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 .

 

 

Dozing Peters under scrutiny

Questions are being asked about whether Winston Peters is fit for purpose as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs, after ‘deep contemplation’ (dozing on the job) being recorded on a number of occasions.

NZ Herald:  Winston Peters in a state of ‘deep contemplation’ during a meeting with top Islamic officials

Foreign Minister Winston Peters is deflecting claims he fell asleep in a meeting of top Islamic leaders in Turkey over the weekend.

President Recep Erdogan of Turkey delivers a speech at the Islamic Summit in Istanbul on Friday as Foreign Minister Winston Peters appears to be in deep contemplation. Photo / Supplied

Appearing alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at post-Cab today, Peters said he was in a state of “deep contemplation.”

This happened while Turkish President Recep Erdogan was speaking at the event. Peters had been requested to attend the conference by Turkish officials to discuss the terror attacks in Christchurch.

It was a quick trip to Turkey, so jet lag may have been a factor.

“This is amazing,” Peters said when asked if he had nodded off at the meeting.

“I have a full list of everybody that spoke, where they came from, in the order they spoke – it’s comprehensive and I’ve still got it.”

He said it was a “very, very serious meeting and that’s why I still have a record of it”.

Ministers are regularly given run sheets prior to meetings, which contain the names those in attendance and an agenda.

Claiming to have a list of speakers is a lame explanation.

“Some would suggest that you could be in deep contemplation and know what is going on at the same time, which I was,” Peters said.

He did not, however, deny being asleep.

There were other times recently where Peters has looked to be in deep contemplation.

Last week, Peters sat with his eyes closed and his head down at times while Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and a contingent of Ministers and MPs met Muslim community leaders following the mosque terror attacks in Christchurch.

A few weeks before that, Peters’ eyes were closed during a Security and Intelligence select committee hearing, also attended by Ardern.

Dominion Post editorial: Winston Peters asleep at the wheel of foreign affairs

The prime minister, unimpressed with Turkey’s portrayal of New Zealand’s day of suffering, said her foreign minister would be confronting the offensive comments of Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a visit to that country.

In Winston Peters’ own words, he was going there to “put the record straight”.

He now says he believes some progress has been made as Erdogan is using a smaller portion of the clip. He had got an assurance on safety and the president had toned down the campaigning.

Peters’ approach contrasts with the strong language  of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison against his Turkish counterpart.

There is, of course, another image: Peters apparently dozing at the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation forum while Erdogan addresses New Zealand’s response to the shootings.

It is a picture of Peters asleep at the wheel of this country’s foreign affairs. At a key point in the nation’s history.

It was particularly bad timing for the NZ First leader.

Peters, meanwhile, has appeared undermined and partially silenced by his own troublesome anti-immigration commentary.

He needed to perform and display strength in Turkey, not only on behalf of his fellow countrymen and women but also, perhaps, for the prospects of a party with immigration as a principal theme.

He failed.

Audrey Young: Message to Winston Peters – Please don’t fall asleep on Friday

Peters’ issue with deep contemplation is not recent. When his former National Party colleagues wanted to wound him most, they would recount tales of Peters dozing off in Cabinet meetings or of him not reading Cabinet papers.

The difference between then and now is that Peters is under a lot more scrutiny. His rise in political power has coincided with an era in which cameras are everywhere. Big brother has been joined by sister, mother, cousin, aunt, uncle, friend, foe, citizen and journalist.

Given the importance of the mission to rescue New Zealand’s reputation among Muslim countries (and ultimately the safety of Kiwis) it was inexcusable but it was not surprising given that Peters arrived in Istanbul 5.30am after flying overnight, had a full day at the conference and left at 2am.

Peters was away from New Zealand for five nights on the trip to Indonesia and Istanbul but had only two nights on the ground. It was perhaps the most punishing of his punishing schedules in this, his second stint as Foreign Minister.

