Turkey talking to all sides in Syria conflict for Idlib ceasefire: minister

FILE PHOTO: A wall along the border between Turkey and Syria is pictured at the Syrian town of Atimah, Idlib province, in this picture taken from Reyhanli, Hatay province, Turkey October 10, 2017. REUTERS/Osman Orsal//File Photo

By Humeyra Pamuk and Tom Perry

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey said on Friday it was talking to all parties in the Syrian conflict to prevent a government offensive on Idlib ahead of talks between Russian and Turkish leaders, who support rival sides in the looming battle for the rebel-held region.

Ankara failed last week to win agreement for a ceasefire from Russia and Iran, President Bashar al-Assad’s main backers, but there has been a recent lull in air strikes and a pro-Damascus source indicated a ground attack may not be imminent.

Rebels also said some pro-Assad forces had left frontlines in northwest Syria in recent days.

Turkey has reinforced a dozen military posts inside the Idlib region, which lies across its southern border and is controlled by Turkey-backed rebels and jihadist fighters, trying to forestall a government assault.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Turkey had also contacted foreign ministers of several countries and was in touch with “all actors in Syria”.

“We are making an effort for a ceasefire in Idlib,” he said, repeating Turkey’s call for targeted operations against jihadist militants, including the Tahrir al-Sham alliance, instead of an indiscriminate onslaught.

“We are ready to cooperate with everyone to fight terrorist organizations. But killing everyone – civilians, women, children – like this in the name of fighting terrorist organizations is not right and is not humane,” he said on a visit to Pakistan.

GRAPHIC: Syria’s Idlib assault – https://tmsnrt.rs/2NHAqh3

The United Nations has warned that an offensive in Idlib could trigger a humanitarian catastrophe in an area where 3 million people live. Turkey, already hosting 3.5 million Syrians, says it cannot take in another wave of refugees.


President Tayyip Erdogan will hold talks in Russia on Monday with Vladimir Putin to discuss the Syrian crisis, 10 days after similar talks in Tehran, Turkish and Russian officials said.

Despite the deadlock at the Iran meeting, calm has largely prevailed in northwest Syria this week following a wave of air strikes which killed several dozen people and generated speculation of an imminent ground offensive.

A pro-Assad source in Syria said: “There is patience and repositioning currently. The operation is not canceled, but we have time.”

A second source, an official in the regional alliance that supports Assad, said there was a “political tug of war” over Idlib, accompanied by air strikes on militants from Tahrir al-Sham.

Two rebel sources in the northwest said some government forces have been observed withdrawing from frontlines in the Hama region, which adjoins Idlib, this week.

“It appears that the Russians and the Assad regime have temporarily looked the other way,” said one of the sources, Colonel Mustafa Bakour, a commander in the Jaish al-Ezza rebel group. He added that several hundred pro-Assad forces had withdrawn from frontlines in the northern Hama countryside.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said calm mostly prevailed again on Friday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that Moscow would keep bombing militant targets in Idlib if need be, but would also open humanitarian corridors to allow civilians to flee, the Interfax news agency reported.

Lavrov, who was speaking in Berlin, was cited as saying that the Russian air force would strike what he called terrorist weapons-making facilities as and when it found out about them, but would also encourage local reconciliation deals.

Putin also discussed the situation Idlib with members of Russia’s Security Council on Friday, telling them he was concerned by militant activity there, the RIA news agency cited the Kremlin as saying.

(Additional reporting by Andrew Osborn and Katya Golubkova; Editing by Dominic Evans and Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

U.S. and Turkey agree to mend ties; Turks propose joint deployment in Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson shakes hands with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu after a news conference in Ankara, Turkey, February 16, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

By Yara Bayoumy, Orhan Coskun and Ece Toksabay

ANKARA (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey agreed on Friday to try to rescue a strategic relationship that Washington acknowledged had reached a crisis point, with Turkey proposing a joint deployment in Syria if a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia leaves a border area.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met President Tayyip Erdogan during a two-day visit that followed weeks of escalating anti-American rhetoric from the Turkish government.

While relations between Washington and its main Muslim ally in NATO have been strained by a number of issues, Turkey has been particularly infuriated by U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists.

Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria’s northwest Afrin region to sweep the YPG away from its southern border. The United States has armed, trained and aided YPG fighters with air support and special forces, as the main ground force in its campaign against Islamic State.

“We find ourselves at a bit of a crisis point in the relationship,” Tillerson told a news conference after meeting with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Friday morning. He had met with Erdogan for a more than three-hour discussion on Thursday night.

“We’re going to act together from this point forward. We’re going to lock arms. We’re going to work through the issues that are causing difficulties for us and we’re going to resolve them.”

