U.S. cannot back Syrian forces who align with Assad: U.S. commander

FILE PHOTO: A poster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen on the main road to the airport in Damascus, Syria April 14, 2018. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki/File Photo

By Phil Stewart

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – The United States will have to sever its military assistance to the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battling Islamic State if the fighters partner with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or Russia, a senior U.S. general said on Sunday.

The remarks by Army Lieutenant General Paul LaCamera, who is the commander of the U.S.-led coalition battling Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, underscore the tough decisions facing the SDF as the United States prepares to withdraw its troops from Syria.

Syrian Kurdish leaders have sought talks with Assad’s state, hoping to safeguard their autonomous region after the withdrawal of U.S. troops currently backing them.

They fear an attack by neighboring Turkey, which has threatened to crush the Kurdish YPG militia. Ankara sees the Syrian Kurdish fighters as indistinguishable from the Kurdish PKK movement that has waged an insurgency inside Turkey.

But LaCamera warned that U.S. law prohibits cooperation with Russia as well as Assad’s military.

“We will continue to train and arm them as long as they remain our partners,” LaCamera said, praising their hard-won victories against Islamic State militants.

When asked if that support would continue if they aligned themselves with Assad, LaCamera said: “No.” “Once that relationship is severed, because they go back to the regime, which we don’t have a relationship with, (or) the Russians … when that happens then we will no longer be partners with them,” LaCamera told a small group of reporters.

President Donald Trump’s surprise December decision to withdraw all of the more than 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria has triggered deep concern among U.S. allies about the risk of a resurgence of Islamic State.

With U.S.-backing, the SDF has routed Islamic State and is on the verge of recapturing the final bits of its once sprawling territory. But Islamic State still has thousands of fighters, who, now dispersed, are expected to turn to guerrilla-style hit-and-run attacks.

On Friday, the four-star U.S. general overseeing U.S. troops throughout the Middle East, General Joseph Votel, told Reuters that he backed supporting the SDF as needed as long as it kept the pressure on Islamic State militants.

But LaCamera’s comments make clear that the SDF may have to choose between backing from Assad, Russia or the United States.

Kurdish forces and Damascus have mostly avoided combat during the war. Assad, who has vowed to recover the entire country, has long opposed Kurdish ambitions for a federal Syria.

Earlier on Sunday, Assad warned the United States would not protect those depending on it, in reference to the Kurdish fighters.

“We say to those groups who are betting on the Americans, the Americans will not protect you,” he said without naming them. “The Americans will put you in their pockets so you can be tools in the barter, and they have started with (it).”

Reuters has reported that Trump’s decision was in part driven by an offer by Turkey to keep the pressure on Islamic State once the United States withdrew.

But current and former U.S. officials warn Ankara would be unable to replicate the SDF’s success across the areas of Syria that the militias captured with U.S. support including arms, airstrikes and advisers.

Brett McGurk, who resigned in December as Trump’s special envoy to the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State, warned last month that the SDF could not be replaced as the provider of stability in areas of Syria formerly held by the militant group. He also cautioned that Turkey, a NATO ally, was not a reliable partner in the fight in Syria.

“The Syrian opposition forces (Turkey) backs are marbled with extremists and number too few to constitute an effective challenge to Assad or a plausible alternative to the SDF,” McGurk wrote.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; additional reporting by Ellen Francis in Beirut; editing by David Evans)

U.S. will keep investigating journalist Khashoggi’s murder: Pompeo

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks to the media at the United Nations following a Security Council meeting about the situation in Venezuela in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S., January 26, 2019. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/File Photo

By Lesley Wroughton

BUDAPEST (Reuters) – The United States is still probing the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Monday, as U.S. lawmakers continued to demand stronger U.S. action to punish the perpetrators.

“America is not covering up for a murder,” Pompeo said during a visit to Hungary, adding that the United States would take more action to hold accountable all those responsible for the U.S.-based journalist’s death inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October.

