US House condemn Trump over Syria, Pence in Turkey

MSN: House condemns Trump’s Syria withdrawal

In a stinging bipartisan rebuke, the House on Wednesday condemned President Donald Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria.

Voting 354 to 60, lawmakers approved a non-binding resolution opposing the move, which set the stage for Turkey’s military assault against Kurdish forces in Syria that the U.S. partnered with to beat back Islamic State terrorists.

“What kind of message does this send to the world? How can America be trusted to keep its word when we betray one of our close partners?” House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) asked on the House floor. “Congress must speak out against this disgrace.”

The top Republican on the Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, said he understood Trump’s “legitimate concerns” about committing troops overseas, but said the president’s Syria pullout had damaged U.S. interests in the region.

“I, too, want to wind down our overseas conflicts and bring our troops home,” McCaul said. “But leaving [northeast] Syria now does not resolve the problem that brought us there in the first place. It only creates more.”

“We need a residual force in place,” he added. “The consequences of this decision have already unfolded before our very eyes.”

The resolution is non-binding and doesn’t condemn Trump by name. It calls on Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to halt Turkey’s military campaign in Syria and urges humanitarian support to displaced Syrian Kurds and calls on the U.S. to ensure Turkey “acts with restraint and respects existing agreements related to Syria.”

The resolution also urges the Trump administration to outline “a clear and specific plan for the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Reuters: Pence to urge Turkey to halt Syria offensive as threat of further sanctions loom

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will urge Turkey on Thursday to halt its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, a day after President Donald Trump threatened heavy sanctions over the operation.

Turkey’s week-long assault has created a new humanitarian crisis in Syria with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump.

Trump has been accused of abandoning Kurdish fighters, who were Washington’s main partners in the battle to dismantle Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate in Syria, by withdrawing troops from the border as Turkey launched its offensive on Oct. 9.

Trump defended his move on Wednesday and called it “strategically brilliant”.

Trump is one of very few who have praised how he has handled this.

Pence will meet Erdogan around 1130 GMT, while Pompeo and other officials are expected to hold talks with counterparts. A top aide to Erdogan, Ibrahim Kalin, met National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien on Wednesday and said he conveyed Turkey’s position.

On Wednesday, Trump said he thought Pence and Erdogan would have a “successful meeting”, but warned of sanctions and tariffs that “will be devastating to Turkey’s economy” otherwise. Kalin said that Turkey’s foreign ministry was preparing to retaliate to the U.S. sanctions.

Erdogan has dismissed the sanctions and rejected a global chorus of calls to halt the offensive, which Turkey says will create a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into northeast Syria to ensure the return of millions of Syrian refugees and clear the area of Kurdish fighters Ankara views as terrorists.

Trump’s decision to withhold protection from Syrian Kurds upended five years of U.S. policy.

It has also created a land-rush between Turkey and Russia – now the undisputed foreign powers in the area – to partition the Kurdish areas that were formerly under U.S protection.

Russia, Assad’s most powerful ally, has called the offensive “unacceptable” and said it must be limited in time and scale. In a rare criticism of Turkish policy on Syria, Moscow said Turkish troops had the right to temporarily go up to a maximum of 10 km into Syria, under a 1998 agreement between Damascus and Ankara.

Syrian troops, accompanied by Russian forces, have meanwhile entered Kobani, a strategic border city and a potential flashpoint for a wider conflict, said the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war.

The White House tried to talk tough (-ish):

The White House, fighting the domestic political damage and perhaps trying to demonstrate the president’s efforts to stop the offensive, released a Trump letter to Erdogan from Oct. 9 that said: “Don’t be a tough guy” and “Don’t be a fool!”

But Erdogan is acting unmoved.

Turkish broadcaster CNN Turk, quoting sources, said Turkey had rejected Trump’s appeal to reach a deal to avoid conflict, saying the letter was “thrown in the trash”.

Think: Trump’s letter to Turkey’s Erdogan shows the U.S. is struggling to keep up with Ankara

President Donald Trump’s letter to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, urging him not to go after an enemy Kurdish military group in neighboring Syria as U.S. troops depart the war-torn country, indicates that the U.S. president wants to corner his Turkish counterpart. But Erdogan, who has run Turkey for nearly two decades, may well be smarter than to let himself be trapped.

So far, the Turkish president shows no sign of stopping his relentless advance despite the threat of American sanctions Trump delivered in his missive, made public Wednesday but penned last week. Erdogan has calculated that even if the sanctions come, they won’t be sufficient to disrupt the Turkish military strategy; he figures that what Trump wants most is to bring U.S. troops home, and he won’t do much more to prevent the offensive against the Kurds.

The BBC is just reporting: Turkey to suspend Syria offensive, US says

Turkey agrees to pause operation in northern Syria to let Kurdish-led forces withdraw – US Vice-President Mike Pence

Turkey launches attack on Kurds in Syria

In a surprise and widely criticised move President Donald Trump announced that US troops were being withdrawn from Syria. This was seen as a green light to Turkey to go in and attack the Kurds, who were US allies.

