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- 01/09/18--07:25: _Syria says it was h...
- 01/10/18--09:48: _Russia is blaming T...
- 01/11/18--15:11: _Russia's explanatio...
- 01/12/18--08:48: _Russia just claimed...
- 01/13/18--05:00: _Why Russia will pla...
- 01/13/18--07:00: _The UN is warning t...
- 01/14/18--12:08: _The US-led coalitio...
- 01/14/18--13:00: _5 things that will ...
- 01/14/18--14:24: _Syria and Russia's ...
- 01/15/18--12:24: _Russia and Turkey a...
- 01/16/18--03:24: _Turkey, Russia, Syr...
- 01/17/18--08:58: _The US is doubling ...
- 01/17/18--14:39: _Rex Tillerson signa...
- 01/18/18--02:27: _Turkey deploys tank...
- 01/20/18--14:14: _Turkey launches mas...
- 01/22/18--02:14: _Rescue workers accu...
- 01/22/18--14:37: _A UN aid group alle...
- 01/23/18--03:22: _Turkey to continue ...
- 01/23/18--09:18: _Tillerson blames Ru...
- 01/23/18--15:22: _US air strikes kill...
- The Syrian government claims Israeli jets and missiles attacked targets at the al-Qutaifa area near Damascus.
- Syria also says air defenses hit one Israeli jet and that at least one rocket was intercepted.
- Israel has conducted over 100 strikes in Syria to prevent Hezbollah from getting "game-changing" Iranian weapons.
- Russia announced on Wednesday that Turkish-backed rebels attacked its military bases in Syria.
- The Hmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility in Syria had been attacked with 13 drones.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense had previously insinuated the US had helped.
- Russia added Ukraine to the list of possible perpetrators that helped attack its military bases in Syria with a swarm of drones.
- Russia said that the drones required sophisticated engineering and targeting help that originated outside of Syria.
- Every analyst and expert that Business Insider spoke with questioned Russia's claims — and some flat out called them false.
- The Russian Ministry of Defense claims to have killed the terrorists that attacked their bases in Syria.
- The Russian MoD also claimed to have taken out a depot where UAVs were assembled and destroyed.
- The Russian MoD also released videos of the supposed strikes.
- 01/13/18--05:00: Why Russia will play a big part in deciding the future of Syria
- As the US has turned its focus elsewhere, Russia has stepped up to the plate in Syria and will likely have a major role in its future.
- The UN is also now considering whether to take part in Russia's peace plan.
- Russia is planning peace talks in Sochi, a Russian city on the Black Sea, which Russia hopes Syrian President Bashar al Assad will attend.
- The US remains focused on fostering peace talks in Geneva.
- An unreleased analysis presented at recent coalition meetings by the UN shows that an ISIS resurgence is a real possibility.
- According to the UN, five of the areas newly liberated from the group urgently require stabilization.
- The UN is trying to procure additional funding to secure these vulnerable areas.
- The US-led coalition in Syria is training a new "Border Security Force" of SDF fighters.
- The Kurdish-dominated force has furthered Turkey's anger towards the US.
- The BSF will provide border security by securing checkpoints and conducting counter-IED operations.
- After 2017, we can expect to see situations and conflicts worsening in places like Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Yemen.
- We also have to keep a close watch on ISIS, which has been sliding into oblivion but retains pockets of activity.
- A new offensive by the Syrian regime and Russia in Eastern Ghouta, Syria has killed at least 177 civilians in the last two weeks.
- Reports have also emerged that Syria struck an area between Harasta and Douma on Saturday with three missiles filled with chlorine gas.
- The new deadly offensive has coincided with an escalation in Idlib province.
- Russia and Turkey have threatened the US-led coalition's new Kurdish-dominated "Border Security Force."
- The US acknowledged on Sunday that it is training a force of 30,000 personnel to operate along the north and eastern parts of Syria.
- The development only increases tensions between the US, Russia, and Turkey.
- Iran, Turkey, Syria, and Russia have all come out against the US's announced plan to back a force of 30,000 mainly Kurdish fighters to operate along Syria's border with Turkey and Iran.
- Syria's president desribed the force as a "terror army," in keeping with a long tradition of calling all who oppose him of being terrorists.
- Iran's Foreign Ministry Spokesman Bahram Qasemi urged the US to leave Syria immediately.