After initially denying his death, Saudi Arabia has confirmed that its agents killed Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and critic of the Saudi government. Riyadh denies its senior leaders were behind the killing.

U.S. lawmakers, Democrats and some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, have sought a strong response by Washington to Khashoggi’s murder and to the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition is fighting Iran-backed Houthi rebels.

The Trump administration had faced a Feb. 8 deadline to send a report to Congress on who was responsible for Khashoggi’s death and whether the U.S. government would impose sanctions on those behind the killing.

Ahead of the deadline, a group of Republican and Democratic senators on Thursday renewed their push to penalize Saudi Arabia, unveiling legislation to bar some arms sales and impose sanctions.

President Donald Trump has resisted such legislative efforts, viewing weapons sales as an important source of U.S. jobs and standing by Saudi crown prince and Trump’s ally, Mohammed bin Salman. Trump is also reluctant to disturb the strategic relationship with the kingdom, seen as an important regional counterbalance to Iran.

Eleven suspects have been indicted in Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s murder, and on Friday a top Saudi official rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered the killing.

On Friday, a State Department representative said Pompeo had briefed U.S. lawmakers on the murder investigation but gave no other details.

Democratic U.S. Senator Tim Kaine, a member of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, on Sunday said the required report was not submitted and accused the Trump administration of complicity in covering up the killing.

“This amounts to the Trump administration aiding in the cover-up of a murder,” Kaine said in a statement. “America should never descend to this level of moral bankruptcy.”

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; additional reporting by Joanna Plucinska, Susan Heavey and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)

Evidence shows Khashoggi murder planned, carried out by Saudi officials

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a poster with a picture of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi outside the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, Turkey October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Osman Orsal/File Photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – A United Nations-led inquiry into the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi said on Thursday that evidence pointed to a brutal crime “planned and perpetrated by officials of the state of Saudi Arabia”.

Agnes Callamard, U.N. special rapporteur for extrajudicial summary or arbitrary executions, said that Saudi officials had “seriously undermined” and delayed Turkey’s efforts to investigate the crime scene at its Istanbul consulate in October.

Reporting on a week-long mission with her team of three experts to Turkey, she said that they had had access to part of “chilling and gruesome audio material” of the Washington Post journalist’s death obtained by the Turkish intelligence agency. She had “major concerns” about the fairness of proceedings for 11 Saudis facing trial in the kingdom and had sought a visit there.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; editing by John Stonestreet)

Islamic State pinned in tiny eastern Syria enclave with families, U.S. backed force says

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) celebrate the first anniversary of Raqqa province liberation from ISIS, in Raqqa, Syria Ocotber 27, 2018. REUTERS/Aboud Hamam/File Photo

By Rodi Said

QAMISHLI, Syria (Reuters) – Islamic State fighters in eastern Syria are pinned down in a final tiny pocket with their wives and children, forcing a U.S.-backed militia to slow its advance to protect civilians, the militia said on Tuesday.

An aid agency said separately that 10,000 civilians had fled the enclave since last week and were arriving hungry and desperate at a camp.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been backed by 2,000 U.S. troops and air support, are preparing for a final showdown with Islamic State in eastern Syria after helping to drive the fighters from the towns and cities that once formed the group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali said Islamic State fighters were now confined to a pocket of just 5-6 square km (around 2 square miles) by the Euphrates River. The presence of their wives and children meant the U.S.-backed militia could not launch an all-out storm of it, and was using slower, more precise tactics instead.

“There are thousands of Daesh families there. They are civilians at the end of the day,” Bali told Reuters, using an acronym for Islamic State. “We cannot storm the area or put any child’s life in danger.”

The SDF had refused an offer from the jihadists via mediators to surrender the territory in return for safe passage out, Bali said.

Clashes had slowed because of the presence of the civilians, and “precise operations” were taking more time. “Calm prevails on the frontlines but there’s a state of caution and waiting.”