The United States has no troops on the ground in Afrin, where the Turkish offensive has so far taken place. But Turkey has proposed extending its campaign further east to the town of Manbij, where U.S. troops are based, potentially leading to direct confrontation with U.S.-backed units.

In a proposal that could signal an important breakthrough in efforts to overcome the allies’ stark differences over Syria, a Turkish official told Reuters that Turkey had proposed that Turkish and U.S. forces could deploy jointly in Manbij.

Such a joint deployment could take place if YPG fighters first withdrew to positions east of the Euphrates river, long a Turkish demand.

Neither Tillerson nor Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, directly responded to a question about Reuters’ report of a possible joint deployment to Manbij.


Turkey would be able to take joint steps with the United States in Syria once the YPG left the vicinity of Manbij, Cavusoglu told reporters.

“What is important is who will govern and provide security to these areas,” he said. “We will coordinate to restore stability in Manbij and other cities. We will start with Manbij. After YPG leaves there, we can take steps with the U.S. based on trust.”

He also said the two countries had created a “mechanism” for further talks and would meet again by mid-March to further hash out their differences. Tillerson said issues around Manbij would receive priority in the talks, acknowledging Washington had not fufilled some of its promises to Turkey on Manbij.

“The United States made commitments to Turkey previously, we’ve not completed fulfilling those commitments. Through the working group, we’re going to address that and Manbij is going to receive priority,” he said.

Turkey’s pro-government media has been particularly scathing of the United States over its failure to keep a promise that the YPG would leave the town once Islamic State was defeated there.

“But it’s not just Manbij. We have to think about all of northern Syria,” Tillerson said.

Tillerson said he recognized Turkey’s legitimate right to defend its borders, but called on Ankara to show restraint in the Afrin operation and avoid actions that would escalate tensions in the area.

He also said the United States had serious concerns about local employees at its missions in Turkey and called on Ankara to release a U.S. pastor and other Americans detained in Turkey.

(Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Gareth Jones, Peter Graff and Andrew Heavens)

Syria will abide by ‘de-escalation’ plan: foreign minister

Syria's Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem speaks during a news conference in Damascus, Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syria’s foreign minister said on Monday that his government would abide by the terms of a Russian plan for “de-escalation” zones so long as rebels also observed it.

Walid al-Moualem told a televised news conference that rebels involved in the process must help clear areas they control of jihadist factions, including the former Nusra Front, and that the deal’s guarantors must help them do this.

The deal for de-escalation zones was brokered by Russia, with backing from Turkey and Iran, during ceasefire talks in the Kazakh capital Astana last week and came into effect at midnight on Friday, but some fighting has continued in those areas.

“It is the duty of the groups which signed the ceasefire agreement to expel Nusra from these zones until the areas really become de-escalated. It is for the guarantors to help these factions,” he said, referring specifically to rebel-held Idlib province as a place where jihadist groups were present.

Moualem said a separate peace talks process under U.N. auspices in Geneva was not progressing. Local “reconciliation” deals that the government is pursuing with rebels were an alternative to that, he said.

Such deals have been criticized by the opposition as being imposed on civilians using siege tactics. The United Nations has said the evacuation of some people as part of those agreements is a form of forced displacement.

Moualem said there would be no role for either the United Nations or other “international forces” in the de-escalation zones, but said, without giving further details, that Russia had said military police would play an observer role.

The memorandum signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey last week setting up the de-escalation areas said that the forces of those countries would ensure the administration of security zones by consensus, but did not specifically mention military police.

A spokesman for the U.N. secretary general’s special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, declined to comment on those remarks.


Moualem also addressed what he described as an apparent change of attitude toward Syria by the U.S. administration.

“It seems the United States, where (President Donald) Trump has said the Syrian crisis has dragged on too long, might have come to the conclusion that there must be an understanding with Russia on a solution,” he said.

He warned that if forces from Jordan, a supporter of rebel groups in southern Syria, entered the country without coordinating with Damascus, it would be considered an act of aggression, but added that Syria was not about to confront Jordan.

Speaking about the military situation inside Syria, Moualem said Deir al-Zor, a city and province occupied by Islamic State in the east, was the “fundamental objective” for government forces and more important to the average Syrian than Idlib.

Asked about U.S. backing for Kurdish groups fighting Islamic State in northeast Syria, he said that what Syrian Kurds were doing against the jihadist group was “legitimate” at this stage and fell within the framework of preserving Syrian unity.