- 01/17/18--08:58: The US is doubling down in Syria — but officials won't say why
- The US-led coalition has set up a Kurdish-dominated "Border Security Force" in Syria.
- The move has enraged Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime, and especially Turkey.
- Spokespersons at the Pentagon and Operation Inherent Resolve have not yet been able to explain why it set up such a force.
- 01/17/18--14:39: Rex Tillerson signals an open-ended US military presence in Syria
- Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signaled for an open-ended US military presence in Syria as part of a broader strategy.
- Tillerson also called for "patience" on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's removal.
- Turkey's President Tayyip Erdogan said he would not hesitate to take action against US-backed fighters in Syria's Kurdish Afrin district after deploying tanks to the region.
- The US denied reports that it would form a new 30,000-strong border force to police the Turkey-Syria-Iran border.
- Turkey considers elements of the Syrian forces that the US backs to be part of the PKK, a Kurdish organization widely considered to be a terrorist group.
- Turkey launched a massive air and ground campaign against US-backed Kurds in Syria on Saturday.
- The Kurdish YPG have released statements asking Turkey to "halt its unjustified threats."
- Rescue workers in a rebel-held enclave of Syria have accused government forces of using chlorine gas during a bombing.
- 13 civilians, including women and children, have been injured after the alleged gas attack, according to the White Helmets.
- Syria's government has a history of using chemical weapons, and the US attacked a Syrian air base in response to the last major incident.
- United Nations aid group UNRWA said it was told that US aid money delivered to the organization could not be used for services in Syria and Lebanon.
- The organization said it was the first time the US had "geographically earmarked" its funding.
- Last week, the the US announced it would cut its aid to the group by half.
- The organization said cuts could be part of President Donald Trump's greater strategy to cut back on foreign assistance.
- Both the US and Russia have urged Turkey to show restraint in its military campaign against Kurdish forces in Syria, but Turkey says it will continue.
- Turkey considers the Kurdish YPG, one of the key forces that defeated ISIS in Syria, part of a terrorist group that operates within its borders.
- The US trained, equiped, and fought alongside the YPG during the campaign to destroy ISIS' territory in Syria.
- US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Tuesday that the Syrian regime may still be using chemical weapons.
- Reports emerged that 20 people were victims of an apparent chlorine gas attack on Monday.
- The White Helmets, a Syrian rescue group, have also accused the Syrian regime of using chlorine gas in at least twice in the last 10 days.
- The US military says it killed up to 150 ISIS fighters in Syria over the weekend near Abu Kamal.
- The coalition says there was a heavy concentration of fighters at the site and they appeared to be "massing for movement."
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Israeli jets and ground-to-ground missiles struck Syria early on Tuesday, Syria's army said, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated he would do what was needed to stop Hezbollah gaining "game-changing" Iranian weapons.
The Syrian army said in a statement carried by state television that Israeli jets fired missiles at the al-Qutaifa area near Damascus from inside Lebanese airspace at 2:40 a.m. (0040 GMT) and Syrian air defenses hit one of the planes.
Israel then fired rockets from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, but the Syrian defenses brought them down, the army said, adding that Israeli jets fired a final barrage of four rockets from inside Israel, one of which was intercepted by Syrian air defenses while the others caused material damage.
Israel has pledged to prevent Syrian territory being used for Iran to set up bases or transfer high-quality weaponry to Lebanon's Hezbollah group, which has been helping Damascus beat back a six-year-old rebellion.
The Israeli military declined to comment. Although the Israeli air force chief last August disclosed that his corps had struck in Syria around 100 times, Israel's policy is generally not to confirm or deny such operations.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in answer to a reporter's question about the strikes that Israel's policy was to stop Hezbollah moving "game-changing weapons" out of Syria.
"We back it up as necessary with action," he said, without explicitly confirming Israel carried out Tuesday's strikes.
In its statement, the Syrian army repeated previous warnings of serious repercussions for the strikes and repeated its past accusation that Israel was using attacks to support militant groups in Syria.
A European diplomat speaking earlier this week said there was an understanding between the United States and Russia that Hezbollah and other foreign fighters would be removed from the area in Syria close to the Israeli border.
"I don't think that has happened very much up till now and that is a source of concern," the diplomat said.