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) charity said it was helping tend to a sudden influx of more than 10,000 people, almost all women, children and elderly, who had arrived at a camp in northeast Syria since last week.

Most were exhausted, extremely hungry, and thirsty as they fled Islamic State territory, the global aid agency said. Many arrived barefoot. The United Nations confirmed that 12 young children had died after reaching the al-Hol camp or on the dangerous journey there, the IRC added on Tuesday.

The SDF, spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, has seized much of north and east Syria with U.S. help. It has been battling Islamic State remnants near the Iraqi border for months.

Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump declared that Islamic State had been defeated and announced the abrupt withdrawal of the U.S. troops, over objections of top advisors including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis who quit in protest.

The SDF vowed to escalate its operations against Islamic State this month after a bomb attack killed several people including two U.S. soldiers in northern Syria. SDF officials have warned of an Islamic State revival if Washington withdraws.

Kurdish leaders also fear a U.S. pullout would give Turkey, which sees the YPG as a threat on its border, the chance to mount a new assault. Washington has since said it will make sure its allies are protected when it leaves.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in Syria and Ellen Francis in Beirut; Editing by Peter Graff)

Turkish prosecutor seeks extradition of NBA’s Kanter over Gulen links: Anadolu

FILE PHOTO: Dec 29, 2018; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; New York Knicks center Enes Kanter (00) warms up prior to the game against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish prosecutors are seeking the extradition of New York Knicks center Enes Kanter over his links to the U.S.-based cleric accused of orchestrating a failed coup in 2016, state-owned Anadolu news agency said.

Kanter, a vocal critic of President Tayyip Erdogan, was indicted by a Turkish court last year over alleged membership of an “armed terrorist group” after being contacted repeatedly by people close to Islamic preacher Fethullah Gulen.

The Istanbul prosecutors’ office was not immediately available to comment on the report on Wednesday.

Anadolu said on Tuesday prosecutors had sought the issue of a “red notice” for Kanter, an Interpol request to locate and provisionally arrest an individual pending extradition.

It said the extradition request includes social media comments made about Gulen by Kanter, who has often declared his support for the cleric.

Kanter took to Twitter to deny any wrongdoing.

“The Turkish Government can NOT present any single piece of evidence of my wrongdoing,” he said. “I don’t even have a parking ticket in the U.S. (True)

“I have always been a law-abiding resident.”

He later added: “The only thing I terrorize is the rim.”

Turkey previously revoked Kanter’s passport and declared him a fugitive for his support of Gulen, whom Ankara accuses of being behind the attempted putsch of July 2016 – an accusation Gulen denies.

In May 2017, Kanter was refused entry into Romania because of the cancellation of his Turkish passport.

Earlier this month, Kanter said he would not go to London for a game with his NBA team because he fears he could be assassinated for criticizing Erdogan.

“If it’s for his own safety I don’t want to see a guy get harmed,” Washington Wizards Sam Dekker, who will be up against the Knicks in London, told Reuters.

“Hopefully it will get worked out with him but it’s a tough situation. It’s never a good thing to see a guy not playing for personal reasons.”

Since the putsch attempt, some 77,000 people have been jailed pending trial and 150,000 state employees including teachers, judges and soldiers have been suspended or dismissed in a crackdown on alleged supporters of Gulen.

Kanter holds a U.S. green card that allows him to live and work in the country on a permanent basis.

(Reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen; Writing by Daren Butler; Additional reporting by Martyn Herman, Editing by David Dolan, William Maclean)

Where do the Kurds fit into Syria’s war?

FILE PHOTO: Kurdish-led militiamen ride atop military vehicles as they celebrate victory over Islamic State in Raqqa, Syria, October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Erik De Castro/File Photo

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The future of Kurdish-led areas of northern and eastern Syria has been thrown into doubt by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops who have helped to secure the region.

Amounting to about one-quarter of Syria, the area is the largest chunk of territory still outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.