Peters’ frequent state of deep contemplation is sometimes excused on the grounds that he is getting on in years – but he is not such a rarity.

The frequency of recent events has made it a public issue. Peters has discipline when he cares to exercise it. He cannot afford repetitions, lest he be seen as not fit for purpose.

Jacinda Ardern sent Peters on the gruelling trip to Turkey, in the heat of the Christchurch shooting aftermath. She may need to think more about what Peters is capable of doing.

Peters will be under ongoing scrutiny at public events, and it is likely any nodding off will be photographed and publicised.

 

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.

Turkey challenges latest Saudi Arabia attempt to explain Khashoggi murder

As promised yesterday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has a different story to Saudi Arabia on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

BBC:  Khashoggi murder planned days ahead, says Turkey’s Erdogan

The killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi was planned days in advance, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has told MPs from his ruling party.

He said Turkey had strong evidence Khashoggi was killed in a premeditated and “savage” murder at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October.

He also called for the suspects to be tried in Istanbul.

He demanded Saudi Arabia provide answers about where Khashoggi’s body was, and who had ordered the operation.

The Saudi kingdom has provided conflicting accounts of what happened to Khashoggi, a US resident and Washington Post contributor. After weeks of maintaining he was still alive, the authorities now say the 59-year-old was killed in a rogue operation.

A rogue operation by a rogue state provided with weaponry by the US in particular but also by Britan and France and other countries.

Alarming claims and revelations in killing of Saudi journalist

Claims and revelations over the apparent killing of a Saudi dissident in the Saudi Consulate in Turkey are quite alarming.

New York Times: Turkish Officials Say Khashoggi Was Killed on Order of Saudi Leadership

Top Turkish security officials have concluded that the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul on orders from the highest levels of the royal court, a senior official said Tuesday.

The official described a quick and complex operation in which Mr. Khashoggi was killed within two hours of his arrival at the consulateby a team of Saudi agents, who dismembered his body with a bone saw they brought for the purpose.

Saudi officials, including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, have denied the allegations, insisting that Mr. Khashoggi left the consulate freely shortly after he arrived. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has demanded that the Saudis provide evidence proving their claim.

The security establishment concluded that Mr. Khashoggi’s killing was directed from the top because only the most senior Saudi leaders could order an operation of such scale and complexity, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to disclose confidential briefings.

Fifteen Saudi agents had arrived on two charter flights last Tuesday, the day Mr. Khashoggi disappeared, the official said.

All 15 left just a few hours later, and Turkey has now identified the roles that most or all of them held in the Saudi government or security services, the official said. One was an autopsy expert, presumably there to help dismember the body, the official said.

A publication with close ties to Mr. Erdogan’s government, the newspaper Sabah, reported Tuesday that unnamed officials had said the police were examining the possibility that Mr. Khashoggi had been abducted and not killed, possibly with the help of another country’s intelligence officers.

The official who spoke about Mr. Khashoggi’s killing said that report and other similar ones were incorrect and were probably the result of the limited information shared among different agencies within the Turkish government.

Another person briefed on the matter, speaking on condition of anonymity to disclose confidential details, told The Times on Saturday that Turkish intelligence had obtained a video of the killing, made by the Saudis to prove that it had occurred.

A commentator close to Mr. Erdogan’s government said so publicly on Tuesday.

“There is a video of the moment of him being killed,” Kemal Ozturk, a columnist in a pro-government newspaper and the former head of a semiofficial news agency, said in an interview on a pro-government television network, citing unnamed security officials.

So alarming multiple claims, some disputed.

Fox News: US intercepted Saudi plans to capture missing journalist, report says

U.S. intelligence agencies reportedly intercepted Saudi officials discussing a plan to capture Jamal Khashoggi, the journalist who disappeared after visiting the Saudi consulate in Turkey.

The Washington Post is reporting that before the journalist disappeared on Oct. 2, Saudi officials discussed a plan to lure Khashoggi back to Saudi Arabia.

