Ankara is considering sanctions against Erbil over the referendum: Erdoğan

Erdoğan also said Turkey was considering counter-measures, including imposing sanctions, against Kurdish northern Iraq over a planned referendum. Iraqi Kurdish authorities have defied growing international pressure to call off the referendum on independence. Iraq’s neighbors fear it will fuel unrest among their own Kurdish populations and Western allies said it could detract from the fight against Daesh. Turkey has brought forward a cabinet meeting and national security council session to Friday over the referendum, Erdoğan said. He said that parliament would also convene for an extraordinary meeting on Saturday. “Without any further delay we are going to discuss what kind of sanctions should be imposed and when the sanctions will be imposed,” he said without elaborating on what they might be. Turkish troops are also carrying out military exercises near the border and Erdoğan said on Saturday the resolution on troop deployment abroad will be submitted to parliament for a vote.

‘Turkish troops will be deployed inside Idlib’

Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan said on Thursday Turkey will deploy troops in Syria’s northern Idlib region as part of a so-called de-escalation agreement brokered by Russia last month. The “de-escalation” zones, agreed by Turkey, Russia and Iran, would be further discussed in talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during his trip to Ankara next week, Erdoğan said in an interview with Reuters while he was in New York for the annual United Nations General Assembly. “Under the agreement, Russians are maintaining security outside Idlib and Turkey will maintain the security inside Idlib region,” Erdoğan said. “The task is not easy … With Putin we will discuss additional steps needed to be taken in order to eradicate terrorists once and for all to restore peace.”

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during an interview with Reuters in New York [21/9/2017]

Strategic partners

Meeting Erdoğan on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, U.S. President Donald Trump on Thursday praised his leadership and said he “has become a friend of mine.” Relations between Turkey and the United States were strained over Turkish security officials involved in street fighting with protesters during a visit to Washington in May.

Turkey is part of the U.S.-led coalition against Daesh in Syria and Iraq but Ankara’s ties with Washington are strained over support provided by the United States to the Syrian Kurdish militia YPG. Viewed by Turkey as the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), the YPG has been among the most effective partners on the ground in the U.S.-led fight against the Daesh. Erdoğan warned Washington that arming the YPG could end up hurting Washington and its allies. “Weapons are being deployed to YPG … We are strategic allies with the United States …, we should avoid helping YPG,” he said.

Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

Advertisements

U.S. ‘strongly opposes’ Kurdistan Region independence referendum

The U.S. has sent its starkest signal yet that it ‘strongly opposes’ Kurdistan Region’s independence referendum. In a statement issued by the State Department, the U.S. government warns that the referendum will hurt the Kurds as ‘the costs of proceeding with the referendum are high for all Iraqis, including Kurds’ and states that ‘all of Iraq’s neighbors, and virtually the entire international community, also oppose’ it.

The United States strongly opposes the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s referendum on independence, planned for September 25. All of Iraq’s neighbors, and virtually the entire international community, also oppose this referendum. The United States urges Iraqi Kurdish leaders to accept the alternative, which is a serious and sustained dialogue with the central government, facilitated by the United States and United Nations, and other partners, on all matters of concern, including the future of the Baghdad-Erbil relationship.

If this referendum is conducted, it is highly unlikely that there will be negotiations with Baghdad, and the above international offer of support for negotiations will be foreclosed.

The costs of proceeding with the referendum are high for all Iraqis, including Kurds. Already the referendum has negatively affected Defeat-ISIS coordination to dislodge ISIS from its remaining areas of control in Iraq. The decision to hold the referendum in disputed areas is especially de-stabilizing, raising tensions which ISIS and other extremist groups are now seeking to exploit. The status of disputed areas and their boundaries must be resolved through dialogue, in accordance with Iraq’s constitution, not by unilateral action or force.

Finally, the referendum may jeopardize Iraqi Kurdistan’s regional trade relations, and international assistance of all kinds, even though none of Iraq’s partners wish this to be the case. This is simply the reality of this very serious situation. In contrast, genuine dialogue, the alternative, which we urge Kurdish leaders to embrace, holds the promise of resolving a great many of Iraqi Kurds’ legitimate grievances, and establishing a new and constructive course for Baghdad-Erbil relations that benefit all the people of Iraq.

The Kurds can be proud already of what the referendum process has produced, including more Kurdish unity, reviving the Kurdish parliament for the first time in nearly two years, and placing important issues on the international stage, with partners and friends prepared to build on the spirit of cooperation seen between Iraqi Security Forces and Kurdish Peshmerga in the campaign against ISIS to help resolve outstanding issues. ‎Unfortunately, the referendum next week will jeopardize all of this momentum and more.

