Turkish forces to target Kurdish-held Manbij as al-Assad’s troops deployed to border after deal with Kurdish forces.
Heavy fighting continues as Turkey presses ahead with its military operation against Kurdish fighters in northeast Syria, now in its sixth day.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the offensive 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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US Defense Secretary Mark Esper said he will meet with NATO allies next week to press them to take “diplomatic and economic measures” in response to Turkey’s operation into Syria.
In a statement, Esper said Turkey’s military action “was unnecessary and impulsive” and could result in the resurgence of ISIL.
The United Kingdom is reviewing all arms export licences to Turkey amid mounting concern over Ankara’s cross-border military push, the Financial Times reported, citing unnamed officials.
British ministers have suspended issuing new licences for weapons sales to Turkey while the review is being conducted, the newspaper added.
The report came after Italy, the top arms exporter to Turkey last year, joined a ban on selling weapons and ammunition to Ankara after a weekend decision by France and Germany to suspend sales, and Spain signalled it was ready to do so.
US President Donald Trump said he would “soon” impose a package of sanctions on Turkey over the latter’s military offensive in Syria.
“The United States will aggressively use economic sanctions to target those who enable, facilitate and finance these heinous acts in Syria,” Trump said in a statement.
“I am fully prepared to swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy if Turkish leaders continue down this dangerous and destructive path,” he added.
Statement from President Donald J. Trump Regarding Turkey’s Actions in Northeast Syria pic.twitter.com/ZCQC7nzmME
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 14, 2019
Trump also said that US troops coming out of Syria will redeploy and remain in the region to monitor the situation and help prevent the revival of ISIL.
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The Turkish presidency said Erdogan held a phone conversation with Emmanuel Macron during which he explained to the French president the goals of Ankara’s operation in northeastern Syria.
Erdogan told his French counterpart the operation would contribute to regional and global peace and stability, according to the presidency.
European Union countries agreed earlier in the day to limit arms exports to Turkey over its offensive, prompting condemnation from Ankara, even as they stopped short of a bloc-wide embargo against the NATO ally.
International aid agency Mercy Corps said it was suspending operations and evacuating foreign staff from northeast Syria.
“This is our nightmare scenario. There are tens of thousands of people on the run and we have no way of getting to them. We’ve had to pull our international staff out of northeast Syria,” Made Ferguson, Mercy Corps’ deputy country director for Syria said in a statement.
“We just cannot effectively operate with the heavy shelling, roads closing, and the various and constantly changing armed actors in the areas where we are working.”
The agency, which had been delivering aid to the region since 2014, said it was providing civilians with fresh water and other basic needs since Turkey launched its operation.
Ongoing fighting amid Turkey’s offensive could result in the displacement of up to 300,000 people in the Syrian provinces of Hassakeh and Raqqa, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said in a statement.
Water shortages are also a major concern, ICRC added, with several dams and water stations deemed to be at risk.
“The ongoing hostilities are having a devastating impact on the civilian population,” the organisation said.
Syrian government forces entered Manbij, the country’s state-run SANA news agency reported, without giving further details.
Turkish-backed rebel Syrian forces had earlier launched an operation to capture the SDF-held northern city, which houses US troops.
Jan Hamacek, Czech Republic’s interior minister, said his country had halted weapons and ammunition sales to Turkey over its offensive.
“The Czech Republic with immediate effect suspends export licenses for military equipment to Turkey,” Hamacek said in a post on Twitter.
The announcement came after European Union governments had earlier agreed to limit arms exports to Turkey, stopping short of a bloc-wide embargo on a NATO ally.
The United Nations said up to 160,000 people had been displaced amid Turkey’s military push into neighbouring Syria.
Aid agencies had earlier warned that nearly a half-million people are deemed to be at risk from ongoing fighting in the border region.
Turkey accused the EU of protecting “terrorists” by criticising its military offensive against Kurdish fighters.