(Reporting By Angus McDowall; additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Dominic Evans in Istanbul; editing by Paul Tait and Robin Pomeroy)
The Russian military announced on Wednesday that Turkish-backed rebels attacked its Hmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility in Syria over the weekend with 13 drones.
"The recent drone attack on Russian bases in Syria was launched from an area near Idlib, which is controlled by Turkish-backed rebel forces,"according to RT, adding that Moscow complained to Turkey about the incident. The drone attack reportedly took place overnight from January 5 to January 6.
The Russian military said that the attack originated from the village of Muazzara, which is located in the Idlib region of Syria.
Russian and Syrian bombing runs have increased in Idlib in the last week, resulting in the deaths of many civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory For Human Rights. ISIS has also recently retaken portions of Idlib, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin's declaration of victory in Syria late last year.
It is curious that Russia would blame Turkey, given that the two countries have improved relations over the last year.
"We often overestimate how much governments in capitals have control over the rebel groups they sponsor," Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA, told Business Insider.
"Given Turkey's deteriorating relationship with the US, it [would be odd] for Turkey to lash out at Russia," Gorenburg said.
Russia shifts the blame from US to Turkey
The development comes one day after the Russian Ministry of Defense implied that the US had helped coordinate the drone attacks on Hmeimim air base and Tartus naval facility.
The MoD also said that a US spy plane flew over Syria around the time of the attack, which helped the rebels target the drones.
"Any suggestion the US, the Coalition or our partnered forces played a role in an attack on a Russian base is without any basis in fact and utterly irresponsible," Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon told Business Insider in an email, adding over the phone that the insinuation is "absolute bonkers."
"This was not a super sophisticated attack," Gorenburg said, adding that the rebels could have easily launched and targeted the bases themselves.
Russia has released pictures of the drones, which were made of wood, taped together, and equipped with low-tech bombs.
"My hunch is that [Russia] was embarrassed by the attack," Gorenburg said, and that the MoD needed to attribute such an attack to "a major power."
Russia hinted on Thursday that Ukraine manufactured the explosives used in an attempted drone attack on its military bases in Syria, following claims linking Turkey and the US to the attack.
"Preliminary research has shown that PETN was used as a base for an explosive substance used in that ammo, which is more powerful than hexogen. The specified explosive is produced in a number of countries, including at Ukraine’s Shostka Chemical Reagents Plant," Major General Alexander Novikov said in a Russian Ministry of Defense release.
The Ukrainian Ministry of Defense denied the allegations, according to Hromadske, a Ukrainian media outlet.
"This is nothing more than a regular informational attack," Ukrainian Defense Minister Victoria Kushnir said. "We reject these allegations."
Russia's Hmeymim air base and Tartus Naval Facility in Syria were attacked overnight with a swarm of 13 drones on January 5 and 6, but were seemingly successfully repelled.
Moscow has since released a number of pictures of the drones, which were fixed-wing UAVs made of wood and tape and powered by small internal combustion engines seen on lawn mowers.
Russia has continuously claimed the drones came from a local force that was backed by an outside power. But experts told Business Insider that the drones could have been constructed and operated without any outside help.
"I could literally turn 10 drones on right now in a field by myself and tell them to fly to a specific coordinate," Brett Velicovich, a leading expert in drones and author of "Drone Warrior," told Business Insider in an email.
"Basic swarming with drones now is so easy that any kid with an internet connection can figure out how to do it," Velicovich said.
Russia plays the blame game
Moscow had previously hinted that the US helped target the drones, claiming that a P-8 Poseidon spy plane had "coincidentally" flown over the Russian bases around the time of the attack.
"Any suggestion the US, the Coalition or our partnered forces played a role in an attack on a Russian base is without any basis in fact and utterly irresponsible," Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon previously told Business Insider in an email, adding over the phone that the insinuation is "absolute bonkers."
Moscow on Wednesday said that the drone attack originated from the village of Muazzara, which is located in the Idlib province of Syria.
"The recent drone attack on Russian bases in Syria was launched from an area near Idlib, which is controlled by Turkish-backed rebel forces," RT reported on Wednesday, adding that Moscow complained to Turkey about the incident.
However, Russian President Putin said on Thursday that he had spoken to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and that he was confident that Turkey had nothing to with it, according to the Associated Press.
"There were provocateurs, but they weren't the Turks," Putin said. "We know who they were and how much they paid for that provocation."