The referendum itself is now all the more unnecessary given the alternative path that has been prepared and endorsed by the United States and the international community.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Iraqi Prime Minister Heider al-Abadi during a meeting in Washington DC [March 22, 2017]
Sources: Syria & Iraq News

The hunt for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still on

The hunt for Daesh leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is very much on. According to a report by CNN, at one point over the summer the US believed they had their best shot at killing the jihadist leader in an airstrike, several US officials said. The strike, which has never been publicly disclosed, was based on intelligence that indicated a senior Daesh leader, quite possibly al-Baghdadi, was at the particular location. The officials familiar with the strike tell CNN it has never been definitively determined if al-Baghdadi was actually killed. But one official said that over recent months “we tried to take several shots at him.” One reason the US remains uncertain if it killed al-Baghdadi is that in the days and weeks that followed the strike, US intelligence did not intercept any Daesh communications confirming his death and there was no discussion on Daesh social media accounts, US officials said. Given al-Baghdadi’s stature, the US expects to see significant chatter discussing his death, if he is killed. The strike occurred after a claim by Russia in June that the Daesh leader might have been killed in one of its airstrikes on the outskirts of Raqqa on May 28. The US has long believed that the Russian claim is not true.

In another instance CNN has learned that US military planners for a ground mission being conducted by US forces thought they were on al-Baghdadi’s trail for a significant period of time. Intelligence indicated an individual with the name al-Baghdadi was at a target site, a US official confirmed to CNN. Senior US administration officials were briefed but a raid did not happen because of concern over the potential number of civilians at the site. The US official says they now believe al-Baghdadi was likely not at the location. It remains unclear if that individual was any relation to the Daesh leader.

A consistent problem the US has faced is that intelligence tips on al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts are often not timely, meaning he is likely to have moved on before they are able to mount an operation to take him out. Al-Baghdadi is believed to remain fairly mobile, often moving by vehicle with just a driver one official told CNN. Because he potentially remains on the move, the best chance of killing him might come with last minute intelligence that would require a strike by a drone already loitering nearby.

Over the last several months, the top US commander in Baghdad has given several tantalizing answers to reporters about al-Baghdadi’s whereabouts. In a July 11 press briefing, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told Pentagon reporters: “I’m unable to confirm or deny where he is or whether he is alive or dead.” Townsend recently departed Iraq after his tour of duty as commander was completed. In his final press conference on August 31, Townsend told reporters “I really don’t know where he is.” He then added “I believe he’s alive? Yes. Why? Because I’ve seen no convincing evidence, intelligence or open source or other — rumor or otherwise, that he’s dead. So, therefore, I believe he’s alive.” Without offering details Townsend also said “there are also some indicators in intelligence channels that he’s still alive.”

Officials say that now Daesh has largely been forced out of Raqqa as well as Mosul, they believe al-Baghdadi is somewhere in the middle Euphrates River Valley, which could put him in the crosshairs of the Syrian regime and Russian aircraft operating in the region. Two administration officials also say that over the last several weeks the CIA assembled specific intelligence that prompted undisclosed drone strike missions carried out by the military mainly in Syria to go after Daesh targets. The CIA declined to comment on the matter. Because of the lack of confirmation about al-Baghdadi’s death, the working assumption by the US is that he still remains alive. Officials say they will continue to pursue him even though they believe that his relevance in the Daesh organization may be diminished as the coalition drives fighters out of its strongholds in Iraq and Syria.

Sources: CNN/Syria & Iraq News

U.S. asks Barzani to ‘postpone’ KRG independence referendum

Unites States government has asked the Kurdistan Regional Government to ‘postpone’ the independence referendum planned for September 25 and reiterates that “the issues between the Kurdistan Region and the federal government in Baghdad should be addressed through dialogue between the two sides”.

Rex Tillerson

KRG president Masoud Barzani‏ announced on Friday night that he held a telephone conversation with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and that the top US diplomat expressed the request of the US government for the postponement of the referendum. According to the announcement, president Barzani “expressed his gratitude to the people and government of the United States for their support to the Kurdistan Region, especially against the terrorists of the Islamic State. On the issue of the postponement of the referendum, the President stated that the people of the Kurdistan Region would expect guarantees and alternatives for their future.”

It is the first time the U.S. government explicitly expresses its opposition to the referendum, while it is worth noting that Barzani did not reject the request, but asked for ‘guarantees’.

Update 1 – 12/8/2017 10:00 GMT | Zebari: “The date is standing, Sept. 25, no change”

Barzani’s close adviser Hoshyar Zebari says that the referendum date has not change despite the U.S. request to postpone it. “The date is standing, Sept. 25, no change”, he told Reuters on Saturday.

USA says ‘grave’ consequences if Tahrir al-Sham dominates Idlib

The United States warned a takeover of rebel-held northwestern Idlib province by Syrian jihadists linked to a former al-Qaeda affiliate would have grave consequences and make it difficult to dissuade Russia from renewing bombing that recently stopped. In an online letter posted late on Wednesday, the top State Department official in charge of Syria policy, Michael Ratney, said the recent offensive by Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, spearheaded by former al-Qaeda offshoot Jabhat al-Nusra, had cemented its grip on the province and put “the future of northern Syria in big danger”.

