Beirut, Oct 23 (AP/UNB) — Turkey's foreign minister says Turkish forces will "neutralize" any remaining Syrian Kurdish fighter they come across in areas now under Turkish control in northeastern Syria.
Mevlut Cavusoglu made the comments on Wednesday — even after the military signaled it won't resume its offensive, following separate agreements Turkey reached with the U.S. and Russia.
The military said earlier the U.S. had announced Syrian Kurdish fighters completed their pullout from areas Turkey invaded this month as a five-day cease-fire expired.
Cavusoglu told Anadolu Agency: "If there are terrorist remnants, we would clear them."
Cavusoglu said the deal with Russia — which foresees joint Turkish-Russian patrols after the withdrawal of Kurdish forces — would continue until a lasting political solution for Syria is reached. He says the border areas would be locally-administered, mostly by Arabs.
He said Turkey agreed not to conduct joint patrols in the city of Qamishli, because of Russian concerns that such a move could lead to a confrontation between Turkish troops and the Syrian government forces who have long been present in the area.
Turkey's Defense Ministry is signaling it won't resume its offensive in northeast Syria, following agreements reached with the U.S. and Russia.
The ministry said early on Wednesday the U.S. had announced Syrian Kurdish fighters completed their pullout from areas Turkey invaded this month as a five-day cease-fire allowing for the withdrawal expired.
This came after the leaders of Russia and Turkey announced a separate deal for their forces to jointly patrol almost the entire northeastern Syrian border after the Kurdish withdrawal.
Under that deal, Turkey will maintain control over the areas it holds since its incursion. It also lets Russian and Syrian troops control the rest of the border.
The ministry said: "At this stage, there is no further need to conduct a new operation outside the present operation area."
Baghdad, Oct 23 (AP/UNB) — U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday as chaos swirled along the Turkey-Syria border and Iraqi leaders chafed over reports that the U.S. may want to increase the number of troops based in Iraq, at least temporarily.
Esper's meetings Wednesday at the Iraqi Defense Ministry came a day after Iraq's military said American troops leaving northeastern Syria don't have permission to stay in Iraq.
The Iraqi statement appeared to contradict Esper, who has said that all U.S. troops leaving Syria will go to western Iraq and that the military would continue to conduct operations against the Islamic State group to prevent its resurgence in the region.
He later added that the troops would be there temporarily until they are able to go home, but no time period has been set. Esper said Wednesday that the U.S. has no plans to leave those troops in Iraq "interminably" and that he plans to talk with Iraqi leaders about the matter.
Meanwhile, Russia and Turkey reached an agreement on Tuesday that would deploy their forces along nearly the entire northeastern border to fill the void left after President Donald Trump's abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces from the area, a move that essentially cleared the way for the Turkish invasion earlier this month.
It was unclear Wednesday what that means for U.S. forces.
Trump ordered the bulk of the approximately 1,000 U.S. troops in Syria to withdraw after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan stated in a phone call that his forces were about to invade Syria to push back Syrian Kurdish fighters whom Ankara considers terrorists.
The pullout largely abandons the Kurdish allies who have fought the Islamic State group alongside U.S. troops for several years. Between 200 and 300 U.S. troops will remain at the southern Syrian outpost of Al-Tanf.
Esper said the troops going into Iraq would have two missions, one to help defend Iraq against a resurgence of Islamic State militants and another to monitor and perform a counter-IS mission.
The U.S. currently has more than 5,000 American forces in Iraq, under an agreement between the two countries. The U.S. pulled its troops out of Iraq in 2011 when combat operations there ended, but they went back in after the Islamic State group began to take over large swaths of the country in 2014.
The number of American forces in Iraq has remained small due to political sensitivities in the country, after years of what some Iraqis consider U.S. occupation during the war that began in 2003. Iraqi leaders may privately condone more U.S. forces to battle IS, but worry if it's widely known that there will be backlash from the citizens.
U.S. troops in Syria fought for five years alongside Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria and succeeded in bringing down the rule of IS militants — at the cost of thousands of Kurdish fighters' lives. Under the new agreement, much of that territory would be handed over to U.S. rivals.
The biggest winners are Turkey and Russia. Turkey would get sole control over areas of the Syrian border captured in its invasion, while Turkish, Russian and Syrian government forces would oversee the rest of the border region. America's former U.S. allies, the Kurdish fighters, are left hoping Moscow and Damascus will preserve some pieces of the Syrian Kurdish autonomy in the region.
