Syrian Kurdish forces tell U.S. they met truce obligations: U.S. official

Syrian Kurdish forces tell U.S. they met truce obligations: U.S. official
By Darya Korsunskaya and Humeyra Pamuk

SOCHI, Russia/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The commander of Kurdish forces in northeast Syria told the United States he had met all obligations set out in a U.S.-brokered truce, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday, as Washington warned it would punish Turkey if it resumes hostilities.

The five-day truce in Turkey’s cross-border offensive to allow the withdrawal of Kurdish YPG fighters from the border area ends at 10 pm (1900 GMT) on Tuesday, and President Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkey could then press on with fighting.

Earlier on Tuesday, as he flew to Russia for talks on Syria, Erdogan said hundreds of Kurdish fighters remained near to Syria’s northeast border despite the truce demanding their withdrawal.

Erdogan said up 800 fighters from the Kurdish YPG militia had left the area near the border, where Turkey plans to establish a “safe zone” extending more than 30 km (20 miles) into Syria, but 1,200 to 1,300 of them remained.

However, the senior U.S. administration official said Ankara and Washington were in contact to agree that the withdrawal has taken place, and that Turkey’s pause in its military offensive into Syria would turn into a permanent halt of the campaign.

Erdogan held talks on Tuesday with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, the other main international power in Syria, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Turkey began its cross-border operation nearly two weeks ago following U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American troops from northern Syria.

The American withdrawal from Syria has been criticized by U.S. lawmakers, including some of Trump’s fellow Republicans, as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who have helped the United States fight Islamic State in Syria.

Trump said on Monday it appeared that the five-day pause was holding despite skirmishes, and that it could possibly go beyond Tuesday’s expiry, but Erdogan said the fighting may resume.

“If the promises given to us by America are not kept, we will continue our operation from where it left off, this time with a much bigger determination,” he said.

“SAFE ZONE”

Turkey says it wants to set up a “safe zone” along 440 km (275 miles) of border with northeast Syria, but its assault so far has focused on two border towns in the center of that strip, Ras al Ain and Tel Abyad, about 120 km apart.

A Turkish security source said initially the YPG was pulling back from that 120 km border strip. He said Erdogan and Putin would discuss a wider withdrawal from the rest of the border in their talks on Tuesday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.

Syrian and Russian forces have already entered two border cities, Manbij and Kobani, which lie within Turkey’s planned “safe zone” but to the west of Turkey’s military operations.

Erdogan has said he could accept the presence of Syrian troops in those areas, as long as the YPG are pushed out.

“My hope is that God willing we will achieve the agreement we desire,” he said before leaving for Sochi.

The Kremlin said it hoped Erdogan would be able to provide Putin with more information about Ankara’s plans for northeast Syria, and was also studying what it described as a new idea from Germany for an internationally controlled security zone in northern Syria involving Turkey and Russia.

German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said the step should stabilize the region so that civilians could rebuild and refugees could return on a voluntary basis.

Russia is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Turkey has backed rebels seeking to oust Assad during Syria’s more than eight-year-long civil war but has dropped its once-frequent calls for Assad to quit.

Ankara is holding covert contacts with Damascus, partly via Russia, to avert direct conflict in northeast Syria, Turkish officials say, although publicly hostility between the two governments remains.

“Erdogan is a thief and is now stealing our land,” Assad said during a rare visit to a separate frontline in Syria’s northwestern Idlib region, the last major bastion of Turkey-backed rebels.

Some 300,000 people have been displaced by Turkey’s offensive and 120 civilians have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor. It said on Sunday 259 fighters with the Kurdish-led forces had been killed, and 196 Turkey-backed Syrian rebels. Turkey says 765 terrorists but no civilians have been killed in its offensive.

The U.S. withdrawal has left a vacuum into which Turkish forces have pressed in from the north, while from the southwest Russian-backed Syrian troops have swept back into territory they were driven from years ago.

