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Turkey's military operation in Syria: All the latest updates

Heavy fighting continues as Turkey presses on with its military operation, now in its ninth day, against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria.

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the military action aims to remove the Kurdish-led forces from the border area and create a “safe zone” to which millions of Syrian refugees can be returned.

The move came after the United States announced it was withdrawing its troops from the area, leaving the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), its main ally in the battle against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) armed group, without US military support.

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Here are the latest updates:

Thursday, October 17

Turkey could boost 2020 spending for Syria ‘safe zone’ housing

Turkey could allocate funds in its 2020 budget for building housing for refugees in a “safe zone” it wants to set up in northern Syria after a military incursion there, the head of the presidency’s budget directorate said.

Ankara wants to clear the Kurdish YPG militia from the length of its border with Syria and establish a zone that will extend some 20 miles (32 km) south. It says it will settle in that area up to 2 million of the 3.6 million refugees that Turkey currently hosts.

There are no funds allocated in the 2020 budget for the housing projects but it could be done if needed, Naci Agbal, the head of the Strategy and Budget Directorate said.

“The government budget is strong, flexible. The necessary initiative will be taken,” he said, adding that Turkey could also boost spending on military operations.

Report: Trump letter ‘dumped in trash’ in Turkey

Turkish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the London-based Middle East Eye news website that they responded Trump’s letter in kind and with stronger language.

“We just dumped his letter to the trash,” one of them said. 

“The date on the letter is 9 October, the same day we began Operation Peace Spring. Our president gave the best response by launching the operation on the same day at 4pm,” the official told MEE. 

The leak came a day before US Vice President Mike Pence is set arrive in Ankara seeking a ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurdish-led SDF.

Former prime minister Ahmet Davutoglu said all meetings with US officials should be cancelled.

“The Turkish nation and state were offended,” he tweeted.

Clashes between SDF and Turkey-backed froces continue in Ras al-Ain

Turkish forces and Kurdish fighters continue to battle in the border town of Ras al-Ain,  considered a strategic point for both.

Syrian forces moving north have become a major obstacle for Turkey which launched its offensive into northeast Syria a week ago in attempt to create its so-called “safe-zone” in the area.

Russia which backs Syria has called Turkey’s incursion “unacceptable”.

Aid groups scramble to reach Syrians as battle lines shift              

Humanitarian groups in northeastern Syria are scrambling to provide aid to hundreds of thousands of people as rapidly shifting battle lines make it increasingly difficult to reach them.

Nearly all foreign aid workers have been evacuated because of security concerns, and there are fears that local staff could face reprisals, either at the hands of Turkish-led forces pushing in from the north or Syrian troops fanning out across territory held by the embattled Kurds.

Doctors Without Borders, which operates in war zones around the globe and is known by its French acronym MSF, said Tuesday it had decided to suspend most of its activities and evacuate all its international staff from northeastern Syria.

The International Rescue Committee also said it has suspended its health operations in the northeast because of “hostilities and uncertainty.”

Hungary fearful of new of wave of Syria migrants

Hungary would have to “use force” at its southern border with Serbia to protect the European Union’s frontier if Turkey delivers on a threat to open the gates for refugees through the Balkans towards Europe, Hungary’s prime minister said.

“If Turkey sets off further hundreds of thousands on top of (existing migrant flows), then we will need to use force to protect the Hungarian border and the Serbian-Hungarian frontier and I do not wish for anyone that we should need to resort to that,” Prime Minister Viktor Orban said.

Erdogan to meet US delegation in Ankara

Turkish President Erdogan is expected to meet US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence in Ankara to discuss the Turkish offensive in northeast Syria.

“At this point, the vice president and I are planning to take off later this afternoon,” Pompeo told US media on Wednesday. “And we have every expectation that we will meet with President Erdogan.”

Erdogan told Sky News earlier on Wednesday that he would not meet with the US delegation led by Pence before reversing his position in comments to the Turkish press.

Wednesday, October 16

Trump sent threatening letter to Erdogan

On the day Turkey launched its offensive in northeast Syria, Trump wrote to Erdogan saying the Turkish president would be remembered as a “devil” if he moved ahead with the military action. 

Trump started his October 9 letter suggesting they could “work out a good deal”.

“You don’t want to be responsible for the slaughtering of thousands of people, and I don’t want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy,” he wrote. 

“History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way,” Trump continued. “It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don’t happen.”

“Don’t be a tough guy. Don’t be a fool!” he said, adding that the SDF‘s commander was willing to negotiate.

The authenticity of the letter was confirmed by the White House.

Pompeo to visit Jerusalem and Brussels after Turkey

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Jerusalem and Brussels after his visit to Turkey on Thursday with Vice President Mike Pence, the State Department said on Wednesday.

Pompeo will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Friday and then travel later that day to Brussels for a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, the statement said.

