Tens of thousands flee Russia-led attack on Syrian opposition enclave

FILE PHOTO: A general view shows Khan Sheikhoun in the southern countryside of Idlib March 16, 2015. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi/File Photo - RC12399C7770

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Ten of thousands of people have fled to Syria’s border with Turkey in the last few days as a Syrian army advance pushed further into the opposition’s last major stronghold, residents, rights groups and opposition sources said on Wednesday.

They left Maarat al-Numan, a city in Idlib province that has been a sanctuary for families fleeing former rebel areas, as a Russian-led push has come close to capturing the strategic town of Khan Sheikhoun further south.

“The flow of cars and vehicles leaving is not stopping,” said Abdullah Younis from the city. Rescuers there said around 60,000 people had fled in the last four days alone.

On Tuesday, Russian and Syrian jets intensified their bombing of scattered villages and towns around Maarat al-Numan, with the al-Rahma hospital in the area struck, residents said.

“There were 15 raids on Jarjanaz in less than five minutes,” Abdul Rahman al Halabi told Reuters from the area.

Rebels concede most of their fighters have fled Khan Sheikhoun but are providing fierce resistance to the Syrian army, which has secured a foothold in the rebel-held town that was bombed with sarin gas in 2017.

State media on Tuesday said government forces were battling militants but had extended their advance and seized a highway running through the town.

Taking Khan Sheikhoun would be an important gain for Moscow and its ally into the northwestern region, where Moscow has helped President Bashar al Assad turn the tide in the eight-year-old conflict since stepping up its intervention in 2015.

Russia has backed the campaign, making thousands of raids on rebel-held northern Hama and southern Idlib in what Western experts say is a “scorched earth strategy”.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov acknowledged on Tuesday that Russia had military personnel on the ground in Idlib province, the Interfax news agency quoted him as saying.

MERCENARIES

Russia has previously downplayed its direct role in the advance, where it used mercenaries as well as directing battles, according to Western intelligence sources.

The fall of Khan Sheikhoun ends rebel control over northern Hama province, where a rebel group, Jaish al-Izza, had been defending the three major towns of Latamneh, Kfr Zita and Morek.

The latest advance has been aided by thousands of new reinforcements including Iranian-backed militias.

A suspected Syrian army strike on Monday hit near a Turkish military convoy heading to an observation post near Khan Sheikhoun. Damascus denounced what it said was a Turkish attempt to save routed rebels.

A senior Turkish security official told Reuters talks were going on with Russia over the fate of the convoy, which was en route to an outpost near the frontline. The convoy had not moved since the strike, but there was no possibility the post “would be abandoned.”

Rebels said a Turkish patrol on Wednesday moved from one of a dozen military posts established in the area under agreements reached with Russia in what they said was a message by Ankara that it won’t succumb to Syrian government pressure to pull out.

The Turkish presence in the northwest and extensive covert military aid it has extended to some Ankara-backed rebel factions had complicated the campaign to seize the last rebel bastion, Syrian military experts and rebels say.

After months of stalemate Russia has increased the intensity of raids in the last 10 days, transforming the situation on the ground. Hundreds of civilians have been killed and at least 400,000 people displaced, medics, NGOs and the United Nations say.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights said 196 children were among the 843 civilians killed in the Russian and Syrian raids since the campaign began last April.

Moscow and Damascus, who deny indiscriminate bombing of civilians areas or targeting hospitals, say they are fighting jihadist militants drawn from across the world.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Editing by Jon Boyle/William Maclean)

U.S. removing Turkey from F-35 program after its Russian missile defense purchase

Turkey and U.S. flags are seen in this picture illustration taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States said on Wednesday that it was removing Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, a move long threatened and expected after Ankara began accepting delivery of an advanced Russian missile defense system last week.

The first parts of the S-400 air defense system were flown to the Murted military air base northwest of Ankara on Friday, sealing NATO ally Turkey’s deal with Russia, which Washington had struggled for months to prevent.

“The U.S. and other F-35 partners are aligned in this decision to suspend Turkey from the program and initiate the process to formally remove Turkey from the program,” Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, told a briefing.

Turkey’s foreign ministry said the move was unfair and could affect relations between the two countries.