(Additional reporting by Ali Kucukgocmen and Ezgi Erkoyun in Istanbul, Ahmed Rashid in Baghdad and Andrei Kuzmin in Moscow; Writing by Dominic Evans; Editing by Gareth Jones)

No pressure to withdraw from Syria by specific date: U.S. general

FILE PHOTO: General Joseph L. Votel, Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) speaks during the Change of Command U.S. Naval Forces Central Command 5th Fleet Combined Maritime Forces ceremony at the U.S. Naval Base in Bahrain, May 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The general overseeing U.S. forces in the Middle East said on Thursday that he was under no pressure to withdraw forces from Syria by any specific date, after President Donald Trump ordered the drawdown of most U.S. troops from Syria.

“What is driving the withdrawal of course is our mission, which is the defeat of ISIS and so that is our principal focus and that is making sure that we protect our forces, that we don’t withdraw in a manner that increases the risk to our forces,” U.S. Army General Joseph Votel, head of the U.S. Central Command, said during a House Armed Services Committee hearing.

“There is not pressure on me to meet a specific date at this particular time,” Votel said.

Trump had ordered the withdrawal of all 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria in December after he said they had defeated Islamic State militants in Syria. The abrupt decision sparked an outcry from allies and U.S. lawmakers and was a factor in Jim Mattis’ resignation as defense secretary.

But Trump was persuaded by advisers that about 200 U.S. troops would join what is expected to be a total commitment of about 800 to 1,500 troops from European allies to set up and observe a safe zone being negotiated for northeastern Syria.

About 200 other U.S. troops will remain at the U.S. military outpost of Tanf, near the border with Iraq and Jordan.

Thousands of people could still be left inside Islamic State’s last enclave in eastern Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) said, as waves of evacuations from the tiny area continued on Thursday.

The SDF has said it wants to ensure all civilians have been evacuated before launching a final assault on the besieged enclave of Baghouz. It is the last shred of populated territory held by Islamic State, which once controlled swathes of Iraq and Syria.

Votel said he believed that Islamic State militants being evacuated from the remaining territory controlled the militant group were largely “unrepentant, unbroken and radicalized.” He said the militant group was waiting “for the right time to resurge.”

“We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization that includes leaders, fighters, facilitators, resources and toxic ideology,” Votel added.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Coalition warplanes hit last Islamic State enclave in eastern Syria

A member of Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) stands on a pick up truck mounted with a weapon near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/ Rodi Said

By Rodi Said

NEAR BAGHOUZ, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-led coalition warplanes struck Islamic State’s last stronghold in eastern Syria and hundreds of civilians fled the besieged enclave on Monday as U.S.-backed fighters pressed their campaign to seize it.

Coalition jets roared overhead as columns of white smoke rose from the Islamic State-held Baghouz area a short distance from the Iraqi border, a Reuters witness said.

The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which have driven Islamic State (IS) from swathes of northern and eastern Syria with U.S.-led coalition support, launched an offensive on Saturday to capture the enclave in Deir al-Zor province.

The jihadists are putting up stiff resistance and had sought to counter-attack again on Monday morning, according to Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF media office. Around 1,500 civilians had fled the enclave on Monday, he added.

SDF combatants watched as a column of at least 17 trucks filled with men, women and children left Baghouz along a dusty track into SDF-held territory. Women and children were crammed into the back of one of the trucks.

Women and children sit at a back of a bus near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Women and children sit at a back of a bus near Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria February 11, 2019. REUTERS/Rodi Said

Some of those fleeing identified themselves as Iraqis.

“It seems there are still many civilians inside Baghouz,” Bali said. “We are compelled to go cautiously and accurately in this battle.”

On the outskirts of Baghouz, the people who had left stood in lines to be questioned by coalition and SDF forces apparently trying to identify whether any were jihadists.

Ahead of launching the attack, the SDF said more than 20,000 civilians had left Baghouz in the preceeding 10 days.

The SDF believes 400 to 600 jihadists may be holed up there, including foreigners and other hardened militants.

Islamic State redrew the map of the Middle East in 2014 when it declared a caliphate across large tracts of Syria and Iraq. But the group steadily lost ground and its two main prizes – the Syrian city of Raqqa and Iraq’s Mosul – fell in 2017.