Trump said on Wednesday the United States would withdraw slowly “over a period of time” and would protect the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters as Washington withdraws troops, but without giving a timetable.

Syrian Kurdish leaders fear Turkey will use the withdrawal as an opportunity to launch an assault.

As a result, they are in contact with Moscow and Damascus in the hope of agreeing with arrangements to protect the region from Turkey while also aiming to safeguard their political gains.

HOW DID THE KURDS EMERGE AS A FORCE?

The main Syrian Kurdish faction, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), began to establish a foothold in the north early in the war as government forces withdrew to put down the anti-Assad uprising elsewhere. An affiliated militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), secured the region.

Early in the conflict, their control was concentrated in three predominantly Kurdish regions home to roughly 2 million Kurds. Kurdish-led governing bodies were set up.

The area of YPG influence expanded as the YPG allied with the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State (IS), becoming the spearhead of a multi-ethnic militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

SDF influence widened to Manbij and Raqqa as IS was defeated in both. It has also reached deep into Deir al-Zor, where the SDF is still fighting IS.

Kurdish leaders say their aim is regional autonomy within a decentralized Syria, not independence.

WHY DOES TURKEY VIEW THEM AS A THREAT?

The PYD is heavily influenced by the ideas of Kurdish leader Abdullah Ocalan, a founding member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has waged a 34-year insurgency in Turkey for Kurdish political and cultural rights. Ocalan has been in jail since 1999 in Turkey. He is convicted of treason.

The PKK is designated a terrorist organization by Turkey, the United States and the European Union. Turkey says the PKK is indistinguishable from the PYD and YPG.

Turkey has a Kurdish minority equal to 15 to 20 percent of its population, mostly living in eastern and southeastern areas bordering Syria. Wary of separatistism, Turkey views the PYD’s Syrian foothold as a national security threat.

Syria’s main Kurdish groups do not hide Ocalan’s influence: they organized elections towards establishing a political system based on his ideas.

Turkey has already mounted two cross-border offensives in northern Syria as part of its efforts to counter the YPG.

Current map of Syria and controlled territories

Current map of Syria and controlled territories

FOR KURDS, IS ASSAD A FRIEND OR FOE?

Syria’s Baathist state systematically persecuted the Kurds before the war. Yet the YPG and Damascus have broadly stayed out of each other’s way during the conflict, despite occasional clashes. They also have been seen to cooperate against shared foes, notably in and around Aleppo.

The YPG has allowed the Syrian state to keep a foothold in its areas. The YPG commander told Reuters in 2017 it would have no problem with the Assad government if Kurdish rights are guaranteed in Syria.

But Damascus opposes Kurdish autonomy demands: the Syrian foreign minister last month said “nobody in Syria accepts talk about independent entities or federalism”.

Talks between the sides last year made no progress.

The Kurdish-led authorities are launching a new initiative aiming to put pressure on the government to reach a political settlement “within the framework of a decentralized Syria,” leading Kurdish politician Ilham Ahmed said last week.

Analysts say the Kurds’ negotiating position has been weakened by Trump’s announcement.

WHAT WOULD AN ASSAD-KURD DEAL MEAN FOR THE WAR?

The territory held by Damascus and the Kurdish-led authorities accounts for most of Syria. A political settlement – if one could be reached, perhaps with Russian help – could go a long way to stitching the map back together.

But it would not mark the end of the war.

Anti-Assad insurgents, though defeated across much of Syria by the government and its allies, still have a foothold in the northwest stretching from Idlib through Afrin to Jarablus. Turkey has troops on the ground in this area.

The rebels include Turkey-backed Free Syrian Army groups and jihadists.

Enmity runs deep between the YPG and these groups.

For the YPG, one priority is recovering Afrin from the rebels who seized it in a Turkey-backed offensive last year.

Assad also wants Turkey out as he vows to recover “every inch” of Syria.

(Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Turkish TV shows purported transfer of Khashoggi remains

FILE PHOTO: Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, Britain, September 29, 2018. Middle East Monitor/Handout via REUTERS

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – A Turkish pro-government television channel has a broadcast video showing men carrying suitcases purportedly containing the remains of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi into the residence of his country’s consul general in Istanbul.

The footage broadcast by A Haber shows men carrying what it says were a total of five cases through the main entrance of the residence, a short distance from the consulate where Khashoggi, a leading critic of Saudi policies, was killed in early October.

A Turkish official said the media report, also carried by the pro-government Sabah newspaper on its website, appeared to be accurate, without giving further details.

There was no immediate reply from Saudi authorities to a Reuters request for comment on the footage.

Khashoggi was a royal insider who became a critic of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and began writing for the Washington Post after moving to the United States last year.

Saudi officials have rejected accusations that the crown prince ordered his death. The murder has sparked global outrage and damaged the international reputation of 33-year-old prince, the kingdom’s de facto leader.

Sabah said the cases had been brought to the residence in a black minibus at 3:09 pm (1209 GMT).

After offering numerous contradictory explanations regarding the fate of Khashoggi, Riyadh later said he had been killed and his body dismembered when negotiations to persuade him to return to Saudi Arabia failed.

Khashoggi’s remains have not been found and Turkey has repeatedly asked Saudi Arabia where they are. Last month, Turkish police searched a remote villa in a coastal area southeast of Istanbul as part of the investigation.

Saudi Arabia’s public prosecutor’s office said last month it is seeking the death penalty for five individuals, and that 11 of 21 suspects have been indicted and will be referred to court in Saudi Arabia.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said last week Ankara was working with other countries to take the investigation into Khashoggi’s killing to the United Nations.

(Reporting by Orhan Coskun; Writing by Daren Butler; Editing by David Dolan, William Maclean)

Syrian surprise: How Trump’s phone call changed the war

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said

By Orhan Coskun and Lesley Wroughton

ANKARA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s declaration in a phone call with Tayyip Erdogan that he was pulling U.S. troops from Syria has stunned Turkey and left it scrambling to respond to the changing battlefield on its southern border.

In the phone call two weeks ago, Trump had been expected to deliver a standard warning to the Turkish president over his plan to launch a cross-border attack targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, U.S. officials say.

Instead, in the course of the conversation, Trump reshaped U.S. policy in the Middle East, abandoning a quarter of Syrian territory and handing Ankara the job of finishing off Islamic State in Syria.

“Trump asked: ‘If we withdraw our soldiers, can you clean up ISIS?'”, a Turkish official told Reuters. He said Erdogan replied that Turkish forces were up to the task.

“Then you do it,” Trump told him abruptly. To his national security adviser John Bolton, also on the call, Trump said: “Start work for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria.”

“I have to say it was an unexpected decision. The word ‘surprise’ is too weak to describe the situation,” said the official, one of five Turkish sources who spoke to Reuters about the Dec. 14 call between the two leaders.

Trump’s decision was also a shock in Washington, where senior administration officials, including Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, tried for days to change the president’s mind, U.S. officials said. When Trump made clear he would not back down, Mattis and a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, Brett McGurk, both resigned.

On a visit to a U.S. air base in Iraq this week, Trump said that military commanders had repeatedly requested extensions for the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria – requests that he finally turned down because he said Islamic State was largely beaten.

“We’ve knocked them silly. I will tell you I’ve had some very good talks with President Erdogan who wants to knock them out also, and he’ll do it,” he told American troops.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump talks to Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium July 11, 2018.Tatyana Zenkovich/Pool via REUTERS

RISK FOR TURKEY

For Turkey, Trump’s decision offers opportunity and risk.

Ankara has complained bitterly for years that the United States, a NATO ally, had chosen the Kurdish YPG militia as its main partner on the ground in Syria against Islamic State.