Lord said moving the supply chain for the advanced fighter jet would cost the United States between $500 million and $600 million in non-recurring engineering costs.

Turkey makes more than 900 parts of the F-35, she said, adding the supply chain would transition from Turkish to mainly U.S. factories as Turkish suppliers are removed.

“Turkey will certainly and regrettably lose jobs and future economic opportunities from this decision,” Lord said. “It will no longer receive more than $9 billion in projected work share related to the F-35 over the life of the program.”

The F-35 stealth fighter jet, the most advanced aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, is used by NATO and other U.S. allies.

Washington is concerned that deploying the S-400 with the F-35 would allow Russia to gain too much inside information about the aircraft’s stealth system.

“The F-35 cannot coexist with a Russian intelligence collection platform that will be used to learn about its advanced capabilities,” the White House said in a statement earlier on Wednesday.

Washington had long said the acquisition of the S-400 might lead to Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program.

FRAYED TIES

After the Pentagon announcement, Turkey’s foreign ministry said in a statement: “We invite the United States to return from this mistake which would open irreparable wounds in strategic relations.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking at the Aspen Institute’s annual security forum in Aspen, Colorado, said he was concerned at Turkey’s expulsion from the F-35 program.

But while the S-400 could not become part of NATO’s shared air and missile defenses, he said, Turkey has aircraft and radars that would remain part of the system.

“The S-400, the Russian air defense system, it’s not possible to integrate into the integrated NATO air defense and missile system, which is about sharing, you know, radar picture, about joint air policing, which is about shared capabilities. And Turkey has not asked for that,” Stoltenberg said.

The S-400 acquisition is one of several issues that have frayed ties between the two allies, including a dispute over strategy in Syria east of the Euphrates River, where the United States is allied with Kurdish forces that Turkey views as foes.

The Pentagon had already laid out a plan to remove Turkey from the program, which included halting training for Turkish pilots on the aircraft.

Lord said all the Turkish F-35 pilots and personnel had “firm plans” to leave the United States and were scheduled to leave by July 31.

Turkey will no longer be able to buy the 100 F-35s it had agreed to purchase.

“These would likely have been delivered at an annual rate of 8-12 aircraft/year through the 2020s,” Byron Callan, an analyst at Capital Alpha Partners, said in a research note on Wednesday.

The jet’s prime contractor, Lockheed Martin Corp and the jet’s program office at the Pentagon “should be able to re-market those delivery positions,” Callan said.

Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Carolyn Nelson said: “Over the last several months we’ve been working to establish alternative sources of supply in the United States to quickly” adjust for the loss of Turkey’s contribution to the program.

The United States is considering expanding sales of the jets to five other nations, including Romania, Greece and Poland, as European allies bulk up their defenses in the face of a strengthening Russia.

David Trachtenberg, the deputy undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters at the briefing that the United States still valued its relationship with Turkey.

“Our strategic partnership continues, but as I said, this is a specific response to a specific action,” Trachtenberg said.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Mike Stone, David Alexander and Jonathan Landay in Washington and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)

Turkey’s Erdogan says Russian S-400s will be fully deployed by April 2020

FILE PHOTO: First parts of a Russian S-400 missile defense system are unloaded from a Russian plane at Murted Airport, known as Akinci Air Base, near Ankara, Turkey, July 12, 2019. Turkish Military/Turkish Defence Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said on Monday that the Russian S-400 missile defense system, parts of which have been delivered to Turkey over the past four days, would be fully deployed in April 2020.

Turkey’s purchase of the Russian system has raised tensions with its NATO allies, particularly the United States, which has warned Turkey that it will respond with sanctions.

Speaking at Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport on the third anniversary of 2016’s attempted coup, Erdogan said eight planes had already brought parts of the Russian system and more were coming, as he had repeatedly promised.

“With God’s permission, they will have been installed in their sites by April 2020,” he told the crowd.

“The S-400s are the strongest defense system against those who want to attack our country. God willing, we are doing this as a joint investment with Russia, and will continue to do so.”

U.S. officials have said that in addition to being hit with legislation aimed at preventing countries from purchasing military equipment from Russia, known as CAATSA, Turkey could be thrown off the F-35 stealth fighter jet program.

That would mean it would no longer make F-35 parts or be able to buy the jets it has ordered.