(Reporting By Angus McDowall, Ellen Francis, Tom Perry and Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Trump’s son-in-law, Kushner, flies into Iraq with top U.S. general

U.S. President Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner (L) speaks with Marine Corps Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, before departing for Iraq from Ramstein Air Base, Germany April 3, 2017. DoD/Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique A. Pineiro/Handout via REUTERS

By Phil Stewart

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, flew into Iraq on Monday with the top U.S. military officer to get a first-hand assessment of the battle against Islamic State from U.S. commanders on the ground and to meet Iraqi officials.

For Kushner, who has not been to Iraq before, the trip comes at a critical time as Trump examines ways to accelerate a U.S.-led coalition campaign that U.S. and Iraqi officials say has so far been largely successful in uprooting Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria.

The visit appears to demonstrate the far-reaching portfolio of Kushner, 36, who is part of Trump’s innermost circle and who has been given a wide range of domestic and foreign policy responsibilities, including working on a Middle East peace deal.

Marine General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he invited Kushner and Tom Bossert, White House homeland security adviser, to accompany him so they could hear “first-hand and unfiltered” from military advisers about the situation on the ground and interact with U.S. forces.

“I said, ‘Hey, next time I go to Iraq, if you’re interested, come and it’d be good,” Dunford said, adding he extended the invitation weeks ago.

That kind of ground-level awareness of the war helps inform strategic decisions, Dunford said, adding it was the same reason he regularly leaves Washington to visit Iraq.

“The more appreciation you could have for what’s actually happening on the ground, the more informed you are when you start talking about the strategic issues,” Dunford said.

Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, did not speak with reporters during the flight to Iraq.

Dunford’s spokesman, Navy Captain Greg Hicks, said Kushner was traveling on behalf of Trump to express the president’s support and commitment to Iraq’s government and U.S. personnel helping combat Islamic State.

Trump, who campaigned on defeating Islamic State, has yet to announce any dramatic shift in war strategy.


The trip to Iraq comes as Iraqi security forces engage in fierce, house-to-house fighting to retake Mosul, Islamic State’s last major stronghold in Iraq and the city where leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate nearly three years ago.

Nearly 290,000 people have fled the city to escape the fighting, according to the United Nations.

Although the loss of Mosul would deal a major defeat to Islamic State, U.S. and Iraqi officials are preparing for smaller battles even after the city is recaptured and expect the group to go underground to fight as a traditional insurgency.

What happens to the U.S. military role in Iraq after Mosul is recaptured remain unclear.

Influential Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr has previously called on Iraq’s government to order the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces after the battle of Mosul is over.

Dunford said Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi understood the need for continued U.S. military support.

“It’s not our judgment that the Iraqis will be self sustaining and self sufficient in the wake of Mosul. More importantly, it’s not Prime Minister Abadi’s assessment,” Dunford said.

Across the border in Syria, a U.S.-backed campaign to isolate Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa is advancing ahead of an eventual assault on the city.

U.S.-backed Syrian forces repelled a major counter-attack by Islamic State militants holding out at the country’s largest dam and in the nearby town of Tabqa, the group and activists said on Sunday. The dam is a strategic target in the military campaign, located about 40 km (25 miles) to the east of Raqqa.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Russia’s Putin says Syrian government, opposition sign ceasefire deal

Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a session of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) in St. Petersburg, Russia December 26, 2016.

MOSCOW/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Syrian opposition groups and the Syrian government had signed a number of documents including a ceasefire deal that would take effect at midnight on the night of Dec. 29-30.

Speaking at the meeting with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Putin said that three documents which open the way for solving the Syria crisis were signed earlier on Thursday.

The documents include a ceasefire agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition, measures to monitor the ceasefire deal and a statement on the readiness to start peace talks to settle the Syrian crisis, Putin said.

“The agreements reached are, of course, fragile, need a special attention and involvement… But after all, this is a notable result of our joint work, efforts by the defence and foreign ministries, our partners in the regions,” Putin said.

He also said that Russia had agreed to reduce its military deployment in Syria. Lavrov said that the ministry has started preparations for the meeting on Syrian crisis resolution in Astana, the capital of Kazakhstan.

Putin’s announcement followed a statement carried by Syrian state news agency SANA, which said the Syrian army would begin a ceasefire at midnight. The statement said the agreement excluded Islamic State, the group formerly known as the Nusra Front and all groups linked to them.

(Reporting by Denis Pinchuk, Andrey Ostroukh, Maria Tsvetkova and Vladimir Soldatkin; writing by Peter Hobson/Katya Golubkova; Editing by Elaine Hardcastle)

Kerry Working With Russians to Fuel Syrian Peace Talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with key Russian leaders on Tuesday in an attempt to work past their philosophical differences and find a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war.

Kerry met with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov.

The talks came ahead of a planned meeting of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG), a collection of countries looking to put an end to the ongoing conflict in Syria. The nations, which include the United States and Russia, are scheduled to meet this coming Friday in New York.