Turkey says the YPG is a terrorist group, inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency in southeast Turkey in which 40,000 people have been killed.

The U.S. withdrawal potentially frees Turkey’s military to push the YPG back from 500 km of the border without risking a confrontation with American forces. It also removes a main cause of this year’s diplomatic crisis between the two countries.

But it also opens up an area of Syria far larger than anything Turkey had expected to fill, potentially pitting it against not just Kurdish forces but also the Damascus government – which is committed to regaining control of all of Syria – and its Russian and Iranian backers.

The YPG on Friday asked the Syrian government to take over the town of Manbij, which the Kurdish militia currently controls with U.S. support, to protect it from Turkish attack.

And if Turkish forces are to take on Islamic State in its last pocket of Syrian territory near the Iraqi border, they would first have to cross 250 km of territory controlled by the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces.

“Erdogan got more than he bargained for,” said Soner Cagaptay, Director of the Turkish Program at the Washington Institute. “He had asked the U.S. to drop the YPG, but not withdraw from Syria”.

Erdogan has for years backed rebels who once hoped to topple Bashar al-Assad, but the Syrian president’s survival has been assured by support from Tehran and Moscow even though the north and east – including Syrian oilfields – remain beyond Assad’s control for now.

As it takes stock of the new challenge, Turkey is launching intensive talks with Washington and Moscow. Ankara expects U.S. military officials to visit within days, as well as Bolton and possibly the U.S. special Syria envoy, James Jeffrey.

Turkey’s intelligence chief and defense and foreign ministers are also due in Moscow on Saturday, the spokesman for Erdogan’s AK Party said.

“Of course it will be difficult. The whole issue needs to be planned again from the start,” a Turkish security official said.

A U.S. official said military planners were drafting plans that could see a withdrawal over the course of several months. One of the proposals under consideration is a 120-day withdrawal period, according to a person familiar with discussions.

Washington is also grappling with what to do with weapons it provided to the YPG militia and promised to take back after the campaign against Islamic State ended.

Turkey says the weapons must be collected so they are not used against Turkish troops, but U.S. officials say they cannot disarm their own allies when the fight is not yet over.

Erdogan announced last week Turkey is postponing its planned military operation against the YPG in light of Trump’s decision.

The Turkish military has already carried out two incursions into north Syria, backed by pro-Turkey Syrian rebels. In 2016 they targeted Islamic State and Kurdish fighters, and earlier this year took control of the YPG-held Afrin region.

But Ankara and its Syrian rebel allies alone do not have the capacity to take over the whole region which the United States is abandoning, Cagaptay said. Turkey’s priority, therefore, may be to secure its southern frontier.

“Distancing the YPG from the border and wiping out these elements is of critical importance,” the security official said.

He stressed the need for careful coordination over who should fill other areas which departing U.S. forces will leave, and warned of problems ahead if agreement could not be reached.

“Is it a big victory for Turkey?” another official said. “I’m not sure right now.”

(Additional reporting by Tulay Karadeniz in Ankara and Humeyra Pamuk and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Dominic Evans and Angus MacSwan)

Turkey says it will take over fight against Islamic State after U.S. pull-out

FILE PHOTO: Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a joint news conference with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani (not seen) after their meeting in Ankara, Turkey, December 20, 2018. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

By Ece Toksabay and Dahlia Nehme

ISTANBUL/BEIRUT (Reuters) – Turkey will take over the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria as the United States withdraws its troops, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, in the latest upheaval wrought by Washington’s abrupt policy shift.

The surprise announcement by U.S. President Donald Trump this week that he would withdraw roughly 2,000 troops has felled a pillar of American policy in the Middle East. Critics say Trump’s decision will make it harder to find a diplomatic solution to Syria’s seven-year-old conflict.

For Turkey, the step removes a source of friction with the United States. Erdogan has long castigated his NATO ally over its support for Syrian Kurdish YPG fighters against Islamic State. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an offshoot of the armed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), fighting for Kurdish autonomy across the border on Turkish soil.

