Russia says U.S. pullout from Syria looking more like permanent occupation

Moscow, November 7 (RHC)-- The long-anticipated U.S. pullout from Syria appears to have been postponed, with Pentagon sources claiming some 800 troops will stay behind to “guard” Syria’s oil, in a mission even pro-war U.S. politicians are calling “reckless.”

In Moscow, the Russian government slammed the illegal U.S. presence in Syria amid reports of new military bases being built in a northeastern oil-rich province.

U.S. troops will occupy a large area stretching 150 kilometers from Deir ez-Zor to al-Hasakah, the Trump administration announced earlier this week.  A total of about 800 troops will be stationed in the country, with some 600 in the Kurdish-controlled northeast plus the 200 currently garrisoned at al-Tanf in the south, anonymous administration officials told the Associated Press.

The decision appears to cancel out President Donald Trump’s promise made last month to bring home the 1,000 troops stationed in Syria, representing another triumph of the hawks in his administration over the president’s non-interventionist impulses.  Trump has repeatedly bragged “We’re keeping the oil.”

The U.S. is building two new military bases in Deir ez-Zor, according to Turkish media reports, indicating Trump is settling in for the long haul.  One base, near the town of Rmelan in al-Hasakah province, is reportedly situated near some 1,300 oil wells and fills up approximately 4 square kilometers.

Edited by Ed Newman
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Syria'a Assad says will respond to Turkish aggression on any part of country: state media

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Syria will respond to a Turkish aggression on any part of its territory with “all legitimate means” available, President Bashar al-Assad said on Thursday according to state media.

The comments come after an agreement between Damascus and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces to fend off an assault launched by Turkey on northeastern Syria last week.

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U.S. to Try Diplomacy in Turkey as Russian Forces Swoop Into Syria

President Trump on Tuesday said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would travel to Turkey with Vice President Mike Pence, who will meet with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday where, the White House said, Mr. Pence will reiterate the administration’s commitment to maintain sanctions on Turkey until a resolution is reached.

Congressional leaders from both parties are set to visit the White House on Wednesday afternoon for a meeting with Mr. Trump on Turkey. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) is set to attend, her first meeting with the president since she kicked off the impeachment inquiry.

Administration opposition to the Turkish assault has heightened since Mr. Trump on Oct. 6 ordered a U.S. withdrawal from northeastern Syria in a statement that said the U.S. “will not support” the incursion. After bipartisan political criticism, U.S. officials on Friday threatened sanctions if Turkey didn’t agree to a cease-fire, and imposed some of the measures on Monday.

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As roughly 1,000 U.S. troops work their way out of Syria, American forces Tuesday put on a show of force when members of a Turkish-backed militia came dangerously close to a U.S. position, officials said. American F-15 fighters and Apache attack helicopters flew overhead, and the Turkish-backed force retreated. No shots were fired on either side, officials said.

“It’s a volatile, dangerous situation and we are focused on doing an orderly and deliberate withdrawal…with the number one priority being the protection of our forces,” an official said.

As U.S. troops departed, Russian forces were patrolling the line between Turkish and Syrian armies in and around the city of Manbij, Russia’s Defense Ministry said, demonstrating the country’s growing role as a power broker in the multisided conflict. American forces have left the city, a U.S. military spokesman said, as part of a broader pullout from northeast Syria, where they had joined with Kurdish allies in a coalition fighting Islamic State.

After Mr. Trump withdrew from that partnership, Kurdish fighters in the area sought to shield themselves from a week-old Turkish offensive by striking an alliance with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which is backed by Russia and Iran.

Syrian military convoys have begun moving into positions across the northeast of the country, where the army had only a token presence since the start of the war.

U.S. officials acknowledged the arrival of the Syrian and Russian forces into areas that had been under U.S. control only a week ago. Some of them are now in proximity to Turkish forces, a senior Trump administration official said.

The movement of Russian troops and the departure of American forces from the area have led both sides to use a military deconfliction channel that had been set up by U.S. and Russian commanders, the official said. As of Tuesday, the number of Russian military forces near Manbij was relatively small, “not even hundreds,” the official said.

The U.S. pullback has created an opening for Moscow to expand its clout in a region dominated for decades by American influence but now unsettled by Mr. Trump’s withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and his stated desire to disengage from the Middle East.

“The Russians think of themselves as the natural player in the grand design of the geopolitics of the region,” said Malik R. Dahlan, a Saudi lawyer and senior fellow at the Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.

The U.S. departure smooths Russia’s way to ensure it retains control over much of Syria’s natural resources. Russia’s decision to intervene was heavily influenced by the investments Moscow had made there since Soviet times.