Russia and the United States haven’t been on the same page about how to end the conflict, particularly about the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The controversial leader has been the main point of contention in the conflict, which began with an uprising in 2011 and subsequently led to millions of Syrians fleeing their homes to escape the war-torn nation.

U.S. President Barack Obama has publicly said Assad must be out of office before the war can end. It’s been widely reported that Russia is one of Assad’s biggest allies, and Moscow believes Syria’s residents — and not any other nation — should ultimately get to determine what happens.

Complicating the issue is the fact that the Islamic State terrorist organization has taken control of territory in both Syria and Iraq, and the United States is leading a 65-nation coalition that is conducting airstrikes in the region. Russia has also been carrying out some airstrikes on its own.

Speaking to reporters at a joint news conference with Lavrov, Kerry said the two nations “did reach some common ground today,” but it wasn’t appropriate for him to elaborate further because they ultimately needed the entire ISSG to come together to discuss the future of Syria.

“We are cooperating now in Syria because (the Islamic State) is a threat to all of us,” Kerry told reporters, adding he expected Friday’s ISSG meeting in New York to proceed as scheduled.

Kerry’s visit to Russia came days after a collection of Assad’s critics gathered in Saudi Arabia to and developed a unified vision as to how they could politically resolve the multi-year conflict.

The Syrian Coalition said it’s seeking a new democracy built upon equality, transparency, law and accountability, but took a firm stance that neither Assad nor the members of his current regime could take part in any transitional government “or any future political settlement.”

That coalition wants to meet Assad’s government for peace talks, potentially next month.

Islamists Hold Nuns Hostage In Syria

A group of Islamists have captured the ancient quarter of the Christian town of Maaloula and are holding nuns hostage inside a monastery.

Reports say terrorists linked to the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nursa Front stormed the Greek Orthodox monastery of Mar Thecla and are keeping the nuns hostage. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the Islamists captured the town after four days of intense fighting.

The capture of the town reportedly was part of a rebel surge to obtain control of a central Syrian Highway between Damascus and Homs.

The government capturing the highway is seen as a key objective for the al-Assad government as it would allow the country’s cache of chemical weapons to be transported for removal and destruction.

“Security remains a key challenge for all. The destruction of a chemical weapons program has never taken place under such challenging and dangerous conditions,” Sigrid Kaag, head of the joint mission of the U.N. and Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons told OPCW delegates.

Syria Opposition Group Announces Intent To Join Peace Talks

The main opposition group in Syria’s civil war had told U.S. and Russian negotiators they would be willing to come to the bargaining table if certain conditions are put in place.

The Syrian National Coalition said if the Syrian government allows humanitarian relief into besieged areas and they release women & children who have been taken captive by military troops they will agree to meet in Geneva.

However, the group refused to waive their demand any future government not include current president Bashir al-Assad. The Syrian government said they would not negotiate if that remains a condition of peace.

The Syrian government had agreed to ease the blockade on the rebel held town near the capital of Damascus. Food and flour entered the town of Qudsaya after the government was told markets had run out of food and poor civilians trapped by the fighting were unable to feed their children.

The war’s focus has shifted again to Aleppo where rebels are attempting to take control of the airport. Aleppo International Airport has been closed for a year because of the continual attacks.

Russia Beginning Preparations For Post-Assad Syria

European allies of the U.S. are reporting that Russia has quietly begun to make plans on dealing with a post-Assad Syria.

Russia has been a staunch supporter of the Syrian president throughout the civil war and has blocked United Nations actions against Syria on multiple occasions. Now, sources say the Russians are telling other diplomats they are not fixated on Assad.

“The Russians say they are not married to Assad,” a European diplomat told Fox News. “They are looking for true alternatives to Assad.”

The Russian Embassy in Washington declined to comment on Fox’s report repeating their believe that the Syrian people should decide Syria’s destiny.

Western government and Russia have been trying to get both sides of the Syrian civil war to the bargaining table but have acknowledged that it is unlikely to take place before the end of the year.

Syrian Peace Conference Delayed

The UN-Arab League envoy to Syria has announced a delay in a peace conference planned for Geneva this month.

Lakhdar Brahimi said that after meeting with senior diplomats it was impossible to arrange a date for the conference. He said that he hopes to be able to bring all sides in the Syrian Civil War to the table before the end of 2013.

Brahimi said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon is growing impatient with the situation and wants to have a conference happen as quickly as possible.

One of the key issues is between the U.S. and Russia, which are at odds about whether to include Iran as part of the peace process.

The Syrian opposition is fractured and asking for different demands other than the removal of President Bashir al-Assad. The Syrian government says that is a non-starter and will not hold peace talks if that is part of the process.