Cairo, Oct 22 (AP/UNB) — The latest breakdown in talks with Ethiopia over its construction of a massive upstream Nile dam has left Egypt with dwindling options as it seeks to protect the main source of freshwater for its large and growing population.
Talks collapsed earlier this month over the construction of the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, which is around 70% complete and promises to provide much-needed electricity to Ethiopia's 100 million people.
But Egypt, with a population of around the same size, fears that the process of filling the reservoir behind the dam could slice into its share of the river, with catastrophic consequences. Pro-government media have cast it as a national security threat that could warrant military action.
Speaking at the U.N. last month, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi said he would "never" allow Ethiopia to impose a "de facto situation" by filling the dam without an agreement.
"While we acknowledge Ethiopia's right to development, the water of the Nile is a question of life, a matter of existence to Egypt," he said.
Ethiopian President Sahle-Work Zewude, also speaking at the U.N. General Assembly, said her country believes "the use of the river should be (decided) according to international law and fair and equitable use of natural resources."
Egypt has been holding talks for years with Ethiopia and Sudan, upstream countries that have long complained about Cairo's overwhelming share of the river, which is enshrined in treaties dating back to the British colonial era. Those talks came to an acrimonious halt earlier this month, the third time they have broken down since 2014.
"We are fed up with Ethiopian procrastination. We will not spend our lifetime in useless talks," an Egyptian official told The Associated Press. "All options are on the table, but we prefer dialogue and political means."
Egypt has reached out to the United States, Russia, China and Europe, apparently hoping to reach a better deal through international mediation. The White House said earlier this month it supports talks to reach a sustainable agreement while "respecting each other's Nile water equities."
Mohamed el-Molla, an Egyptian Foreign Ministry official, said Cairo would take the dispute to the U.N. Security Council if the Ethiopians refuse international mediation.
That has angered Ethiopia, which wants to resolve the dispute through the tripartite talks.
An Ethiopian official said the packages offered by Cairo so far "were deliberately prepared to be unacceptable for Ethiopia."
"Now they are saying Ethiopia has rejected the offer, and calling for a third-party intervention," the official added. Both the Ethiopian and the Egyptian official spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the talks with the media.
The main dispute is centered on the filling of the dam's 74-billion-cubic-meter reservoir. Ethiopia wants to fill it as soon as possible so it can generate over 6,400 Megawatts, a massive boost to the current production of 4,000 Megawatts.
That has the potential to sharply reduce the flow of the Blue Nile, the main tributary to the river, which is fed by annual rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands. If the filling takes place during one of the region's periodic droughts, its downstream impact could be even more severe.
Egypt has proposed no less than seven years for filling the reservoir, and for Ethiopia to adjust the pace according to rainfall, said an Egyptian Irrigation Ministry official who is a member of its negotiation team. The official also was not authorized to discuss the talks publicly and so spoke on condition of anonymity.
The Nile supplies more than 90% of Egypt's freshwater. Egyptians already have one of the lowest per capita shares of water in the world, at around 570 cubic meters per year, compared to a global average of 1,000. Ethiopians however have an average of 125 cubic meters per year.
Egypt wants to guarantee a minimum annual release of 40 billion cubic meters of water from the Blue Nile. The irrigation official said anything less could affect Egypt's own massive Aswan High Dam, with dire economic consequences.
"It could put millions of farmers out of work. We might lose more than one million jobs and $1.8 billion annually, as well as $300 million worth of electricity," he said.
The official said Ethiopia has agreed to guarantee just 31 billion cubic meters.
El-Sissi is set to meet with Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize, on Wednesday in the Russian city of Sochi, on the sidelines of a Russia-Africa summit. They may be able to revive talks, but the stakes get higher as the dam nears completion.
Ethiopia hopes to finish the much-delayed project by 2023. The dam's manager, Kifle Horro, said the project is now 68.5% complete and preparations are underway to finalize power generation from two turbines by next year.
The International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank, warned earlier this year that the "risk of future clashes could be severe if the parties do not also reach agreement on a longer-term basin-wide river management framework."
In recent weeks there have been calls by some commentators in Egypt's pro-government media to resort to force.
