to wipe out the last remnants of the jihadist group’s “caliphate” in the SDF’s area of operations in eastern and northern Syria.

The enclave is close to the Iraqi border and comprises two villages. Islamic State (IS) also still retains territory in the part of Syria that is mostly under the control of the Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government.

SDF fighters had so far seized 41 positions but had faced counter-attacks early on Sunday that had been repelled, Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office, told Reuters.

“The clashes are ferocious naturally because the terrorist group is defending its last stronghold.”

President Donald Trump, who is planning to pull U.S. forces out of Syria, said on Wednesday he expected a formal announcement as early as this week that the coalition had reclaimed all the territory previously held by Islamic State.

Bali said 400 to 600 jihadists were estimated to be holed up in the enclave, including foreigners and other hardened fighters.

Between 500 to 1,000 civilians are also estimated to be inside, Bali said. More than 20,000 civilians were evacuated in the 10 days leading up to Saturday, he said.

“If we can, in a short time frame, get the (remaining) civilians out or isolate them, I believe that the coming few days will witness the military end of the terrorist organization in this area,” Bali said.

Senior SDF official Redur Xelil told Reuters on Saturday the force hoped to capture the area by the end of February, but cautioned that IS would continue to pose “great and serious” security threats even after that.

IS redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large areas of Syria and Iraq. But it steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.

Spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, the SDF has been the main U.S. partner in Syria.

A top U.S. general said last week Islamic State would pose an enduring threat following the U.S. withdrawal, as it still has leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Frances Kerry)

With eye on Afghanistan talks, Trump vows to stop ‘endless wars’

FILE PHOTO: U.S. troops patrol at an Afghan National Army (ANA) Base in Logar province, Afghanistan August 7, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump told Americans on Tuesday his administration had accelerated talks for a political settlement in Afghanistan and would be able to reduce U.S. troops there as negotiations advance to end America’s longest war.

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his second State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. President Donald Trump delivers his second State of the Union address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress in the House Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S. February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“Great nations do not fight endless wars,” Trump said in his annual State of the Union address to Congress, in which he also said U.S. troops had nearly defeated Islamic State militants in Syria and it was time to bring them home.

After 17 years of war in Afghanistan, Trump praised “the unmatched valor” of U.S. forces.

“Thanks to their bravery, we are now able to pursue a possible political solution to this long and bloody conflict,” Trump said.

He said his administration was holding constructive talks with a number of groups, including Taliban militants.

“As we make progress in these negotiations, we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism. And we will indeed focus on counter-terrorism,” Trump said.

Trump offered no specifics about when he would bring home the 14,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan.

U.S.-led forces in 2001 toppled the hardline Taliban for harboring the al Qaeda militants responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

“We do not know whether we will achieve an agreement – but we do know that after two decades of war, the hour has come to at least try for peace,” Trump said.

‘END MILITARY PRESENCE’

The Taliban, responding to Trump’s speech, rejected any suggestion of a lingering U.S. focus on counter-terrorism after troops are drawn down, reiterating their long-held demand that all foreign troops get out.

“At the first step, we want all the foreign forces to leave and end the military presence in our country,” Sohail Shahin, a spokesman for a Taliban office in Qatar, said by telephone.

“But after ending their military presence, their non-military teams can come and … take part in the reconstruction and development process.”

In December, a U.S. official said Trump was planning to withdraw more than 5,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, triggering worries about whether a smaller force would be able to fulfill missions underway and stabilize the country.

When he campaigned for president in 2016, Trump said he wanted to focus more on domestic issues than foreign conflicts.

However, Trump’s sudden announcement in December that he would withdraw U.S. forces from Syria alarmed allies and many current and former U.S. officials, who worry that Islamic State militants remain a threat.

After the speech, Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said Trump’s Syria plans did not seem well thought out and could put U.S. allies like the Kurds and Israel at risk, while empowering Iran.

“We’ll probably come back at a future date, with much more danger to our troops,” Engel told Reuters.

Earlier on Tuesday, General Joseph Votel, head of the military’s Central Command, warned that Islamic State would pose an enduring threat.