Before the Syrian war, Russian companies had invested more than $10 billion to build gas-processing facilities, pipelines and pump oil. That activity stopped as fighting raged, and Syrian oil assets had traded hands in the heaviest years of fighting and at one point were controlled by Kurdish groups and protected by U.S. troops.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has showed a willingness to foster friendships of his own with U.S. allies as well as its adversaries. He has developed strong ties not only with Mr. Assad, but also with Mr. Erdogan, whose country is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Mr. Putin arrived on Tuesday in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, where Russian officials said they planned to sign 10 investment agreements valued at a total of $1.3 billion. Russia signed billions of dollars in deals a day earlier in Saudi Arabia, a longtime U.S. ally that for decades had been a Cold War adversary of Moscow.

Such traditional U.S. allies are grappling with Mr. Trump’s efforts to scale back Washington’s footprint in the region. After the U.S. troop withdrawal in Syria paved the way for the Turkish offensive, Mr. Erdogan said Turkey had seized significant territory, now controlling about 386 square miles of territory in northeastern Syria. He said Turkey would continue to press the campaign to secure an area about 10 times larger between Manbij and the Iraqi border.

“We will continue our struggle until the north of Syria is green again,” Mr. Erdogan said in a televised speech from Baku, Azerbaijan.

Moscow said it would prevent any serious conflicts from erupting between Syrian government forces and Turkish troops. “It’s not that no one is interested in conflict, it’s unacceptable, and therefore we won’t allow it,” said Alexander Lavrentiev, Russia’s special envoy to the Syria crisis, Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Mr. Lavrentiev said Moscow hoped the U.S. would soon pull all of its forces out of the country. “Regardless of Trump’s statements about the withdrawal of U.S. troops in two weeks, it’s hard to say what the final result will be,” Interfax reported him as saying. “But there’s hope.”

Russia has long criticized the presence of the U.S. in Syria, where it allied with Kurdish fighters who were seeking self-rule. Russia entered at Mr. Assad’s request in 2015 to help roll back the gains of antigovernment rebels.

One battle in February 2018 saw the U.S. kill a number of Russian mercenaries who were likely fighting for a pro-Assad militia.

The latest phase of the eight-year Syrian conflict threatens to unleash a wave of refugees. Iraq is bracing for an influx of as many as a quarter of a million people. The semiautonomous Kurdistan region in northern Iraq already hosts more than 200,000 refugees from Syria. Around 450 people have crossed the border from Syria in the past two days, authorities in northern Iraq said.

Turkey’s incursion has displaced some 130,000 people from their homes in northeast Syria since it began one week ago, the United Nations said. The majority have remained within the country, moving away from the border to seek sanctuary from the fighting.

The U.S. has evacuated a small contingent of American diplomats and began relocating troops from smaller front-line bases to larger ones that are easier to defend or father from the fighting.

Mr. Trump has dismissed criticism for exposing a U.S. ally with his decision to pull troops from Syria. On Monday, he authorized sanctions and raised steel tariffs on Turkey, threatening more-powerful financial penalties unless Ankara halted its offensive.

At least 71 civilians have been killed in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group said six of them were executed by Turkish-backed fighters along the M4 highway running along the border. A senior Trump administration official on Tuesday attributed the executions to Turkish-supported Syrian opposition elements being used by Ankara as part of its military assault.

“The Turkish Armed Forces and the Syrian National Army are conducting an extremely meticulous operation without inflicting even slightest harm to civilians,” the Turkish presidency’s communications department said on Tuesday.

Ankara could have employed traditional military units to conduct its operation, the official said, but “instead they decided to use these thugs and bandits and pirates that should be wiped off the face of the earth.” The unit affiliated with those killings is “a well-known jihadist element,” the official added.

Turkey has long relied on such Syrian proxy groups, as it did in 2016 and 2018 when Ankara launched its two previous military offensives in Syria. For years, U.S. officials had rejected demands that American forces work with Turkey’s Syrian proxies because of U.S. concerns about their links to extremist groups and questions about their professionalism.

Pentagon officials said they have “significant concerns” about the militias backed by Turkey. “The Turks have committed to us that they will have control over those forces, but it’s a continued concern, especially after you unleash a force like that,” the official said.

“In terms of counterterrorism, we have never been subjected to a double standard as the one we are now facing in Syria,” Mr. Erdogan said.

For the U.S., “goal No. 1 is to carry out diplomacy, to try to find a cease-fire and get the situation under control,” a senior Trump administration official said, citing the current confusion and risk to U.S. troops, the fight against Islamic State, the detention of nearly 10,000 prisoners, and the management of internally displaced persons camps.