It remains unclear if the Saudi government intended to arrest or kill the journalist known for his writings criticizing the Saudi leadership, or whether the U.S. government informed Khashoggi that he was the target of the Saudi government, the report said.

Questions about what the US did, and if they knew whether they did anything to try to prevent what seemed about to happen.

The journalist’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, wrote an op-ed on Tuesday expressing hope her man is still alive. “Although my hope slowly fades away each passing day, I remain confident that Jamal is still alive,” she wrote. “Perhaps I’m simply trying to hide from the thought that I have lost a great man whose love I had earned.”

Cengiz urged President Trump and his wife Melania Trump to help shed a light on the journalist’s disappearance. “At this time, I implore President Trump and first lady Melania Trump to help shed light on Jamal’s disappearance,” she wrote.

Washington Post: Trump wants answers about missing Saudi writer

President Donald Trump says the U.S. is “demanding” answers from Saudi Arabia about missing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and wants to bring his fiancée to the White House.

Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Wednesday that he has a call in to his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz.

Trump says nobody knows exactly what happened and expressed hope that Khashoggi is not dead.

He says he’s spoken with the Saudis about what he called a “bad situation,” but he did not disclose details of his conversations.

It certainly looks like a bad situation. And a tricky one for the US – they supply a lot of weaponry to Saudi Arabia: U.S. sells 6,700 missiles to Saudi Arabia as part of $1 billion deal:

“This proposed sale will support U.S. foreign policy and national security objectives by improving the security of a friendly country which has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic growth in the Middle East,” the State Department said, adding that the deal “will not alter the basic military balance in the region.”

The murder (or abduction) of Khashoggi puts the US in a difficult position.

Haaretz: Trump’s Saudi Policy Lets MBS Think He Can Get Away With Murder, ex-U.S. Officials Say

As fears grow about fate of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, whom Turkish authorities believe was killed in Saudi consulate in Istanbul last week, experts warn that White House silence is part of the problem

 Former U.S. officials believe the Trump administration’s friendly policy toward Saudi Arabia has caused its leaders to believe they face no consequences for their actions. The fears were raised following the mysterious disappearance of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey last week, amid reports that he was murdered while visiting Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

The Trump administration has made a noticeable effort to improve America’s relations with Saudi Arabia, which became tense during President Barack Obama’s time in office. Donald Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first foreign visit as president, in May 2017, and the Saudi leadership vocally supported his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.

A close relationship has also developed between Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

A former Middle East adviser to both Republican and Democratic administrations:

Miller’s “just about anything” statement refers to a series of steps previously taken by the crown prince to oppress opposition to his rule. Over the past year, he has had hundreds of Saudi businessmen and former officials arrested without due process. His government has also jailed women’s rights and anti-corruption activists, accusing them of a conspiracy to overthrow the government.

Crown Prince Mohammed has also intensified Saudi Arabia’s war against Iran and its proxies in Yemen – a war that has turned into a full-blown humanitarian disaster. The Saudis also detained Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri last November, reportedly holding him against his will and forcing him to resign as Lebanese premier (Hariri walked back that decision when back in Beirut).

As far as is known, the Trump administration didn’t criticize or warn Saudi Arabia about any of these policies. In fact, it actively supported and encouraged some of them. When the Saudi leadership rounded up hundreds of political rivals and held them at a Riyadh hotel-cum-interim prison, Trump tweeted:

That message was well received in Riyadh. “The Trump administration made it clear from early on that it had little interest in protecting human rights, except when it comes to the rights of Christian minorities,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official who is currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington, told Haaretz.

Trump, she added, “said very explicitly that he is not interested in telling other countries how to run [their] government. Could this be seen as a green light for oppressive actions? Certainly when compared to the previous policies of every American president since the end of World War II.”