Pence and Pompeo are going to Turkey’s capital Ankara to urge Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan to stop his invasion of Syria.

Democrats walk out of briefing with Trump on Turkey

Trump met members of Congress at the White House on Wednesday to discuss Turkey and Syria.

Democrats say Trump insulted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, calling her a “third-rate politician.” Democratic leaders left shortly afterwards.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy is trying to pin the blame on Pelosi, saying she stormed out of the meeting. 

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Senate Republicans defend US alliance with Syrian Kurds

Senate Republicans are sticking up for the US-allied Syrian Kurds after Trump defended his pullout of US troops on Wednesday. 

GOP Leader Mitch McConnell called the partnership “a terrific alliance” that set the ISIL group back and says he is “sorry we are where we are”.

Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “has not been a reliable ally. The Kurds have been a reliable ally.”

Source: Aljazeera

Hong Kong pro-democracy leader 'stable' after hammer attack

In August, Jimmy Sham was also attacked by two suspects with a baseball bat and knife [File: Thomas Peter/Reuters]

A leading Hong Kong pro-democracy figure who has been involved in the city’s ongoing protests, is “stable and taking rest in hospital”, after a hammer attack overnight left him bleeding and collapsed on a pavement.

The Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) denounced on Thursday the “unacceptable acts of violence” against its leader, Jimmy Sham, and other prominent activists and politicians, who have been calling for more freedom in the autonomous Chinese city. 

“It is not hard to link this incident to a spreading political terror in order to threaten and inhibit the legitimate exercise of natural and legal rights,” the CHRF said.

In a separate statement posted earlier on social media, the group said it “strongly condemns” the incident on Wednesday night, and urged police to conduct an investigation “to bring the perpetrators to justice”.

Images posted on social media on Wednesday showed Sham collapsed in a pavement next to a vehicle with blood all over his face and body.

According to the front, between four to five people with hammers attacked Sham about 7:30pm local time on Wednesday (11:30 GMT).

Several people nearby reportedly tried to intervene and stop the attack, but were “threatened at knifepoint”.

“The perpetrators then boarded a seven-seater car after the attack and fled,” the statement said.

It was the second attack on Sham in three months. In August he was also attacked by at least two people with a baseball bat and knife.

‘Horrifying attack’

Police later showed up at the scene of the attack on Arran Lane, a few blocks from Mong Kok.

The opposition Demosisto party, however, denounced the officers for failing to “set up any blockade at the crime scene”.

A video posted by Demosisto also showed one police officer stepping on bloodstains at the spot where Sham was attacked.

In a statement, Joshua Rosenzweig of Amnesty International urged authorities to “promptly conduct an investigation into this horrifying attack”.

“Anything less would send a chilling signal that such attacks are tolerated by the authorities,” he said.

Sham, who is running for a seat in the district council election in November, has been at the forefront in the campaign for the Hong Kong government to deliver the so-called “five demands”, including the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, an independent investigation into alleged police brutality and universal suffrage for the Hong Kong Legislative Council and Chief Executive.

On Thursday, the CHRF urged people to come out and join the protest on Sunday “to stand their ground and show the perpetrators and this regime that we will not stand down”.

Protests in Hong Kong began in opposition to an extradition bill that would have allowed suspects to be sent to China for trial, but have broadened into a pro-democracy movement amid fears that Beijing is undermining Hong Kong’s freedoms. The bill is due to be formally withdrawn this week.

The unrest has plunged Hong Kong into its worst crisis since Britain handed it back to China in 1997 and poses the biggest popular challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.

Source: Aljazeera

US imposes 'reciprocal' restrictions on Chinese diplomats

China’s Ambassador to the USA Cui Tiankai (right) speaks to Terry McAuliffe (centre), governor of the US state of Virginia and another state official [File: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA]

The United States has ordered diplomats from China to notify the State Department before meeting federal and local officials, calling it a “reciprocal” move.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the new restrictions announced on Wednesday came in response to restrictions US diplomats faced when trying to meet Chinese officials and academics.

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“Unfortunately in China, US diplomats do not have unfettered access to a range of folks that are important for us to do our job there,” the official told reporters.

“That includes local and provincial level officials, academic institutions, research institutes,” the official added.

“We have to seek permission and such permission is often denied.”

The move comes as Washington and Beijing – the world’s two largest economies – are locked in a bitter trade dispute. A partial deal is now being put down in writing, President Donald Trump said on Wednesday.

Chinese diplomats will now be required to inform the State Department in advance of any official meetings with US diplomats or local or municipal officials, and before any visits to universities or research institutions.

“What we’re trying to achieve here is just to get closer to a reciprocal situation,” the official said, emphasising that Chinese diplomats were not being asked to get “permission” for their visits.

The official said he hoped the measure would prompt Beijing to open up more to US diplomats.