Turkey has announced they have launched attacks on the Kurds.

Fox News: ‘Huge panic’ as Turkish warplanes bomb Kurdish civilian targets in Syria after US withdrawal: report

President Trump is calling Turkey’s ongoing military assault in Syria a “bad idea” Wednesday as reports are emerging of civilians being caught in the crossfire of a long-standing feud between Ankara and Kurdish forces.

Many said his sudden withdrawal of US troops was a bad idea which was predicted to result in what is happening now.

His comments come hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the launch of Operation Peace Spring — a mission that will “neutralize terror threats against Turkey and lead to the establishment of a safe zone, facilitating the return of Syrian refugees to their homes.”

Trump has been heavily criticized throughout the week following his decision Sunday to pull American troops out of northern Syria, leaving the Kurdish forces — who have been longtime U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS in Syria — in peril. Ankara views the Syrian Kurdish forces as terrorists allied with a Kurdish insurgency within Turkey.

“The United States does not endorse this attack and has made it clear to Turkey that this operation is a bad idea,” Trump said in a statement released by the White House. “Turkey has committed to protecting civilians, protecting religious minorities, including Christians, and ensuring no humanitarian crisis takes place—and we will hold them to this commitment.”

“There are no American soldiers in the area,” he added.

No US troops, just ex-allies of the US that Trump suddenly abandoned.

A spokesperson for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces says Turkish warplanes on Wednesday have “started to carry out airstrikes on civilian areas,” causing a “huge panic among people of the region.”

The Kurds requested air support from American forces in response to the strikes. But U.S. military officials tell Fox News that Trump has ordered them to not get involved.

Fox News: Lindsey Graham warns Trump on Syria troop withdrawal: ‘It’d be the biggest mistake of his presidency’

If President Trump follows through on his proposed troop withdrawal from Syria, it would be one of the biggest follies of his presidency and cause ISIS to reemerge in the region, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Wednesday on “Fox & Friends.”

Trump tweeted about the issue on Wednesday and said the United States should never have been in the Middle East in the first place. He also put the onus on Turkey to stabilize the region and take up arms against any remaining ISIS elements.

“That’s a pre-9/11 mentality that the Middle East is no concern to us,” Graham told Fox News. “I hope President Trump’s right. I hope we can turn the fight against ISIS over to Turkey. I hope that Turkey, when they go into Syria, they won’t slaughter the Kurds… If [Trump] follows through with this, it’d be the biggest mistake of his presidency.”

He claimed that if Trump doesn’t continue with safe zone border patrols, ISIS will fill the void and the fault will lie squarely with the Trump administration.

“I hope that Turkey, when they go into Syria, they won’t slaughter the Kurds…” seems to have been a forlorn hope.

Turkey, Syria, Kurds and Trump threats

The complicated political situation in Syrian is far from over, with Turkey wanting to keep Syrian Kurds away from their border, Trump allowing them to make a move into Syria but warning them not to go too far.

Reuters – U.S. expects Turkey to take over IS fighters if Kurdish militia forced to withdraw: official

The United States expects Turkey to take responsibility of captive Islamic State fighters, a senior State Department official said on Monday, if Ankara’s planned incursion into northeast Syria seizes areas where the detained militants are held.

The official said as of now, U.S. allied Kurdish militia was still going to be in control of the detention facilities. “If they (Turks) come into an area with obvious prisons and the SDF withdraws from those security positions around those prisons, we expect the Turks to take them over,” he said in a briefing.

That sounds a bit vague, and is a mixed signal given a threat from Trump.

Fox News; Trump pulls back troops from northern Syria ahead of Turkish assault, Pentagon officials ‘blindsided’

The White House announced late Sunday that Turkey will soon move forward with a planned military operation in northeast Syria, as U.S. troops who have been deployed and operating with Kurdish-led forces in the area began pulling back from their positions.

The decision sent shockwaves through the region and Washington, with U.S. officials telling Fox News that top Pentagon officials were “completely blindsided” and “shocked” by the order to pull back hundreds of U.S. troops, a move that effectively green-lights the Turkey operation. President Trump spoke with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by telephone.

Some officials see the move as a betrayal of the Kurds, whom the U.S. supported against ISIS for years.

Speaking on “Fox & Friends” Monday morning, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., called it an “impulsive decision” by Trump that would undo U.S. gains in the region and give ISIS fighters a “second lease on life.”

Reuters: Trump threatens to ‘obliterate’ Turkish economy over Syria incursion plan

President Donald Trump on Monday launched a harsh attack on NATO ally Turkey, threatening to destroy its economy if Ankara takes a planned military strike in Syria too far even though the U.S. leader himself has opened the door for a Turkish incursion.

Turkey has repeatedly threatened to carry out an incursion against U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria who have links to Kurdish guerrillas operating next door in Turkey.

The United States began pulling troops back from the northeast Syrian border on Monday, effectively giving Turkey a green light to move into the area.