Abdallah el-Senawy, a prominent columnist for the daily newspaper el-Shorouk, said the only alternatives were internationalizing the dispute or taking military action.
"Egypt is not a small county," he wrote in a Sunday column. "If all diplomatic and legal options fail, a military intervention might be obligatory."
Anwar el-Hawary, the former editor of the Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper, compared the dispute to the 1973 war with Israel, in which Egypt launched a surprise attack into the Sinai Peninsula.
"If we fought to liberate Sinai, it is logical to fight to liberate the water," he wrote on Facebook. "The danger is the same in the two cases. War is the last response."
Jerusalem, Oct 22 (AP/UNB) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced Monday that he had failed to form a majority government in parliament, marking a major setback for the embattled Israeli leader that plunges the country into a new period of political uncertainty.
In a statement, Netanyahu said he had worked "tirelessly" to establish a unity government with his chief rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, but been repeatedly rebuffed. Facing a Wednesday deadline, Netanyahu said he was returning the "mandate" to President Reuven Rivlin, who will now ask Gantz to try to form a coalition. Gantz, however, could face an equally difficult task.
While Netanyahu remains at the helm of his Likud party, his announcement marked the second time this year that he has been unable to form a government. With Israel's attorney general set to decide in the coming weeks on whether to indict Netanyahu in a series of corruption cases, the longtime Israeli leader could come under heavy pressure to step aside. One party rival, Gideon Saar, has already indicated he would challenge Netanyahu if Likud holds a primary.
In last month's national election, Netanyahu fell short of securing a 61-seat parliamentary majority. But Rivlin gave Netanyahu the first opportunity to form a government because he had more support — 55 lawmakers — than Gantz, who was supported by only 54.
Netanyahu had hoped to form a broad "unity" government with Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White party. But Netanyahu insisted that his coalition include his traditional allies, a collection of hardline and religious parties, drawing accusations from Gantz that he was not negotiating in good faith.
"Since I received the mandate, I have worked tirelessly both in public and behind the scenes to establish a broad, national unity government. That's what the people want," Netanyahu said in a statement.
"During the past few weeks, I made every effort to bring Benny Gantz to the negotiating table. Every effort to establish a broad national unity government, every effort to prevent another election," he said. "To my regret, time after time he declined. He simply refused."
For Netanyahu, who marked his 70th birthday on Monday, it was another painful setback. In an earlier election in April, Netanyahu also failed to win a parliamentary majority and was forced to call the indecisive Sept. 17 election. Now, for the first time since Netanyahu was elected in early 2009, the country faces the possibility of choosing a different leader.
In a short statement, Gantz's Blue and White party said that "now is the time of action."
"Blue and White is determined to form the liberal unity government, led by Benny Gantz, that the people of Israel voted for a month ago," it said.
Gantz has vowed to unify the country and restore national institutions after Netanyahu's decade-long rule, which has deepened Israel's religious and political divides and been roiled by corruption allegations.
In contrast to Netanyahu, whose political career spans three decades, the 60-year-old Gantz is a newcomer who only burst onto the scene over the last year. The towering former general's party, Blue and White, is a newly formed centrist coalition that includes the popular secular politician Yair Lapid as well as other former senior military officers and some of Netanyahu's fiercest critics.
At times, Gantz has criticized Netanyahu's handling of security issues, particularly in the Gaza Strip, and has touted his time as army chief, when he oversaw a devastating 2014 war in Gaza. He also has hinted at reviving the peace process with the Palestinians. But Gantz has been vague, apparently wary of alienating potential coalition partners, and focused most of his efforts at portraying himself as a fresh alternative to Netanyahu.
There is no guarantee, however, that Gantz will succeed.
He has expressed willingness to form a partnership with Likud, but not if Netanyahu continues to lead while he faces such serious legal problems. For the time being, Likud has remained steadfastly behind its leader.
Without Likud, Gantz will have a hard time securing a majority in parliament. The opposition to Netanyahu includes a diverse group of parties, ranging from Arab parties to the secular ultranationalist party Yisrael Beitenu, that are unlikely to sit together in partnership.
If Gantz fails during his 28-day window, a majority of lawmakers could try to endorse a third candidate, something that has never happened before. And if that fails, the country would be forced into the unprecedented scenario of a third election in under a year.
