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

By Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

POSITION “UNCHANGED”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Jonathan Spicer

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

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

Residents and opposition forces said the violence had abated elsewhere.

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

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

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

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

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

HUMANITARIAN CRISIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TENSE CALM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia, Turkey agree ceasefire deal for Syria’s Idlib

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Maria Kiselyova

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MORE DEATHS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia denies targeting civilians.

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

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

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

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

Greece blocks 35,000 migrants, plans to deport arrivals after March 1

By Lefteris Papadimas and Bulent Usta

KASTANIES, Greece/EDIRNE, Turkey (Reuters) – Greece has repulsed nearly 35,000 migrants trying to cross onto its territory illegally since Turkey opened its border nearly a week ago, government sources said on Thursday, as it prepares to deport hundreds of others who made it through.

Thousands of migrants have made for Greece since Ankara said on Feb. 28 that it would let migrants cross its borders into Europe, reneging on a commitment to hold them on its territory under a 2016 deal with the European Union.

Ankara has accused Greek forces of shooting dead four migrants. A charge rejected by Athens, which says Turkish forces are helping the migrants to cross the border. Both sides used tear gas at the Kastanies border post on Wednesday.

Turkey’s interior minister, Suleyman Soylu, visited Edirne province bordering Greece on Thursday and announced the deployment of 1,000 special police to the area to halt the pushback of migrants toward its territory.

Soylu, who said on Wednesday that Turkey was preparing a case at the European Court of Human Rights over Greece’s treatment of migrants, accused Greek forces of wounding 164 people and pushing back nearly 5,000 into Turkey.

Greece on Thursday banned vessels from sailing around the Aegean islands of Chios, Lesbos and Samos. They are all close to the Turkish coast and a regular target for dinghies packed with migrants trying to enter the EU.

The ban exempts merchant ships and vessels of the EU’s border agency Frontex.

The Aegean Sea remained choppy on Thursday and there were no further sightings of dinghies carrying migrants.

Lesbos already hosts more than 20,000 asylum seekers, many of them living in filthy conditions in overcrowded camps.

The situation at the Kastanies border crossing was calm on Thursday. Migrants – many of whom are from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as Syria and other Arab nations – huddled in tents and makeshift camps on the Turkish side of the border.

HUMAN RIGHTS CONCERNS

Greek border guards rebuffed nearly 7,000 attempts in the last 24 hours alone, taking the total since Feb. 29 to 34,778 and the number of arrests of those who got through to 244, the Greek government sources said.

Migrants who arrived in Greece illegally after March 1 will be transferred to the northern city of Serres and deported back to their own countries, Greek Migration Minister Notis Mitarachi said late on Wednesday.

“Our aim is to return them to their countries,” he told the Athens News Agency.

Mitarachi said migrants who entered Greece prior to Jan. 1, 2019 and are living on its Aegean islands would be transferred to the mainland in the coming days.

Athens announced on March 1 that it would not accept any new asylum applications for a month following the build-up of migrants at the border. This has triggered criticism from human rights agencies.

“It’s very sad that we have seen again human beings treated as political weapons… This is unacceptable,” said Francesco Rocca, head of the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), on a visit to the Greek-Turkish border where he struggled to hold back tears.

The U.N. migration agency, the IOM, also urged all countries to respect the migrants’ human rights.

“… international legal obligations must be upheld, in particular with respect to those who may be in need of international protection,” it said in a statement.

Greece and the EU accuse Turkey of deliberately goading the migrants to cross the border as a way of pressuring Brussels into offering more money or supporting Ankara’s geopolitical aims in the Syrian conflict.

Turkey, which already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees and faces another influx amid increased fighting in northwest Syria, says it cannot take in any more and that the EU must do more.

President Tayyip Erdogan discussed the migrant issue with senior EU officials in Ankara on Wednesday but his spokesman said the Europeans had made “no concrete proposition” on how to resolve the crisis.