But:

Trump said he would “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it took action in Syria that he considered “off-limits” following his decision on Sunday to pull out U.S. forces from northeastern Syria.

Trump’s stern words seemed to be an attempt to placate critics, even from within his own Republican Party, who complain he was abandoning the Syrian Kurds by pulling out U.S. forces.

Trump tweeted:

This doesn’t seem too be a great or wise approach by the vain Trump. Under pressure with a possible impeachment hovering over him in Washington, Trump has been increasingly agitated and shrill, even by his standards.

He sounds to me like an increasingly unhinged megalomaniac, with emphasis on the maniac (or at least manic).

That was before Trump’s threat tweet.

Fox News: Turkey’s Syria incursion may allow ISIS to attempt mass prison break amid US withdrawal, Kurdish fighters warn

ISIS fighters and other terrorists comprising the more than 10,000 Islamic militants jailed in northeast Syria could launch a mass prison break as U.S. troops withdraw from the region in response to Turkey’s impending incursion, Syrian Kurdish fighters warned Monday.

Reuters Explainer: Turkey set to redraw map of Syrian war once more

A looming Turkish incursion into northern Syria is set to reshape the map of the Syrian conflict once again, dealing a blow to Kurdish-led forces that have battled Islamic State while widening Turkey’s territorial control at the border.

This would be Turkey’s third such incursion since 2016. Motivated largely by the aim of containing Syrian Kurdish power, Turkey already has troops on the ground across an arc of northwestern Syria, the last stronghold of anti-Damascus rebels.

Turkey has two main goals in northeast Syria: to drive the Kurdish YPG militia which it deems a security threat away from its border, and to create a space inside Syria where 2 million Syria refugees currently hosted in Turkey can be settled.

It had been pushing the United States to jointly establish a “safe zone” extending 20 miles (32 km) into Syrian territory, but repeatedly warned it could take unilateral military action after accusing Washington of dragging its feet.

President Tayyip Erdogan has recently talked about pushing even deeper into Syria, beyond the proposed “safe zone” region to the cities of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, in order to allow still more refugees to return to Syria.

HOW WILL THE KURDS BE AFFECTED?

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have spent years expanding its control across northern and eastern Syria, helped by the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.

A rare case of a winner in the Syrian war, the Kurds and their allies have set up their own governing bodies while always insisting their aim is autonomy, not independence.

All of this could unravel in the event of a major Turkish invasion that would plunge the area into warfare. The SDF-affiliated Syrian Democratic Council said an attack would trigger a new wave of mass displacement.

DO RUSSIA AND IRAN BACK TURKEY’S MOVE?

Russia and Iran, the other two major foreign powers in Syria, strongly support President Bashar al-Assad – unlike Turkey and the United States which both called for him to stand down and supported rebels fighting to overthrow him.

Russia has said that Turkey has the right to defend itself, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Monday that Syria’s territorial integrity must be preserved and that all foreign military forces “with illegal presence” should leave Syria.

So the situation remains quite complex, and not helped with the apparent impetuousness and unpredictability of Trump .

 

 

US to leave 200 ‘peacekeepers’ in Syria

Donald Trump’s sudden announcement in December that the US troops would withdraw from Syria took the world by surprise, and serious concerns were expressed in the Respected US. Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis resigned immediately.

Trump said in a video released on Twitter:

“We have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them and we’ve beaten them badly. We’ve taken back the land and now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”

That was questioned and ridiculed as fighting continued against ISIS.

And a  complete US withdrawal would have left Syria, Iran, Turkey and Russia in positions of influence.

The plan has now been adjusted, with 200 peacekeepers to remain.

Reuters:  U.S. to leave 200 American peacekeepers in Syria after pullout

The United States will leave “a small peacekeeping group” of 200 American troops in Syria for a period of time after a U.S. pullout, the White House said on Thursday, as President Donald Trump pulled back from a complete withdrawal.

Trump in December ordered a withdrawal of the 2,000 American troops in Syria, saying they had defeated Islamic State militants there, even as U.S.-backed Syrian forces continued a final push against the group’s last outpost.

But Trump has been under pressure from multiple advisers to adjust his policy to ensure the protection of Kurdish forces, who supported the fight against Islamic State and who might now be threatened by Turkey, and to serve as a bulwark against Iran’s influence.

“A small peacekeeping group of about 200 will remain in Syria for a period of time,” White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said in a statement.

The decision was announced after Trump spoke by phone to Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. A White House statement said the two leaders agreed, regarding Syria, to “continue coordinating on the creation of a potential safe zone.”

Leaving even a small group of U.S. troops in Syria could pave the way for European allies to commit hundreds of troops to help set up and observe a potential safe zone in northeast Syria.

The commander of U.S.-backed Syrian forces has called for 1,000 to 1,500 international troops to remain in the country to help fight Islamic State and expressed hope the United States, in particular, would halt plans for a total pullout.