In a speech in Istanbul, Erdogan said Turkey would mobilize to fight remaining Islamic State forces in Syria and temporarily delay plans to attack Kurdish fighters in the northeast of the country – shifts both precipitated by the American decision to withdraw.

The news was less welcome for other U.S. allies. Both France and Germany warned that the U.S. change off course risked damaging the campaign against Islamic State, the jihadists who seized big swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014-15 but have now been beaten back to a sliver of Syrian territory.

Likewise, the U.S.-backed militia spearheaded by the YPG said a Turkish attack would force it to divert fighters from the battle against Islamic State to protect its territory.

Islamic State launched an attack in Syria’s southeast against the U.S.-backed SDF militia, employing car bombs and dozens of militants.

“We will be working on our operational plans to eliminate ISIS elements, which are said to remain intact in Syria, in line with our conversation with President Trump,” Erdogan said, referring to Islamic State.

The Turkish president had announced plans last week to start an operation east of the Euphrates River in northern Syria to oust the YPG from the area that it largely controls. This week, he said the campaign could come at any moment. But on Friday, he cited the talk with Trump as a reason to wait.

“Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer,” he said.

“We have postponed our military operation against the east of the Euphrates river until we see on the ground the result of America’s decision to withdraw from Syria.”

The Turkish president said, however, that this was not an “open-ended waiting period”.

Turkey has repeatedly voiced frustration over what it says is the slow implementation of a deal with Washington to pull YPG fighters out of Manbij, a town in mainly Arab territory west of the Euphrates in northern Syria.

The United States will probably end its air campaign against IS in Syria when it pulls out troops, U.S. officials have said, as Trump has been forced to defend the planned withdrawal against criticism from allies abroad and at home.

‘TIME FOR OTHERS TO FIGHT’

Trump maintained that IS had been wiped out, a view not shared by key allies, that Washington had been doing the work of other countries and it was “time for others to finally fight”.

His defense secretary, Jim Mattis, opposed the decision and abruptly announced on Thursday he was resigning after meeting with the president.

In a candid letter to Trump, the retired Marine general emphasized the importance of “showing respect” to allies that have voiced surprise and concern about the president’s decision.

Russia said on Friday it did not understand what the United States’ next steps in Syria would be, adding that chaotic and unpredictable decision-making in Washington was creating discomfort in international affairs.

Several of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress, joined by opposition Democrats, urged the president to reverse course, saying the withdrawal would strengthen the hand of Russia and Iran in Syria and enable a resurgence of Islamic State.

Trump has given no sign of changing his mind. He promised to remove forces from Syria during his 2016 election campaign.

The roughly 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria, many of them special forces, were ostensibly helping to combat Islamic State but were also seen as a possible bulwark against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has retaken much of the country from his foes in the multi-sided civil war, with military help from Iran and Russia.

IS declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing parts of Syria and Iraq. The ultra-hardline Sunni militants established their de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

A senior U.S. official last week said Islamic State was down to the last 1 percent of the territory it once held. The group has no remaining territory in Iraq, though militants have resumed attacks since their defeat there last year.

Islamic State launched an attack on Friday on positions held by the SDF in Syria’s southeast and the U.S.-led coalition mounted air strikes in the area, an SDF official said.

Kurdish-led forces in northern Syria may not be able to continue to hold Islamic State prisoners if the situation in the region gets out of control after a U.S. pullout, top Syrian Kurdish official Ilham Ahmed said on Friday.

