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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.

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.

Death toll in Turkish air raids on Syria Kurds rises to 28

2017-04-26

AL-MALIKIYAH – The toll in Turkish air raids on Kurdish positions in northeastern Syria rose to 28 killed, a monitor said Wednesday, a day after Ankara said it had targeted “terrorist havens” near its border.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said most of those killed were members of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which is battling the Islamic State group in northern Syria.

Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahman said 19 others were wounded in the Tuesday raids on a media center and other buildings in Al-Malikiyah, a town in Hasakeh province.

YPG spokesman Redur Khalil on Tuesday said 20 fighters were killed and 18 wounded in the Turkish strikes, which the United States said were carried out without the knowledge of a Washington-led international coalition fighting IS in Syria and neighboring Iraq.

Abdel Rahman said a female Kurdish fighter was among the dead.

Turkey, which backs Syrian rebel groups and which launched a ground operation in northern Syria last year, vowed to continue acting against groups it links to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

It also killed six Kurdish peshmerga fighters in northern Iraq on Tuesday in an apparent accident.

The strikes underlined the complexities of the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, where twin US-backed offensives are seeking to dislodge IS from its last major urban strongholds.

They could also exacerbate tensions between Ankara and its NATO ally Washington, which sees the Kurds as instrumental in the fight against IS.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82784.

Damascus looks to Syrian Kurds to counter Turkey

2017-03-01

DAMASCUS – Worried over Turkish advances in Syria’s north, the Damascus regime has formed an alliance of convenience with the country’s Kurds to prevent their common enemy from gaining ground.

President Bashar al-Assad’s government has repeatedly criticized Turkey’s operation in Syria, which saw Ankara in late August send troops across the border where they are working with local rebels.

Turkey’s invasion has also been fiercely opposed by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which is dominated by Kurdish fighters.

“For the government, just as for the Syrian Kurds, the enemy is (Turkish President Recep Tayyip) Erdogan. They want to counter his project of invading the border territory,” said Waddah Abed Rabbo, editor-in-chief of Syria’s Al-Watan daily.

“It’s completely normal that the forces present on the ground would ally with each other to block any Turkish advance in Syrian territory. Now, Turkish forces are totally encircled,” said Abed Rabbo, whose paper is close to the government.

With help from Turkish air strikes, artillery, and soldiers, Syrian rebels last week overran the town of Al-Bab, the Islamic State group’s last bastion in the northern province of Aleppo.

Syrian troops had advanced to the southern edges of the town, but had been ordered by their ally Russia not to enter Al-Bab after Moscow struck a deal with Ankara.

Instead, regime fighters headed east, sweeping across previously IS-held villages to link up with the SDF south of its stronghold in Manbij.

– ‘Surrounded on all sides’ –

In just 15 days, Assad’s army seized nearly two dozen villages, including Taduf south of Al-Bab, gaining approximately 600 square kilometers (230 square miles) of territory in Aleppo province.

The advance brought Syrian troops to territory just southwest of Manbij and adjacent to SDF forces there, said US-based Middle East expert Fabrice Balanche.

By sealing off that territory, Balanche added, the regime has stemmed Turkish ambitions of heading further east.

“The road to Raqa via Al-Bab is now cut for the Turks. They also can’t attack Manbij from the south,” Balanche added.

Erdogan has insisted that Ankara wants to work with its allies to capture Raqa, the de facto Syrian capital of IS’s so-called “caliphate”, without the SDF.

Turkey considers the SDF’s biggest component — the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — as “terrorists” because of their links to an outlawed Kurdish militia in southeast Turkey.

But the SDF has a head start. Since November, it has been battling to encircle Raqa with the help of US-led coalition air strikes and is much closer to the city than the Turkish-backed fighters.

The regime’s recent advance has boxed Turkey in, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.

“They’re surrounded on all sides. The Kurds are to the east, southeast, and west. The regime is south,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

“They don’t have a single road to Raqa except via territory controlled by the Kurds or the Syrian army,” Abdel Rahman said.

– ‘Regime has not changed’ –

“If they really want to go, they only have two options: opening up a front with the army or the Kurds, or striking a deal with them.”

Such a deal would require the mediation of either Russia — who has long backed the Syrian regime and has recently developed closer cooperation with Turkey on Syria — or the United States, an ally to Ankara and SDF backer.

“The risk of confrontation is there. But if the Turkish army heads towards Raqa, it will only be after a deal with the United States,” said Sinan Ulgan, who heads the Center for Economics and Foreign Policy (EDAM) in Istanbul.

While the SDF and Syria’s regime have a shared interest in countering Ankara’s influence, the alliance is not foolproof.

Regime forces and Kurdish fighters have clashed several times across the northeastern province of Hasakeh, and government officials frequently criticize a Kurdish announcement last year of a “federal system” to run affairs in northern Syria.

“The regime is against Kurdish independence, but it doesn’t have the means to retake Kurdish territory,” Balanche said.

A high-level security source in Damascus insisted that “Syria does not recognize the SDF because the constitution stipulates that the only military presence in Syria is the Syrian army.”

