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Russia fires missiles from Mediterranean at IS in Syria

June 23, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia has fired cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on positions of the Islamic State group in Syria, the Defense Ministry said on Friday, Moscow’s latest show of strength in the conflict wracking the Mideast country.

The ministry said in a statement that two frigates and a submarine launched six cruise missiles on IS installations in Syria’s Hama province, destroying command centers and ammunition depots. It did not say when the missiles were launched.

Moscow has fired missiles from the Mediterranean at militants’ positions in Syria before, including launches from a submarine and a frigate in May at the targets in the area of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Russia is one of the strongest backers of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government and has been carrying airstrikes in the country since September 2015. Separately on Friday, a senior Russian lawmaker said Moscow is “nearly 100 percent” sure that the IS top leader was killed in a Russian airstrike last month.

The Defense Ministry first made the claim last week, saying that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death in the May 28 strike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa was still “being verified through various channels.”

Viktor Ozerov, head of the defense and security committee at the upper chamber of the Russian parliament, told the Interfax news agency on Friday that Russia’s intelligence about al-Baghdadi’s death is “nearly 100 percent” certain.

“Russia would not want to be on the list of the countries that have said before that he was killed and then al-Baghdadi would resurrect,” Ozerov added. The whereabouts of the shadowy al-Baghdadi, with a $25 million U.S. bounty on his head, have not been known. His last public appearance was almost three years ago in the Iraqi city of Mosul, at the 12th century al-Nuri Mosque from where he declared a “caliphate” in the territory that IS had seized in Iraq and Syria in July 2014.

That mosque, along with its famous leaning minaret, was destroyed on Wednesday night, blown up by IS militants as their control of Mosul increasingly is slipping away. The mosque would have been a symbolic prize for Iraqi forces and the U.S.-led coalition in the fight for Iraq’s second-largest city.

Key moments in Russia’s campaign, involvement in Syrian war

June 16, 2017

MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s announcement that the Islamic State group’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi may have been killed in a Russian airstrike in Syria in late May — if confirmed — would be a huge military coup for Moscow as a key player in Syria’s civil war and strengthen its hand in future peace talks.

It would also mark a climax in Russia’s involvement in the Syrian conflict, in which it has sided with President Bashar Assad’s government, from the first days of the air campaign two years ago to boots on the ground in the city of Aleppo.

The airstrike would also highlight the capabilities of Russia’s modernized military, which has tested new precision weapons in Syria. Here are some key moments in Russia’s military campaign in Syria.

QUICK DEPLOYMENT

A series of major battlefield defeats suffered by Assad’s army in 2015 prompted Moscow to intervene to protect its long-time ally. On August 26, 2015, Russia signed a deal with the Syrian government on deploying an air force contingent and other military assets at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria’s province of Latakia, the heartland of Assad’s Alawite religious minority.

In a matter of weeks, Russia’s military built up the base so it could host dozens of Russian jets. It delivered thousands of tons of military equipment and supplies by sea and heavy-lift cargo planes in an operation dubbed the “Syrian Express.” On Sept. 30, Moscow declared the launch of its air campaign in Syria — Russia’s first military action outside the former Soviet Union since the federation’s collapse.

TENSIONS WITH TURKEY

The Russian intervention angered Turkey, which has pushed for Assad’s ouster and backed Syrian opposition forces since the start of the conflict in 2011. On Nov. 24, 2015, a Turkish fighter jet shot down a Russian Su-24 bomber on the border with Syria. The pilot was killed by Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters as he parachuted from the plane, and a Russian marine was also killed during an operation to rescue the second pilot. Turkey said the Russian plane violated its airspace but Moscow denied that.

Putin described the downing as a “stab in the back” and responded with an array of economic sanctions, including a ban on the sales of tour packages to Turkey and imports of Turkish fruit and vegetables. The Russian military also beefed up its air defenses in Syria with the long-range S-400 missiles to force Turkey to back off.

FIGHTING FOR PALMYRA

In April 2016, Assad’s forces, relying on Russian air support, scored a major symbolic victory by taking the ancient town of Palmyra from the Islamic State group. Russia deployed field engineers to clear mines from the world-famous archaeological site and then celebrated the victory with a concert by the St. Petersburg Mariinsky orchestra, led by renowned Russian conductor Valery Gergiev.

In December 2016, however, the Syrian army again lost Palmyra to IS. Assad’s forces recaptured it in March, again under the Russian air cover and following fierce fighting. BOOTS ON THE GROUND Though most attention was focused on Russian airstrikes, Russia also became actively involved in ground operations. Senior Russian military officers were deployed alongside Syrian government troops to provide training, plan offensive operations and direct them in combat. Russia also dispatched special forces to conduct intelligence and coordinate air strikes. There were also some indications that Russian artillery units were deployed in key battlefield areas.