The decision to retain peacekeepers could help Trump overcome criticism that he had ordered a precipitous withdrawal from Syria that could lead to Islamic State regaining strength.

It would also have left the Kurds, who the US had supported in Syria, in a precarious position with Turkey.

The decision to retain peacekeepers could help Trump overcome criticism that he had ordered a precipitous withdrawal from Syria that could lead to Islamic State regaining strength.

And it would have strengthened Iranian and Russian influence.

US senator Lindsey Graham had been strongly against the announced withdrawal.

Real Clear Politics (20 December 2018) – Sen. Graham: Trump Withdraw From Syria “A Stain On The Honor Of America”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) delivered a fiery speech on the Senate floor Wednesday night blasting President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Graham called Trump’s declaration that ISIS has been defeated “fake news” and leaving the country would be a “stain” on America.

Graham Statement on Syria (11 January 2019):

“From an American point of view, we have strategic objectives that must be accomplished in northeastern Syria.  The Iranians, Russians and Assad should not be allowed to be the biggest winners of our withdrawal.

“The mission in Syria is not yet complete and we must continue to work with our partners and allies to ensure that ISIS is destroyed and never returns.”

ABC News (17 January 2019):  Graham says Trump’s statements have emboldened ISIS in Syria

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham, a top ally of President Donald Trump, expressed concerns on Wednesday that Trump’s comments about withdrawing troops from Syria have emboldened terrorist groups like ISIS, and that he hopes Trump thinks “long and hard” about his next moves when it comes to withdrawing troops from the war torn country.

“My concern by the statements made by President Trump is that you have set in motion enthusiasm by the enemy we are fighting. You make people we are trying to help wonder about us.”

Task and Purpose (20 February 2019): Sen. Graham tells Shanahan that leaving Syria is ‘the dumbest f*****g idea I’ve ever heard’

“That’s the dumbest f******g idea I’ve ever heard,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) reportedly replied when Shanahan confirmed the Trump administration still plans to complete the Syria withdrawal by April 30.

Later, Graham told Shanahan, “I am now your adversary, not your friend.”

The blow up came during a Feb. 16 meeting in Munich with Shanahan and three dozen lawmakers from both parties, according to Breitbart, the Washington Post, and NBC.

Graham’s spokesman Kevin Bishop did not dispute media reports of Graham’s comments during the meeting, adding the senator declined to comment for this story.

While he rarely criticizes the president, Graham initially called Trump’s decision to pull all U.S. troops from Syria a “huge Obama-like mistake.”

The pressure on Trump to think long and hard – something that seems alien to his personality – seems to have worked.

After the announcement that the US would leave troops in Syria, Graham issued this statement:

“This will ensure ISIS does not return and Iran does not fill the vacuum that would have been left if we completely withdrew. This also ensures Turkey and SDF elements that helped us defeat ISIS will not go into conflict.

“A safe zone in Syria made up of international forces is the best way to achieve our national security objectives of continuing to contain Iran, ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS, protecting our Turkish allies, and securing the Turkish border with Syria”.

“With this decision, President Trump has decided to follow sound military advice. This decision will ensure that we will not repeat the mistakes of Iraq, in Syria. For a small fraction of the forces we have had in Syria, we can accomplish our national security objectives.

“Well done Mr. President.”

It still won’t be easy keeping all the different forces at bay and counter the influence of Iran, Turkey and Russia, but at least the US will have a base presence to work from.

There is a heck of a lot of sorting out still to do in Syria.

The Syrian civil war started in 2011, with the US getting involved with an international coalition in  2014. It’s been complicated. From Wikipedia:

The Syrian government and Syrian Armed Forces and its international allies, a loose alliance of majorly Sunni opposition rebel groups (including the Free Syrian Army), the majority-Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Salafi jihadistgroups (including al-Nusra Front), and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), with a number of countries in the region and beyond being either directly involved or providing support to one or another faction (Iran, Russia, Turkey, the United States, as well as others).

Iran, Russia, and Hezbollah support the Syrian Arab Republic and the Syrian Armed Forces militarily, with Russia conducting military operations since September 2015.

The U.S.-led international coalition, established in 2014 with the declared purpose of countering ISIL, has conducted airstrikes primarily against ISIL as well as some against government and pro-government targets.

Since 2015, the US has also supported the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria and its armed wing, the SDF. Turkey, on the other hand, has become deeply involved against the Syrian government since 2016, actively supporting the Syrian opposition and occupying large swaths of northwestern Syria.

Between 2011 and 2017, fighting from the Syrian Civil War spilled over into Lebanon as opponents and supporters of the Syrian Arab Republic travelled to Lebanon to fight and attack each other on Lebanese soil.

Furthermore, while officially neutral, Israel has conducted airstrikes against Hezbollah and Iranian forces, whose presence in southwestern Syria it views as a threat.

The 200 US troops that will remain in Syria have a few challenges – but will no doubt have a mass of ships and planes and troops not far away in support if needed.