The official denounced Ankara’s suggestions that the U.S. had provided Kurdish-led forces in Syria with heavy weapons, saying it has given the Syrian Democratic Forces mainly small arms and mortars.

Russia’s taking the place of U.S. troops in northeast Syria surprised even some of its security officials as to how quickly Moscow emerged with a commanding position in the conflict.

“It’s an unusual development in our relationship with the U.S. to see Washington voluntarily hand over a territory to a Russian sphere of influence,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of a Kremlin defense and foreign-policy advisory board. “But we’ll take it.”

Corrections & Amplifications Russia’s military entered the Syrian conflict in 2015. An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Russia entered in 2016. (Oct. 15, 2019)

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Turkey May Be "Responsible" For Executions Of Kurds In Syria: UN

Geneva, Switzerland: The UN warned Tuesday that reported summary executions of civilians in northeastern Syria carried out by pro-Turkish fighters could amount to a "war crime" and that Ankara could be "deemed responsible".

The Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces said over the weekend that at least nine civilians were "executed" as part of Turkey's incursion into northeastern Syria, which began nearly a week ago.

Among them was 35-year-old Hevrin Khalaf, the secretary-general of the Future Syria Party, who according to the forces was taken out of her car and killed by Turkish-allied Syrian fighters.

The UN rights office said its staff had viewed two separate pieces of video footage "showing what appears to be summary executions carried out by fighters belonging to the Ahrar al-Sharqiya armed group, which is affiliated with Turkey, on 12 October."

Spokesman Rupert Colville said the footage, which has been widely shared on social media, appeared "to show the fighters filming themselves capturing and executing three Kurdish captives" on the main highway.

"Only one of the captives appeared to be wearing a military uniform," he told reporters in Geneva, adding that the office had also received reports of Khalaf's execution the same day "on the same highway".

He said the UN was working to verify the footage and confirm the details of the events, but stressed that under international law, "summary executions are serious violations, and may amount to a war crime." 

He warned that "Turkey could be deemed responsible as a state for violations committed by their affiliated armed groups, as long as Turkey exercises effective control over these groups or the operations in the course of which those violations occurred."

Colville called on Ankara "to immediately launch an impartial, transparent and independent investigation into both incidents."

Turkey, he said, must also "apprehend those responsible, some of whom should be easily identifiable from the video footage they themselves shared on social media."

Since the Turkish offensive began last Wednesday, Colville said that the UN rights office had been able to verify a number of civilian deaths each day in northeastern Syria due to "airstrikes, ground-based strikes, and sniper fire."

He pointed in particular to an airstrike that hit a convoy of vehicles on Sunday, which reportedly killed "at least four civilians, including two journalists" and injured dozens of others.

He said the UN was "appalled" by a number of attacks on medical facilities in the region.

As of Monday, he said the UN had received reports of five facilities hit -- all of them allegedly by airstrikes or ground-based strikes carried out by Turkish forces and their allies.

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Trump Followed His Gut on Syria. Calamity Came Fast.

President Trump’s acquiescence to Turkey’s move to send troops deep inside Syrian territory has in only one week’s time turned into a bloody carnage, forced the abandonment of a successful five-year-long American project to keep the peace on a volatile border, and given an unanticipated victory to four American adversaries: Russia, Iran, the Syrian government and the Islamic State.

Rarely has a presidential decision resulted so immediately in what his own party leaders have described as disastrous consequences for American allies and interests. How this decision happened — springing from an “off-script moment” with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, in the words of a senior American diplomat — likely will be debated for years by historians, Middle East experts and conspiracy theorists.

But this much already is clear: Mr. Trump ignored months of warnings from his advisers about what calamities likely would ensue if he followed his instincts to pull back from Syria and abandon America’s longtime allies, the Kurds. He had no Plan B, other than to leave. The only surprise is how swiftly it all collapsed around the president and his depleted, inexperienced foreign policy team.

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Day after day, they have been caught off-guard, offering up differing explanations of what Mr. Trump said to Mr. Erdogan, how the United States and its allies might respond, and even whether Turkey remains an American ally. For a while Mr. Trump said he acted because the Islamic State was already defeated, and because he was committed to terminating “endless wars” by pulling American troops out of the Middle East. By the end of the week he added 2,000 — to Saudi Arabia.

One day he was inviting Mr. Erdogan to visit the White House; the next he was threatening to “totally destroy and obliterate” Turkey’s economy if it crossed a line that he never defined.

Mr. Erdogan just kept going.

