‘Hit with a truck’ – How Iran’s missiles inflicted brain injury on U.S. troops

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

(Reuters) – In the wee hours of Jan. 8, Tehran retaliated over the U.S. killing of Iran’s most powerful general by bombarding the al-Asad air base in Iraq.

Among the 2,000 troops stationed there was U.S. Army Specialist Kimo Keltz, who recalls hearing a missile whistling through the sky as he lay on the deck of a guard tower. The explosion lifted his body – in full armor – an inch or two off the floor.

Keltz says he thought he had escaped with little more than a mild headache. Initial assessments around the base found no serious injuries or deaths from the attack. U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted, “All is well!”

The next day was different.

“My head kinda felt like I got hit with a truck,” Keltz told Reuters in an interview from al-Asad air base in Iraq’s western Anbar desert. “My stomach was grinding.”

Keltz, who said he had concussion symptoms for days, is among 109 soldiers diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries in the wake of last month’s attack, a figure that has steadily risen as more troops report symptoms and get medical screening.

Reuters interviewed more than a dozen officials and soldiers and spoke with brain-injury specialists to assemble the most comprehensive account so far of the nature of the soldiers’ injuries and how they sustained them.

The slowly rising casualty count underscores the difficulty in detecting and treating what has become one of the most common injuries in the U.S. military during two decades of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. troops face roadside bombs, rockets and mortars.

More than a week after the attack, on Jan. 16, Defense Secretary Mark Esper was made aware that soldiers had suffered brain injuries from the missiles, the Pentagon said. That day, the Pentagon reported that an unspecified number of troops were treated for concussive symptoms and 11 were flown to Kuwait and Germany for higher-level care.

On Jan. 22, Trump said that he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things,” prompting criticism from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group that the president was underplaying the casualties from the attack.

“I think it was unfortunate to use those words,” said Republican Representative Richard Hudson, who represents Fayetteville, North Carolina, home to Fort Bragg that includes the Army’s Special Operations Command.

The White House declined to comment for this story.

A DIFFERENT CLASS OF WOUNDS

The U.S. military has long treated brain injuries as a different class of wounds that do not require rapid reporting up the chain of command, unlike incidents threatening life, limb or eyesight.

Since 2000, nearly 414,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries, or TBIs, according to Pentagon data. The number is likely higher because the Pentagon only counts as one injury cases where a soldier suffers brain trauma in multiple incidents.

U.S. troops operating drone flights appeared to have suffered the most brain injuries during the attack on al-Asad, said Lieutenant Colonel Timothy Garland, who was on the base at the time. Many worked near the air strip, he said. Like Specialist Keltz, who was manning a guard tower, the drone pilots had been assigned to watch for a possible ground attack.

“Those drone pilots, they’re the ones that took the brunt of the TBI cases,” said Garland, who as commander of Task Force Jazeera oversees more than 400 soldiers.

The number of troops diagnosed with brain injury from last month’s attack was expected to stabilize near the current count, one U.S. official said. Less than 10 were now being monitored with possible TBI symptoms, the official said.

The total U.S. military count, however, excludes civilian contractors on the base at the time, many of whom have since departed.

Some U.S. troops also suffered from anxiety-related symptoms after the attack, including sleeplessness and, in at least one case, a sustained high heart rate, according to interviews with soldiers and officials. However, they could not provide a specific number.

The Pentagon categorizes brain injuries as mild, moderate, severe or penetrating. The vast majority of injuries are classified as mild, as were all of the injuries reported from al-Asad.

STANDING GUARD

Garland, the commander, said he was taken aback when he learned of U.S. intelligence indicating that Iranian missiles would strike within hours. He immediately found a base map and started sizing up the best options to shelter his troops.

He recalled old bunkers on the base built during the era of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator toppled by U.S.-led forces in 2003. But the bunkers wouldn’t hold everyone. Some would need to disperse, taking cover in armored vehicles driven away from targets.