The US decision is the latest in an ongoing diplomatic tit-for-tat with China.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Minister spokesman Geng Shuang had accused the US of harassing Chinese scholars, students, businessmen and scientists through the denial or revocation of visas

Geng complained the US was thwarting “normal people-to-people exchange” and infringing on the “safety and lawful rights and interests” of those involved.

China’s Ministry of Public Security also announced last week that it is planning to impose tighter visa restrictions on US nationals with ties to “anti-China” groups, including those employed, or sponsored, by US intelligence services and human rights groups.

The US and China are also at odds over intellectual property rights and human rights questions including freedom of speech.

Source: Aljazeera

SDF commander says Trump did not object to deal with Syrian gov't

Mazloum Abdi, SDF commander-in-chief, said Trump did not object to his group’s deal with Syrian government [File: Rodi Said/Reuters]

Donald Trump, the president of the United States, did not object to an agreement between Kurdish-led forces and the Syrian government to stave off Turkey’s cross-border offensive in northeast Syria, according to a senior Kurdish official.

Mazloum Abdi, the commander of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), made the comment in an interview broadcast on Kurdish-language Ronahi TV on Wednesday.

Abdi, who said he had a phone call with the US president, said Russia would guarantee the SDF’s agreement with Damascus. 

The Syria-Kurd deal, announced on Sunday, came days after Turkey launched an assault against the Kurdish fighters, which it considers “terrorists”. Ankara said the operation was also aimed at creating a “safe zone” to resettle Syrian refugees.  

Abdi, whose forces were Washington’s main Syrian ally in the battle against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant group (ISIL, or ISIS), has previously said the SDF was forced to turn to Damascus because of Trump’s decision to pull US troops from the region.

The agreement has shifted the balance of power in the region with Syrian government troops entering the strategic city of Manbij. Russia said its forces were patrolling front lines between the Turkish-allied forces and the Syrian army positions outside the city to prevent a confrontation.

On Wednesday, Syrian troops also entered the northern town of Kobane or Ain al-Arab, where Kurdish and US forces had first defeated ISIL fighters more than four years ago.

Abdi told Rohani the agreement with President Bashar al-Assad‘s government requires the Syrian army to deploy across the entire northeast border with Turkey. However, he denied reports that the SDF was handing control of their areas over to the Syrian government forces. 

He said the deal would pave the way for a political solution that guaranteed Kurdish rights in Syria.

Analysts, however, have told Al Jazeera that any agreement would be “costly” to the Kurds as Assad was unlikely to allow the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria to maintain autonomy over the region. Exact details of the deal between the Kurds and the Syrian government are not clear. 

Trump, meanwhile, has faced criticism at home and abroad for withdrawing US troops from the northeast portion of Syria last week. 

During a news conference at the White House on Wednesday, Trump doubled-down on his decision, calling the withdrawal “strategically brilliant”.

“Turkey has gone into Syria. If Turkey goes into Syria, that’s between Turkey and Syria – it’s not between Turkey and the United States, like a lot of stupid people would like you to believe,” he said. 

Separately, Abdi said operations against ISIL had been paused in light of the Turkish military offensive.

“We have frozen all our actions against Daesh,”  he said, using the Arabic acronym for ISIL.

However, the SDF would continue to be in charge of roughly 12,000 suspected ISIL fighters imprisoned in northern Syria, he said. 

Source: Aljazeera

Turkey's Erdogan to travel to Russia for talks with Putin

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Sochi on October 22 [File: Maxim Shipenkov/Reuters]

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has accepted an invitation to hold talks with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, over Ankara’s military offensive in northeast Syria

The meeting between the two leaders will take place at the Black Sea resort of Sochi on October 22, a statement by Erdogan’s office said on Wednesday. It gave no further details.   

Putin invited Erdogan “for a working visit in the coming days”, the Russian leader’s office said on Tuesday. “The invitation was accepted,” it added.

Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for Putin, meanwhile, denied speculation that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would join the Russian and Turkish leaders for trilateral talks. Russia is Syria’s main military backer.

Last week, US President Donald Trump abruptly announced the withdrawal of US troops from the northeast region of Syria, clearing the way for a cross-border military campaign by Turkey. 

Turkey’s offensive, now into its eighth day, is aimed at pushing back Kurdish-led forces from the border area and creating a “safe-zone” for the return of Syrian refugees. 

Ankara regards the Syrian Kurdish fighters as “terrorists” linked to Kurdish separatists on its soil.

Following the US withdrawal, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) pivoted to an unlikely alliance with the Syrian government, who have since deployed troops to the border region. 

Source: Aljazeera

Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Europe's 'double standard' in arms sales

A boy waves a Turkish flag as Turkish military vehicles drive down a street in the Turkish border town of Akcakale, Sanliurfa province [Stoyan Nenov/Reuters]

European powers have moved quickly to censure Turkey over its long-threatened military offensive in northeast Syria.