And one of the biggest ongoing battles may be in limiting the damage Trump does with spur of the moment announcements on Twitter that can have serious implications for the Middle East and the world.

I hope Trump has not been given the ability to order nuclear strikes by tweet.

Trump threatens Turkey with economic devastation

Donald Trump recently announced that the United States would be withdrawing their troops from Syria. This raised questions about the fate of the Kurds who had been supported and used by the US, but are opposed by Turkey.

Trump has answered in his typical bluster and threat style, via Twitter:

“Will attack again from existing nearby base if it reforms. Will devastate Turkey economically if they hit Kurds. Create 20 mile safe zone…Likewise, do not want the Kurds to provoke Turkey.”

What if the Kurds attack Turkish forces? Should Turkey not respond for fear of economic devastation?

What if Russia…? What if Iran…?

What would economic devastation mean for Turkey and the Middle East and the Mediterranean?

Reuters: Trump threatens Turkey with economic devastation if it attacks Syrian Kurd militia

U.S. President Donald Trump threatened Turkey with economic devastation if it attacks a U.S.-allied Kurdish militia in Syria, drawing a sharp rebuke from Ankara on Monday and reviving fears of another downturn in ties between the NATO allies.

Relations between the United States and Turkey have long been strained by Washington’s support for the Kurdish YPG, which Turkey views as an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that is waging a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Speaking in Riyadh, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said he did not think the threat would change plans to withdraw troops from Syria. Asked what Trump meant by economic devastation, he said: “You’ll have to ask the president.”

“We have applied economic sanctions in many places, I assume he is speaking about those kinds of things, Pompeo said, adding he had not spoken with Ankara since Trump’s comment.

So it sounds like Trump’s Secretary of State doesn’t know what the hell Trump is playing at. This isn’t an unusual situation for Trump’s administration. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis resigned over Trump’s Syrian withdrawal announcement.

Trump has already impacted significantly on the Turkish economy.

Ankara is well aware of the cost of strained ties with the United States. A diplomatic crisis last year, when Trump imposed sanctions on two of President Tayyip Erdogan’s ministers and raised tariffs on Turkish metal exports, helped push the Turkish lira to a record low in August.

Things are getting crazier, with Trump letting loose on Twitter making seemingly impulsive, destablilising (for his Administration and for the world) and potentially devastating pronouncements.


Reuters Explainer: Where do the Kurds fit into Syria’s war?

The future of Kurdish-led swathes of northern and eastern Syria has been thrown into doubt by President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops who have helped secure the territory.

The region, roughly a quarter of Syria, is the largest chunk of the country still outside the control of President Bashar al-Assad, who is backed by Russia and Iran.

Syrian Kurdish leaders fear Turkey, which sees them as a threat, will use a U.S. pullout as an opportunity to mount an assault into northern Syria.

This has driven them to talk to Moscow and Damascus in the hope of agreeing a deal to protect the region and safeguarding their political gains.

The Russians will be quietly looking for any advantage they can take over the Us withdrawal from Syria.

HOW DID THE KURDS EMERGE AS A FORCE?

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

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

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

SDF influence widened to Manbij and Raqqa as IS was defeated in both. It has also reached deep into Deir al-Zor, where the SDF is still fighting IS. The SDF, which also includes Arab and other groups, says it has more than 70,000 fighters.

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

The Syrian Government would probably not react well to an bid for full independence.

WHY DOES TURKEY VIEW THEM AS A THREAT?

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

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

So the US has been supporting an organisation they have designated terrorists?

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

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

Now Trump has threatened Turkey not to do that.

FOR KURDS, IS ASSAD A FRIEND OR FOE?

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

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

But Damascus has long opposed Kurdish autonomy demands and talks between the two sides last year went nowhere.

It’s complicated. And difficult to see a lasting solution.

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

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

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

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

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

It’s very complicated.

I don’t think Trump can deal with complexities, apart from making them more complex with his ad hoc impulsiveness and threats.

Some good may accidentally emerge from his approach, but there is a far greater likelihood he will make things worse.

Russia will be seeing how they can benefit from all of this. I can’t see Trump deliberately aiding Russia here, but that is a highly likely inadvertent outcome.

 

Trump changes Syrian war, Kurds feel betrayed

Donald Trump surprised many people and countries with his sudden decision to withdraw US troops from Syria. In protest US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Brett McGurk, a senior official coordinating the fight against Islamic State, resigned.

Trump’s decision has forced a sudden chaange of approach in the war by Turket, and Syrian Kurds, used by the US in the war but regarded as terrorists by Turkey, feel betrayed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alliances between groups fighting in Syria and countries involved in the war are complicated. Trump’s decision will force other countries to rethink their involvement, and will no doubt change the power struggles within and over Syria.

New York Times:  Syria’s Kurds, Feeling Betrayed by the U.S., Ask Assad Government for Protection

Feeling betrayed by the United States, its Kurdish allies in Syria asked the Syrian government on Friday to protect them from possible attack by Turkey.