On Sunday, Erdogan said that U.S. President Donald Trump has the authority to waive sanctions on Turkey for its purchase of Russian air defense systems and should find a “middle ground” in the dispute.

Tensions between Turkey and Western allies have risen in recent months over the purchase of the S-400 system, with a series of other actions taken by the NATO member state compounding the situation.

German and Austrian ministers said on Monday that the European Union would endorse a symbolic punishment for Turkey over what it calls “illegal” drilling for oil and gas off Cyprus and threaten harsher sanctions unless Ankara changes tack.

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu had said on Sunday that Turkey will continue drilling for gas in waters off Cyprus if the internationally recognized Greek Cypriot government does not accept a cooperation proposal put forward by Turkish Cypriots.

After sacking the central bank governor this month, citing differences over the timing of rate cuts, Erdogan said on Sunday that Turkey would make serious cuts to interest rates and aims to reduce inflation to single digits by the end of the year.

In his first remarks since taking office nine days ago, new governor Murat Uysal was reported as hinting at rate cuts, saying there was “room for maneuver” in monetary policy.

Turkey’s benchmark interest rate was hiked to 24% last September to stem a sharp fall in the lira and has remained there to prevent renewed losses in the currency as the economy tumbled into recession.

Ratings agency Fitch downgraded Turkey’s sovereign rating to BB- on Friday, saying the central bank chief’s dismissal heightened doubt over the authorities’ tolerance for a period of slower growth.

On Monday, agency S&P Global said Turkey’s credit rating is only likely to be affected by U.S. sanctions if they specifically target the country’s banks.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch and Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Sarah Dadouch; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Russia delivers missile system to Turkey in challenge to NATO

By Sarah Dadouch and Ezgi Erkoyun

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Russia began delivery of an advanced missile defense system to Turkey on Friday, a move expected to trigger U.S. sanctions against a NATO ally and drive a wedge into the heart of the Western military alliance.

The first parts of the S-400 air defense system were flown to a military air base near the capital Ankara, the Turkish Defense Ministry said, sealing Turkey’s deal with Russia which Washington had struggled for months to prevent.

The United States says the Russian military hardware is not compatible with NATO systems and that the acquisition may lead to Ankara’s expulsion from an F-35 fighter jet program.

Investors in Turkey have been unsettled by the deal. The Turkish lira weakened as far as 5.728 against the dollar from 5.683 before the ministry announced the arrival of the S-400 consignment to the Murted Air Base, northwest of Ankara. The main Istanbul share index fell 1.4%.

“The delivery of parts belonging to the system will continue in the coming days,” Turkey’s Defense Industry Directorate said. “Once the system is completely ready, it will begin to be used in a way determined by the relevant authorities.”

At least two Russian Air Force AN-124 cargo planes flew to Turkey on Friday morning, data from plane tracking website Flightradar24 showed. Turkish broadcasters showed footage of one plane parked at airbase and a second one landing at around 12.30 pm (0930 GMT).

Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation confirmed on Friday it had started delivering the S-400 systems and that the deliveries would continue in accordance with an agreed schedule, the RIA news agency reported.

An unnamed military-diplomatic source was cited by Russia’s TASS news agency as saying a second delivery would be carried out by plane soon. A third delivery – of 120 guided missiles – will be carried out by ship at the end of the summer, the source was quoted as saying.

Twenty Turkish servicemen received training from Russia in May-June and 80 more Turkish servicemen will receive training to use the S-400 system, the source was quoted as saying.

ERDOGAN-TRUMP TALKS

Turkey says the system is a strategic defense requirement, particularly to secure its southern borders with Syria and Iraq. It says that when it made the deal with Russia for the S-400s, the United States and Europe had not presented a viable alternative.

President Tayyip Erdogan said after meeting President Donald Trump at a G20 summit last month that the United States did not plan to impose sanctions on Ankara for buying the S-400s.

Trump said Turkey had not been treated fairly but did not rule out sanctions. U.S. officials said last week the administration still plans to impose sanctions on Turkey.

Under legislation known as Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), which targets purchases of military equipment from Russia, Trump should select five of 12 possible measures.

These range from banning visas and denying access to the U.S.-based Export-Import Bank, to the harsher options of blocking transactions with the U.S. financial system and denying export licenses.