(Additional reporting by Athens and Istanbul bureaux and by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; writing by Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Gareth Jones)

EU pledges aid to Greece as migrants mass on border with Turkey

By Lefteris Papadimas and Alkis Konstantinidis

KASTANIES/LESBOS, Greece (Reuters) – European Union officials on Tuesday promised more cash for Greece during a visit to its border with Turkey which tens of thousands of migrants and refugees have been trying for days to breach.

The officials urged Turkey to abide by a 2016 deal which requires it to keep the migrants on its soil in return for EU aid. After an upsurge in fighting in Syria last week, Ankara says it will no longer stop migrants who want to reach Europe.

Greek riot police have used tear gas against the migrants at its Kastanies border post, while the coastguard has tried to stop boats transporting migrants to Greece’s Aegean islands. A Syrian boy died on Monday after his boat capsized in the area.

“The situation at our border is not only an issue for Greece to manage, it is the responsibility of Europe as a whole,” the head of the EU’s executive Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, told a news conference at Kastanies.

“We will hold the line and our unity will prevail,” she said after touring the area with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis and the heads of the European Council and Parliament.

Von der Leyen announced additional aid of 700 million euros to help Greece deal with the migrant crisis.

Migrants walk next to the Turkey’s Pazarkule border crossing with Greece’s Kastanies, near Edirne, Turkey, March 3, 2020. REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

Brussels is desperate to avoid a repeat of the 2015-16 crisis, when more than a million migrants entered the EU from Turkey via the Balkans, straining European security and welfare systems and boosting support for far-right parties.

Greek troops and riot police remained on high alert along the Turkish border on Tuesday, though there were no reports of significant new clashes with the migrants.

“There were only a few attempts today (to cross the border). Let’s hope they get the message,” a machine gun-toting army officer told Reuters at the Kastanies border post.

Army jeeps patrolled the area and roads leading to the Evros river which marks the Greek-Turkish border remained shut.

GREECE, TURKEY AT LOGGERHEADS

The crisis has badly strained ties, never good, between Ankara and Athens.

Mitsotakis accused Ankara of deliberately encouraging migrants to head to the border in order to “promote its geopolitical agenda and divert attention from the situation in Syria”.

He also said these migrants were not fleeing the latest flareup of fighting in Syria’s Idlib province but were people “who have been living safely in Turkey for a long period of time”. Many speak fluent Turkish, he added.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also accused Turkey on Tuesday of using the refugees to “blackmail” Europe.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan infuriated Mitsotakis on Monday by accusing Greek border guards of killing two migrants and wounding a third, a claim denied by Athens.

On Tuesday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said Greek forces were shooting migrants “in the back as they are running away”, but he provided no evidence.

Turkey, which hosts 3.6 million refugees from Syria’s civil war and faces another possible big influx as the fighting drags on there, says it cannot take in any more.

Human Rights Watch said it had received multiple reports that Greek border guards were pushing people back into Turkey, which could violate the right to claim asylum as well as a ban on returning people to where they would be unsafe, both of which are enshrined in international law.

The mood toward migrants on Greek islands such as Lesbos – once relatively welcoming – has soured since the 2015-16 crisis amid a sense that the Athens government and the EU are not providing sufficient support.

“It used to be the island of solidarity but it seems like the locals are exhausted,” said Charlie Meyers, a U.S. aid worker on Lesbos.

(Reporting by Lefteris Papadimas in Kastanies, Alkis Konstantinidis on Lesbos, George Georgioupoulos and Foo Yun Chee in Athens: Ali Kucukgocmen in Istanbul, Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Geert de Clercq in Paris; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

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

By Orhan Coskun and Suleiman Al-Khalidi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

HOPES FOR PUTIN TALKS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Russia, Turkey may have committed war crimes in Syria, U.N. says

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Russia killed civilians in air strikes in Syria last year while rebels allied to Turkey carried out murder and pillage in Kurdish areas, U.N. investigators said on Monday – actions it said could amount to war crimes by both Moscow and Ankara.