“It is unacceptable for the EU to display an approach that protects terror elements,” the Turkish foreign ministry said in a statement, shortly after the bloc condemned Turkey’s operation.
Federica Mogherini, Brussels’ foreign policy chief, had earlier urged Ankara to halt its offensive, warning that “renewed armed hostilities in the north-east [of Syria] will further undermine the stability of the whole region, exacerbate civilian suffering and provoke further displacements”.
Fikret Ozer, Turkey’s ambassador to Qatar, said the target of Ankara’s offensive is “to contain the threat of the YPG/PKK”.
“Some 300,000 Syrian Kurds sought refuge in Turkey and they don’t want to go back because they fear for their lives,” he said.
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United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres appealed for an “immediate de-escalation” in the Turkish offensive.
UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said Guterres also raised “serious concern” about the consequences of the possible unintended release of suspected ISIL fighters amid the ongoing operation.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani called on Turkey to halt its military offensive, telling a news conference Tehran did “not accept the method that they have chosen”.
While Iranian authorities have previously expressed opposition to the Turkish offensive, this was Rouhani’s first direct comment on the issue.
Iran is one of two main military backers of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, alongside Russia.
Turkey’s military offensive was “not exactly” compatible with Syria’s territorial integrity, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said.
Speaking in Riyadh during an official visit to Saudi Arabia by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ushakov added that Russia planned to “do something” without specifying what that might be.
As Turkish forces pushed ahead with their cross-border offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria, displaced Arab Syrians residing in Turkey told Al Jazeera they were hoping to return to their homes in the region.
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US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said that he had spoken with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi about Turkey’s offensive, and that she supported bipartisan sanctions against Ankara.
Graham is usually a vocal supporter of US President Donald Trump, but he has repeatedly publicly condemned Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from northeastern Syria.
“Just spoke with Speaker Pelosi regarding congressional action on Turkey’s incursion of Syria,” Graham said in a post on Twitter. “Speaker supports bipartisan sanctions against Turkey’s outrages in Syria. She also believes we should show support for Kurdish allies and is concerned about the reemergence of ISIS.”
Just spoke with Speaker Pelosi regarding congressional action on Turkey’s incursion of Syria. Speaker supports bipartisan sanctions against Turkey’s outrages in Syria. She also believes we should show support for Kurdish allies and is concerned about the reemergence of ISIS.
— Lindsey Graham (@LindseyGrahamSC) October 14, 2019
There was no immediate comment from Pelosi, but Trump had earlier said that “big sanctions” on Turkey were “coming”.
Turkey will not back down from its offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria “no matter what anyone says”, Erdogan reiterated, adding that the battle would continue until “ultimate victory” is achieved.
“We are determined to continue the operation until the end, without paying attention to threats. We will absolutely finish the job we started. Our battle will continue until ultimate victory is achieved,” Erdogan said during a speech in Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku.
He also slammed the European Union and Arab League for their criticism of Turkey’s operation and asked for international funds for Ankara’s “safe zone” plans in northeast Syria.
Al Jazeera’s Zeina Khodr, reporting from Akcakale on the Turkey-Syria border, said Turkish-backed rebel Syrian forces had launched an operation to capture SDF-held Manbij.
“The operation has begun, the question is what happens when these troops reach the centre of the city,” Khodr said.
“We understand there are a few hundred SDF holed up in Manbij, there is also the US military, which is present in and around the city. On the outskirts of Manbij, there are Syrian army troops who are trying to make their way to the city but the presence of the US military prevents them from doing that,” she added.
“There are all these forces at play and it is unclear how this battle is going to play out; there could either be confrontation, an agreement or surrender.”
European football governing body UEFA will discuss proceedings against Turkey after the country’s players made military-style salutes while celebrating during Friday’s 1-0 Euro 2020 qualifying win against Albania, the dpa news agency reported.
