Russia says ‘unacceptable’ Turkish incursion into Syria must be temporary

FILE PHOTO: Russia's special envoy on Syria Alexander Lavrentiev attends a meeting during consultations on Syria at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland September 11, 2018. Salvatore Di Nolfi/Pool via REUTERS

By Olesya Astakhova and Andrew Osborn

ABU DHABI/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia called Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria “unacceptable” and said on Tuesday the operation had to be limited in time and scale, a rare broadside that suggests Moscow’s patience with Ankara is wearing thin.

In Russia’s strongest criticism since Turkey launched its military operation last week, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Syria indicated Moscow wanted Ankara to wrap up its offensive soon.

“We didn’t agree with the Turks any questions about their presence in Syria and we don’t approve of their actions,” envoy Alexander Lavrentiev told reporters in Abu Dhabi during an official visit there by Putin.

He said Turkish troops had the right under an agreement struck between Damascus and Ankara in 1998, the Adana pact, to temporarily push up to a maximum of 10 km (six miles) into Syria to conduct counter-terrorism operations.

“But it doesn’t give them (Turkish troops) the right to remain on Syrian territory permanently and we are opposed to Turkish troops staying on Syrian territory permanently,” he said.

Lavrentiev made his comments as Turkey pressed ahead with its offensive in northern Syria despite U.S. sanctions and growing calls for it to stop, while Syria’s Russia-backed army moved on the key city of Manbij that was abandoned by U.S. forces.

Lavrentiev earlier on Tuesday told Russian news agencies that Moscow had always considered any kind of Turkish military operation on Syrian territory unacceptable.

His comments, which suggest growing tensions between Turkey and Russia, came a day after the Kremlin complained that Turkey’s incursion was “not exactly” compatible with Syrian territorial integrity.

“The security of the Turkish-Syrian border must be ensured by the deployment of Syrian government troops along its entire length,” said Lavrentiev. “That’s why we never spoke in favor or supported the idea of Turkish units (being deployed there) let alone the armed Syrian opposition.”

Lavrentiev said Turkey’s actions risked upsetting delicate religious sensitivities in northern Syria.

In particular, he said the area was populated by Kurds, Arabs and Sunnis who would not take kindly to their lands being resettled by people who had never lived there, a reference to Turkey’s plan to house refugees from other parts of Syria there.

Lavrentiev confirmed that Russia had brokered an agreement between the Syrian government and Kurdish forces that saw the Kurds cede control of territory to Syrian troops.

Those talks had taken place at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in Syria among other places, he said.

Russia’s influence in Syria and the Middle East is widely seen to have been boosted in the last week thanks to Washington scaling back its Syria operation and the Syrian Kurds striking a deal with President Bashar al-Assad, Moscow’s closest ally in the region.

Lavrentiev said Moscow was hoping that the United States would withdraw all of its forces from Syria. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke to his U.S. counterpart about Syria on Tuesday evening.

Russian military police are patrolling the line of contact between Syrian and Turkish government troops.

Lavrentiev estimated there were around 12,000 Islamic State prisoners being held in northeast Syria.

(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Maxim Rodionov and Tom Balmforth; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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)

At evangelical conference, concerns about Syria but cheers for Trump

Republican Mark Meadows speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (

By John Whitesides

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Prominent evangelical leaders have sharply criticized U.S. President Donald Trump over his decision to pull American military forces out of Syria, saying he was endangering tens of thousands of Christians in the Muslim-dominated region.

But the response was more muted at an annual conference of religious conservatives on Friday in Washington, where some Christian activists were concerned about the Syria move but willing to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.

“I would have done things differently, but I don’t have all the information that went into the decision,” Jeffrey Morgan, co-founder of a pro-family group called Americans Against No-Fault Divorce, said at the Values Voter Summit.

“I have a hard time when we abandon friends who have stuck their necks out for us,” he said of the Kurds, close U.S. allies in the fight against Islamic State militants who are now under attack from Turkey in Syria. “But would I abandon the president over Syria? No way.”

William Murray, chairman of the Religious Freedom Coalition, a group that runs programs to assist Christians in Africa and the Middle East, including Syria, said he did not believe Kurds were protective of Christians in the region, but the withdrawal had made the area unstable.

“Any time you create a situation where bullets and bombs are flying, you are going to endanger people on the ground,” he said.

Evangelicals have been among Trump’s most loyal supporters through years of scandal and controversy, and the criticism from influential leaders has been a rare crack in their overwhelming support for the president as he heads into a congressional impeachment battle and a tough 2020 re-election fight.