The SDF, which is spearheaded by the Kurdish YPG militia, advanced southwards into Deir al-Zor province after capturing Raqqa. Their operations have been focused in areas east of the Euphrates River.

To the west of the Euphrates, in territory otherwise held by the Syrian government and its allies, Islamic State retains a foothold in mountainous terrain.

U.S. President Donald Trump said in December he was pulling all 2,000 U.S. troops out of Syria, saying the battle against Islamic State there was almost won.

The top U.S. commander overseeing American forces in the Middle East said on Sunday that the United States is likely just weeks away from starting the withdrawal.

Islamic State is still widely seen as a threat, however.

A top U.S. general said last week IS would be an enduring menace following the U.S. withdrawal, as it retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that would fuel further insurgency.

Italian freelance photographer Gabriele Micalizzi was wounded on Monday while covering the battles, Italian media reported. The reports said Micalizzi was badly hurt but had not suffered life-threatening injuries and was being flown to Baghdad where he would be evacuated to Italy.

(Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Rome; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

NATO, Russia fail to agree over missile breach, U.S. to quit treaty

FILE PHOTO: NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks at a news conference after a NATO defence ministers meeting at the Alliance headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, October 4, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File photo

By Robin Emmott and Vladimir Soldatkin

BRUSSELS/MOSCOW (Reuters) – NATO and Russia failed on Friday to resolve a dispute over a new Russian missile that Western allies say is a threat to Europe, bringing closer Washington’s withdrawal from a landmark arms control treaty.

At a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council in Brussels, envoys from NATO’s 29 members renewed their call on Moscow’s deputy foreign minister to destroy a nuclear-capable cruise missile system before a Feb. 2 deadline.

Without a breakthrough, the United States is set to start the six-month process of pulling out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), having notified it would do so in early December and accusing Moscow of breaching it.

Russia denies violating the terms of the treaty, which eliminated the medium-range missile arsenals of the world’s two biggest nuclear powers.

“The treaty is in real jeopardy,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said. “The sooner Russia comes back into compliance, the better. The treaty has no value if it is not respected, the problem are the Russian missiles in Europe,” he told a news conference after the meeting.

One NATO diplomat said the U.S. ambassador to the alliance told the assembled diplomats and officials that Washington would start the pull-out process from the INF on Feb. 2. The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the closed-door meeting that it was the United States that was breaching the treaty, alliance diplomats said.

Ryabkov, who spoke in both Russian and English, cited the U.S.-built NATO missile defense system in Romania as a treaty breach. NATO says the shield is designed to shoot down rockets from Iran, not from Russia.

Separately, the Russian foreign ministry also accused the United States of reviving a Cold War-era plan to deploy a missile defense system in space.

While NATO diplomats described Friday’s meeting as calm and professional, Stoltenberg said Russia had shown no willingness to compromise. But he and some European nations such as Germany held out hope for diplomatic progress during the six-month withdrawal process.

“PURE SHOW”

Russia stands accused of developing land-based, intermediate-range cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads and hitting European cities at short notice, breaching the Cold War-era pact that took such rockets out of Europe.

But the Kremlin, which this week displayed its missiles to foreign military attaches in Moscow, says the missiles’ short-range puts it outside the INF treaty. It says the Novator 9M729/SSC-8 rockets have a maximum range of 480 km (298 miles).

NATO diplomats repeated their view that there was no way of verifying that information because the missiles have only been shown publicly in a “static display” that gives no indication of their flying distance. One NATO diplomat said the Russian display on Wednesday was “pure show”.

Some NATO diplomats believe that Russia may have developed the new missile system, which is mobile and easy to hide in forests and other strategic locations, to counter Chinese missile programs, but that did not justify deploying it.

The 1987 treaty requires the United States and Russia “not to possess, produce, or flight-test” a ground-launched cruise missile with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km (310-3,420 miles) “or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles”.

Russia, the United States, France, Britain and China – the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – are due to meet in Beijing on Jan. 30 to discuss arms control, diplomats told Reuters. But it was not clear if the INF treaty would be on the agenda.

(Additional reporting by Peter Maushagen; Editing by Alissa de Carbonnel and Gareth Jones)