UEFA’s control, ethics and disciplinary body will convene on Thursday, dpa reported, but whether a decision is made immediately on potential sanctions is unclear. UEFA could sanction either the Turkish federation or the players individually.
European Union countries committed to suspending arms exports to Turkey, but stopped short of the EU-wide arms embargo that France and Germany had sought.
The European Council, the grouping of the EU’s 28 governments, said in a statement that Turkey’s military action had “dramatic consequences” and noted that some EU countries had halted arms exports.
“Member states commit to strong national positions regarding their arms export policy to Turkey,” EU foreign ministers said after a meeting in Luxembourg.
Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said fighters from the Kurdish People’s Protection Group (YPG), which forms the backbone of the SDF, had emptied a jail holding ISIL prisoners.
Akar said the facility was the only ISIL prison that Turkish forces had so far reached in the envisaged “safe zone” area.
“When we went there, we saw that it had been emptied by the YPG and the Islamic State militants there had been abducted. We determined this through photographs and film, talked to our counterpart, and will continue to do so,” he added.
Akar did not say how many prisoners were believed to have been taken from the jail, nor did he elaborate on who had taken the prisoners and where. There was no immediate YPG comment.
European Union nations unanimously “condemned” the Turkish offensive and called on all member states to halt arms sales to Ankara.
The statement came after France’s foreign minister reiterated calls on EU foreign ministers to condemn Turkey’s offensive in Syria ahead of a meeting with his counterparts in Luxembourg.
US President Donald Trump said that Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria may be releasing captive ISIL fighters to lure US troops back to the area, adding that they could be easily recaptured.
The Turkish onslaught in northern Syria has raised concerns that ISIL fighters and their families held by the Kurdish-led forces long allied with Washington may escape and revive the group. Scores have been said to have escaped already.
“Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved. Easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly,” Trump said in a series of posts on Twitter, in which he also threatened that “big sanctions” on Turkey were “coming”.
….Kurds may be releasing some to get us involved. Easily recaptured by Turkey or European Nations from where many came, but they should move quickly. Big sanctions on Turkey coming! Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey? Never ending wars will end!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) October 14, 2019
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg defended his stance on Turkey’s military operation, saying the military alliance should not lose its unity in the fight against ISIL.
Splits in the military alliance have emerged after NATO member Turkey began its offensive in Syria last week, with EU governments threatening sanctions against Ankara. Stoltenberg visited Istanbul on Friday.
“We must not put in jeopardy the gains we have made against our common enemy,” Stoltenberg said at a session of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in London, in answer to questions from French and Italian delegates who had challenged what they described as his conciliatory approach to Turkey.
“Turkey is important for NATO … We risk undermining the unity we need in the fight against Daesh [ISIL].”
The Kremlin said it did not want to think about the possibility that Russian and Turkish forces might clash with one another in Syria, adding that Moscow was in regular contact with Ankara, including at a military level.
The Kremlin’s comments came after Syrian Kurdish leaders said that a deal with the Syrian government, brokered by Russia, centred for now on Syrian army troops deploying along the border with Turkey.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that Moscow had already warned all sides in the Syrian conflict to avoid any action that could escalate the situation or damage a fragile political process.
Syrian government forces were deployed to Ain Issa in northern Syria, Syrian state media and a war monitor said.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the deployment took place to the front lines of the territory where Turkish forces have mounted a military operation since last week.
Syrian state television showed broadcasts of what it said was the entrance of Ain Issa, where residents were seen welcoming the arrival of Syrian government troops.
A United States diplomatic team that was working on stabilisation projects in northeast Syria had left the country, a US official said, a day after Washington said it was withdrawing 1,000 troops from Syria.
The official told Reuters news agency that the troops were still in Syria but early phases of the withdrawal had started, without giving details.
Two US officials said on Sunday the US is considering plans to withdraw the bulk of the troops from northern Syria in the coming days.
The Syrian army had deployed to the town of Tabqa near Raqqa, Syrian state television reported.