Pat Robertson, founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network, said after Trump announced the withdrawal that he was “in great danger of losing the mandate of Heaven.”

Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, asked people to pray for Trump to reconsider, saying “thousands of lives hang in the balance.”

Trump won 81% of the vote from white evangelical Christians in the 2016 election, which came just weeks after a decade-old Access Hollywood video surfaced showing him bragging about kissing and grabbing women because “when you are a star, they let you do it.”

Evangelicals have stuck with Trump since, through sex scandals like his alleged payments to hush up an affair with a porn star, and controversies like the investigation into Russian election meddling. In a Reuters/Ipsos poll from mid-September, 70% of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance.

At the conference, which will conclude with a speech by Trump on Saturday night, the president drew repeated cheers for appointing conservative, anti-abortion judges, protecting religious liberties and battling liberals.

Speakers condemned the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into whether Trump pressured his Ukrainian counterpart to dig up dirt on political rival Joe Biden, the former U.S. vice president who is seeking the Democratic Party’s 2020 presidential nomination.

“I think it’s time we send Adam Schiff home instead of the president of the United States,” conservative Republican U.S. Representative Mark Meadows told the cheering crowd, making a reference to one of the Democratic lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry.

Attendees said Trump was a sympathetic leader besieged by Democrats determined to bring him down.

“He’s not a perfect man, but he represents more of my moral values than those who seem to hate him,” said Tim Chafins, a healthcare worker in Akron, Ohio. “What I see happening in Washington has nothing to do with Ukraine, Russia or China. It’s all politics.”

Tim Throckmorton, Midwest director of ministry for the Family Research Council, one of the sponsors of the conference, said that knowing Trump’s heart, “I’m sure he feels he is doing the right thing in Syria.”

“I hope the Christians in Syria are safe,” he added.

(Editing by Bill Berkrot)

As options narrow on Syria, Trump prepares to drop sanctions hammer on Turkey

By Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s administration is set to impose economic sanctions on Ankara, potentially as early as this week, for its incursion into northern Syria, one of the few levers the United States still has over NATO-ally Turkey.

Using the U.S. military to stop the Turkish offensive on U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters was never an option, defense officials have said, and Trump asked the Pentagon on Sunday to begin a “deliberate” withdrawal of all U.S. troops from northern Syria.

After Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Friday that Trump had authorized “very powerful” new sanctions targeting Turkey, the administration appeared ready to start making good on Trump’s threat to obliterate Turkey’s economy.

On Sunday, Trump said he was listening to Congress, where Republicans and Democrats are pushing aggressively for sanctions action.

“Dealing with @LindseyGrahamSC and many members of Congress, including Democrats, about imposing powerful Sanctions on Turkey,” Trump said on Twitter, referring to the loyal Trump ally and U.S. senator who lambasted the president last week.

“Treasury is ready to go, additional legislation may be sought. There is great consensus on this. Turkey has asked that it not be done. Stay tuned!” he added.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that sanctions were “being worked out at all levels of the government for rollout.”

Trump is struggling to quell harsh criticism, including from some of his staunchest Republican backers, that he gave Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a green light to attack the Kurds last Sunday when he decided to pull a small number of U.S. troops out of the border area.

Turkey’s offensive aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and seen by Ankara as a terrorist group aligned with Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. But the SDF has also been Washington’s key ally in fighting that has dismantled Islamic State’s jihadist “caliphate” in Syria.

Trump’s decision, rooted in his long-stated aim to get the United States out of “endless wars,” has prompted bipartisan concerns that it opens the door to the revival of Islamic State.

While sanctions appear to be the strongest tool of deterrence, the United States and its European allies could also ponder arms sales bans and the threat of war crimes prosecutions.

“Good decision by President @realDonaldTrump to work with Congress to impose crippling sanctions against Turkeys outrageous aggression/war crimes in Syria,” Graham tweeted.

‘MONUMENTAL FAILURE’

It is unclear what sanctions are in the order drafted last week, which Mnuchin said was ready for activation at any moment, and whether they would be as severe as what lawmakers are proposing.

Representatives Eliot Engel, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, and Mike McCaul, the committee’s senior Republican, introduced a bill last Friday that would sanction Turkish officials involved in the Syria operation and banks involved with Turkey’s defense sector until Turkey ends military operations in Syria.

It also would stop arms from going to Turkish forces in Syria, and require the administration to impose existing sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of a Russian S-400 missile-defense system.

Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said late on Friday that Turkey would retaliate against any steps aimed at countering its efforts to fight terrorism, in response to the announcement of possible U.S. sanctions against Turkey.