"We often overestimate how much governments in capitals have control over the rebel groups they sponsor," Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA, previously told Business Insider.
While Moscow appears to have now excluded Ankara from its list of perpetrators, it continues to insinuate that the rebels that launched the drones had outside help.
The Russian MoD Defense Ministry spelled it out on Thursday, arguing that the complexity of the drones — which they said required "calculations and flight tests"— prove that whoever launched them were backed by an outside power.
"First of all, it is impossible to develop such drones in an improvised manner. They were developed and operated by experts with special skills acquired in countries that produce and apply systems with UAVs," according to the MoD. "The fact that terrorists have received assembly technology and programming technology is the evidence that this threat stretches far beyond the Syrian borders."
Experts agree: Russia is wrong
Business Insider spoke with multiple experts who all said that the drones could have been constructed and operated from a distance of more than 30 miles by rebels without any outside help.
Gorenburg, the CNA research scientist, said Russia was likely "embarrassed" by the attack and the MoD may have needed to attribute the drone strike to "a major power."
Caitlin Lee, a political scientist at the RAND Corp., told Business Insider that GPS or a camera would be needed to operate a drone at such a distance.
"It's not out of the realm of possibility for a non-state actor to put GPS software on a drone," Lee said.
The Russian Defense Ministry even admitted that one of the drones had a camera on it.
Velicovich, the author of "Drone War," said the drones could have come from ISIS, which has been increasingly active in Syria's Idlib province.
"Wouldn't surprise me if this was ISIS's drone unit, which has been active for a few years now and played with similar technology under their Al Bara Bin Malik brigade," he said.
Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, told Business Insider the same thing.
"All of the technology — the styrofoam, wood, lawn mower engines — can probably be bought in Idlib for a couple hundred dollars," Stein said.
"It's really embarrassing to have a bunch of junk fly through your air defenses and wreak havoc," he said.
The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed on Friday to have killed the "terrorists" that mortared its Hmeymim air base in Syria on December 31, which killed two airmen and reportedly destroyed 7 jets.
"During the final stage of the operation a Russian Special Operations unit located the base camp of the militant saboteur group near the western border of Idlib province," the MoD said, according to RT. "As the terrorists arrived at the location, the entire group was eliminated with a high-precision 'Krasnopol' weapon as they were about to board a minibus."
The defense ministry released a video of the strike:
Russia has also now claimed a victory following a swarm of drone attacks last week that targeted Hmeymim air base and Tartus Naval Facility overnight on January 5 and January 6. Moscow claimed to have successfully repelled the attack.
The MoD claimed on Friday to have struck a depot in Idlib province where drones were assembled and stored with the same Krasnopol projectile.
"The Russian military reconnaissance has uncovered a terrorist fixed-wing drone assembly and storage place in the province of Idlib. The depot has been destroyed by the Krasnopol precision artillery munition," the defense ministry said, according to TASS.
The defense ministry also released a video of the Krasnopol strike on the UAV depot:
Russia offers confusing explanation for drone attacks
While the videos could easily be authentic, Russia has been known to release fake videos. In November, Russia released a video supposedly showing US troops helping ISIS fighters, but in fact was a video game.
Russia has repeatedly insinuated that the rebels who carried out the drone attack on its military bases in Syria had help from the US, Turkey, and even Ukraine.
Moscow has claimed that the drones, which were made of wood, tape and lawn mower engines, were too sophisticated and operated from too far a distance to have been executed by themselves.
Business Insider spoke with several experts who all said that the drones could have been easily constructed and operated by the rebels.
"I could literally turn 10 drones on right now in a field by myself and tell them to fly to a specific coordinate," Brett Velicovich, a leading expert in drones and author of "Drone Warrior,"previously told Business Insider in an email.
"Basic swarming with drones now is so easy that any kid with an internet connection can figure out how to do it," Velicovich said.
A recent Daily Beast investigation even found similar drones for sale on a social media arms market.
Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA, and Aaron Stein, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, both told Business Insider that Moscow was probably embarrassed by the attack, especially with the upcoming presidential election in March, and may have tried to blame the attack on a major power.
"It's really embarrassing to have a bunch of junk fly through your air defenses and wreak havoc," Stein said.