Akcakale, Oct 21 (AP/UNB) — Angry over the U.S. withdrawal from Syria, residents of a Kurdish-dominated city pelted departing American military vehicles with potatoes Monday as they drove through.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper said U.S. troops will stay in eastern Syria to protect Kurdish-held oil fields for at least the coming weeks and he was discussing options to keep them there.
A video by the Kurdish news agency showed a convoy of armored vehicles driving through the northeastern city of Qamishli. People in the street hurled potatoes at the vehicles, shouting, "No America," and "America liar," in English.
"Like rats, America is running away," one man shouted in Arabic. Another shouted obscenities and talked of babies in Kurdish-held areas who have died in the Turkish offensive.
The scene encapsulated the Kurds' feelings of betrayal and added a new indignity to an American withdrawal that has been rushed and saw several close brushes with Turkish-backed forces. The Kurds were stunned when President Donald Trump two weeks ago abruptly decided to pull U.S. troops out of border areas, abandoning their allied Kurdish-backed fighters ahead of Turkey's invasion. After the assault began Oct. 9, Trump ordered a general withdrawal from Syria.
At another location, near the town of Tal Tamr, a group of protesters raised banners to departing US troops late Sunday, according to an Associated Press video.
One man blocked the way of a U.S. van with a poster reading: "Thanks for US people, but Trump betrayed us."
The Kurdish-led force was a key ally of the United States in the long and bloody fight that eventually brought down the Islamic State group's rule over northeast and eastern Syria. Abandoned by U.S. forces, the Kurds agreed to a cease-fire deal brokered by Washington that requires them to leave a section of the border, handing it over to Turkish-backed forces.
Esper said he is discussing an option that would keep a small residual U.S. military force to secure oil fields located in eastern Syria and continue the fight against Islamic State militants.
Speaking during a visit to Kabul, he said he has not made a final decision on that option and has not yet presented it to Trump. He underscored the importance of protecting the oil fields from IS to ensure the militants don't profit from them
He said American troops who are working with Kurdish-led forces to guard the oil fields are still in place. The withdrawal could take weeks, he said, and troops around the town of Kobani on the border with Turkey are the first leaving.
As part of the cease-fire deal, Kurdish forces on Sunday pulled back from the border town of Ras al-Ayn on Sunday, paving the way for Turkish troops deployment in the area. Under the deal, the Kurds are to withdraw from a stretch of territory 120 kilometers (75 miles) along the border and 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep. Qamishli is east of that area.
A senior Kurdish official, Redur Khalil, said Monday his forces are complying with agreement and are preparing to complete the withdrawal. He called for an international mechanism to protect Kurdish civilians who want to stay in their towns after Kurdish-led fighters leave.
Most Kurdish civilians have fled Ras al-Ayn, fearing killings or repression by Turkish-backed forces, and any still in the territory that the Kurdish fighters are leaving are likely to do the same.
More than 176,000 people have been driven from their homes in the violence. About 70,000 of those are children, the international aid group Save the Children said Monday. It said thousands are taking refuge in schools and abandoned buildings without electricity or in open fields in Kurdish-run areas around northeast Syria.
"Thousands of children and their families have once again had to leave everything they own to flee conflict and take shelter in unhygienic conditions without the basic necessities," said Sonia Khush, Save the Children's Syria Response Director.
Khalil said Turkey continues to violate the cease-fire, accusing its troops of shelling a village at dawn and seeking to carry out military operations. He criticized the U.S. as guarantor of the cease-fire deal, saying it has not forced Turkey to adhere to it.
"The American guarantor remains weak in its position in deterring the Turkish violations," he said.
On Monday, Turkey's foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, accused the Kurdish-led forces of 30 live fire violations of the four-day-old truce, including an attack that killed one Turkish soldier. He said Turkey retaliated against these attacks.
Cavusoglu renewed warnings that his country will resume its military offensive in northeast Syria if Kurdish fighters don't vacate the region before the cease-fire is set to end Tuesday evening.
"If they don't withdraw, our operation will re-start," Mevlut Cavusoglu said speaking in Istanbul. He added, however, that Kurdish fighters were complying with the deal and withdrawing.
Turkey says it wants to return Syrian refugees to the areas evacuated. A crucial meeting between Turkish and Russian leaders is expected to further address arrangements along the Syria-Turkish border.