The United States has successfully gone after Turkey with sanctions and tariffs before, hitting Ankara last year to pressure authorities to return an American pastor on trial for terrorism charges.

The United States could look at targeting arm sales to Turkey, something a number of European countries have already done. France said on Saturday that it had suspended all weapon sales to Turkey and warned Ankara that its offensive in northern Syria threatened European security.

The White House could also look at increasing pressure on Turkey over reports of human rights abuses during the offensive, with a threat of war crimes prosecutions.

The United States is looking into reports that a Kurdish politician and captured Kurdish fighters were killed in northeastern Syria amid Turkey’s offensive, a State Department spokesman told Reuters, adding that Washington found the reports disturbing.

In response to the reports, the U.S. official said: “This is awful. All these are among the issues that is addressed

by our executive order,” referring to the sanctions.

Experts doubted that any of the U.S. punishments would make Erdogan change his mind, given his long-held belief that the Kurdish fighters in Syria threaten national security and whom Ankara sees as a branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

“This is a monumental failure on behalf of the United States,” said Aaron Stein, director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute think tank.

Stein said it would be the Syrian government or Russia, not American sanctions, that could stop the Turkish operation.

“The only thing that will stop them is if the regime or the Russians move in significant numbers to where they stop,” Stein said.

The Syrian army will deploy along the length of the border with Turkey in an agreement with the Kurdish-led administration in northern Syria to help repel a Turkish offensive, the Kurdish-led administration said on Sunday.

The United States does have one person that Erdogan has long wanted extradited: the U.S.-based Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, accused by Turkey of orchestrating a failed 2016 military coup against Erdogan.

U.S. officials have said the courts would require sufficient evidence to extradite the elderly Gulen, who has denied any involvement in the coup and has lived in self-imposed exile in the United States since 1999.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Mary Milliken and Peter Cooney)

Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats

Turkish-backed Syrian rebels drive on a street in the Turkish border town of Akcakale in Sanliurfa province, Turkey, October 14, 2019. REUTERS/Stoyan Nenov

Russia-backed Syrian forces step in as U.S. retreats
By Ellen Francis and Tuvan Gumrukcu

BEIRUT/ANKARA (Reuters) – Russia-backed Syrian forces wasted no time in taking advantage of an abrupt U.S. retreat from Syria on Monday, deploying deep inside Kurdish-held territory south of the Turkish frontier less than 24 hours after Washington announced a full withdrawal.

Washington’s Kurdish former allies said they invited in the government troops as an “emergency measure” to help fend off an assault by Turkey, launched last week with “a green light” from President Donald Trump that the Kurds describe as a betrayal.

The Syrian government’s deployment on Monday is a major victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his principal ally Russia, who gained a military foothold across the biggest swathe of the country that had been beyond their grasp.

Under their deal with the Kurds, government forces are poised to move into border areas from the town of Manbij in the west to Derik, 400 km (250 miles) to the east.

Syrian state media reported that troops had already entered Tel Tamer, a town on the strategically important M4 highway that runs east-west around 30 km south of the frontier with Turkey.

State TV later showed residents welcoming Syrian forces into the town of Ain Issa, which lies on another part of the highway, hundreds of km (miles) away. An SDF media official said he could not confirm these deployments.

Ain Issa commands the northern approaches to Raqqa, former capital of the Islamic State “caliphate”, which Kurdish fighters recaptured from the militants two years ago in one of the biggest victories of a U.S.-led campaign.

Much of the M4 lies on the southern edge of territory where Turkey aims to set up a “safe zone” inside Syria. Turkey said it had seized part of the highway. An official of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said clashes were ongoing.

U.S. STRATEGY CRUMBLES

The swift Syrian government deployments came as the strategy the United States has pursued in Syria for the past five years crumbled overnight. Washington announced on Sunday it was abruptly pulling out its entire force of 1,000 troops which had fought alongside Syrian Kurds against Islamic State since 2014.

A U.S. official said on Monday a diplomatic team working to help stabilize territory captured from Islamic State. U.S. troops were still on the ground but early phases of their withdrawal had started, the official said.

Two other U.S. officials have told Reuters the bulk of the U.S. pullout could be completed within days.

Sunday’s announcement of the U.S. retreat came just a week after Trump said he would shift a small number of troops out of the way near the border, allowing Turkey to attack the Kurds in what Kurdish officials branded a stab in the back.

Thousands of fighters from a Kurdish-led force have died since 2014 fighting against Islamic State in partnership with the United States, a strategy the Trump administration had continued after inheriting it from his predecessor Barack Obama.