Mr. Trump’s error, some aides concede in off-the-record conversations, was entering the Oct. 6 call underprepared, and then failing to spell out for Mr. Erdogan the potential consequences — from economic sanctions to a dimunition of Turkey’s alliance with the United States and its standing in NATO. He has since threatened both, retroactively. But it is not clear Mr. Erdogan believes either is a real risk.

The drama is nowhere near over. Out of necessity, the Kurds switched sides on Sunday, turning their backs on Washington and signing up with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, a man the United States has called a war criminal for gassing his own people. At the Pentagon, officials struggled with the right response if Turkish forces — NATO allies — again opened fire on any of the 1,000 or so Americans now preparing to retreat from their positions inside Syria. Those troops are trapped for now, since Turkey has cut off the roads; removing them may require an airlift.

And over the weekend, State and Energy Department officials were quietly reviewing plans for evacuating roughly 50 tactical nuclear weapons that the United States had long stored, under American control, at Incirlik Air Base in Turkey, about 250 miles from the Syrian border, according to two American officials.

Those weapons, one senior official said, were now essentially Erdogan’s hostages. To fly them out of Incirlik would be to mark the de facto end of the Turkish-American alliance. To keep them there, though, is to perpetuate a nuclear vulnerability that should have been eliminated years ago.

“I think this is a first — a country with U.S. nuclear weapons stationed in it literally firing artillery at US forces,” Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies wrote last week.

For his part, Mr. Erdogan claims nuclear ambitions of his own: Only a month ago, speaking to supporters, he said, he said he “cannot accept” rules that keep Turkey from possessing nuclear weapons of its own.

“There is no developed nation in the world that doesn’t have them,” he said. (In fact, most do not.)

“This president keeps blindsiding our military and diplomatic leaders and partners with impulsive moves like this that benefit Russia and authoritarian regimes,” said Senator Jack Reed, the Rhode Island Democrat and longtime member of the Armed Services Committee.

“If this president were serious about ending wars and winning peace, he’d actually articulate a strategy that would protect against a re-emergence of ISIS and provide for the safety of our Syrian partners,” Mr. Reed added. “But he has repeatedly failed to do that. Instead, this is another example of Donald Trump creating chaos, undermining U.S. interests, and benefitting Russia and the Assad regime.”

The other major beneficiary is Iran, perhaps Mr. Trump’s most talked-about geo-political foe, which has long supported the Syrian regime and sought freer rein across the country.

But none of that appeared to have been anticipated by Mr. Trump, who has no fondness for briefing books and meetings in the Situation Room intended to game out events two or three moves ahead. Instead, he often talks about the trusting his instincts.

“My gut tells me more sometimes than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me," he said late last year. He was discussing the Federal Reserve, but could just as easily been talking foreign policy; in 2017 he told a reporter, right after his first meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, that it was his “gut feel” for how to deal with foreign leaders, honed over years in the real estate world, that guided him. “Foreign policy is what I’ll be remembered for,” he said.

But in this case the failure to look around corners has blown up on him at a speed that is rare in foreign policy and national security. The closest analogue may date back to 1950, during Harry Truman’s administration, when Secretary of State Dean Acheson described America’s new “defense perimeter” in a speech, saying it ran from southern Japan through the Philippines. That left out the Korean Peninsula, and two weeks later Joseph Stalin, the Soviet leader, appeared to have given Kim Il-sung, grandfather of the current North Korean leader, permission to launch his invasion of the South. The bloody stalemate that followed lives with the United States today.

At the time, the United States kept a token force in South Korea, akin to the one parked along the Turkish-Syrian border. And it is impossible to know whether the North Korean attack would have been launched even without Mr. Acheson’s failure to warn about American action if a vulnerable ally was attacked — just as it is impossible to know if Mr. Erdogan would have sent his troops over the border if that phone call, and Mr. Trump’s failure to object, had never happened.

It was Mr. Trump himself who, during a presidential debate with Hillary Clinton in 2016, blamed President Barack Obama for a similar error. “President Obama and Secretary Clinton created a vacuum the way they got out of Iraq,” he said, referring to the 2011 withdrawal. “They shouldn’t have been in, but once they got in, the way they got out was a disaster. And ISIS was formed.”

Even his allies see the parallel. “If I didn’t see Donald Trump’s name on the tweet I thought it would be Obama’s rationale for getting out of Iraq,” Senator Lindsey Graham, one of Mr. Trump’s most vociferous defenders in recent years, but among his harshest Republican critics for the Syria decision, said last week.

As James F. Jeffrey, who worked for Mr. Obama as ambassador to Turkey, then to Iraq, and now serves as Mr. Trump’s special envoy for Syria, noted several years ago, it’s debatable whether events would have played out differently if the United States had stayed in Iraq.