The request surprised some American officials and could help open the way for the forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, backed by Russia and Iran, to start retaking the Kurdish-held part of the country near Turkey’s border.

That would be a big step toward Mr. Assad’s goal of reclaiming all of Syria, upended by almost eight years of war.

It was also the first sign that President Trump’s abrupt announcement last week that he was withdrawing American troops from Syria was not only shifting alliances in the conflict but directly benefiting Mr. Assad — a brutal autocrat once described by Mr. Trump as an “animal” responsible for chemical attacks and other atrocities.

American-backed Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or Y.P.G., said the Syrian government should send troops to the city of Manbij, near the Turkish border.

The request amounted to a United States ally calling on an enemy of the United States to protect it from another American ally, Turkey.

The Kurdish militias are regarded by Turkey as dangerous, autonomy-minded insurgents. The United States regards them as valuable partners in helping rout Islamic State extremists from Syria — the original purpose of the American military deployment four years ago.

Although the American troops in Syria number only about 2,000, they have been a deterrent to an assault on the Kurdish militias by the Turks. The American presence also discouraged Mr. Assad’s forces from sweeping into the area even as they retook major areas elsewhere from anti-government fighters, often with the support of Russia and Iran.

Mr. Trump’s surprise announcement that he would pull American troops had raised fears of a scramble by competing forces to exploit the resulting vacuum.

It’s hard to know whether trump understands the implications of his sudden decision or not.

Groups controlling land in Syria:

 

The areas run by the Kurds in Syria have long stood apart in the conflict. They had hoped, with their American friends, to pioneer an alternative model for Syria’s future.

While none of the other powers fighting in Syria liked the situation, they mostly avoided attacking the area for fear of provoking the United States. Now, with that deterrent set to end, the future of the northeast is up in the air.

Those most likely to gain, analysts say, are the Syrian government and its allies, who want to bring the northeast back under the control of Damascus, both for the good of Mr. Assad and for their own interests.

It’s anyone’s guess what will happen in Syria now.

Turkish-Kurdish tensions rise in Syria

There has always been tension between Kurds in northern Syria and Turkey in the complex Syrian civil war (albeit with a number of other countries directly involved including Russia and the USA).

Reuters reports that there could be yet another open conflict in the mix, with the ead of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia saying that Turkish military deployments near Kurdish-held areas amounted to a “declaration of war”.

Kurdish YPG militia expects conflict with Turkey in northern Syria

The head of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia said on Wednesday that Turkish military deployments near Kurdish-held areas of northwestern Syria amounted to a “declaration of war” which could trigger clashes within days.

Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus retorted that his country was not declaring war but that its forces would respond to any hostile move by the YPG, which he described as a small-scale army formed by the United States.

The mounting tensions between two U.S. allies in northwestern Syria risk opening yet another front in the multi-sided conflict, in which outside powers are playing ever greater roles.

Asked by Reuters whether he expected a conflict with Turkey in northern Syria, where the two sides have exchanged artillery fire in recent days, YPG Commander Sipan Hemo accused Turkey of preparing for a major military campaign in the Aleppo and Afrin area.

“These (Turkish) preparations have reached level of a declaration of war and could lead to the outbreak of actual clashes in the coming days,” he said in emailed comments. “We will not stand idly by against this potential aggression.”

Turkey’s policy in northern Syria has been focused on containing the growing sway of Kurdish groups that have established autonomous regions since Syria’s war began in 2011.

Ankara says the YPG represents a security threat, seeing it as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been fighting an insurgency against the Turkish state for decades.

The Kurds were left without their own state when the United Kingdom broke a promise and prevented Kurdish autonomy after the Ottoman Empire was broken up and borders imposed by the UK and France, leaving the Kurds as large minorities in both Syria and Iraq as well as in southern Turkey. See  Treaty of Sèvres and Treaty of Lausanne.

The USA has been supporting and arming the Kurds in the current conflict, but Turkey has been unhappy with this.

BBC: Syria war: Turkey will never accept US alliance with Kurds – Erdogan

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has indicated after talks in Washington that he will never accept a US alliance with Kurdish forces fighting in Syria.

“There is no place for terrorist organisations in the future of our region,” he said at a joint news conference with President Donald Trump.

He was referring to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, following a US decision earlier this month to arm the group.

“It is absolutely unacceptable to take the YPG-PYD into consideration as partners in the region, and it’s going against a global agreement we reached,” Mr Erdogan said on Tuesday.

Peace in Syria looks a difficult prospect, as does peace in the Middle East.

An escalation of the Kurdish-Turkish tensions won’t help, especially if it results in yet another sub-war.

Syrian ceasefire

A ceasefire agreement has been reached between the Syrian Government and rebel groups and is backed by Russia and Turkey – but it doesn’t include jihadist groups.

RNZ: Syria ceasefire agreed, backed by Russia and Turkey

The Syrian government and rebel groups have agreed a nationwide ceasefire that will begin within hours.