Russia’s Defense Ministry never said how many troops it has in Syria, but turnout figures in voting from abroad in the September 2016 parliamentary elections indicated that Russian military personnel in the Arab nation at the time likely exceeded 4,300.

Russia has lost 38 servicemen in Syria so far, according to official data.

BATTLEFIELD TESTS

The Syrian war provided an arena for Russia’s military to test its latest weapons in combat — including state-of-the art Kalibr cruise missiles launched by Russian strategic bombers, navy surface warships and submarines. The long-range precision-strike cruise capability has given a major boost to the Russian military.

In another first, Russia’s sole aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, sailed to the Eastern Mediterranean last fall to launch the first carrier-borne combat missions in Russia’s navy history, during the months-long battles between Syrian government forces and the rebels for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and once its commercial hub.

Other weapons for the first time tested in combat included the Su-34 and the Su-35 warplanes, and the Mi-28 and the Ka-52 helicopter gunships. President Vladimir Putin said in a national call-in show on Thursday that the Syrian campaign provided a “priceless” experience for the Russian military.

BATTLE FOR ALEPPO

In December 2016 the Syrian army won full control of Aleppo, Assad’s greatest victory in the war, now in its seventh year. The fall of the city, which was divided into government- and rebel-controlled parts since 2012, demoralized the rebels, depriving them of the largest urban area under their control. Russian air support helped cut rebels’ communications and supply lines.

Assad’s victory followed ferocious battles, in which thousands died, and left the rebel enclave in ruins. Russia now has deployed hundreds of military police to patrol the city’s former rebel-held eastern part.

RUSSIA-TURKEY RAPPROCHEMENT

Faced with massive damage from Russia’s economic sanctions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sought to mend ties, offering apologies for downing the Russian warplane in June 2016. Putin responded by strongly backing Erdogan during a failed military coup in Turkey.

Since then, the two leaders have held several meetings and frequent phone talks to narrow their differences on Syria. Turkey is also credited with playing a key role in negotiating the withdrawal of the opposition forces from Aleppo.

Also, earlier this year, Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered several rounds of Syria peace talks in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana. Those meetings — though separate from the U.N. backed Syria peace talks in Geneva — brought together the Syrian government and its foes. In May, the three powers, which back opposing sides in the war, negotiated in Astana a deal on so-called “safe zones” in Syria, which was welcomed by the U.N. But the parties are still to finalize the boundaries of the zones and work out monitoring details in talks expected to be held in the coming weeks.

Erdogan to return to Turkey’s ruling party as its chairman

May 21, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party on Sunday kicked off a congress to re-elect President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as its chairman after last month’s referendum. Erdogan will return to lead the party he co-founded after Sunday’s extraordinary congress in Ankara, since last month’s referendum removed a constitutional requirement that presidents be neutral and cut ties with their political parties.

Erdogan welcomed the tens of thousands of people outside the arena. “My dear fellow travelers … we were separated but today we are together once again,” he said. Erdogan and the AKP won a narrow victory on the April 16 referendum that will transform Turkey’s parliamentary governing system to an executive presidency.

Critics said the vote, which took place under a state of emergency imposed in the wake of last year’s failed coup, was marred by allegations of election fraud. Most of the constitutional changes won’t take effect until after the next presidential and parliamentary elections, slated for Nov. 3, 2019.

Three amendments, however, have automatically come into effect, including one that allows Erdogan to return to his party. Others are the repeal of military courts and a restructuring of Turkey’s board of judges and prosecutors.

Erdogan was forced to cut his formal ties to the AKP when he became the country’s first directly elected president in 2014 — but he still rallied for the party anyway. AKP officials and supporters from across the country were at the congress, waving flags to songs about Erdogan and the AKP. Banners read “the leader of change, the nation’s leader.”

The congress will last all day, with speeches by the current party chairman, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim and Erdogan, to be followed with the voting.

Turkey leader calls on US to reverse decision to arm Kurds

May 10, 2017

BEIRUT (AP) — Turkey slammed the Trump administration’s decision to supply Syrian Kurdish fighters with weapons against the Islamic State group and demanded Wednesday that it be reversed, heightening tensions between the NATO allies days before the Turkish leader heads to Washington for a meeting with President Donald Trump.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the fight against terrorism “should not be led with another terror organization” — a reference to the Syrian Kurdish militia, known as the YPG, which Turkey considers an extension of the decades-long Kurdish insurgency raging in its southeast. “We want to know that our allies will side with us and not with terror organizations,” he said.

The dispute could ignite more fighting between the two key U.S. allies in the battle against IS as Syrian Kurdish forces gear up for a major operation to drive the militants from their de facto capital, Raqqa.