Trump says he aims to extract the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East, in keeping with his view that Washington cannot be the world’s policeman. However, he has announced the Syrian retreat even as he has sent thousands of troops on a new deployment to Saudi Arabia.

His Syrian policy reversal allowed Turkey to launch a cross-border assault last week that sent tens of thousands of civilians fleeing and the Kurds scrambling to find new friends.

“After the Americans abandoned the region and gave the green light for the Turkish attack, we were forced to explore another option, which is talks with Damascus and Moscow to find a way out and thwart these Turkish attacks,” senior Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said.

Jia Kurd described the new arrangement with Assad’s forces as a “preliminary military agreement”, and said political aspects would be discussed later.

The Kurds have led an autonomous administration across a wide stretch of north and east Syria. Assad aims to restore his government’s authority across all of Syria after more than eight years of war.

Another senior Kurdish politician, Aldar Xelil, called the pact with Damascus “an emergency measure”.

“The priority now is protecting the border’s security from the Turkish danger,” Xelil said. “We are in contact with the Damascus government to reach common (ground) in the future.”

The biggest change for years in the battlefield of the world’s deadliest ongoing war, the developments create a potential new frontline hundreds of kilometers long between forces of Russia and Turkey and their Syrian allies and proxies.

The U.S. exit leaves Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, along with Assad’s other ally Iran, as Syria’s undisputed foreign power brokers.

Russia and Turkey have hammered out a fragile truce for the northwest, the only other part of Syria still beyond Assad’s grip. Both predicted they would avoid conflict as the area where they face each other is now set to spread across the breadth of the country.

“There are many rumors at the moment. However, especially through the embassy and with the positive approach of Russia in Kobani, it appears there won’t be any issues,” Erdogan said when asked about the prospect of confrontation with Russia. Kobani, on the Turkish border, is one of the first Kurdish-held cities where reports emerged of possible government deployment.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov dismissed the suggestion that Russia could clash with Turkish forces. “We wouldn’t even like to think of that scenario,” he said.

ALARM

The Turkish assault has drawn widespread international criticism and alarm that it could allow Islamic State fighters in Syria to escape Kurdish-run prisons and regroup.

Ankara says it aims to neutralize the Kurdish YPG militia – the leading component of the SDF – which it views as a terrorist group because of its links to Kurdish separatists in Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mike Esper indicated on Sunday that one factor behind the U.S. pullout was that the Kurds aimed to strike a deal with Russia and Syria. Hours later, the Kurdish-led administration said it had made precisely such a deal.

Turkey says it aims to form a “safe zone” in Syria to settle many of the 3.6 million Syrian refugees it is hosting. Erdogan said on Sunday that the operation would extend from Kobani in the west to Hasaka in the east.

Turkey’s European allies have criticized the incursion, threatening to impose sanctions. Erdogan says Turkey will send Syrian refugees to Europe if the EU does not back the offensive.

The fighting has raised Western concerns that the Kurds would be unable to keep thousands of Islamic State fighters in jail and tens of thousands of their family members in camps.

The region’s Kurdish-led administration said 785 Islamic State-affiliated foreigners escaped a camp at Ain Issa over the weekend. The British-based war monitor Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, citing sources in the camp, said the number who escaped was smaller, around 100.

Trump, providing no evidence, tweeted on Monday that the Kurds might be releasing Islamic State prisoners deliberately to lure U.S. troops back. Escaped fighters were “easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly,” Trump said.

(This story restores dropped word “forces” in headline)

(Writing by Tuvan Gumrukcu, Dominic Evans and Peter Graff; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

‘Border on fire’ as Turkey intensifies Syria campaign

By Daren Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RARE REPUBLICAN CRITICISM OF TRUMP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Factbox: The Kurdish struggle for rights and land

(Reuters) – Turkish forces are poised to advance into northeast Syria after U.S. troops began vacating the area, in an abrupt policy shift by President Donald Trump widely criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish militia allies.

Ankara says it plans to create a “safe zone” to resettle millions of refugees currently living on Turkish soil. This would then serve as a buffer against what Turkey sees as its main security threat in Syria – Kurdish YPG fighters who Ankara says are linked to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey.

Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran all have large Kurdish minorities seeking varying degrees of autonomy from central governments after decades of repression.

This is an overview of their status.

HISTORY

The Kurdish ethnic minority, mainly Sunni Muslims, speaks a language related to Farsi and lives mostly in a mountainous region straddling the borders of Armenia, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey.