Washington says the S-400s could compromise its Lockheed Martin F-35 stealth fighter jets, an aircraft Turkey is helping to build and planning to buy.

Turkey could also face expulsion from the F-35 program under the sanctions. Erdogan has dismissed that possibility, but Washington has already started the process of removing Turkey from the program, halting training of Turkish pilots in the United States on the aircraft.

Investors in Turkey have been concerned about the impact of potential U.S. sanctions on an economy which fell into recession after a currency crisis last year.

Turkey’s dollar bonds dropped to three-week lows on the news of the delivery, while the cost of insuring exposure to Turkish sovereign debt also rose.

The S-400 acquisition is one of several issues which have frayed ties between the two allies, including a dispute over strategy in Syria east of the Euphrates River, where the United States is allied with Kurdish forces that Turkey views as foes.

The detention of U.S. consular staff in Turkey has also strained relations, along with disagreements over Iran, Venezuela and Middle East policy. Turkey has long demanded Washington hand over a Muslim cleric which Ankara holds responsible for an attempted coup in 2016.

The Murted base was formerly known as Akinci Air Base and was used by putschist soldiers in the failed 2016 coup.

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun in Ankara, Maxim Rodionov and Thomas Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by Dominic Evans and Gareth Jones)

‘They want to kill you’: Anger at Syrians erupts in Istanbul

Syrian shopkeeper Ahmed is pictured at his shop in Istanbul's Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Sarah Dadouch

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – At 2 am, one Saturday night, Syrian brothers Mustafa and Ahmed were at home hunched over a screen watching live black and white security camera footage of men destroying their clothes shop in Istanbul.

They watched as a small group of Turkish men broke their glass storefront, ripped up Arabic leaflets and signs and set them alight. A few men stood back and stared up at the camera before a hand flashed in front of it and destroyed it, and the screen went black.

Mustafa, 22, and Ahmed, 21, frantically called a Turkish grocer who runs the store next door, to tell him they were on their way to the shop to stop it being burned down. “He told us: Don’t come, they want to kill you,” said Ahmed.

Syrian shopkeeper Mustafa is pictured at his clothes shop in Istanbul's Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Syrian shopkeeper Mustafa is pictured at his clothes shop in Istanbul’s Kucukcekmece district, Turkey, July 5, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

Their store and other Syrian properties were targeted in the Kucukcekmece district of western Istanbul on the night of Saturday, June 29, one of the occasional bouts of violence which Syrians say erupt against them in Turkey’s largest city.

Such large-scale clashes are rare, with only one other big attack happening this year, also in western Istanbul, in February. Small incidents are more frequently shared by Syrians on social media, and some fear tensions are on the rise.

Police used tear gas and water cannon to disperse the Kucukcekmece attackers, but not before they destroyed many of the district’s Syrian stores and tore down Arabic signs.

The area has one of the higher concentrations of Syrians in the city, and Arabic signs are commonplace for shops’ local Syrian customers.

Mustafa and Ahmed waited until the crowd thinned out, and then went back. “We couldn’t go until 5 or 6 in the morning. We emptied out half the merchandise, and waited a couple of days until things calmed down.”

“SYRIANS, GET OUT”

Turkey hosts more than 3.6 million Syrians, the largest population of Syrians displaced by the 8-year civil war, and Istanbul province alone has over half a million, according to Turkey’s interior ministry.

Turkey’s own stumbling economy and rising unemployment has fueled anger against their presence, and many are resented by Turks as cheap labor taking over jobs and using services.

That has led President Tayyip Erdogan’s government, which opened its borders to Syrians when the conflict first erupted in 2011, to increasingly highlight the number of Syrians it says have returned to northern Syrian areas now controlled by Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies.

Last week, state-owned Anadolu Agency said nearly 80,000 Syrians returned in the first half of 2019. That number is still only a small fraction of the refugee population in Turkey, many of whom aim to build a new life in Turkey.

Erdogan’s political opponents have criticized him for allowing in so many refugees, and even the new opposition mayor of Istanbul – who campaigned on a ticket of inclusiveness – has said Turks are suffering because of the Syrian influx.

“We will make an effort to create a basis for Syrian migrants to return to their homeland, their free homeland,” Ekrem Imamoglu told Reuters last month.