On Dec. 24, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, called together a delegation of Syrian opposition leaders to deliver a blunt message: Riyadh would be throttling back its military support for their efforts to overthrow Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
It was time, Jubeir counseled, to devote their energies instead to securing a political deal with Damascus at a peace conference in January in Sochi, Russia, according to two opposition sources and two other diplomatic officials who described the meeting to Foreign Policy. If they were well prepared for Sochi, Jubeir argued, they would be in a better position to get an agreement on a political transition. (Saudi officials in New York and Washington did not respond to requests for comment.)
Jubeir's appeals mark another reversal for Syria's beleaguered anti-Assad forces, who already lost the covert military backing of the United States in July. More important, the Saudi message underscores the success of Russia's diplomatic push to shape the future of postwar Syria, which is quickly coming to rival the official, UN-led process that has sputtered along for five years in Geneva.
Even the United Nations is now torn over whether to take part in Russia's peace plan, with Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy for Syria, mounting a behind-the-scenes push to secure a seat at the table in Sochi and urging Saudi Arabia and the Syrian opposition to attend.
US disengagement in Syria
Moscow's growing diplomatic clout in the Syrian endgame has been made possible, in part, by Washington's passivity. The Donald Trump administration has focused more on fighting the Islamic State and fending off Iran than on shaping the political future of the war-ravaged country.
"Syria is an example of how US diplomacy is not front and center," one UN Security Council diplomat said. "The US has lost ground to Russia on that issue."
Even if the United States wanted to play a bigger role in postwar Syria, its disengagement has weakened its ability to do so, said retired Marine Gen. John Allen, the former US envoy for the anti-Islamic State coalition.
"In many respects, the political trajectory has been decided by the Russians," Allen said last month. "And sadly, the United States has little capacity now to exert leadership in this process or to participate."
Russia's latest diplomatic drive began more than a year ago. In January 2017, the Russian government held talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, with Iranian and Turkish officials to work out a cease-fire; the United States was largely excluded from the process, which is ongoing.
Peace negotiations in Sochi and declining prospects in Geneva
Now Moscow is planning to use a conference later this month at the Black Sea resort of Sochi to help determine the contours of Syria's political future — which the Russians hope will include Assad.
Russia's diplomatic push worries many Western governments and Syrian opposition leaders. They fear the meeting will simply consolidate recent military gains by Russia and the Syrian government, perpetuate Assad's brutal rule, and drive a new generation of Syrians into the insurgency.
They also worry the Russian process will jettison some core parts of what was agreed in Geneva, such as a transitional government and a blueprint for life after Assad. Many critics charge that Russia, as a party to the conflict, cannot be an honest broker.
"There is no alternative to the Geneva process led by the UN," France's UN ambassador, François Delattre, told reporters late last month. "There is no other game in town."
More than 130 Syrian opposition groups, alarmed by the apparent willingness of de Mistura to take part in the Sochi talks, sent him a letter on Jan. 3 calling the negotiations a "dangerous departure from the [UN-led] Geneva process" and a "serious threat" to Syria's prospects for peace.
The problem is that the Geneva process is starting to look less viable. Russia's military assistance to the Assad regime has made Damascus less open to the idea of ceding power to a transitional government, a key element of the Geneva plan.
And Washington is doing little to keep Geneva alive, as the Trump administration focuses instead on stamping out the Islamic State and minimizing Iran's influence. European allies privately complain that the United States hasn't used its diplomatic muscle to support the Geneva talks and that there's no single figure at the White House or State Department tasked with shaping the discussions.
"Someone has to own this and nobody does," said a former senior US national security official who has ties to the White House. To judge by the Saudi message to the Syrian opposition, however, as well as divisions inside the UN, it increasingly appears that someone does indeed own the process: Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Trump administration officials counter that the United States has more leverage in Syria than it did a year ago, now that its Kurdish partners control more territory and US troops remain on the ground.)
The West is split on which talks to attend
While UN Secretary-General António Guterres has made it clear that the UN will only go to Sochi if the United States, Saudi Arabia, and other key allies either attend or give him a green light, de Mistura has argued that both the UN and the Syrian opposition should take part.
Last month, during the eighth round of Geneva talks, he pulled aside opposition leaders and pressed them to attend the Russian talks. Guterres ordered him to stand down, but not before the message got out.
"There is a split at the UN," one diplomat said. "De Mistura wants to go so he can inject a UN viewpoint into the proceedings." But his colleagues in New York "feel it will simply legitimate the Russian aims."