Turkey, which has sent troops to northern Syrian in an effort to curtail Kurdish expansion along its borders, has for months tried to lobby Washington to cut off ties with the Kurds and work instead with Turkish-backed opposition fighters in the fight for Raqqa.

But the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, of SDF, which has driven IS from much of northern Syria over the past two years with the help of U.S.-led airstrikes, are among the most effective ground forces battling the extremists. In announcing the decision on Tuesday to arm the Kurds, the Pentagon’s chief spokeswoman, Dana W. White, called the militia “the only force on the ground that can successfully seize Raqqa in the near future.”

On Wednesday, the SDF said it captured the country’s largest dam from the Islamic State group. The fighters, which are Kurdish-led but also include some Arab fighters, said they expelled the extremists from the Tabqa Dam and a nearby town, also called Tabqa.

It was the latest IS stronghold to fall to the Kurdish-led fighters as they advance toward Raqqa — the seat of the militants’ so-called caliphate along the Euphrates River. The fall of Tabqa leaves no other major urban settlements on the road to Raqqa, about 25 miles (40 kilometers) away.

Ilham Ahmed, a top official in the Syrian Democratic Forces’ political office, hailed the U.S. decision to provide heavier arms, saying it carries “political meaning” and would “legitimize” the Kurdish-led force.

Ankara says the Kurdish militia, which forms the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces, is an extension of the Kurdistan Worker’s Party, or PKK, which has been waging a decades-old insurgency in Turkey and is considered a terrorist group by Turkey, the U.S. and other Western countries.

Erdogan said he would take up the issue during a planned meeting with Trump on Tuesday. “I hope that they will turn away from this wrong,” he said. Earlier, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also denounced the U.S. move, saying “every weapon that reaches the (Kurds’) hands is a threat to Turkey.”

The spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against IS, Col. John Dorrian, told reporters at the Pentagon Wednesday that the weapons would be delivered to the Kurds soon. The weapons will not be reclaimed by the U.S. after specific missions are completed, he added, speaking by teleconference from Baghdad, but the U.S. will “carefully monitor” where and how they are used.

“Every single one” of the weapons will be accounted for, and the U.S. will “assure they are pointed at ISIS,” Dorrian said, using an alternate acronym for IS. The Trump administration has not specified the kinds of arms to be provided, but U.S. officials have indicated that 120mm mortars, machine guns, ammunition and light armored vehicles were possibilities. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to publicly discuss the matter, said artillery or surface-to-air missiles would not be provided.

Speaking in Lithuania, where he was touring a NATO training site on Wednesday, U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters that the U.S. has had very open discussions with Turkey over its concerns.

“We will work together. We’ll work out any of the concerns. I’m not concerned at all about the NATO alliance and the relations between our nations,” he said. “It’s not always tidy, but we work out the issues,” he added.

The SDF’s rapid advance against IS last year prompted Turkey to send ground forces across the border for the first time in the more than 6-year-old Syrian civil war to help allied Syrian forces battle IS and halt the Kurds’ progress.

Since then, Turkey is believed to have positioned more than 5,000 troops in northern Syria, and has escalated its airstrikes and cross-border artillery attacks against Kurdish forces. A Turkish air raid in late April killed 20 Syrian Kurdish fighters and media officials, prompting the U.S. to deploy armored vehicles along the border in a show of support for the group.

Fraser reported from Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut, Lolita C. Baldor in Vilnius, Lithuania, and Bob Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

Tensions rise between Turkey, US along Syrian border

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Tensions rose Saturday along the Turkish-Syrian border as both Turkey and the U.S. moved armored vehicles to the region and Turkey’s leader once again demanded that the United States stop supporting the Syrian Kurdish militants there.

The relocation of Turkish troops to an area near the border with Syria comes a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. Those patrols followed a Turkish airstrike against bases of Syrian Kurdish militia, Washington’s main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria.

More U.S. troops were seen Saturday in armored vehicles in Syria in Kurdish areas. Kurdish officials describe U.S. troop movement as “buffer” between them and Turkey. But Turkey views Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

“The YPG, and you know who’s supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of Turkish trucks carrying military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency IHA reported the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.

The agency said the relocation comes after Turkish officials announced the completion of a phase of Turkey’s cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants “if needed.”

Tensions in the border area rose this week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against bases for YPG group in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores. The Kurdish group in Syria said 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes.

Erdogan hinted his country is also ready to repeat its attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia. Kurdish officials said the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally.

On Saturday, more U.S. troops in armored vehicles arrived in Kurdish areas, passing through Qamishli town, close to the border with Turkey. The town is mostly controlled by Kurdish forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport.