Others in Garland’s unit — including Specialist Keltz –would need to stand guard to watch for additional attacks beyond the expected missiles.

Keltz said he and a fellow soldier were already manning a tower when First Sergeant Larry Jackson came to them, explaining the intelligence and giving them their orders.

“What I need you boys to do is to lay down on the ground when the impacts happen – and then I need you to jump right back up and man those guns,” Jackson said in an interview, recounting his instructions to Keltz and other soldiers at the base.

As the Iranian missiles streaked through the night sky toward the base, their engines glowed orange – like the ends of lit cigarettes, Garland said. The glow was all that Garland could see in the darkness before scrambling back into a bunker.

Then came the blasts. At least eleven missiles struck the base, destroying housing units made from shipping containers and other facilities.

“Every explosion I heard, I was thinking, OK, that’s a number of people that have just lost their lives,” he said.

But initial checks after the attack showed nobody was killed or obviously injured, despite massive devastation to the base. Word got back to Washington. Just before 6 a.m. in Baghdad, Trump tweeted an update: “Assessment of casualties & damages taking place now. So far, so good!”

FALLING THROUGH THE CRACKS

On the ground at al-Asad, U.S. Army Major Robert Hales, a doctor who is deployed to al-Asad, defended the initial reports of no injuries.

“Everyone here did not have any outward physical injuries,” he said in an interview. “There were no lacerations. There’s no shrapnel wounds.”

Such “silent” injuries take time to manifest, he said.

Injury figures kept climbing in the weeks after the attack. What began as at least 11 cases grew to 34 about a week later.

On Jan. 22, Trump made his controversial comment, referring to the injuries as “headaches.” The Veterans of Foreign Wars demanded an apology for Trump’s “misguided remarks”.

A week later, on Jan. 28, the toll of brain injuries climbed to 50. In early February, Reuters was the first to report that the count had surpassed 100.

The brain injuries sustained in the Iranian missile attack are fundamentally different than those that have typically resulted from past attacks, brain-trauma specialists said.

That’s because the al-Asad bombing was more intense than typical quick-hit, single-explosion attacks: The explosions came in waves and lasted more than an hour.

When a roadside bomb goes off in Afghanistan, head wounds are often visible. In insurgent bomb blasts, shrapnel or other flying debris can cause brain injuries upon impact. But the damage from large pressure waves from a major blast – like the ones at al-Asad that Specialist Keltz felt – often take more time to diagnose.

Marilyn Kraus, director of the Traumatic Brain Injury program and concussion clinic at George Washington University, said troops may minimize or underreport their symptoms initially. Others may not show symptoms until much later in part because their injuries are initially masked by the adrenaline rush that comes with combat.

“Some of these things can fall into the cracks initially,” said Kraus, who previously served as medical director of the Traumatic Brain Injury Consult Section at the Walter Reed military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.

In the short term, mild traumatic brain injury can cause headaches, nausea, dizziness and confusion, while longer-term effects can include chronic headaches, mood changes and dizziness, Kraus said. Repeated head injuries can lead to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a brain degeneration disorder that some researchers have linked to suicidal thoughts, substance misuse and depression, she said.

Hales, the Army doctor, cited research within the past six months showing in animal models that signs of damage to the brain can increase in the weeks after a blast. At al-Asad, soldiers started showing symptoms such as headaches or a “foggy feeling” days after the attack, Hales said. The symptoms often persisted.

“That’s the reason why you saw a huge delay” in identifying the injuries, he said. “That prompted us to re-screen pretty much the whole population of al-Asad.”

(Stewart and Ali reported from Washington. Editing by Brian Thevenot and Jason Szep)

Exclusive: More than 100 U.S. troops diagnosed with brain injuries from Iran attack – officials

By Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is preparing to report a more than 50% jump in cases of traumatic brain injury stemming from Iran’s missile attack on a base in Iraq last month, U.S. officials told Reuters on Monday.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity ahead of an announcement, said there were over 100 cases of TBI, up from the 64 previously reported last month.