Soon after Turkish troops launched the cross-border operation on October 9 – aiming to “eliminate” Kurdish fighters it considers “terrorists” from the region – European members of the United Nations Security Council called for an immediate cessation of hostilities. In a joint statement, they said Ankara’s actions could destabilise the Middle East and displace even more people.

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The condemnation was followed swiftly by bans on arms sales to Turkey.

Europe’s top weapons exporters – France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Spain and Italy – all said they would halt the export of arms that Turkey could use in its military operation in Syria.

The swift response to Turkey stands in stark contrast to the resistance most of them showed this time last year when human rights groups had called for similar penalties against Saudi Arabia over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi.

The journalist’s murder on October 2, 2018 – carried out by Saudi agents inside the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul – shocked the world and prompted renewed scrutiny of Riyadh’s actions in Yemen, where a Saudi-led coalition has waged a years-long campaign against Houthi rebels.

That conflict has killed tens of thousands of people and pushed the Arab world’s most impoverished country to the brink of famine.

As the outcry over Khashoggi intensified, Germany responded with a six-month-long arms ban on Saudi Arabia, but the other four countries continued to ignore calls for action.

France and Britain, in fact, criticised Berlin after it extended the arms ban earlier this year, with London expressing “grave concerns” about the effect the freeze was having on the supply chains of the European defence industry.

‘Hypocrisy’

The UK was ultimately forced to suspend weapon sales to Riyadh in June when an appeals court said it had broken the law by allowing arms exports that might have been used in Yemen’s war. The British government, however, plans to appeal the ruling.

France, Spain and Italy refused to follow suit. That’s despite a recent United Nations report saying countries that sell arms to Riyadh may be complicit in war crimes in Yemen.

“When you compare Turkey to Saudi Arabia, we see an element of hypocrisy in the position of European and other Western countries,” said Marwan Kabalan, Director of Policy Analysis at the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Doha, Qatar.

“This is because countries are less concerned about principles or consistency when it comes to foreign policy. They are mainly seeking their own interests.”

The “double-standard” in policy towards Ankara and Riyadh, according to Kabalan, mainly comes down to the volume of weapons each country imports.

Saudi Arabia is the world’s top arms importer and spent $16.9bn buying weapons in the period between 2014 and 2018, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a defence think-tank. At least $4.9bn of that amount was spent on European arms.

In contrast, Turkey spent $3.4bn on weapons imports in the same period, SIPRI said, half of which went to European countries.

 

Sinan Ulgen, chairman of the Istanbul-based Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies, said Europe’s top arms exporters stood to “forgo a much larger pie if they were to stop arming Saudi Arabia than if they were to stop military exports to Turkey.

“So it is more difficult for them economically to take that step,” he said, noting the European move against Turkey was “not a blanket ban on all military materials” as it only applied to items that could be used in Ankara’s ongoing cross-border operation.

The measure is further weakened, said Andrew Smith, spokesman for the UK-based Campaign Against Arms Trade, as it did not apply to Europe’s existing defence contracts with Turkey.

“This is largely symbolic and is unlikely to make any difference militarily,” he said.

Turkey’s domestic defence industry

Indeed, the move appears to have done little to deter Ankara.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has promised to continue with the offensive in Syria until the Kurdish fighters laid down their arms.

“Those who think they can make Turkey turn back with these threats are gravely mistaken,” he said on Monday, referring to the weapons bans.

In an editorial on the same day, the pro-government Daily Sabah newspaper said the European moves “have no impact or is very limited on the defence capabilities and inventories of the Turkish military”.

Turkey produces 70 percent of the arms it needs, the newspaper said, and the development of “homegrown air, land and marine platforms has secured Turkey’s success in anti-terror operations both at home and abroad … without relying on imported defence products”.

The desire for self-sufficiency in defence, according to Daily Sabah, was driven by a US arms embargo against Ankara in 1974 when Turkish troops seized the northern third of Cyprus in response to an Athens-inspired Greek Cypriot coup seeking union with Greece.

Under Erdogan, Turkey’s defence exports have boomed, according to figures published by SIPRI.

Ankara’s arms sales have increased by 170 percent in the last four years, with its top buyers being the United Arab Emirates, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia.

Despite the allegations of double standards in Europe’s policies on arms exports, the Centre for Economics and Foreign Policy Studies’ Ulgen said there were important differences in Europe’s considerations when it came to Syria and Yemen.

Europe’s main concern over Syria, he said, was that the renewed fighting could revive the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, or ISIS) armed group and result in those displaced trying to seek refuge in Europe, as they did in 2015.

“Yemen is too far away for Europe as well as the US, in terms of their security landscapes. Syria is much closer,” he said.

Source: Aljazeera