In his address, Trump said Islamic State controlled more than 20,000 square miles of territory in Iraq and Syria. “Today, we have liberated virtually all of that territory from the grip of these bloodthirsty monsters,” he said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, additional reporting by Abdul Qadir Sediqi in KABUL; Editing by Mary Milliken, Sonya Hepinstall and Nick Macfie)

Iran warns Israel against further air strikes in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Iran?s Supreme National Security Council Director, speaks to the media after his arrival at Damascus airport, September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Khaled al-Hariri/File Photo

LONDON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Iran warned Israel on Tuesday of a “firm and appropriate” response if it continued attacking targets in Syria, where Tehran has backed President Bashar al-Assad and his forces in their nearly eight-year war against rebels and militants.

Without responding directly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nevertheless said it was important to block Iranian influence in Syria.

Israel, which views Tehran as its biggest security threat, has repeatedly attacked Iranian targets and those of allied militia in Syria. With an election looming in April, Israel has been increasingly open about carrying out air strikes.

In a meeting with Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem in Tehran, the secretary of Iran’s National Security Council Ali Shamkhani said the Israeli attacks violated Syria’s territorial integrity and were unacceptable.

“If these actions continue, we will activate some calculated measures as a deterrent and as a firm and appropriate response to teach a lesson to the criminal and lying rulers of Israel,” Shamkhani was quoted as saying by Fars news agency.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said he would hold talks in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 21, focussing on Iran’s threat along the Syrian border.

Moscow is a main backer of the Damascus government.

“It’s very important that we continue to prevent Iran from entrenching in Syria. In many ways we blocked that advance. But we are committed to continuously blocking it, continuously preventing Iran from creating another war front against us right here opposite the Golan Heights,” Netanyahu said.

In January, Israeli warplanes carried out a strike on what they called an Iranian arms cache in Syria, and Netanyahu has said attacks will continue.

Syria’s Moualem was quoted on Tuesday by a Hezbollah-run media unit as saying: “The Syrian government considers it to be its duty to keep Iranian security forces in Syrian territory.”

Iran has also repeatedly said it will keep forces there.

Moualem was in Tehran for negotiations before the meeting of the leaders of Russia, Turkey and Iran in the Russian Black Sea resort town Sochi on Feb. 14 about the situation in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones and Andrew Cawthorne)

Senate breaks from Trump with Syria troop vote

FILE PHOTO: Syrian schoolchildren walk as U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria Nov. 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Republican-led U.S. Senate backed largely symbolic legislation on Monday that broke with President Donald Trump by opposing plans for any abrupt withdrawal of troops from Syria and Afghanistan.

The Senate voted 70-26 in favor of a non-binding amendment, drafted by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, saying it was the sense of the Senate that Islamist militant groups in both countries still pose a “serious threat” to the United States.

The amendment acknowledged progress against Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria and Afghanistan but warned that “a precipitous withdrawal” could destabilize the region and create a vacuum that could be filled by Iran or Russia.

It called on the Trump administration to certify conditions had been met for the groups’ “enduring defeat” before any significant withdrawal from Syria or Afghanistan.

Before the vote, McConnell said he introduced the bill so the Senate could “speak clearly and directly about the importance of the” missions in Afghanistan and Syria.

Passage was expected, after the Senate voted to advance it in a procedural vote last week. After concerns from some Democrats, the Senate approved a change to the bill making it clear the amendment was not intended to be a declaration of war or authorization to use military force.

The vote added the amendment to a broader Middle East security bill making its way through Congress. The Senate voted 72-24 to advance the broader bill in a procedural vote on Monday after the amendment vote.

To become law, however, the bill would need to pass the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, where it is unlikely to move without significant changes because of concerns about a provision addressing the “Boycott, Divest and Sanction” movement concerned with Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

The votes marked the second time in two months that the Senate supported a measure contradicting Trump’s foreign policy, although legislation to change his policies has yet to become law.

Several of Trump’s fellow Republicans strongly disagreed with his plans to withdraw 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria on the grounds that militants no longer pose a threat.

Senator Jim Risch, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, disputed before Monday’s vote that the amendment rebuked or insulted Trump. “As I read it, it recognizes … his effort for us to examine exactly what we are doing in these places,” Risch said.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Peter Cooney)