The move restores the state’s foothold in an area that is home to a major hydroelectric dam.
Backed by the US, the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) battled for weeks to take Tabqa and the nearby dam from ISIL in 2017.
The deployment followed an agreement between the Syrian government and the Kurdish-led forces for the Syrian army to deploy into the area.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan welcomed the announcement a day earlier by Washington that it was pulling out up to 1,000 US troops from northern Syria.
“This is a positive approach,” Erdogan told reporters when asked about the statement from US Pentagon Chief Mark Esper.
Erdogan said that he does not expect there will be problems with President Bashar al-Assad’s main ally Russia, after Syrian government troops deployed to the country’s northeast.
“There would be no problem in Kobane. We are coordinating with Russians. We are decisive about Manbij. We will about to enter with the opposition forces,” said Erdogan.
The developments came after Damascus reached an agreement on Sunday night with the Kurdish-led forces controlling the region to deploy into the area to counter an attack by Turkey.
Syrian army troops entered the town of Tal Tamer in northeastern Syria, state media reported.
The developments came after Damascus reached an agreement with the Kurdish-led forces controlling the region to deploy into the area to counter an attack by Turkey.
Tal Tamer is on a strategically important highway, the M4, that runs east to west. Turkish forces said they had seized the highway on Sunday.
Tel Tamer is 35 km (20 miles) southeast of Ras al-Ain, one of the focal points of the Turkish assault.
France’s foreign minister reiterated calls for European Union foreign ministers to condemn Turkey’s offensive in Syria.
Jean-Yves Le Drian also called for an arms embargo on Ankara and requested that the United States hold a meeting of the coalition against the Islamic State [ISIL].
“This offensive is going to cause serious humanitarian devastation,” Le Drian said as he arrived for a meeting with his EU counterparts in Luxembourg.
“France expects from this meeting … a specific demand to end the offensive … a firm position on arms exports to Turkey and … that the United States holds a meeting of the international coalition (against Islamic State),” he told reporters.
France said it was taking measures to ensure the safety of its military and civilians in northeastern Syria as the United States begins to withdraw forces from the area.
France has been one of the main allies in the US-led coalition fighting ISIL.
“Measures will be taken in the coming hours to ensure the safety of French military and civilian personnel present in the zone as part of the international coalition fighting Islamic State and humanitarian action,” the French presidency said in a statement after an emergency defence cabinet meeting. It did not provide further details.
A regional diplomatic source told Reuters on Thursday that Paris was preparing to pull out its several hundred special forces. They are operating closely with Kurdish-led forces, who are now the target of Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria. French aid workers are also in the zone.
The Kurdish administration in northern Syria announced a deal with the Damascus government on a Syrian troop deployment near the border with Turkey to confront Ankara’s offensive.
“In order to prevent and confront this aggression, an agreement has been reached with the Syrian government… so that the Syrian army can deploy along the Syrian-Turkish border to assist the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF),” the Kurdish administration said in a statement on its Facebook page.
In their statement the Kurds said that the agreement struck with the Damascus government “paves the way to liberate the rest of the Syrian cities occupied by the Turkish army such as Afrin”, a majority Kurdish enclave in the northwest.
General Ismet Sheikh Hasan, an official in Kurdish-controlled Kobane, told the Russian news agency RT that Syrian Kurds have reached an agreement with Russia to allow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s troops into Kobane.
Hassan, the minister of defense of the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava, said Russian and Syrian government troops could enter Kobane and Manbij by Sunday night to help secure the cities from a Turkish-led offensive in northern Syria.
“We agreed with the Russians and the [Assad] regime to enter Kobane tonight,” Hassan told RT.
“We did everything we could,” he said. “We have called upon the West [and] the Arab League but no one is coming to help, so we have no one other than ourselves to defend [Kobane].
“We agreed with the regime and the Russians to come to Kobane,” he added.
Neither the SDF nor Russia have confirmed such an agreement exists.
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