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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TROOPS ENTER MANBIJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SANCTIONS ANNOUNCEMENT “FALLS VERY SHORT”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Syrians displaced in the northwest call on Turkey to open border

A displaced Syrian child sleeps on a mat laid out on the floor in an olive grove in the town of Atmeh, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. Picture taken May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

By Khalil Ashawi

ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) – Camped on the Turkish border to escape bombardment by Russian and Syrian government forces, many displaced Syrians are angry and frustrated that Turkey has not done more to protect them from the bombs or let them cross the frontier to safety.

The border wall a few hundred meters (yards) away offers a degree of cover for thousands of people, since air strikes are rare so close to Turkey. But it also blocks any chance they have of fleeing the conflict and joining millions of refugees abroad.

“Turkey is our only option today,” said Abu Abdallah, 51, who left his village at the start of the war in 2011 to seek sanctuary near the town of Qalaat al-Madiq, until it was captured by Syrian government forces in early May.

“We can no longer put up with living under bombardment or in the open under the trees,” said Abu Abdullah, one of thousands of Syrians living in white tents dotted around the rock-strewn olive groves, some of them only 50 meters (yards) from the border.

Some 180,000 people were displaced by the recent attacks in northwest Syria, the last major rebel stronghold. The increase in shelling killed dozens of people and marked the most intense period of violence for months between President Bashar al-Assad and the rebels, who launched a counter-attack last week.

The Syrian government says it is responding to attacks by al Qaeda-linked militants. The dominant insurgent faction in the region is the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), although the army offensive has not focused on the central Idlib area where it is most concentrated, an HTS-aligned opposition figure said.

Much of the bombardment has hit a buffer zone around Idlib province and surrounding territories which was set up by Russia and Turkey in September under a deal which put off a full-blown assault against the region and its 3 million residents.

Shells from Syrian government territory also hit a Turkish military observation post, one of 12 set up near the Idlib borders by Ankara, which backs the rebels.

At the border, many of the displaced were angry at the lack of Turkish action in response to the recent offensive, and called on Turkey to open its border to allow people to escape.

“We didn’t ask to go into Turkey before,” said 32-year-old Khsara Ahmed al-Hussein. “But when you set up a de-escalation zone and … you guarantee that I won’t get struck, but then even the Turkish observation point is struck by the regime, then what’s the point of protection if you can’t even protect yourself?”

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

FILE PHOTO: A general view of Atmeh camp for the displaced, in Atmeh town, Idlib province, Syria May 19, 2019. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

“LIKE WORLD WAR THREE”

When bombardment of Hussein’s village intensified, his family dug holes in the earth outside their house and slept in them. When the situation became unbearable, they headed to the border, where he has been living under trees for two weeks.

“There were eight planes in the air, bombing intensively, as if it were World War Three,” he said.

Air strikes have hit 18 health facilities and dozens of schools, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). At least 38 children have been killed since the start of last month, Save the Children said.

Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said last week that attacks on schools and hospitals did not constitute fighting terrorism. His defense minister spoke with his Russian counterpart on Monday about reducing tension in Idlib, Turkey’s defense ministry said.

Near the border village of Atmeh, dozens of people sat under trees with a few blankets and pillows arranged on the hard earth. A blue plastic tarp was draped over the trees to protect them from the burning sun.

Um Bassan wants to join her children who have been in Turkey for over a year, after she and their father spent everything they had to smuggle them out of Syria.

“I want this torture to end and to see my children,” she said. “No one prefers another country over their own, but I want release from the bombardment and to see my children there.”

(Writing and additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Dominic Evans and Edmund Blair)

Chlorine likely used in February attack in Idlib, Syria-weapons agency

A child is treated in a hospital in Douma, eastern Ghouta in Syria, after what a Syria medical relief group claims was a suspected chemical attack April, 7, 2018. Pcture taken April 7, 2018. White Helmets/Handout via REUTERS

AMSTERDAM (Reuters) – Banned chlorine munitions were likely dropped on a Syrian neighborhood in February, an international body on chemical weapons said on Wednesday, after laboratory tests confirmed the presence of the toxic chemical.

In its latest report on the systematic use of banned munitions in Syria’s civil war, the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) did not say which party was behind the attack on Saraqib, which lies in rebel-held territory in the province of Idlib.

But witnesses told OPCW investigators that the munitions were dropped in barrel bombs from a helicopter, a report released by the OPCW showed. Only Syrian government forces are known to have helicopters.