The deal was announced by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and confirmed by Turkey. The two nations, which back opposing sides, will act as guarantors.

The High Negotiations Committee (HNC), regarded by the UN as Syria’s main opposition body, confirmed the deal, which excludes jihadist groups.

If the truce holds, peace talks will be held in Kazakhstan within a month.

‘If the truce holds’ may be a big IF. Government and 13 factions have signed the ceasefire.

On the one side, Syrian government forces, their factional allies and the Russian military.

On the other, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loose alliance of several moderate rebel factions, plus other groups under the HNC, the umbrella group representing Syria’s political and armed opposition factions.

FSA spokesman Osama Abu Zaid said there were 13 armed opposition factions in all who had signed up.

That’s a lot of factions involved in the civil war.

But there’s others who are not a part of this agreement.

Jihadists. So-called Islamic State (IS) “and the groups affiliated to them” are not part of the agreement, Syria’s army confirmed.

It also said Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly the Nusra Front) was excluded. However, some rebel officials told Reuters it was part of the deal, giving a hint of the complications that lie ahead.

This is because JFS is intrinsically linked in Idlib province to groups that have signed up to the truce.

The FSA also said that the deal did not include the Kurdish Popular Protection Units (YPG).

The YPG, along with other Kurdish militias, controls a large area of northern Syria up the Turkish border. It is regarded by Turkey as a terrorist organisation and an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

So some of the battles may cease but the war is likely to continue against ISIS and Kurds.

But it’s a promising sign that at least some of the internal factions are willing to stop fighting.

Shearer on Syria and Turkey etc

David Shearer posted on Facebook:

Overnight, Turkey crossed the border into Syria: that’s a major escalation.

New York Times: Turkey, Sending More Tanks Into Syria, Steps Up Pressure on Kurds

BBC: Turkey warns Syrian Kurds to withdraw east of Euphrates

CNN: Why Turkey sending tanks into Syria is significantTurkish authorities have been pressed into taking action against ISIS by the surge of suicide bombings in Turkey, as well as the terror group’s use of safe houses and “informal” financial services on Turkish soil. But Turkey is anxious that ISIS’ vulnerability could provide an opportunity for their “other” enemy in northern Syria — the Kurdish YPG militia — who have taken several villages near Jarablus recently.

Syria, Iraq, Turkey, ISIS, the Kurds, Russia, USA, France – it’s very complicated.

Shearer:

The conflict in Syria is complicated, it’s horrific – almost daily there are serious breaches of humanitarian law including the bombing of hospitals. It’s something NZ is trying to lead on in the UN Security Council, sadly without much success.

Given the conflict has gone on for such a long time it can sometimes be hard to remember how it began. I’d recommend this backgrounder from the BBC:


Syria: The story of the conflict

More than 250,000 Syrians have lost their lives in four-and-a-half years of armed conflict, which began with anti-government protests before escalating into a full-scale civil war. More than 11 million others have been forced from their homes as forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those opposed to his rule battle each other – as well as jihadist militants from so-called Islamic State. This is the story of the civil war so far, in eight short chapters.

Correcting Obama on Middle East conflicts

In his State of the Union address President Barack Obama stated that conflicts in the Middle East “date back millennia.”

This has been disputed by Arab researcher and Arab Spring activist Iyad El-Baghdadi who also pointsb out that it isn’t rooted in Shiite versus Sunni conflict.

From Obama’s speech:

The Middle East is going through a transformation that will play out for a generation, rooted in conflicts that date back millennia.

Both al Qaeda and now ISIL pose a direct threat to our people, because in today’s world, even a handful of terrorists who place no value on human life, including their own, can do a lot of damage. They use the Internet to poison the minds of individuals inside our country. Their actions undermine and destabilize our allies. We have to take them out.

But as we focus on destroying ISIL, over-the-top claims that this is World War III just play into their hands.

But they do not threaten our national existence. That is the story ISIL wants to tell. That’s the kind of propaganda they use to recruit. We don’t need to build them up to show that we’re serious, and we sure don’t need to push away vital allies in this fight by echoing the lie that ISIL is somehow representative of one of the world’s largest religions.

There’s a lot of deliberate propaganda and ignorant inaccuracies in discussions on Middle East and related Muslim issues.

El-Baghdadi (Iyad El-Baghdadi @iyad_elbaghdadi) has tweeted as number of clarifications.

On claims that Sunni versus Shiite conflict has been entrenched for a long time.

In the late 19th century, Shiite scholar Al Afghani was a prominent member of the anti-colonialist, pan-Islamic revival movement.

Al Afghani’s disciple was none other than prominent Sunni scholar Mohammad Abduh, who would later become Egypt’s Grand Mufti.

One of the Sunni Abduh’s lasting works was his commentary on Nahj al Balagha, one of most important Shia references.

In 1931, Iraqi Shia cleric Kashif al Ghita led Sunni clerics in prayers in Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, at an anti-imperialist conference.