"So far, the secretary-general feels Sochi doesn't pass the smell test," the diplomat said. Guterres is scheduled to meet with an opposition delegation at UN headquarters Monday afternoon.
"De Mistura has a tendency to lean toward the Russians rather than the United States," said Radwan Ziadeh, a Syrian human rights activist based in Washington. "He feels the US has withdrawn from the Syrian file and the only way for him to deliver is to lean toward the Russians."
A spokesman for de Mistura declined to respond to questions about his support for the Sochi talks and referred FP to a series of statements by the UN special envoy indicating that any constitutional committee that might emerge from Sochi would have to be endorsed by the UN, in consultation with the UN Security Council.
Officially, the United States still pins its hopes on the talks in Geneva, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis all trying to push Assad toward the exit.
"Geneva is the only way forward," one State Department official told FP. "As our focus remains on Geneva and substantive progress from those negotiations, all other methods only serve as a distraction."
But there are signs of a split in Washington, too, which could open the door to a more active Russian role.
Several top US officials, including Brett McGurk, the special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter the Islamic State; Michael Ratney, the special envoy for Syria; and David Satterfield, the acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, favor a limited approach to Syria that focuses on defeating the Islamic State, countering Iranian activities, and then winding down US activities in Syria, according to diplomatic sources. McGurk seems especially open-minded about Moscow's diplomatic efforts.
"We've engaged with the Russians on this about exactly what they have in mind, and they have said that Sochi would be kind of a gathering of Syrian figures, and then what happens in Sochi would feed directly into Geneva," he told reporters last month.
"What we would not support and what would have absolutely no legitimacy would be a parallel process that's parallel entirely to Geneva."
But with the United States taking a back seat in Syria, a parallel diplomatic push seems to be exactly what is taking place.
With the liberation last November of Rawa and Qaim, two towns near the Syrian border, the Islamic State in Iraq appeared on the brink of defeat. The militant group had lost the last urban strongholds taken during its dramatic drive through Iraq in 2014, and with them the last slivers of territory it controlled in the country.
But an unreleased analysis presented at recent coalition meetings by the United Nations speaks to a much more complicated and fluid situation on the ground — one characterized by delicate humanitarian considerations and the real possibility of an Islamic State resurgence.
According to the UN, five of the areas newly liberated from the group urgently require stabilization. "There is a risk that if we don't stabilize these areas quickly, violent extremism might emerge again. The military gains that have been made against [the Islamic State] could be lost," Lise Grande, head of the United Nations Development Programme in Iraq, told Foreign Policy.
The areas, centered around the group's former strongholds in northern Iraq, demonstrate the wide array of issues facing the Iraqi government and its international allies as they attempt to channel stabilization funds to sensitive areas and clamp down on a rapidly evolving threat.
"While they don't hold any territory, there are still pockets of Islamic State fighters that are looking to launch attacks and cause disruption. They're still hiding," said a US State Department official involved in consultations on the analysis.
According to both UN and US officials who worked on crafting the document, the designated areas at risk were based on a number of metrics including tallies of security incidents, known Islamic State sleeper cells, the presence of political groups supportive of the group, and religious figures known to echo the group's messages. "These are the areas that need specific attention," said the American official, who requested anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations.
Two of the areas, one centered on the city of Tal Afar and the other on Qaim, were also included for their proximity to the Syrian border. "There are still pockets of ISIS in Syria," said the State Department official. "Adjacent to those pockets are areas that have been most recently liberated, and they are areas that have traditionally been politically volatile."
The other areas highlighted on the map, including clusters near the towns of Hawija, Tuz Khurmatu, and Shirqat, were selected because of long-standing political and security concerns. "These have always been critical — even before ISIS. Hawija and Tuz Khurmatu [a disputed city near Kirkuk] have always been political flashpoints," said the US official.
These towns and cities, moreover, are all in a band of ethnically diverse communities, where Sunnis, Shiites, and Kurds live in close proximity. Unlike the ethnically homogeneous Kurdish region or Shiite-dominated southern Iraq, these areas have frequently seen bouts of sustained instability.
In the past, the shifting ethno-sectarian balance in these areas led to fears, especially among Sunni communities, of displacement and discrimination. This persistent sense of disenfranchisement, combined with distrust of the central government and other complex factors, contributed to the initial rise of the Islamic State.