The report by the OPCW’s fact finding mission for Syria “determined that chlorine was released from cylinders by mechanical impact in the Al Talil neighborhood of Saraqib.”

About 11 people were treated after the attack on Feb. 4. for mild and moderate symptoms of toxic chemical exposure, including breathing difficulties, vomiting and unconsciousness, the report said.

Samples taken from the soil, canisters and impact sites tested positive for other chemicals, bearing the “markers of the Syrian regime,” said Hamish de Bretton-Gordon, a biological and chemical weapons expert working in Syria.

The samples tested positive for precursors needed to make the nerve agent sarin, he said.

“These chemicals were detected in previous sarin attacks, Khan Sheikhoun, East Ghouta and no doubt Douma,” Bretton-Gordon said.

The OPCW is also investigating a suspected chemical attack on April 7 in the Douma enclave near Damascus, which prompted missile strikes by the United States, France and Britain. Those findings are expected by the end of the month.

The conclusions on the Saraqib attack are based on the presence of two cylinders, which were determined as previously containing chlorine, witness testimony and environmental samples confirming “the unusual presence of chlorine”, it said.

A joint OPCW-U.N. mechanism for Syria has previously concluded the Syrian government has used both sarin nerve agent and chlorine, killing and injuring hundreds of civilians. Rebels were found to have used sulfur mustard once on a small scale.

Reuters reported in January that tests found “markers” in samples taken at three attack sites between 2013 and 2017 from chemicals from the Syrian government stockpile.

The lab tests linked Ghouta and two other nerve agent attack sites, in the towns of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib governorate on April 4, 2017 and Khan al-Assal, Aleppo, in March 2013, to the stockpile handed over to the agency for destruction in 2014.

The government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied using chemical weapons and instead has blamed rebels for staging attacks to falsely implicate his forces in the atrocities.

The mechanism was disbanded in November following a Russian veto at the U.N. Security Council, a move which ratcheted up tension between Moscow and Western powers over chemical weapons use in Syria.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky, William Maclean)

U.N. seeks access to Syrians ‘on their knees’ in eastern Ghouta

Special Advisor to the United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, Jan Egeland, adresses the media during a news conference in Geneva, Switzerland, April 4, 2018. REUTERS/Pierre Albouy

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The U.N. humanitarian adviser for Syria called on Wednesday for access to the eastern Ghouta town of Douma, where he said some 80,000-150,000 civilians were “on their knees” after years of siege and fighting.

Syrian government forces backed by Russia have recaptured nearly all of eastern Ghouta, which was the last major rebel enclave on the outskirts of Damascus, in a ferocious assault that began in February, marking a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad.

A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

A man walks with his bicycle at a damaged site in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018. REUTERS/Bassam Khabieh

They were now negotiating with the armed group inside Douma, the last remaining area under armed opposition control, adviser Jan Egeland said, adding that the United Nations was playing no direct role.

“We hope that that agreement will lead to people being able to stay if they choose to, to get amnesty for those who put away their arms but also to an opportunity to leave for those who choose to leave Douma,” he told a news briefing.

Out of the nearly 400,000 people besieged in eastern Ghouta for years by Syrian government forces, 130,000 had fled in the last three weeks, Egeland said. Evacuations should be voluntary but in some cases might not have been, he added.

“The deals might have shortened the battle and that is a good thing. The worst possible thing would have been fighting street-by-street, like in Raqqa, until the very, very bitter end,” he said, referring to the northern city where Islamic State was defeated last year by U.S.-backed forces.

The evacuees included 80,000 people now in centres in government-controlled areas, where Egeland said conditions were terrible. Some 50,000 fled to opposition-held Idlib, which Egeland called “the biggest cluster of displacement camps in the world” with around 1.5 million people.

“We need to learn from the battles of Homs, Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, and eastern Ghouta. Idlib cannot become a battle zone, it’s full of civilians and they are vulnerable displaced,” he said.

With no reports of recent fighting or air raids in eastern Ghouta, he hoped the battle there was now over.

Rebel group Jaish al-Islam, which has not confirmed any deal with the Syrian government over eastern Ghouta, released five prisoners on Wednesday as part of a deal over Douma, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and state media said.

“We would then say anywhere between 80,000 to 150,000 are in the Douma area still under control of the armed opposition groups, Jaish al-Islam the biggest,” Egeland said.

“Why can we not deliver to the people of Douma today for example even though we are on the eve of a deal for Douma, they are really, really on their knees in terms of needs.”

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Alison Williams)