The Pentagon declined to comment, but in the past had said to expect an increase in numbers in the weeks after the attack because symptoms can take time to manifest and troops can sometimes take longer to report them.

No U.S. troops were killed or faced immediate bodily injury when Iran fired missiles at the Ain al-Asad base in Iraq in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike at the Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

The missile attacks capped a spiral of violence that had started in late December. Both sides have refrained from further military escalation, but the mounting number of U.S. casualties could increase pressure on the Trump administration to respond, perhaps non-militarily.

Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month that the service members suffering from traumatic brain injuries had been diagnosed with mild cases. He added the diagnosis could change as time went on.

Symptoms of concussive injuries include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light and nausea.

Pentagon officials have repeatedly said there has been no effort to minimize or delay information on concussive injuries. But the disclosures following Tehran’s attack has renewed questions over the U.S. military’s policy regarding how it internally reports suspected brain injuries and whether they are treated publicly with the same urgency as loss of limb or life.

U.S. President Donald Trump appeared to play down the brain injuries last month, saying he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things” following the attack, prompting criticism from lawmakers and a U.S. veterans group.

Various health and medical groups for years have been trying to raise awareness about the seriousness of brain injuries, including concussions.

Since 2000, about 408,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury, according to Pentagon data.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart; Editing by Franklin Paul, Dan Grebler and Lisa Shumaker)

‘No, No America’: Iraq protesters demand expulsion of U.S. troops

By John Davison and Aziz El Yaakoubi

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Tens of thousands of Iraqis rallied in central Baghdad on Friday calling for the expulsion of U.S. troops, but the protest mostly dissipated after a few hours despite fears of violence following a cleric’s call for a “million strong” turnout.

Populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr convened the march after the U.S. killing of an Iranian general and an Iraqi paramilitary chief in Baghdad this month. His eventual decision to hold it away from a separate anti-government protest camp, and away from the U.S. embassy, looked pivotal in keeping the march peaceful.

Throngs started gathering early on Friday at al-Hurriya Square near Baghdad’s main university. They avoided Tahrir Square, symbol of mass protests against Iraq’s ruling elites.

“We want them all out – America, Israel, and the corrupt politicians in government,” said Raed Abu Zahra, a health worker from southern Samawa, who had come by bus to Baghdad and stayed in Sadr City, a sprawling district controlled by Sadr’s followers.

“We support the anti-government protests in Tahrir Square as well, but understand why Sadr held this protest here so it doesn’t take attention from theirs,” he added.

The protests have shattered nearly two years of relative calm following the 2017 defeat of Islamic State and threaten to send the country back into major civil strife.

Unrest erupted in October with protests against a corrupt ruling elite, including Iran-backed politicians, that have met deadly force from government security forces and pro-Iran paramilitaries that dominate the state.

Washington’s killing this month of Iranian military mastermind Qassem Soleimani added a new dimension to the crisis.

It has temporarily united rival Shi’ite groups in opposition to the presence of U.S. troops – a rallying cry that critics say aims simply to refocus the street and kill the momentum of the anti-establishment protests that challenge their grip on power.

Sadr, who commands a following of millions in vast Baghdad slums, opposes all foreign interference in Iraq but has recently aligned himself more closely with Iran, whose allies have dominated state institutions since a 2003 U.S.-led invasion.

Sadr supported anti-government protests when they began in October, but did not publicly urge his followers to join them.

The demonstrations have since taken aim at all groups and figures that are part of the post-2003 system including Sadr, who although often considered an outsider is part of that system, commanding one of the two largest blocs in parliament.

Parliament urged the government to eject U.S. troops after the killing of Soleimani, but Sunni and Kurdish politicians boycotted the session, the first time lawmakers have voted along ethnic and sectarian lines since the defeat of IS.

Sunnis and Kurds generally oppose the withdrawal of U.S. troops, seeing them as crucial in fighting against IS remnants and a buffer against dominance of Iran.