“Otherwise, we will have some security concerns that would really trouble us all, and there would be street clashes.”

On the night that Imamoglu won the mayoralty, a hashtag spread across social media – “Suriyeliler Defoluyor”, roughly meaning “Syrians, Get Out”.

BROKEN SIGNS, DOORS AND CAMERAS

On June 30, a few blocks away from the brothers’ shop, two Syrians who work next door to each other at a gold store and an electronics shop heard that a mob was attacking Syrian shops.

“We packed up quickly and left,” one of the electronics shop employees, who asked for his name not be used, told Reuters a few days after the incident.

Speaking Arabic with an Aleppo accent, he waved his hand at the empty glass case in front of him. “I usually have phones displayed here, but until now we’re a bit afraid. We’re not showcasing our merchandise because the situation isn’t stable.”

The mob destroyed the gold store’s glass storefront, despite the metal shutters that were drawn down. The electronics shop’s security camera, signs and lights were smashed.

Days later, the signs remained broken. The shopkeepers plan to put up new signs in Turkish, both to protect themselves and because Istanbul’s governor announced last week that shops must ensure at least 75% of signage is in Turkish, not Arabic.

Following the Kucukcekmece attack, Istanbul’s police headquarters said they captured five suspects linked to social media accounts that put out the hashtags “Syrians Get Out” and “I Don’t Want Syrians in My Country”.

Police also said an investigation found a messaging group with 58 members was responsible for inciting the clashes in Kucukcekmece, and 11 members have been detained as investigations continue. Syrians expressed relief that police were acting.

“We are staying, we can’t give up or anything,” said Mustafa. “We can’t close up, how would we live?”

Most shopkeepers said they hoped that things will not get worse and that changing their signs to Turkish will ease tension. Some said the clashes were occasional waves of anger which did not represent how most Turks feel toward Syrians.

“Here it’s like a volcano: every five or six months we have an explosion,” said one customer.

(Reporting by Sarah Dadouch; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun; Editing by Dominic Evans and Alexandra Hudson)

No sign of progress at NATO in U.S.-Turkey dispute over Russian defenses

Turkey and U.S. flags are seen in this picture illustration taken August 25, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration

By Phil Stewart

BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The United States and Turkey appeared to make no progress during talks at NATO headquarters on Wednesday toward resolving a major dispute over Ankara’s plans to acquire a Russian air defense system, just ahead of its expected July delivery.

The United States says Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’sS-400 air defenses poses a threat to the Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 stealthy fighters, which Turkey also planned to buy. Washington says Ankara cannot have both and has started the process of removing Turkey from the F-35 program, including halting training of Turkish pilots in the United States on the advanced, stealth aircraft. Acting U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned his Turkish counterpart, Hulusi Akar, during closed-door talks on Wednesday that Turkish acquisition would also have an economic impact, a senior U.S. defense official said, in a nod to expected U.S. sanctions.

“The secretary was very firm, once again, that Turkey will not have both the S-400 and the F-35. And if they accept the S-400 they should accept ramifications not only to the F-35 program but also to their economic situation,” the official said.

Buying military equipment from Russia leaves Turkey vulnerable to U.S. retribution under a 2017 law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.

Turkey has played down U.S. concerns about the security of the F-35 and insists it cannot back away from the S-400 purchase. U.S. offers to supply it with Patriot missiles, manufactured by Raytheon Co, have failed to sway Ankara.

Asked if Turkey changed its position in any way, the official said: “There were no surprises but…the minister and the secretary were very clear with each other.”

ERDOGAN-TRUMP MEETING

If the United States follows through with removing Turkey from the F-35 program, and imposes sanctions on the NATO ally, it would be one of the most significant ruptures in recent history in the relationship between the two nations, experts said.

But strains in ties between Washington and Ankara already extend beyond the F-35 to include conflicting strategy in Syria, Iran sanctions and the detention of U.S. consular staff in Turkey.

Turkey’s defense ministry issued a short statement, acknowledging that the F-35 came up in discussions, as well as Syria and “other bilateral security and defense cooperation issues.”

The ministry said Esper and Akar “emphasized the importance of maintaining dialogue between Turkey and the United States.”