Kurdish nationalism stirred in the 1890s when the Ottoman Empire was on its last legs. The 1920 Treaty of Sevres, which imposed a settlement and colonial carve-up of Turkey after World War One, promised them independence.

Three years later, Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk tore up that accord. The Treaty of Lausanne, ratified in 1924, divided the Kurds among the new nations of the Middle East.

SYRIA

Before Syria’s popular uprising erupted in 2011, Kurds formed 8-10 percent of the population.

The Baathist state, championing Arab nationalism, had deprived thousands of Kurds of citizenship rights, banned their language and clamped down on Kurdish political activity.

During the war, President Bashar al-Assad focused on crushing mainly Sunni Arab rebels with the help of Russia and Iran, turning a blind eye as Kurdish fighters carved out self-rule across the north and east.

Kurdish forces have emerged among the biggest winners, controlling about a quarter of the country — territory rich in oil, water and farmland. It is the biggest chunk of Syria not in state hands, now with its own forces and bureaucracy.

Assad has said he will recover the northeast, but the two sides have kept some channels open.

The Kurdish YPG militia’s power grew after joining forces with U.S. troops to seize territory from Islamic State. While the U.S. deployment has provided a security umbrella that helped Kurdish influence expand, Washington opposes the autonomy plans.

Syrian Kurdish leaders say they do not seek partition but rather regional autonomy as part of Syria. Faced with the threat of a Turkish attack, the Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria has declared a state of “general mobilization” across north and east Syria.

TURKEY

Kurds form about 20 percent of the population.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the state in 1984, waging an insurgency for autonomy in Turkey’s largely Kurdish southeast. Since then, more than 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict.

PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan was captured in 1999, tried and sentenced to death. That was later reduced to life in prison after Turkey abolished the death penalty.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has removed restrictions on using the Kurdish language. The government held talks with Ocalan, who is in jail on an island near Istanbul, in 2012, but they broke down and the conflict has revived.

The United States, the European Union and Turkey classify the PKK as a terrorist organization.

Turkey’s military has often struck targets in Iraq’s Kurdish region near the PKK’s stronghold in the Qandil mountains.

Erdogan has said he will crush Syria’s YPG, which Ankara sees as a branch of the PKK, and has sent troops into northern Syria to mount offensives rolling back the Kurdish fighters.

IRAQ

Kurds form 15-20 percent of the population, mainly inhabiting the three northern provinces of Iraqi Kurdistan.

Late President Saddam Hussein’s rule targeted Iraqi Kurds in the late 1980s when chemical gas was used, villages were razed and thousands of Kurds were forced into camps.

Their region has been semi-autonomous since 1991, has its own regional government and armed forces, but still relies on the Baghdad central government for its budget.

When Islamic State militants swept through much of northern Iraq in 2014, Kurdish fighters exploited the collapse of central authority to take control of Kirkuk, the oil city they regard as their ancient regional capital, as well as other territory disputed by Baghdad and the Kurdish north.

Iraqi government forces and Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, with U.S. backing, defeated Islamic State which had captured swathes of northern Iraq.

Iraq’s Kurds held a referendum on independence in September 2017, which backfired and triggered a regional crisis in the face of opposition from Baghdad and regional powers.

The vote prompted military and economic retaliation from Baghdad, which retook the territory seized by Kurdish forces since 2014. Ties have since improved, but tensions remain over oil exports and revenue-sharing.

IRAN

Kurds form about 10 percent of the population.

In 2011, Iran pledged to step up military action against the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan, a PKK offshoot that has sought greater autonomy for Kurds in Iran.

Rights groups say Kurds, along with other religious and ethnic minorities, face discrimination under the ruling clerical establishment.

The elite Revolutionary Guards have put down unrest in the Kurdish community for decades, and the country’s judiciary has sentenced many activists to long jail terms or death. Iran’s military has demanded Iraqi authorities hand over separatist Kurdish dissidents stationed there and close their bases.

(Compiled by reporters in Beirut, Baghdad, Tehran and Istanbul; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Turkey presses offensive in Syria, Erdogan hits out at critics

By Daren Butler and Orhan Coskun

ISTANBUL/ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey pressed its military offensive against U.S.-allied Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria on Thursday, shelling towns and bombing targets from the air in an operation that has forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

At least 23 fighters with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and eight civilians, two them SDF administrators, have been killed, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The SDF has not given a casualty toll, while six fighters with Turkey-backed rebel groups have also been killed.