In the 1940s, Pakistan, a majority Sunni state, was founded by Jinnah, a Shiite Muslim.

In the early 1950s people answering the Iraq census didn’t know whether to pick “Sunni” or “Shia” coz many were mixed.

In 1958, Egypt’s Grand Mufti declared that Shiism will be taught in Al Azhar as the fifth school alongside Sunni schools of jurisprudence.

In the 1960s Sunni Saudi Arabia supported the Zaydi Shias in Yemen in a civil war against Egypt-supported Republicans.

In the 1980s, the majority of the Iraqi army fighting Iran in the Iraq-Iran war was made up of Arab Shias.

In the 1990s & 2000s, Shiite Iran supported Sunni Palestinian militant group Hamas.

The Sunni versus Shiite claims often ignore the significant Kurd component of the Middle East mix.

As a whole, the Kurdish people are adherents to a large number of different religions and creeds, perhaps constituting the most religiously diverse people of West Asia. Traditionally, Kurds have been known to take great liberties with their practices. This sentiment is reflected in the saying “Compared to the unbeliever, the Kurd is a Muslim”.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurds

Catholics versus Protestants was seen as a major factor in the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland but it was only a part of the problems that were more union versus independence, and didn’t mean all Catholics and Protestants had been in conflict forever.

It’s common for religious and ethnic groups to become allied in conflicts and power struggles (which is what most conflicts are) but the religion or the ethnicity is not necessarily the problem.

El-Baghdadi pointed out problems when weapons and power create conflict, often using   “divide and conquer” as a tactic.

The current dynamic isn’t a conflict of sectarianism but a willful and cynical sectarianization of a regional power struggle.

Tyrants are rarely ideologically committed to Sunnism or Shiism; but are happy to exploit either when it’s expedient.

Sectarianization became the pragmatic thing to do. Hatemongering ideologues became useful and hence became stars on TV and media.

Hatemongering ideologues also play a part in social media blogs, often being useful for and used by the enemy.

Fact is, I acknowledge the old theological rift and the communal differences but I emphasize their modern political weaponization.

Has the region been sectarianized? Yes. Are the differences real? Yes. Is the current war posturing an ancient theological dispute? No.

It is exploiting religious differences in a power struggle.

Many theological and communal differences are innocuous, mundane, and not particularly deadly, until they are weaponized for power.

In civil wars and in inter-state wars factions of convenience are often exploited by those seeking power and control of territory.

The country borders of the Middle East hadn’t naturally evolved, they were imposed by colonial powers in the relatively recent past – mostly in the split up of the Ottoman Empire after World War 1. France was mostly responsible for splitting up the ‘Levant’ area (Palestine-Syria) after WW1.

ISIS doesn’t care about the imposed borders  and is operating where it thinks it can establish a power base across Syria and Iraq (ISIL=Islamic State of Iraq and Syria).

They have tried to exploit ongoing problems in Iraq (in part created by the US invasion) plus the civil war in Syria.

President Obama appears to be trying to present the US as a solver of Middle East problems “that date back millennia”.

Our foreign policy hast to be focused on the threat from ISIL and al Qaeda, but it can’t stop there. For even without ISIL, even without al Qaeda, instability will continue for decades in many parts of the world — in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan, in parts of Central America, in Africa, and Asia. Some of these places may become safe havens for new terrorist networks. Others will just fall victim to ethnic conflict, or famine, feeding the next wave of refugees.

The world will look to us to help solve these problems, and our answer needs to be more than tough talk or calls to carpet-bomb civilians. That may work as a TV sound bite, but it doesn’t pass muster on the world stage.

“The world” does not look to the US to solve these problems. Quite a bit of the world see the US as a meddler that makes things worse.

Some claim that ISIS arose due to the US invasion of Iraq earlier this century. It has certainly had some negative effects and the problems look a long way from being solved despite the tough talk of Obama and the  bombs dropped by the US and other countries with colonial history in the Middle East.

The current Syrian situation is far from as simple as Sunni versus Shiite.

Syrian civil war.png

And that’s just part of the problem that doesn’t show the Iraqi divisions. Here’s a wider view:

Syrian, Iraqi, and Lebanese insurgencies.png

Military situation as of January 11, 2016, in the Iraqi, Syrian, and Lebaneseconflicts.

ISISMaplegend

Note: Iraq and Syria contain large desert areas with limited populations. These areas are mapped as under the control of forces holding roads and towns within them.

Detailed map of the Syrian Civil War
Detailed map of the Iraqi insurgency
Detailed map of the Lebanese insurgency
Detailed map of the Libyan Civil War
Detailed map of the Nigerian insurgency
Detailed map of the Sinai insurgency
Detailed map of the Yemeni Civil War
Detailed map of the Taliban insurgency

That’s going to take a bit more than some speech writer sound bites from the President of the USA to solve Mr Obama.

Iyad El-Baghdaditweet source: The Conflict in the Middle East Is Not Between Sunnis and Shias and Doesn’t ‘Date Back Millennia’