“DO NOT CROSS THIS BARRIER”

U.S.-Iran tension playing out on Iraqi soil has further fractured Iraqi politics and distracted leaders from forming a new government.

Iraq’s top Shi’ite Muslim cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called in his weekly sermon for political groups to form a government as soon as possible to bring stability to the country and enact reforms to improve Iraqis’ lives.

“Iraq’s sovereignty must be respected … and citizens should have the right to peaceful protest,” said the cleric, who comments on politics only in times of crisis and wields great influence over Iraq’s Shi’ite majority.

Iraqi President Barham Salih posted a photo of Friday’s march on Twitter and wrote that Iraqis deserved a “fully sovereign state that serves its people.”

Under the government of caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, who said he would quit in November, security forces and unidentified gunmen believed to be linked to powerful Iran-backed militias killed nearly 450 anti-establishment protesters.

Marchers on Friday wore Iraqi flags and symbolic white robes indicating they were willing to die for Iraq while others sat looking out over the square from half finished buildings, holding signs reading “No America, no Israel, no colonialists”.

Anti-American marchers were protected by Sadr’s Saraya al-Salam, or Peace Brigades, and Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella grouping of mostly Iran-backed Shi’ite militias, witnesses said.

The march did not head as initially feared towards U.S. Embassy, the scene of violent clashes last month when militia supporters tried to storm the compound.

Many marchers boarded buses in the early afternoon to head home. A smaller number shuffled along towards Tahrir Square.

Outside the U.S. embassy in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone, a sign read “Warning. Do not cross this barrier, we will use pre-emptive measures against any attempt to cross”.

(Additional reporting by Nadine Awadalla; Writing by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Editing by William Maclean)

U.S. troops describe ‘miraculous’ escape at Iraqi base attacked by Iran

By John Davison

AIN AL-ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq (Reuters) – Troops at the Iraqi air base that bore the brunt of Iran’s first direct missile attack against U.S. forces said they were shocked by its intensity and grateful to emerge unscathed.

The scale of the damage at the Ain al-Asad base showed Iran’s destructive capability at a time when U.S. officials say they are still concerned that Iran-backed groups across the region could wage attacks on the United States.

“It’s miraculous no one was hurt,” Lt Col Staci Coleman, the U.S. air force officer who runs the airfield, told reporters on Monday at the vast base deep in the western Anbar desert in Iraq, where 1,500 Americans were deployed.

“Who thinks they’re going to have ballistic missiles launched at them … and suffer no casualties?”

The Jan. 8 attack came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said the United States should expect retaliation over the U.S. killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike in Iraq the previous week.

The killing raised fears of a new Middle East war, but the United States, Iraq and other countries with troops at the base said no one was hurt. U.S. military leaders have said that was thanks to commanders on the ground, not Tehran’s goodwill.

At one site, a cruise missile had left a large crater and incinerated living quarters made from shipping containers.

Heavy concrete blast walls were knocked over and the shipping containers were smashed and charred along with contents including bicycles, chairs and other furniture. Several soldiers said one of their number had come very close to being blown up inside a shelter behind the blast walls.

Almost a dozen missiles hit the air base, where U.S. forces carried out “scatter plans” to move soldiers and equipment to a range of fortified areas apart from one another.

The United States did not have Patriot air defenses at the base, putting the onus on local commanders to protect their troops.

“We’d got notification there could be an attack a few hours prior so had moved equipment,” said U.S. Staff Sergeant Tommie Caldwell.

‘IT’S LIKE TERROR’

Lt Col Coleman said that by 10pm all the staff she manages were ready to take cover. “People took this very seriously,” she said.

Three and a half hours later the missiles started arriving. Several soldiers said they continued for two hours.

Staff Sgt Armando Martinez, who had been out in the open to watch for casualties, said he could not believe how easily one missile leveled the concrete blast walls.

“When a rocket strikes that’s one thing; but a ballistic missile, it’s like terror,” he said.