(Additional reporting by Sarah Dadouch, Ali Kucukgocmen and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul and Tuvan Gumrukcu in Ankara and John Irish in Paris; Writing by David Dolan; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Andrew Roche)

U.S. to end air war against Islamic State in Syria

FILE PHOTO: Syrian Democratic Forces and U.S. troops are seen during a patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018. REUTERS/Rodi Said/File Photo

By Phil Stewart and Ellen Francis

WASHINGTON/BEIRUT (Reuters) – The United States will end its air campaign against Islamic State in Syria when it pulls out troops, U.S. officials said, sealing an abrupt reversal of policy which has alarmed Western allies as well as Washington’s Kurdish battle partners.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have been fighting Islamic State with U.S. support for three years, said President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of troops would grant the militants breathing space to regroup at a critical stage in the conflict and leave Syrians stuck between “the claws of hostile parties” fighting for territory in the seven-year-old war.

Trump’s announcement on Wednesday upended a central pillar of American policy in the Middle East and stunned U.S. lawmakers and allies.

Western allies including France, Britain and Germany described Trump’s assertion of victory as premature. France, a leading member of the U.S.-led coalition, said it would keep its troops in northern Syria for now because Islamic State militants had not been wiped out.

Trump defended his decision on Thursday, tweeting that he was fulfilling a promise from his 2016 presidential campaign to leave Syria. The United States was doing the work of other countries, including Russia and Iran, with little in return and it was “time for others to finally fight,” he wrote.

U.S. officials said Trump’s order to withdraw troops also signifies an end to the U.S. air campaign against Islamic State in Syria, which has been critical to rolling back the militants there and in neighboring Iraq, with more than 100,000 bombs and missiles fired at targets in the two countries since 2015.

The SDF, supported by about 2,000 U.S. troops, are in the final stages of a campaign to recapture areas seized by the militants.

But they face the threat of a military incursion by Turkey, which considers the Kurdish YPG fighters who spearhead the force to be a terrorist group, and Syrian forces – backed by Russia and Iran – committed to restoring President Bashar al-Assad’s control over the whole country.

The SDF said the battle against Islamic State had reached a decisive phase that required more support, not a precipitate U.S. withdrawal.

THREAT ALIVE

France’s Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau said: “For now, of course we are staying in Syria because the fight against Islamic State is essential.”

France has about 1,100 troops in Iraq and Syria providing logistics, training and heavy artillery support as well as fighter jets. In Syria, it has dozens of special forces, military advisers and some foreign office personnel.

A British junior defense minister said he disagreed with Trump. “(Islamic State) has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive,” Tobias Ellwood said.

Islamic State declared a caliphate in 2014 after seizing large swathes of Syria and Iraq. The hardline group established its de facto capital in the Syrian city of Raqqa, using it as a base to plot attacks in Europe.

According to U.S. estimates, the group oversaw about 100,000 square kms (39,000 square miles) of territory, with about 8 million people under Islamic State control. It had estimated revenues of nearly $1 billion a year.

A senior U.S. official last week said the group was down to its last 1 percent of the territory it once held. It has no remaining territory in Iraq, although militants have resumed insurgent attacks since the group’s defeat there last year.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he largely agreed with Trump that Islamic State had been defeated in Syria but added there was a risk it could recover.

He also questioned what Trump’s announcement would mean in practical terms, saying there was no sign yet of a withdrawal of U.S. forces whose presence in Syria Moscow says is illegitimate.

Israel will continue to act “very aggressively against Iran’s efforts to entrench in Syria,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Neighboring Turkey, which has threatened an imminent military incursion targeting the U.S.-allied Kurdish YPG fighters in northern Syria, has not commented directly on Trump’s decision, although an end to the U.S.-Kurdish partnership will be welcomed in Ankara.

Kurdish militants east of the Euphrates in Syria “will be buried in their ditches when the time comes”, state-owned Anadolu news agency reported Defence Minister Hulusi Akar as saying. Turkey considers the YPG a terrorist group and an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK).

Turkey has intervened to sweep YPG and Islamic State fighters from parts of northern Syria that lie west of the Euphrates over the past two years. It has not gone east of the river, partly to avoid direct confrontation with U.S. forces.

(Additional reporting by Daren Butler in Istanbul and John Irish in Paris; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Janet Lawrence)