Could a residual force have prevented ISIS’s victories?” he asked in a Wall Street Journal essay five years ago. “With troops we would have had better intelligence on al Qaeda in Iraq and later ISIS, a more attentive Washington, and no doubt a better-trained Iraqi army. But the common argument that U.S. troops could have produced different Iraqi political outcomes is hogwash. The Iraqi sectarian divides, which ISIS exploited, run deep and were not susceptible to permanent remedy by our troops at their height, let alone by 5,000 trainers under Iraqi restraints.”

Mr. Trump may now be left to make the same argument about Syria: That nothing could have stopped Mr. Erdogan, that the Russians would benefit in any case, that there are other ways to push back at Iran. Perhaps history will side with him.

For now, however, he has given up most of what little leverage he had.


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ICYMI: Pulling troops out of Syria leads to geopolitical whack-a-mole for Trump (VIDEO)

Donald Trump pulled US troops out of north-eastern Syria, claiming he wants to put an end to America’s ‘endless wars.’ Unfortunately, it’s not that easy and he started a game of geopolitical whack-a-mole.

While bringing troops home might sound like a good idea, the US President soon found himself having to put out fires at every turn. He faced accusations of betraying one ally, threatened another, and was then attacked by friends and foes back home.

ICYMI asks whether there might be a very good reason why those wars are ‘endless.’

CYMI: Syria Pullout: Geo-pol Whack-a-Mole...

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70,000 people forced to flee amid Turkey's Syria assault, U.N. says

Qamishli, Syria – The U.N. says 70,000 people in northern Syria have been forced to flee because of Turkey's assault on U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. Turkish warplanes and artillery blasted targets across the Syrian border Friday on the third day of the offensive.

The city of Qamishli in northern Syria is a very important city for the Kurdish population, reports CBS News correspondent Charlie D'Agata. It sort of serves as their administrative center. But it's is only about a mile and a half from the Turkish border, which means it's vulnerable to airstrikes, artillery and mortars.

A couple of nights ago, Qamishli came under a mortar attack. Three mortars slammed into the neighborhood, killing one person on the spot. Two people were injured and are now fighting for their lives in a hospital.

This kind of random violence in the area has sparked a mass exodus of Qamishli. There was a bottleneck Thursday on a main road leading south, away from Turkish airstrikes and mortar attacks. Families didn't want to take a chance with their young children on attacks like this.

The Turkish government has defended its military operation, saying it's clearing the area of terrorists. But more and more, it's starting to look like a campaign of ethnic cleansing – forcing the local Kurdish population away from cities and villages. Instead they're putting in place many Syrian Arabs who sought refuge in Turkey, people who don't come from the region. That has now become a point of discussion not only among the local population, but also among the international community.



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Trump says US not abandoning Kurds, again threatens ‘partner’ Turkey with economic devastation

The withdrawal of US troops from northeastern Syria does not amount to abandoning the Kurds, Donald Trump said in the wake of criticism at home. He claims Turkey faces devastation if there is ‘unnecessary fighting’ against them.

Trump took to Twitter to justify his decision to pull US troops back from their positions on the Syrian border with Turkey, which potentially exposes Kurdish militias to an attack by the Turkish military. Contrary to what many critics of the move say, the US has “in no way… Abandoned the Kurds, who are special people and wonderful fighters,” the US leader said.

While we only had 50 soldiers remaining in that section of Syria, and they have been removed, any unforced or unnecessary fighting by Turkey will be devastating to their economy and to their very fragile currency,” Trump tweeted, doubling down on Monday’s threat to destroy the Turkish economy, if the country wages war against Syria’s Kurds.

Also on Trump threatens to OBLITERATE Turkey’s economy if it does ‘anything off limits’....

Kurdish militias played a key role in fighting terrorist group Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS) in northeastern Syria, with the US providing air support, weapons, and training. The empowerment of the Kurdish forces alarmed Ankara, which considers them terrorists and an extension of Turkey’s domestic Kurdish guerrillas. Trump announced his surprise decision to pull US troops back from the border just as Turkey was amassing its forces there for what appears to be preparation for a massive anti-Kurdish operation in Syria. Ankara wants to create a so-called “safe zone” along the border, where Syrian refugees currently residing in Turkey would be relocated.

The US President also said the Turks “have also been good to deal with, helping me to save many lives at Idlib Province,” the last remaining hotbed of jihadism in Syria. The area in northern Syria was insulated from a military offensive by Russia-backed Syrian government forces at Ankara’s request. Turkey feared such an operation would cause another massive influx of refugees into its territory.

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