“You see a white light like a shooting star and then a few seconds later it lands and explodes. The other day, after the attack, one colleague saw an actual shooting star and panicked.”

One missile landed on the tarmac of a parking and servicing area for Blackhawk helicopters helping to ferry equipment in the fight against Islamic State insurgents.

The helicopters had been moved but it destroyed two light hangars and badly damaged portacabins nearby.

“We must have been in the bunkers for more than five hours, maybe seven or eight,” said Kenneth Goodwin, Master Sgt in the U.S. Air Force. “They knew what they were aiming at by targeting the airfield and parking area.”

It was the latest strike against an air base that has figured prominently in high-ranking U.S. officials’ visits to Iraq.

“After these missile attacks, when we hear of possible militia rocket attacks, we tend to think, ‘Oh only rockets … that’s a change’,” Coleman said, describing the common feeling when the missile attacks were over as “sheer relief”.

On Sunday the Iraqi military said four people had been wounded in an attack on Balad air base in northern Iraq, which also houses U.S. personnel. Military sources identified the wounded as Iraqi soldiers.

(Reporting by John Davison; Writing by Philippa Fletcher; Editing by David Goodman)

Iranian missiles target U.S. troops in Iraq, Trump to make statement

By Ahmed Aboulenein, Phil Stewart and Parisa Hafezi

BAGHDAD/WASHINGTON/DUBAI (Reuters) – Iranian forces fired missiles at military bases housing U.S. troops in Iraq on Wednesday in retaliation for the U.S. killing of an Iranian general, raising the stakes in its conflict with Washington amid concern of a wider war in the Middle East.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, addressing a gathering of Iranians chanting “Death to America”, said the attacks were a “slap on the face” of the United States and said U.S. troops should leave the region.

Tehran’s foreign minister said Iran took “proportionate measures” in self-defense and did not seek to escalate the confrontation.

The next move appeared to lie with Washington.

U.S. President Donald Trump, who ordered the drone strike that killed General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on Friday, gave an initial response on Twitter: “All is well!”.

Trump said casualties and damage from the missile attacks were being assessed. The White House said the president would make a statement at 11 a.m. (1600 GMT).

Trump, who was impeached last month and faces an election this year, at the weekend threatened to target 52 Iranian sites if Iran retaliated for Soleimani’s killing.

TARGETS

Iranian state television said Iran had fired 15 ballistic missiles from its territory at U.S. targets in its neighbor Iraq early on Wednesday. The Pentagon said al-Asad air base and another facility in Erbil were targeted.

The United States did not announce any casualties.

Iranian state television said 80 “American terrorists” had been killed and U.S. helicopters and military equipment damaged. It did not say how it obtained that information.

Germany, Denmark, Norway and Poland said none of their troops in Iraq were hurt. Britain, which also has personnel in Iraq, condemned the Iranian action and said Tehran “should not repeat these reckless and dangerous attacks”.

Iraq said its forces did not suffer casualties. The U.N. mission in Iraq called for restraint, saying: “Iraq should not pay the price for external rivalries.” Graphic: Iran fires missiles at U.S bases in Iraq – https://tmsnrt.rs/35DS8dy

More than 5,000 U.S. troops remain in Iraq along with the other foreign forces in a coalition that has trained and backed Iraqis against the threat of Islamic State militants.

“As we evaluate the situation and our response, we will take all necessary measures to protect and defend U.S. personnel, partners, and allies in the region,” Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said.

In Tehran, Khamenei said in a televised speech: “Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America in the region,” renewing Tehran’s long-standing demand for Washington to withdraw its forces.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said the strikes “concluded” Tehran’s response to the killing of Soleimani, who had been responsible for building up Iran’s network of proxy armies across the Middle East. He was buried in his hometown Kerman on Monday after days of national mourning.

“We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression,” he wrote on Twitter.

Iranian television reported an official in the supreme leader’s office as saying the missile attacks were the “weakest” of several retaliation scenarios. It quoted another source saying Iran had lined up 100 other potential targets.