“But really, there are several legitimate and illegitimate organisations involved in the Syrian conflict,” the source conceded.

Leading SDF adviser Nasser al-Hajj Mansour denied that his group had struck a deal with the regime, but acknowledged that the current situation is an incentive for cooperation over confrontation.

“The regime has not changed. When it can, it will attack us. But today, local and international dynamics will not allow it to do so,” he said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=81768.

Turkey blasts claimed by Kurdish militants; country mourns

December 12, 2016

ISTANBUL (AP) — Turkey declared a national day of mourning and paid tribute to the dead Sunday after two bombings in Istanbul killed 38 people and wounded 155 others near a soccer stadium. The carnage was claimed by a Turkey-based Kurdish militant group.

The Kurdistan Freedom Falcons, or TAK, said two of its members had sacrificed their lives in the Saturday night attack that targeted security forces outside the Besiktas stadium shortly after the conclusion of a match.

“Two of our comrades were heroically martyred in the attack,” according to a statement posted on TAK’s website. It described the blasts as reprisal for state violence in the southeast and the ongoing imprisonment of Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK. TAK is considered by authorities as a PKK offshoot.

The twin car-and-suicide bombings near the stadium enraged top officials, including President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who vowed to hunt down the perpetrators. The attack was the latest large-scale assault to traumatize a nation confronting an array of security threats.

Turkey is a NATO member and a partner in the U.S.-led war against the Islamic State group. The attack targeted police officers, killing 30 of them along with seven civilians and an unidentified person, Turkish Interior Minister Suleyman Soylu told reporters. He said 13 people had been arrested in connection with the “terrorist” act.

In an address at a funeral for the slain police officers before TAK’s statement was released, a furious Soylu condemned Kurdish rebels and their allies in the West, referring to the PKK as “animals.” “Have you accomplished anything beyond being the servants, pawns and hit men of certain dark forces, of your dark Western partners?” he asked.

Turkish officials didn’t make any further comments after the TAK claim of responsibility was posted. The battle between the PKK and the Turkish state has resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of citizens. Turkish officials frequently accuse the West of supporting the Kurdish insurgency and of interfering in Ankara’s fight against the militants.

Erdogan vowed his country would fight “the curse of terrorism till the end” after paying a visit to some of the wounded at Haseki Hospital in Istanbul. Hundreds of flag-carrying demonstrators marched along Istanbul’s coastline toward the stadium at the heart of the blast area. Flags flew at half-staff across the country and at Turkey’s foreign missions. Passers-by placed flowers on barriers surrounding the soccer stadium.

The first and larger explosion took place about 10:30 p.m. Saturday after Besiktas beat Bursaspor 2-1 in the Turkish Super League. Erdogan said the attack’s timing aimed to maximize the loss of life, but most fans had left before the detonation.

Soylu said the first blast was caused by a passing vehicle that detonated in an area where police special forces were located at the stadium exit. A riot police bus appears to have been the target. Moments later, a person who had been stopped in nearby Macka Park committed suicide by triggering explosives, according to the minister.

He said 136 people remained hospitalized Sunday after the attack, including 14 in intensive care. TAK claimed the Turkish people weren’t their target but warned “no one should expect a comfortable life” as long as the ruling party “continues to torture the mothers of Kurdistan every day.”

Armed conflict between the Turkish state and Kurdish militants resumed in July 2015 after peace talks unraveled. While much of the violence has concentrated in the impoverished and pre-dominantly Kurdish southeast, it has also spread to other cities, including the capital, Ankara, where TAK has claimed February and March suicide bombings.

Experts have determined that up to 400 kilograms (880 pounds) of explosives were used in the car bomb, Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus told CNN Turk. To the mournful sound of trumpets, funeral services were held at Istanbul’s police headquarters for some of the slain officers. Their comrades solemnly carried the coffins, which were draped in the Turkish flag, as a sea of mourners wept around them.

Erdogan presided over a security meeting after the funeral ceremony and hospital visit. Soccer fans proved their resilience by showing up to watch a game pitting Istanbul’s Galatasaray and Gaziantepspor at a different stadium.

“What happened last night was extremely saddening but they need to know that Turkish people will not yield to such things,” Galatasaray supporter Erkan Duman told The Associated Press. “It’s not like we will give up things, especially things we love, just because they want us to.”

Turkey has witnessed a spate of IS and Kurdish-linked attacks this year. Saturday’s bombings were one of the bloodiest to hit Istanbul, a city at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, until recently a popular tourist destination.

That changed after a series of IS-linked suicide bombings targeting tourists, including a sophisticated attack on the city’s Ataturk Airport in June that killed 44 people and wounded scores of others. PKK-linked militants have claimed other deadly attacks in Ankara, Istanbul and areas in southeast Turkey.

A state of emergency is in force following a failed July 15 coup attempt and the resulting government crackdown on alleged coup sympathizers has landed thousands in jail and forced tens of thousands of people from their jobs. Critics call the move a witch hunt.

Cinar Kiper, Ayse Wieting and Bulut Emiroglu contributed to this report.

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