So the actions of Saudi Arabia in relation to Khashoggi are in the spotlight, but what Trump and his administration has done and does now is also very important.

Trump adds Turkey to his trade wars

Donald Trump is widening his use of tariff threats and imposition of ad hoc tariffs. now targeting Turkey.

Given Trump’s record of withdrawing from or attempting to renegotiate trade agreements, and his spraying around of tariff threats and the ad hoc imposition of tariffs, it will be difficult for the world of trade to have any certainty in what the US may do in the future.

Businesses tend to hate this sort of uncertainty.

Trump is not just using trade weapons to try to drive more favourable deals for the US, he is using them as a punishment.

Washington Post: Trump takes aim at Turkey, announcing doubling of steel and aluminum tariffs in effort to punish country

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Friday against those who try to “bully” his country, as an announcement by President Trump imposing new tariffs on Turkey sent its currency into free fall.

“The language of threats and blackmail cannot be used against this nation,” Erdogan said in apparent response to Trump’s early-morning tweet saying he was doubling existing U.S. import levies on Turkish steel and aluminum. “Those who assume they can bring us to our knees through economic manipulations don’t know our nation at all,” he said, without directly mentioning Trump or the tariffs.

But the U.S. announcement quickly sent the value of the Turkish lira, already under severe strain, to a record low against the U.S. dollar. The currency crisis has fueled growing concerns in the international financial community and among investors about the health of the Turkish economy.

Trump’s willingness to ratchet up the financial pain on Turkey followed an unsuccessful effort this week to resolve the ongoing dispute between the two countries over Andrew Brunson, an American pastor held on charges that include espionage and trying to overthrow the government.

This seems to be just how trump does things. For Trump, sanctions substitute for foreign policy

For all the talk of “fire and fury” we once heard from President Trump, his administration’s most-frequently used weapons have been not have been explosive — they’ve been financial.

Since entering office, Trump has often used economic sanctions (and, concurrently, tariffs) in an attempt to bend other countries to his will. The administration feels, with some justification, that tough sanctions brought North Korea to the negotiating table.

Now Trump hopes that reinstating sanctions on Iran will also force that country to bargain with the United States and craft a new nuclear deal.

But the evidence that these sanctions are working as a foreign-policy tool isn’t convincing. And there is considerable concern that the Trump administration is overusing them while neglecting other important facets of foreign policy, like simple negotiations or coordination with allies.

The Washington Post’s Carol Morello recently outlined just how prevalent sanctions have become in the Trump era in a recent article. She found that during just one month — February 2018 — the United States had imposed sanctions not only on North Korea, but also groups or individuals in Colombia, Libya, Congo, Pakistan, Somalia, the Philippines, Lebanon and more.

Though their use may be increasing, sanctions are not a new idea — they date back hundreds of years, if not further. Yet academic research has found that they often don’t work as intended. One study looked at 200 sanctions from between 1914 and 2008 and found only 13 that were clearly instrumental in achieving their creators’ aims.

The problem isn’t necessarily that they can’t inflict financial damage on a foe (given the power the United States holds over the global economy, that much is now a given). Instead, the issue is that this damage doesn’t always contribute to any logical foreign policy goal.

Using tariffs and sanctions is a heavy handed way of trying to get what Trump wants – there may be some successes in the short term, but damaging the finances of countries can have much wider effects (like for international investors and those who trade with the targeted country).

And Trump risks burning a lot of diplomatic bridges. Establishing a record of mistrust and unreliability may end up biting the United States on the bum.

 

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.

13 point ultimatum for Qatar

Qatar has been issued with a 13 point ultimatum and has been given 10 days to comply as Saudi Arabia and their allies pile the pressure on top of the blockade.

Guardian:  Qatar given 10 days to meet 13 sweeping demands by Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia and its allies have issued a threatening 13-point ultimatum to Qatar as the price for lifting a two-week trade and diplomatic embargo of the country, in a marked escalation of the Gulf’s worst diplomatic dispute in decades.