A report by a U.N. commission found that Russia – the Syrian government’s main ally against rebels and militants – conducted air strikes on a popular market and a camp for displaced people that killed dozens of civilians in July and August.

“In both incidents, the Russian Air Force did not direct the attacks at a specific military objective, amounting to the war crime of launching indiscriminate attacks in civilian areas,” the report said.

It also described abuses by rebels allied to Turkey during an assault on Kurdish-held areas, and said that if the rebels were acting under the control of Turkish military forces, those commanders may be liable for war crimes.

Paulo Pinheiro, the commission’s chairman, said it had added names linked to the latest crimes to its confidential list of suspected perpetrators. It has received 200 requests from judicial authorities worldwide for information on crimes committed during Syria’s nine-year war, he told a news briefing.

In the report, which covered the period from July 2019 to February 2020, investigators denounced “deliberate” attacks by the Syrian government and allied forces on protected civilian sites, including hospitals and schools.

“There is a war crime of intentionally terrorizing a population to force it to move. We are seeing that picture emerging very clearly for example in Idlib where, because these places are being bombed, people are having to move out,” said panel member Hanny Megally.

Russian-backed Syrian government forces have thrust deep into Idlib province in the far northwest in a campaign to retake the last country’s significant rebel pocket. The onslaught has forced around one million civilians to flee.

Up to 10 children have died from the cold in the last weeks due to living in the open at the Turkish border, Megally said.

The U.N. report blamed Russia for an air strike in the city of Maarat al-Numan on July 22 when at least 43 civilians were killed. Two residential buildings and 25 shops were destroyed after at least two Russian planes left Hmeimim air base and circled the area, it said.

Weeks later, an attack on the Haas compound for displaced killed at least 20 people, including eight women and six children, and injured 40 others, the report said.

It also called on Turkey to investigate whether it was responsible for an air strike on a civilian convoy near Ras al Ain that killed 11 people last October. Turkey has denied a role in the strike, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said was conducted by Turkish aircraft.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

U.N. hears plea from women in northwest Syria: ‘We want the right to live’

By Michelle Nichols

(Reuters) – Amid heavy fighting in northwest Syria between government forces backed by Russia and Syrian rebels supported by Turkey, the U.N. Security Council heard a plea on Thursday from women caught in the middle: “All we are asking, is for the misery to stop, for the killing to stop. We want the right to live.”

The message was shared by deputy U.N. aid chief Ursula Mueller, who spoke via videolink to 14 Syrian women in Idlib and northern Aleppo last week.

“What is happening in northwest Syria, they said, is beyond imagination. It is not humanly tolerable. They told me of children so traumatized they no longer speak,” Mueller said.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air power, have been fighting to retake the last large, rebel-held region in Syria after nine years of war. Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Idlib region in an unprecedented incursion to back the rebels.

Nearly a million Syrians have fled over the last three months, the biggest exodus of the conflict. A crackdown by Assad on pro-democracy protesters in 2011 led to civil war.

Mueller and Henrietta Fore, executive director of the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, told the Security Council that hospitals, schools and camps for displaced families had been hit in recent fighting.

“We’ve heard and read reports of children freezing to death,” Fore said. “When wood runs out, families burn whatever they can find — plastic bags, garbage, discarded furniture — just to provide a flicker of heat against the cold, or a simple fire to cook whatever food they can find.”

Defending Moscow’s role in the conflict, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia questioned why the United Nations and aid groups weren’t more prepared to deal with millions of displaced people in Idlib during the winter.

“The humanitarian workers have plenty of resources so why hasn’t this problem been resolved?” he asked.

Britain’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Allen responded: “The answer is because they’re being bombed, they’re being shelled, they’re being attacked. It is extremely difficult indeed to provide assistance to people in those circumstances.”

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Kelly Craft, said that to end the humanitarian crisis in northwest Syria all efforts must be concentrated on establishing a durable and verifiable ceasefire.

“This will require Russia to ground its planes at once and tell the regime to pull back its forces,” she told the council.