More than 60,000 people have fled since the offensive began, the Observatory added. The towns of Ras al-Ain and Darbasiya, some 60 km to the east, have been largely deserted as a result of the attack.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan told members of his AK Party in Ankara that 109 militants had been killed so far in the two days of fighting, while Kurds said they were resisting the assault.

According to a senior Turkish security official, armed forces struck weapons and ammunition depots, gun and sniper positions, tunnels and military bases.

Jets conducted operations up to 30 km (18 miles) into Syria, and a Reuters witness saw shells exploding just outside the town of Tel Abyad.

“The operation is currently continuing with the involvement of all our units… 109 terrorists have been killed so far,” Erdogan said in a speech to members of his AK Party in Ankara.

NATO member Turkey has said it intends to create a “safe zone” for the return of millions of refugees to Syria.

But world powers fear the operation could intensify Syria’s eight-year-old conflict, and runs the risk of Islamic State prisoners escaping from camps amid the chaos.

Erdogan sought to assuage those concerns, saying that militants from the jihadist group would not be allowed to rebuild a presence in the region.

Taking aim at the European Union and Arab powers Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have voiced opposition to the operation, Erdogan said those objecting to Turkey’s actions were dishonest.

He threatened to permit Syrian refugees in Turkey to move to Europe if EU countries described his forces’ move as an occupation. Turkey is hosting around 3.6 million people who have fled the conflict in Syria.

“They are not honest, they just make up words,” Erdogan said in a combative speech, singling out Saudi Arabia and Egypt. “We, however, take action and that is the difference between us.”

The Turkish operation began days after a pullback by U.S. forces from the border, and senior members of U.S. President Donald Trump’s own Republican Party condemned him for making way for the incursion.

The decision has been widely criticized as an abandonment of Syrian Kurds.

Ankara brands the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia as terrorists because of their ties to militants who have waged an insurgency in Turkey. But many members of Congress, and U.S. officials, credit the Kurds with fighting alongside American troops to defeat Islamic State militants.

“BAD IDEA”

The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria said a prison struck by Turkish shelling holds “the most dangerous criminals from more than 60 nationalities” and Turkey’s attacks on its prisons risked “a catastrophe”.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) holds thousands of Islamic State fighters and tens of thousands of their relatives in detention.

There was no immediate comment on the situation in the prisons from Turkey.

Trump called the Turkish assault a “bad idea” and said he did not endorse it. He said he expected Turkey to protect civilians and religious minorities and prevent a humanitarian crisis – as Turkey has said it would.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, usually a vocal Trump ally, has criticized his decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria and unveiled a framework for sanctions on Turkey with Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.

Their proposed sanctions would target the assets of senior officials including Erdogan, mandate sanctions over Turkey’s purchase of a Russian S-400 missile defense system and impose visa restrictions.

They also would sanction anyone who conducted military transactions with Turkey or supported energy production for use by its armed forces, bar U.S. military assistance to Turkey and require a report on Erdogan’s net worth and assets.

The United Nations Security Council will meet on Thursday to discuss Syria at the request of the five European members, Britain, France, Germany, Belgium and Poland.

In a letter to the 15-member Council seen by Reuters, Turkey said its military operation would be “proportionate, measured and responsible”.

The 22-member Arab League said it would hold an emergency meeting on Saturday.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned Turkey’s military incursion and cautioned about the possibility of ethnic cleansing.

“Israel is prepared to extend humanitarian assistance to the gallant Kurdish people,” he wrote on Twitter.

Russia said it planned to push for dialogue between the Syrian and Turkish governments following the incursion.

Italy condemned the offensive as “unacceptable”, saying military action in the past always led to terrorism.

“The intervention risks greater humanitarian suffering and undermines the focus on countering Daesh (IS),” said British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut and Reuters correspondents in the region; Writing by William Maclean; Editing by Cameron-Moore and Mike Collett-White)

Turkey launches push into Syria, people flee as air raids, artillery hit border town

Turkey launches push into Syria, people flee as air raids, artillery hit border town
By Mert Ozkan

AKCAKALE, Turkey (Reuters) – Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria on Wednesday just days after U.S. troops pulled back from the area, with air strikes and artillery hitting YPG militia positions around the border town of Ras al Ain.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, announcing the start of the action, said the aim was to eliminate what he called a “terror corridor” on Turkey’s southern border.

Turkey had been poised to enter northeast Syria since U.S. troops, who have been fighting with Kurdish-led forces against Islamic State, started to leave in an abrupt policy shift by U.S. President Donald Trump. The withdrawal was criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s Kurdish allies.

A Turkish security source told Reuters the military operation into Syria had begun with air strikes.