The convoy was followed by another of YPG militia. Some footage posted online showed Kurdish residents cheering American-flagged vehicles as they drove by. U.S. officials say the troop movement is part of its operations with the Kurdish forces in northern Syria.

Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group’s expansion along its borders. The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against IS. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the U.S. to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS.

Erdogan is due in Washington on May 16 for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Claiming that his country is leading the most effective campaign against IS, Erdogan said: “Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s grave,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The YPG forms the backbone of the U.S-backed Syria Democratic Forces. Redur Khalil, the spokesman for the YPG in Syria, said Turkey is reinforcing its border posts opposite Tal Abyad as well as other border posts.

“We hope that this military mobilization is not meant to provoke our forces or for another purpose linked to entering Syrian territories. We don’t want any military confrontation between us, since our priority is to fight Daesh in Raqqa and Tabqa,” Khalil told The Associated Press in text messages.

Khalil said his forces were not building up in the area.

El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

Turkish court formally blocks access to Wikipedia

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — In a move that social media users called censorship, a Turkish court on Saturday blocked access to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, enforcing an earlier restriction by Turkey’s telecommunications watchdog.

The Information and Communication Technologies Authority (BTK) said an Ankara court ordered Saturday that a “protection measure” related to suspected internet crimes be applied to Wikipedia. Such measures are used to block access to pages or entire websites to protect “national security and public order.”

In response, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales tweeted his support for those who labeled the decision censorship: “Access to information is a fundamental human right. Turkish people I will always stand with you to fight for this right.”

Turkey Blocks, an internet censorship monitor, said users in Turkey have been unable to access all language editions of Wikipedia since 8 a.m. Saturday. “The loss of availability is consistent with internet filters used to censor content in the country,” the monitor said.

The site had initially been blocked by BTK under a provisional administration measure. The exact reason for the ban remains unclear. But Turkey’s official news agency, quoting the Ministry of Transport, Maritime Affairs and Communications, said Saturday the site was blocked for “becoming an information source acting with groups conducting a smear campaign against Turkey in the international arena.”

The state-run Anadolu Agency said officials had warned Wikipedia to remove content likening Turkey to terror groups but the site “persistently” did not. Turkey had demanded that Wikipedia open an office in the country, act in line with international law and abide by court decisions and not be part of “blackout operation against Turkey,” according to the agency.

Anadolu said if these demands are met and the content removed, the site would be reopened. Opposition lawmakers also criticized the court order. Republican People’s Party parliamentarians Eren Erdem tweeted the ban puts “Turkey in line with North Korea” while Baris Yarkadas called it “censorship and a violation of the right to access information.”

Turkey’s status is listed as “not free” on the 2016 Freedom on the Net index by independent rights watchdog Freedom House. It says over 111,000 websites were blocked as of May last year. Wikipedia, a collaborative online reference work, says it is ranked among the 10 most popular websites.

Turkey demands US stop supporting Syrian Kurdish militants

April 29, 2017

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey’s leader on Saturday urged the United States to stop supporting Syrian Kurdish militants as local media reported the Turkish military has moved armored vehicles and personnel carriers to a base near the Syrian border.

The relocation comes a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. The Syrian Kurdish militia is Washington’s main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria. But Turkey views Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection Units, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.

“The YPG, and you know who’s supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said. Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of trucks carrying military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency IHA reported the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base in the area is 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.

The agency said the relocation comes after Turkish officials announced the completion of a phase of Turkey’s cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants “if needed.”

Turkish officials announced the conclusion of the operation in March but have said they would continue combating terror to make its borders safe and rid of IS and Kurdish militants. Tensions in the border area rose this week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against bases for YPG group in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores.

The Kurdish group in Syria said 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes between the two sides. The military said the YPG has targeted the Turkish border from Tal Abyad and further west in Afrin. Turkey’s military responded with howitzers.

Erdogan hinted his country is also ready to repeat it attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia. Kurdish officials said the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally.

Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group’s expansion along its borders. The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against IS. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the U.S. to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of IS.

Erdogan is due in Washington on May 16 for his first meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump. Stating that his country is leading the most effective campaign against IS, Erdogan said: “Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s grave,” using the Arabic acronym for IS.

The YPG forms the backbone of the U.S-backed Syria Democratic Forces. Redur Khalil, the spokesman for the YPG in Syria, said his group has information that Turkey is reinforcing its border posts opposite Tal Abyad as well as other border posts. He said the purpose of the military reinforcement was not clear.

“We hope that this military mobilization is not meant to provoke our forces or for another purpose linked to entering Syrian territories. We don’t want any military confrontation between us, since our priority is to fight Daesh in Raqqa and Tabqa,” Khalil told The Associated Press in text messages.

Khalil said his forces are not building up in the area and added that the international coalition is now “monitoring” the border.

Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb contributed from Beirut.

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