“The north of Syria witnessed one of its biggest tragedies,” said Ratney who was behind secret talks in Amman with Moscow over the ceasefire in southwest Syria announced by U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. It was the first such U.S.-Russian effort under the Trump administration to end Syria’s civil war. “In the event of the hegemony of Nusra Front on Idlib, it would be difficult for the United States to convince the international parties not to take the necessary military measures,” the top State Department diplomat said. “Everyone should know that al-Julani and his gang are the ones who bear responsibility for the grave consequences that will befall Idlib,” said Ratney, referring to former Jabhat al-Nusra Abu Muhammad al-Julani who effectively leads Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

In less than three days al-Julani’s fighters overran their powerful rival, the more mainstream Ahrar al-Sham group, seizing control of a strategic border strip with Turkey in some of the heaviest inter-rebel fighting since the start of the conflict. An emboldened Hay’at Tahrir al Sham has sought to allay fears it did not seek to dominate the whole province but suspicions run high among many in the region about their ultimate goals to monopolize power. The jihadists have linked up with Western-backed Free Syria Army (FSA) groups who continue to maintain a foothold in several towns in the province. The south of the region is still in the hands of rival groups, including Ahrar al Sham but the jihadists have been trying to extend their control.

Abu Muhammad al-Julani in a screenshot from an 2016 video

Ratney told rebel groups, who have been forced to work with the jihadists out of expediency or for self preservation, to steer away from the group before it was “too late.” He said Washington would consider any organisation in Idlib province that was a front for the militants a part of al Qaeda’s network.

The expanding influence of the former al-Qaeda has triggered civilian protests across towns in the province with some calling for the group to leave towns and not interfere in how they are run. Al-Nusra and its leaders would remain a target of Washington even if they adopted new names in an attempt to deny Washington and other powers a pretext to attack them, the U.S. official said.

The jihadist sweep across Idlib province has raised concerns that the closure of some crossing points on the border with Turkey could choke off the flow of aid and essential goods. Washington remained committed to delivering aid in channels that avoided them falling into the hands of the hardline jihadists, Ratney said echoing similar concerns by NGO’s and aid bodies after their recent gains. The main border crossing of Bab al Hawa with Turkey which the al Qaeda fighters threatened to take over has however been re-opened with a resumption of aid and goods to the province that has relieved many people.

Sources: Reuters/Syria & Iraq News

Russia, US and UN meeting on Syria scheduled for April 24 in Geneva: Tass

A trilateral meeting between Russia, the United States and the United Nations on Syria is scheduled to take place in Geneva on April 24, Russia’s semi-official Tass agency reports.’The meeting is tentatively scheduled for April 24 and Russia is expected to be represented by Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov‘, agency’s source noted.

Earlier on Monday, Russia’s special envoy Syria Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said in Moscow that the meeting on Syria could be held in Geneva early next week, Washington’s confirmation is expected. “The tripartite meeting of Russia, the United States and the United Nations in Geneva is planned, we are waiting for confirmation from our American colleagues,” the Russian diplomat said, adding that the talks could be held at the beginning of the next week at deputy foreign ministers or department directors level.

The United Nations building in Geneva [archive photo]
Source: Syria & Iraq News/Tass

US intelligence intercepted communications between Syrian military and chemical experts ahead of Khan Sheikhoun attack

The US military and intelligence community has intercepted communications featuring Syrian military and chemical experts talking about preparations for the alleged chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun on April 5, CNN reports citing an unidentified ‘senior US official’.

The intercepts were allegedly part of an immediate review of all intelligence in the hours after the attack to confirm responsibility for the use of chemical weapons in an attack in northwestern Syria, which killed at least 70 people. ‘The US did not know prior to the attack it was going to happen’, the official emphasized. The US scoops up such a large volume of communications intercepts in areas like Syria and Iraq, the material often is not processed unless there is a particular event that requires analysts to go back and look for supporting intelligence material.

So far there are no intelligence intercepts that have been found directly confirming that Russian military or intelligence officials communicated about the attack. The official said the likelihood is the Russians are more careful in their communications to avoid being intercepted.

US assesses that SAA has re-established a chemical weapons unit

The US now assesses that Syria has re-established a unit of personnel associated with chemical weapons that existed before the 2013 agreement in which the Syrian government pledged to give up its weapons inventory. And there is some indication they are getting outside help. “We know they have the expertise. And we suspect that they have help,” a US military official told reporters at a background briefing Friday. At that briefing, the official also noted, “We know the Russians have chemical expertise in-country. We cannot talk about openly any complicity between the Russians and the Syrian regime in this — in this case, but we’re carefully assessing any information that would implicate the Russians knew or assisted with the Syrian capability.” But even if there is a definitive finding of Russian complicity, it’s not clear the Pentagon or the White House would make that information public, a senior US official said. First, it would have to be ironclad proof, which could be difficult to determine. But also, the US feels right now that it has made the case that Russian support for Assad must end. For now, the official said the most specific evidence of Russian involvement remains a Russian drone that flew over the hospital that was treating people injured in the attack. The US has specific intelligence showing it was a Russian drone. While the drone operator may not have known why the aerial vehicle was flying in the area, it was a Russian-controlled asset.