However, Nebenzia said: “The only long-term solution to the problem of Idlib and … of Syria as a whole is a final and irreversible expulsion from the country of all terrorists. And please don’t tell us we’re exaggerating the problem.”

Both Mueller and Fore appealed for action from the council, which has long been divided on how to deal with Syria. Russia had vetoed 14 draft resolutions during the war.

“Millions of Syrian children are crying tonight – from hunger and cold, from wounds and pain, from fear, loss and heartbreak,” Fore said.

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; editing by Grant McCool)

Battle rages over strategic Syrian town of Saraqeb as humanitarian catastrophe unfolds

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler

AMMAN/ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Syrian rebels backed by Turkish forces said on Thursday they had recaptured the crossroads town of Saraqeb, marking a first big push-back of a Syrian government offensive.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said developments were turning in Ankara’s favor, three weeks after the armed rebel opposition lost the northwestern town at the crossroads of two main highways to the Russian-backed Syrian government forces.

The Syrian army has pushed hard in recent months to retake the last large rebel-held region in northwestern Syria after nine years of war that has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops and heavy military hardware into Syria’s Idlib province in an incursion to back the rebels against the offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.

Nearly a million Syrians have fled over the last three months, the biggest exodus of the war.

The United Nations said on Thursday the battle was having “catastrophic” humanitarian consequences, with the civilian death toll rising and schools and hospitals destroyed.

At least 134 civilians, including 44 children, had been killed in February alone, Najat Rochdi, the United Nations’ senior humanitarian adviser on northwest Syria, said in Geneva.

Seven children were among 11 people killed when an air strike hit a school in northern Idlib on Tuesday, she said.

Rochdi also reiterated a call by the United Nations Secretary-General for a ceasefire.

In Ankara, Erdogan said he would press on with the campaign as he announced that the death toll of the Turkish military forces in the region this month had risen to 21.

“Developments in Idlib have turned to our advantage. We have three martyrs, let them rest in peace. But on the other hand, the regime’s losses are very big,” he said in a speech.

“Our battle will continue. Our talks with the Russians continue,” he said. “If there was no support from Russia or Iran, it would be impossible for Assad to stand.”

Earlier, the Turkish-backed rebels said they made advances in Idlib.

“The city of Saraqeb has been liberated completely from Assad’s gangs,” said Naji Mustafa, spokesman for a coalition of rebel factions, the National Liberation Front.

A Russian military source cited by Russian news agencies denied that, saying Syrian government forces had successfully repelled a rebel attack on the town.

A Turkish official subsequently said Assad’s forces, backed by Russian warplanes, had launched an assault to take back Saraqeb. “There are violent clashes,” he told Reuters.

With Russian backing, government forces aided by Iranian militias have gained ground in northwest Syria since December.

Government forces have seized about 60 towns and villages in southern Idlib and the adjoining province of Hama in the last three days, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

Rebels said heavy fighting was still raging in an area that the army, backed by Iranian-militias, had gained in new advances which the war monitor said had secured for the pro-government forces control of all of southern Idlib.

Opposition sources said a counter-offensive was underway.

TURKEY-RUSSIA TALKS FALTER

The push on Saraqeb comes before an end-of-February deadline set by Erdogan for Assad’s forces to pull back from territory that Ankara says is part of a buffer zone agreed with Russia.

Erdogan has said Turkey would otherwise drive them back and the spokesman of his AK Party, Omer Celik, said on Thursday preparations were complete.

“When the time given to the regime to withdraw expires, the Turkish Armed Forces will carry out their duties based on the orders they receive and nobody should doubt our determination about this,” Celik said.

Celik said work on a date for a meeting between Erdogan and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Idlib was till ongoing. Turkish and Russian officials were holding a second day of talks in Ankara on Thursday. Two previous rounds in Ankara and Moscow have not yielded tangible progress.

As well as sending troops, tanks and artillery into the region across its border, Ankara has set up new outposts in what rebels say is preparation for a Turkish operation.