Turkish howitzers also started hitting bases and ammunition depots of the Kurdish YPG militia. The artillery strikes, which also targeted YPG gun and sniper positions, were aimed at sites far from residential areas, the source said.

A Reuters cameraman in the Turkish town of Akcakale saw several explosions across the border in the Syrian town of Tel Abyad, where a witness reported people fleeing en masse.

Large explosions also rocked Ras al Ain, just across the border across from the Turkish town of Ceylanpinar, a CNN Turk reporter said. The sound of planes could he heard above and smoke was rising from buildings in Ras al Ain, he said.

World powers fear the action could open a new chapter in Syria’s eight-year-old war and worsen regional turmoil. Ankara has said it intends to create a “safe zone” in order to return millions of refugees to Syrian soil.

Erdogan earlier told Russia’s President Vladimir Putin in a phone call that the operation would help peace and stability in Syria.

In the build-up to the expected offensive, Syria had said it was determined to confront any Turkish aggression by all legitimate means. It was also ready to embrace “prodigal sons”, it said, in an apparent reference to the Syrian Kurdish authorities who hold the northeast.

Turkey views Kurdish YPG fighters in northeast Syria as terrorists because of their ties to militants waging an insurgency inside Turkey. An influx of non-Kurdish Syrians would help it secure a buffer against its main security threat.

Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.

Germany said Turkey’s action would lead to further instability and could strengthen Islamic State, while European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Ankara to halt the military operation.

Juncker said that the bloc would not fund Ankara’s plans in the region. “If the plan involves the creation of a so-called safe zone, don’t expect the EU to pay for any of it,” he told the EU parliament.

“SHOW RESISTANCE”

Kurdish-led forces have denounced the U.S. policy shift as a “stab in the back”. Trump denied he had abandoned the forces, the most capable U.S. partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria.

The Kurdish-led authority in northern Syria declared a state of “general mobilization” before the looming attack.

“We call on all our institutions, and our people in all their components, to head towards the border region with Turkey to fulfill their moral duty and show resistance in these sensitive, historic moments,” it said in a statement.

Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun said Turkey had no ambition in northeastern Syria except to neutralize the threat against Turkish citizens and to liberate the local people from what he called “the yoke of armed thugs”.

Turkey was taking over leadership of the fight against Islamic State in Syria, he said. YPG fighters could either defect or Ankara would have to “stop them from disrupting our counter-Islamic State efforts”, he wrote in a tweet and in a column in the Washington Post.

Turkey’s Demiroren news agency said Syrian rebels had traveled from northwest Syria to Turkey in preparation for the incursion. They will be based in Ceylanpinar, with 14,000 of them gradually joining the offensive.

“Strike them with an iron fist, make them taste the hell of your fires,” the National Army, the main Turkey-backed rebel force, told its fighters in a statement.

RUSSIA CALLS FOR DIALOGUE

Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, urged dialogue between Damascus and Syria’s Kurds on solving issues in northeast Syria including border security.

“We will do our best to support the start of such substantive talks,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters during a visit to Kazakhstan.

Another Assad ally, Iran, urged Turkey to show restraint and avoid military action in northern Syria, although it said Turkey was “rightfully worried” about its southern border.

On Monday, Erdogan said U.S. troops started to pull back after a call he had with Trump, adding that talks between Turkish and U.S. officials on the matter would go on.

Trump’s decision to pull back troops has rattled allies, including France and Britain, two of Washington’s main partners in the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State.

(Additional reporting by Dominic Evans in Istanbul, Tom Perry in Beirut, Tuvan Gumrukcu and Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Maria Kiselyova in Moscow; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by William Maclean and Angus MacSwan)

Turkey says it strikes Syria-Iraq border ahead of offensive

By Orhan Coskun and Daren Butler

ANKARA/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s military struck the Syrian-Iraqi border to prevent Kurdish forces using the route to reinforce northeast Syria, as Ankara prepares to launch an offensive there after a surprise U.S. troop pullback, Turkish officials told Reuters on Tuesday.

Turkey says it is ready to advance into northeast Syria, after the United States began pulling back troops from the Turkey-Syria frontier in an abrupt policy shift widely criticized in Washington as a betrayal of America’s allies.

The U.S. move will leave Kurdish-led forces long allied to Washington vulnerable to attack by the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), which brands them terrorists because of their links to Kurdish militants who have waged a long insurgency in Turkey.

Giving details of the overnight strike, a security official said one of the main goals was to cut off transit route between Iraq and Syria often used by Kurdish armed groups “before the operation in Syria”.