The head of Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport, Alexander Mikheev, was quoted on Wednesday saying Russia would make first delivery of the S-400 missile systems to Turkey in July.

With the clock ticking, attention will shift to an expected meeting between Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan and U.S. President Donald Trump at the G20 summit in Japan this week. Erdogan has said he expected to discuss the issue with Trump.

One senior NATO diplomat said that was probably the last chance of finding a solution.

But officials in Ankara and Washington are cautious.

“Everything indicates that Russia is going to deliver the system to Turkey and that will have consequences,” Kay Bailey Hutchison, the U.S. ambassador to NATO, said in Brussels on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart, additional reporting by Robin Emmott in Brussels, Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Turkey’s opposition strikes blow to Erdogan with Istanbul mayoral win

Ekrem Imamoglu, mayoral candidate of the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP), greets supporters at a rally of in Beylikduzu district, in Istanbul, Turkey, June 23, 2019. REUTERS/Kemal Aslan

By Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Spicer

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey’s opposition has dealt President Tayyip Erdogan a stinging blow by winning control of Istanbul in a re-run mayoral election, breaking his aura of invincibility and delivering a message from voters unhappy over his ever tighter grip on power.

Ekrem Imamoglu of the secularist Republican People’s Party (CHP) secured 54.21% of votes, the head of the High Election Board announced on Monday – a far wider victory margin than his narrow win three months ago.

The previous result was annulled after protests from Erdogan’s Islamist-rooted AK Party, which said there had been widespread voting irregularities. The decision to re-run the vote was criticized by Western allies and caused uproar among domestic opponents who said Turkey’s democracy was under threat.

On Sunday and in the early hours Monday, tens of thousands of Imamoglu supporters celebrated in the streets of Istanbul after the former businessman triumphed over Erdogan’s handpicked candidate by almost 800,000 votes.

“In this city today, you have fixed democracy. Thank you Istanbul,” Imamoglu told supporters who made heart signs with their hands, in an expression of the inclusive election rhetoric that has been the hallmark of his campaigning.

“We came to embrace everyone,” he said. “We will build democracy in this city, we will build justice. In this beautiful city, I promise, we will build the future.”

Erdogan congratulated him for the victory and Imamoglu’s rival, Binali Yildirim of the ruling AK Party (AKP), wished him luck as mayor barely two hours after polls closed.

WANING SUPPORT

Erdogan has ruled Turkey since 2003, first as prime minister and then as president, becoming the country’s most dominant politician since its founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, nearly a century ago.

His AKP has strong support among pious and conservative Turks and its stewardship of Turkey’s economy through a decade and a half of construction-fuelled growth helped Erdogan win more than a dozen national and local elections.

But economic recession and a financial crisis have eroded that support and Erdogan’s ever-tighter control over government has alarmed some voters.

Turkey’s lira tumbled after the decision to annul the March vote and is down 8% this year, in part on election jitters.

But assets rallied on Monday as investors welcomed the removal of one source of political uncertainty. The lira firmed 1% against the dollar, shares rose nearly 2% and bond yields fell.

Imamoglu won support even in traditionally pious Istanbul districts, once known as AK Party strongholds, ending the 25-year-long Islamist rule in the country’s largest city.

“This re-run (election) was one to put an end to the dictatorship,” said Gulcan Demirkaya, a 48-year-old housewife in Istanbul’s AKP-leaning Kagithane district. “God willing, I would like to see him as the president in five years’ time. The one-man rule should come to an end.”

FALLOUT IN ANKARA

The results are likely to trigger a new chapter in Turkish politics, now that the country’s top three cities now held by the opposition. Cracks could also emerge within Erdogan’s AKP, bringing the economic troubles more to the fore.

“This is definitely going to have an impact on the future of Turkish politics given the margin of victory. It’s alarming sign for the AKP establishment,” said Sinan Ulgen, visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels and former Turkish diplomat.

Analysts say the loss could set off a Cabinet reshuffle in Ankara and adjustments to foreign policy. The leader of the AKP’s nationalist ally played down the prospect that the loss could even trigger a national election earlier 2023, when the next polls are scheduled.

“The election process should close,” MHP party leader Devlet Bahceli said. “Talking of an early election would be among the worst things that can be done to our country.”