The onerous list of demands includes stipulations that Doha close the broadcaster al-Jazeera, drastically scale back cooperation with Iran, remove Turkish troops from Qatar’s soil, end contact with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and submit to monthly external compliance checks. Qatar has been given 10 days to comply with the demands or face unspecified consequences.

Saudi Arabia and the other nations leading the blockade – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt – launched an economic and diplomatic blockade on the energy-rich country a fortnight ago, initially claiming the Qatari royal family had licensed the funding of terrorism across the Middle East for decades. Since then, the allies appear to be pushing for the isolation of Iran and the suppression of dissenting media in the region.

Ordering a shut down of Al Jazeera on it’s own should be of concern to Gezza, and anyone who values free press.

Qatar has become reliant on Turkey and Iran for food imports since the embargo was imposed on 5 June and insists with its huge wealth it can survive the embargo for an indefinite period.

Qatar is the richest country in the world per head of population.

In a sign that the UK does not regard the demands as reasonable, foreign secretary Boris Johnson said on Friday: “Gulf unity can only be restored when all countries involved are willing to discuss terms that are measured and realistic.

“The UK calls upon the Gulf states to find a way of de-escalating the situation and lifting the current embargo and restrictions which are having an impact on the everyday lives of people in the region.”

Sounds sensible but ineffective.

US policy towards Qatar so far has been marked by confusion. President Donald Trump has appeared to take credit for the Saudi embargo and described Qatar as a haven for terrorism.

By contrast, the State Department under Rex Tillerson has twice upbraided Saudi Arabia’s approach to Qatar and questioned its true motives in sparking the diplomatic crisis.

In recent days the State Department has been pressing Saudi to specify the actions Qatar must take to see the embargo lifted, but warned that those demands need to be “reasonable and actionable”.

The US has a large military base in Qatar. It also has an unpredictable president.

The demands:

  1. Curb diplomatic ties with Iran and close its diplomatic missions there. Expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and cut off any joint military cooperation with Iran. Only trade and commerce with Iran that complies with US and international sanctions will be permitted.
  2. Sever all ties to “terrorist organisations”, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaida and Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Formally declare those entities as terrorist groups.
  3. Shut down al-Jazeera and its affiliate stations.
  4. Shut down news outlets that Qatar funds, directly and indirectly, including Arabi21, Rassd, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed and Middle East Eye.
  5. Immediately terminate the Turkish military presence in Qatar and end any joint military cooperation with Turkey inside Qatar.
  6. Stop all means of funding for individuals, groups or organisations that have been designated as terrorists by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Bahrain, the US and other countries.
  7. Hand over “terrorist figures” and wanted individuals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain to their countries of origin. Freeze their assets, and provide any desired information about their residency, movements and finances.
  8. End interference in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Stop granting citizenship to wanted nationals from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Revoke Qatari citizenship for existing nationals where such citizenship violates those countries’ laws.
  9. Stop all contacts with the political opposition in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt and Bahrain. Hand over all files detailing Qatar’s prior contacts with and support for those opposition groups.
  10.  Pay reparations and compensation for loss of life and other, financial losses caused by Qatar’s policies in recent years. The sum will be determined in coordination with Qatar.
  11.  Consent to monthly audits for the first year after agreeing to the demands, then once per quarter during the second year. For the following 10 years, Qatar would be monitored annually for compliance.
  12.  Align itself with the other Gulf and Arab countries militarily, politically, socially and economically, as well as on economic matters, in line with an agreement reached with Saudi Arabia in 2014.
  13.  Agree to all the demands within 10 days of it being submitted to Qatar, or the list becomes invalid.

I really don’t know much about how things work in the Middle East but that list seems highly hypocritical, and must be designed to be impossible to comply with because some of those demands are not just ridiculous, they would amount to Qatar being controlled by foreign dictat.