A senior opposition figure in touch with Turkey’s military said the Turkish-backed campaign would continue until the Syrian army was expelled from the buffer zone, and only then would serious negotiations begin over a settlement.

Turkey, which has already taken in 3.6 million Syrian refugees, says it cannot handle another influx and has closed the border. Some migrants have made homes along the border wall, using it to prop up tents and shelters.

Ibrahim al-Idlibi, an opposition figure in touch with the rebel factions, said Saraqeb’s seizure eased pressure on rebels, who in recent days lost significant territory in southern Idlib province and Jabal al Zawiya highlands.

Saraqeb is at the crossroads of two highways linking the capital of Damascus, Syria’s second largest city Aleppo and another highway west to the Mediterranean.

Taking back the M5 highway, which goes south to Damascus, had marked a big gain for Assad’s forces as they restored state control over the route between Syria’s two biggest cities for the first time in years of conflict.

U.N. adviser Rochdi said air strikes and shelling were affecting dozens of communities and villages in Idlib and Hama, and 11 medical facilities and 15 schools had been hit this month.

“There are reports of multiple children freezing to death. The needs of civilians in the northwest are exceeding the humanitarian response capacity,” she said.

(Additional reporting by Tom Perry in Beirut, Andrey Kuzmin and Andrew Osborn in Moscow, Orhan Coskun and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara, Omar Fahmy in Cairo; Writing by Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

As Syrian forces advance on Idlib, families fear being trapped at Turkish border

By Khalil Ashawi

ATMEH, Syria (Reuters) – Syrian government forces are advancing closer to the displaced persons camp where Adnan Abdelkarim and his family have taken shelter along the Turkish border after being uprooted multiple times, and he fears there is nowhere left to go.

“Today the regime is advancing from everywhere and we are trapped along the border,” said 30-year-old Abdelkarim.

At the Atmeh camp on the northern edge of Idlib province, uprooted families are arriving in droves as they flee bombardment from air strikes and artillery shelling.

They fear being trapped between the fighting and the closed-off Turkish border. About 50 meters from the camp an imposing gray concrete wall is crowned with barbed wire, blocking their entry to Turkey.

“In the event the regime advances…, either we will die storming the Turkish wall and fleeing with our families…or slaughter ourselves by turning ourselves over,” said Abdelkarim.

Backed by heavy Russian air power, Syrian government forces have stepped up a campaign to retake the last rebel stronghold in the northwestern regions of Aleppo and Idlib, sparking an exodus of nearly a million people toward a shrinking pocket along the Turkish frontier.

On Monday, Russian and Syrian warplanes continued to pound eastern and southern areas of Idlib province, according to the Syrian Observatory, a war monitor, and witnesses.

The Observatory said on Monday that pro-Damascus forces had seized control of 10 more towns in southern areas of Idlib province in less than 24 hours. It said fighting continued meanwhile around the Idlib town of Neirab between government forces and rebels backed by Turkish artillery.

“People here have little hope and everyone has started to head toward the border, fearful of the (government) advance,” said Ismail Shahine, 37, originally displaced six years earlier from the Hama countryside.

Shahine on Monday prepared a tent to accommodate the rest of his family, which he said would soon arrive from the western countryside of Aleppo, where government forces have retaken large swathes of land from rebels at a rapid clip in recent weeks.

Fearing a fresh refugee crisis, Turkey has poured thousands of troops into Idlib in the last few weeks and President Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to use military force to drive back Syrian forces unless they pull back by the end of the month.

Turkey hosts about 3.7 million Syrians and says it cannot absorb any more.

As Turkish military convoys continue to enter northern Syria, Shahine and others near the border have pinned their hopes on Erdogan’s pledge to force Damascus to retreat.

“Everyone today is waiting for the start of the coming month, for the deadline that Erdogan gave the regime to withdraw,” said Shahine. “I am expecting that they will make a move and not leave the Syrian people to fend for themselves.”

(Reporting by Khalil Ashawi; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Nick Macfie)