State media also showed footage of what it said were the missiles being fired into the night sky. In the background, voices shouted “God is greatest”. It also showed purported images of the blasts where they struck. It was not possible to verify the images’ authenticity.

WAY OUT?

Airlines canceled Iran and Iraq flights and re-routed others away from both countries’ airspace after the attacks.

Oil prices, which jumped in frenzied early trading after the missile attack, slipped later on as alarm faded..

Analysts said market tension could ease as long as oil production facilities remain unaffected. They also saw Trump and Zarif’s comments as signaling calm, at least for now.

Iran is likely to want to avoid any conventional military conflict with superior U.S. forces, other analysts say. In the past, it has focused on asymmetric strikes, such as sabotage or other military action via proxies, they say.

U.S. officials said Soleimani was killed because forces under his command planned attacks on U.S. targets. They have not provided evidence.

Before Soleimani was buried, his body was taken on a tour of cities in Iraq and Iran, drawing huge crowds. A stampede at his funeral on Tuesday killed at least 56 people.

After the Iranian missile attack, state television showed footage of the burial, with hundreds of people chanting “God is greatest” when the strikes were announced over loudspeakers.

“His revenge was taken and now he can rest in peace,” Iranian television said.

Friction between Iran and the United States rose after Trump withdrew in 2018 from a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, approved by his predecessor Barack Obama, and reimposed sanctions on Tehran slashing its vital oil exports.

Khamenei, in his speech on Wednesday, ruled out any resumption of talks with Washington on the 2015 nuclear pact.

Trump’s U.S. political rivals have challenged his decision to order Soleimani’s killing and questioned its timing in a U.S. election year.

“We must ensure the safety of our service members, including ending needless provocations from the Administration and demanding that Iran cease its violence. America & world cannot afford war,” U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter.

(Reporting by Ahmed Aboulenein in Baghdad, Parisa Hafezi and Babak Dehghanpisheh in Dubai, Phil Stewart, Steve Holland and Eric Beech in Washington, Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Steve Scherer in Ottawa and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Writing by Edmund Blair and Angus MacSwan; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

U.S. forces seen near Turkish border for patrol in northeast Syria: witness, SDF source

U.S. forces seen near Turkish border for patrol in northeast Syria: witness, SDF source
BEIRUT (Reuters) – U.S. forces in armored vehicles were seen on Thursday near the Syria-Turkey border in a part of northeastern Syria where they had not been observed since the United States announced a decision to withdraw from the area, a witness said.

A military source from the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) described the movement as a patrol running between the towns of Rmeilan to Qahtaniyah, 20 km (12 miles) to the west. The source said it would “not be a one-time” event.

The head of the SDF’s media office could not immediately be reached for comment. The witness saw the vehicles outside the town of Qahtaniyah, roughly 6 km (4 miles) south of the border.

President Donald Trump announced this month that U.S. forces would withdraw from northeastern Syria, where the United States had allied with the SDF to oust Islamic State forces.

In response to a question about the reported troop movement, Colonel Myles Caggins, a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, said, “All Coalition military operations are de-conflicted with other forces operating in the region”.

“We have begun repositioning Coalition troops to the Deir al-Zor region, in coordination with our SDF partners, to increase security (and) continue our mission to defeat (Islamic State) remnants,” Caggins added.

The U.S. military said last week it was reinforcing its position in Syria with additional assets, including mechanized forces, to prevent oil fields from being taken over by remnants of the Islamic State militant group or others.

Trump said last week a small number of U.S. troops would remain in the area of Syria “where they have the oil”. Syria’s oil wells are principally located in Deir al-Zor province, well south of the Turkish-Syrian border.

(Reporting by Rodi Said in northeast Syria; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Tom Perry and Will Dunham)

U.S. mulls leaving some troops in Syria to guard oil: Pentagon

U.S. mulls leaving some troops in Syria to guard oil: Pentagon
By Kawa Omar and Idrees Ali

DOHUK, Iraq/KABUL (Reuters) – The Pentagon is considering keeping some U.S. troops near oilfields in northeastern Syria alongside Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to help deny oil to Islamic State militants, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday.