“In this way, the group’s transit to Syria and support lines, including ammunition, are shut off,” the official said.

It was not clear what damage was done or whether there were casualties. Details of the strike, a joint operation by Turkey’s intelligence service and the military, were hazy. One official described them as an air strike, while the other said the site was made “unusable through various means”.

President Donald Trump meanwhile denied he had abandoned the Kurdish forces, the most effective U.S. partners in fighting Islamic State in Syria. But he praised Turkey as a trade partner, in a softening of tone hours after threatening Ankara’s economy if it acted “off limits” in Syria.

Amid deepening humanitarian concerns, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged all parties in northeast Syria to exercise maximum restraint and protect civilians.

Signaling a further potential shift in the region’s power balance, the Kurdish-led forces said they might start talks with Damascus and Russia to fill a security vacuum in the event of a full U.S. withdrawal from the Turkish border area.

Turkey sought to underscore its determination to act. “The TSK will never tolerate the establishment of a terror corridor on our borders. All preparations for the operation have been completed,” the Turkish Defense Ministry said.

ROCKET SYSTEMS

But a Reuters witness saw no sign of military activity near the Turkish border town of Akcakale, across from Syria’s Tel Abyad. Howitzers were placed behind earth embankments on Turkey’s side of the border, pointed toward Syria.

Some 60 km (40 miles) to the west, multiple launch rocket systems mounted on two trucks were deployed behind earth embankments near Suruc, opposite the Syrian border town of Kobani. Artillery was also stationed in the area, and soldiers wandered around a nearby military camp.

U.S. forces evacuated two observation posts at Tel Abyad and Ras al Ain on Monday, a U.S. official said.

Trump’s warning on Turkey’s economy on Monday appeared aimed at placating critics who accused him of abandoning the Syrian Kurds by pulling out U.S. forces. The decision drew criticism from Democrats and a rebuke from some of his fellow Republicans in Congress, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

“As I have stated strongly before, and just to reiterate, if Turkey does anything that I, in my great and unmatched wisdom, consider to be off limits, I will totally destroy and obliterate the Economy of Turkey (I’ve done before!)” Trump tweeted.

His remarks, reiterated on Tuesday in slightly modified form, met an angry response in Turkey, including from opposition party politicians such as Iyi Party leader Meral Aksener.

“Threatening Turkey’s economy is a diplomatic catastrophe,” she told her party’s lawmakers in a speech in parliament. “The best response to this insolence is to go into the east of the Euphrates and break the terror corridor.”

But on Tuesday, Trump tweeted: “So many people conveniently forget that Turkey is a big trading partner of the United States … They have been good to deal with.”

“WONDERFUL FIGHTERS”

As for the Kurds, Trump said their “wonderful fighters” continued to receive U.S. help with finance and weapons.

The Kurdish-led forces have denounced the major U.S. policy shift as “stab in the back”.

Mustafa Bali of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said the continued Turkish military buildup on the border, together with information about further mobilization of Turkey-backed Syrian rebels, indicated that “an attack is imminent”.

Syrian Kurdish official Badran Jia Kurd said Kurdish-led authorities in northern Syria may open talks with Damascus and Russia U.S. forces fully withdrew from the Turkish border area.

His comments to Reuters reflect the predicament of Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria after the partial withdrawal of U.S. troops who in effect shielded the area from Turkish attack.

“At that time we may hold talks with Damascus or the Russian side to fill the void or block the Turkish attack,” he said.

Syria insisted it would defend itself against any Turkish assault. Damascus, however, was unable to prevent Turkey taking control of a swathe of northwestern Syria earlier in the war.

Russia, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s strongest foreign ally, said it was not told in advance by Washington or Turkey about any agreements to pull U.S. troops from the northeast, adding it was watching the situation very closely. Iran, another Assad ally, voiced opposition to any Turkish operation in Syria.

Germany and Britain expressed concern about Turkey’s plans for military action. German government spokeswoman Ulrike Demmer said a military intervention would “have fatal security, political and humanitarian consequences”.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees, plans to resettle two million refugees in northern Syria. Turkey’s lira <TRYTOM=D3> lost 2% of its value against the dollar to hit its weakest since early September, but edged off its lows to 5.8195 on Tuesday.

Ties between Ankara and Washington have long been tense over a range of issues including Syria policy and Turkey’s purchase of a Russian missile defense system.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Rodi Said in Qamishli, Syria, Mert Ozkan in Akcakale, Turkey and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Geneva, Ellen Francis in Damascus; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans, William Maclean)