The uncertainty over the fate of Istanbul and potential delays in broader economic reforms have kept financial markets on edge. Threats of sanctions by the United States if Erdogan goes ahead with plans to install Russian missile defenses have also weighed on the markets.

A Council of Europe delegation said its observers were given a “less than friendly reception” in some places and had “too many unnecessarily aggressive and argumentative encounters to ignore,” but that the election was conducted competently.

“The citizens of Istanbul elected a new mayor in a well-organized and transparent vote, albeit in tense circumstances,” delegation head Andrew Dawson said in a statement.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Jonathan Spicer; Additional reporting by Ezgi Erkoyun, Ali Kucukgocmen and Daren Butler; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Jon Boyle)

Erdogan does not expect U.S. sanctions over Russian S-400 deal

FILE PHOTO - Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attends talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Russian President Vladimir Putin, during their meeting in the Black sea resort of Sochi, Russia, 14 February 2019. Sergei Chirikov/Pool via REUTERS

By Jonathan Spicer and Humeyra Pamuk

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – President Tayyip Erdogan said on Thursday he did not expect the United States to impose sanctions over Turkey’s planned purchase of a Russian missile defense system, but he would retaliate if it did.

Speaking at a rare news conference for foreign media in Istanbul, Erdogan repeated that the purchase of Russian S-400 systems was a done deal and said the United States should think carefully before imposing sanctions on a NATO member.

“I do not see any possibility of these sanctions happening,” Erdogan said. However, if they did, “we will have sanctions of our own”.

Washington has repeatedly threatened to impose sanctions unless Ankara backs down from the S-400 purchase. Erdogan said the delivery of the system would start in the first half of July.

His expectation of no sanctions appeared largely based on his personal relationship with President Donald Trump. “I say this very openly and sincerely, our relations with Trump are at a place that I can call really good … In the event of any issues, we immediately work the phones,” Erdogan said.

He said he would discuss the issue with Trump at the G20 summit in Japan at the end of June, and that the problem was largely with other U.S. officials. “When we have talks with those below Trump, we see that many cannot agree with our officials, and one example is the S-400,” he said.

Turkey and the United States have been at loggerheads over the issue for months. Washington says the S-400 is incompatible with NATO’s defense network and could compromise its F-35 fighter jets, an aircraft Turkey is helping build and planning to buy.

Buying military equipment from Russia leaves Turkey liable to U.S. retribution under a 2017 law known as the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA.

Even minor U.S. sanctions could prompt another sharp sell-off in the Turkish lira. A 30 percent slide in the currency drove the Middle East’s largest economy into recession last year. It has fallen another 10 percent this year and markets remain on edge.

Erdogan said Turkey wanted to buy Patriot missiles from the U.S. but that offer was in no way comparable to Russia’s.

He said Turkey would appeal to international courts and ask for its F-35 payments to be refunded if needed.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Canan Sevgili; Writing by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Daren Butler and John Stonestreet)

Has ‘the sacrificial lamb’ arrived?: U.N. cites new recordings in Khashoggi murder

FILE PHOTO: Participants take photos next to a picture of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during the Misk Global Forum in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Moments before Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered last October, two of his suspected murderers laying in wait at the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate fretted about the task at hand, according to a U.N. report published on Wednesday.

Will it “be possible to put the trunk in a bag?” asked Maher Mutreb, a Saudi intelligence officer who worked for a senior advisor to Saudi crown prince, according to a report from the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions.

“No. Too heavy,” responded Salah al-Tubaigy, a forensic doctor from the Interior Ministry who would dismember and dispose of the body. He expressed hope his task would “be easy”.

Tubaiqy continued: “Joints will be separated. It is not a problem. The body is heavy. First time I cut on the ground. If we take plastic bags and cut it into pieces, it will be finished. We will wrap each of them.”

Mutreb and 10 others are now standing trial in closed hearings in Saudi Arabia for their role in the crime.

Saudi Arabia’s minister of state for foreign affairs, Adel al-Jubeir, rejected the investigator’s report as “nothing new”.

He added in a tweet: “The report of the rapporteur in the human rights council contains clear contradictions and baseless allegations which challenge its credibility.”