U.S. troops are crossing into Iraq as part of a broader withdrawal from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, a decision that allowed Turkey to launch an offensive against the SDF which for years was a U.S. ally battling Islamic State.

More than 100 vehicles crossed the border into Iraq early on Monday from the northeast tip of Syria, where Turkey agreed to pause its offensive for five days under a deal with Washington.

The truce expires late on Tuesday, just after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is set to discuss next steps in the region at a meeting in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.

Speaking to reporters during a trip to Afghanistan, Esper said that, while the U.S. withdrawal was under way, some troops were still with partner forces near oilfields and there had been discussions about keeping some of them there.

He said that was one option and no decision had been made “with regard to numbers or anything like that”. The Pentagon’s job was to look at different options, he added.

“We presently have troops in a couple of cities that (are)located right near that area,” Esper said. “The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS (Islamic State) and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.”

Trump’s shift has opened a new chapter in Syria’s more than eight-year war and prompted a rush by Turkey and by the Damascus government and its ally Russia to fill the vacuum left by the Americans.

Trump’s decision has been criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside U.S. troops in a region rich in oil reserves and farmland.

The New York Times reported late on Sunday that Trump was now leaning in favor of a new military plan to keep about 200 U.S. troops in eastern Syria near the Iraq border. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“NECESSARY STEPS”

Turkey is seeking to set up a “safe zone” as a buffer against the YPG militia, the main component of the SDF. Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group due to its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.

Erdogan has said Ankara will resume its assault in Syria when the deadline expires on Tuesday if the SDF has not pulled back from its proposed zone, which spans much of the border.

“We will take up this process with Mr Putin and after that we will take the necessary steps” in northeastern Syria, Erdogan told a forum in Istanbul hosted by broadcaster TRT World on Monday, without elaborating.

Erdogan has also said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts in the “safe zone”, prompting criticism from Iran.

“We are against Ankara’s establishing of military posts in Syria,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a weekly news conference on Monday broadcast live on state TV.

“The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means … Syria’s integrity should be respected,” said Mousavi, whose country is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Echoing such concerns, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said Russia believed long-term regional security could only be achieved by restoring Syrian unity and also by taking into account the interests of all the country’s ethnic and religious groups.

He reiterated that Putin and Erdogan would discuss Turkey’s military offensive in their talks on Tuesday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that 12 Syrian prisons holding foreign militants as well as eight refugee camps had been left unguarded as a result of Turkey’s military operation.

Turkey’s nearly two-week old offensive has displaced some 300,000 people and led to 120 casualties among civilians and 470 among SDF fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday. Turkey says 765 terrorists but no civilians have been killed in its offensive.

On Monday, Reuters video images showed armored vehicles carrying U.S. troops through the Sahela border crossing into Iraq’s northern province of Dohuk.

About 30 trailers and Hummers carrying heavier duty equipment crossed, with troops in cars coming through, an Iraqi Kurdish security source said.

Turkish security sources said on Monday Kurdish YPG forces were advancing toward Al Hasakah, which is south of the proposed safe zone, adding some 125 vehicles had already left. They also said more than 80 Kurdish militants had been captured alive or surrendered to Turkish forces.

(Additional reporting by Idrees tktk Can Sezer and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Ece Toksabay in Ankara, Parisa Hafezi in Dubai and Anton Kolodyazhnyy in Moscow; Writing by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Gareth Jones)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TROOPS ENTER MANBIJ

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SANCTIONS ANNOUNCEMENT “FALLS VERY SHORT”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Border on fire’ as Turkey intensifies Syria campaign

By Daren Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“HUMANITARIAN CATASTROPHE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RARE REPUBLICAN CRITICISM OF TRUMP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“SHOW RESISTANCE”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RUSSIA CALLS FOR DIALOGUE

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

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

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

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

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

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