The report, which calls for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other senior Saudi officials to be investigated over their liability for Khashoggi’s death, relies on recordings and forensic work conducted by Turkish investigators and information from the trials of the suspects in Saudi Arabia.

Khashoggi, a critic of the prince and a Washington Post columnist, was last seen at the consulate where he was to receive papers ahead of his wedding.

TEXT MESSAGE

The report concludes that his murder was deliberate and premeditated. The CIA and some Western countries believe the crown prince ordered the killing, which Saudi officials deny.

Media reports have published the contents of some recordings obtained from inside the consulate, but the U.N. report discloses chilling new details.

At the end of the exchange with Tobaigy, Mutreb asks if “the sacrificial lamb” has arrived. At no point is Khashoggi’s name mentioned, but two minutes later he enters the building.

Khashoggi is ushered to the consul general’s office on the second floor where he meets Mutreb, whom he knew from when they worked together at the Saudi Embassy in London years earlier.

Mutreb tells Khashoggi to send his son a mobile text message.

“What should I say? See you soon? I can’t say kidnapping,” Khashoggi responds.

“Cut it short,” comes the reply. “Take off your jacket.”

“How could this happen in an embassy?” Khashoggi says. “I will not write anything.”

“Type it, Mr. Jamal. Hurry up. Help us so that we can help you because at the end we will take you back to Saudi Arabia and if you don’t help us you know what will happen at the end; let this issue find a good end,” Mutreb says.

The report says the rest of the recordings contain sounds of movement, heavy panting and plastic sheets being wrapped, which Turkish intelligence concluded came after Khashoggi’s death as Saudi officials dismembered his body.

(Reporting By Stephen Kalin, Editing by William Maclean)

Turkey chafes at U.S. pressure over Russian defenses

FILE PHOTO: A view shows a new S-400 "Triumph" surface-to-air missile system after its deployment at a military base outside the town of Gvardeysk near Kaliningrad, Russia March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vitaly Nevar/File Photo

By Daren Butler

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkey said on Tuesday a U.S. House of Representatives’ resolution condemning Ankara’s purchase of Russian defense systems and urging potential sanctions was unacceptably threatening.

Relations between the two NATO members have been strained on several fronts including Ankara’s plans to buy Russia’s S-400 air defense systems, the detention of U.S. consular staff in Turkey, and conflicting strategy over Syria and Iran.

The standoff threatens to bring U.S. sanctions, which would hurt Turkey’s already recession-hit economy, and raise questions over its role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The resolution, introduced in May and entitled “Expressing concern for the United States-Turkey alliance”, was agreed in the House on Monday.

It urges Turkey to cancel the S-400 purchase and calls for sanctions if it accepts their delivery, which may come as soon as July. That, the resolution said, would undermine the U.S.-led transatlantic defense alliance.

In response, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement that its foreign policy and judicial system were being maligned by “unfair” and “unfounded” allegations in the resolution.

“It is unacceptable to take decisions which do not serve to increase mutual trust, to continue to keep the language of threats and sanctions on the agenda and to set various artificial deadlines,” it added.

PILOT PROGRAM WOUND DOWN

President Tayyip Erdogan’s government faces a balancing act in its ties with the West and Russia, with which it has close energy ties and is also cooperating in neighboring Syria.

The United States is also pressuring Turkey and other nations to isolate Iran, including blocking oil exports.

U.S. officials said on Monday the training of Turkish pilots on F-35 fighter jets had come to a faster-than-expected halt at an air base in Arizona, as Ankara’s involvement was wound down over the S-400 controversy.

The United States says Turkey’s acquisition of Russia’s S-400 air defenses poses a threat to Lockheed Martin Corp’s F-35 stealth fighters, which Turkey also plans to buy.

“We rarely see it in foreign affairs, but this is a black and white issue. There is no middle ground. Either Mr. Erdogan cancels the Russian deal, or he doesn’t,” Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said on the House floor on Monday.

“There is no future for Turkey having both Russian weapons and American F-35s. There’s no third option.”

Regardless of the U.S. warnings, Turkey appeared to be moving ahead with the S-400 purchase. Erdogan said last week it was “out of the question” for Turkey to back away from its deal with Moscow.

(Reporting by Daren Butler; Editing by Jonathan Spicer and Andrew Cawthorne)