The underlying instability in those regions is part of what prompted the UN to compile the map, as a way of guiding stabilization funding — money used to facilitate the return of displaced Iraqis — to the most sensitive and potentially explosive areas. "What they're saying is that, unless we continue to work to stabilize these areas immediately, we run the risk of backsliding," said the US official. "It's where the greatest needs are."
Some analysts, however, worried that the document left out key areas of potential concern. "They're a couple places that just aren't on the map," said Michael Knights, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
"For instance, the most serious red dot that you could possibly put on this map, but it isn't there, would be Diyala province," he said.
Diyala has long been a hotspot for violence. According to some counts, the number of bombings and direct attacks against both civilians and military targets in 2017 was as high as in parts of 2013, during the Islamic State's early days. "What observers are seeing in Diyala is a full-fledged Islamic State-led insurgency," noted an August 2017 paper published by West Point.
Coalition officials noted that the map's designations were based partially on political concerns, but also on other factors, including the number of civilian returnees. "Diyala has been liberated for a while," the State Department official told FP. "It's always a hotspot, but a lot of money and effort has already gone into it, and almost all the population has returned."
Knights also pointed to the Baghdad "belts"— residential and agricultural areas ringing the city — as another potential flashpoint. In the past, higher levels of insurgent violence were preceded by what Knights termed "microbombings," low-profile attacks that often flew under the radar of the central government or US counterterrorism officials.
"Individually, they aren't high-profile events: they were all markets, bus stops, etc.," he said. "But when you add them up, there are a lot of them. It's really inflammatory stuff."
The risk, explained Knights, is potential complacency. "The perception right now is that they're quiet," he said, "and that's not really a good guideline."
The U.S.-led coalition is working with its Syrian militia allies to set up a new border force of 30,000 personnel, the coalition said on Sunday, a move that has added to Turkish anger over U.S. support for Kurdish-dominated forces in Syria.
A senior Turkish official told Reuters the U.S. training of the new "Border Security Force" is the reason that the U.S. charge d'affaires was summoned in Ankara on Wednesday. The official did not elaborate.
The force, whose inaugural class is currently being trained, will be deployed at the borders of the area controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) - an alliance of militias in northern and eastern Syria dominated by the Kurdish YPG.
In an email to Reuters, the coalition's Public Affairs Office confirmed details of the new force reported by The Defense Post. About half the force will be SDF veterans, and recruiting for the other half is underway, the coalition's Public Affairs Office said.
The force will deploy along the border with Turkey to the north, the Iraqi border to the southeast, and along the Euphrates River Valley, which broadly acts as the dividing line separating the U.S.-backed SDF and Syrian government forces backed by Iran and Russia.
U.S. support for the SDF has put enormous strain on ties with NATO ally Turkey, which views the YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) - a group that has waged a three-decade insurgency in Turkey.
Syria's main Kurdish groups have emerged as one of the few winners of the Syrian war, and are working to entrench their autonomy over swathes of northern Syria.
Washington opposes those autonomy plans, even as it has backed the SDF, the main partner for the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State in Syria.
The coalition said the BSF would operate under SDF command and around 230 individuals were currently undergoing training in its inaugural class.
"Efforts are taken to ensure individuals serve in areas close to their homes. Therefore, the ethnic composition of the force will be relative to the areas in which they serve.
"More Kurds will serve in the areas in northern Syria. More Arabs will serve in areas along the Euphrates River Valley and along the border with Iraq to the south," the coalition's Public Affairs Office said.
"A NEW MISSION"
"The base of the new force is essentially a realignment of approximately 15,000 members of the SDF to a new mission in the Border Security Force as their actions against ISIS draw to a close," it said.
"They will be providing border security through professionally securing checkpoints and conducting counter-IED operations," it said, adding that coalition and SDF forces were still engaging Islamic State pockets in Deir al-Zor province.
IED stands for improvised explosive device.
The United States has about 2,000 troops in Syria fighting Islamic State, and has said it is prepared to stay in the country until it is certain Islamic State is defeated, that stabilization efforts can be sustained, and there is meaningful progress in U.N.-led peace talks on ending the conflict.
The Syrian government in Damascus has declared the United States an illegal occupation force, and its SDF allies as "traitors". A top Syrian Kurdish politician told Reuters last week the United States appeared in no hurry to leave Syria.
It's always dangerous to make predictions about the Middle East.
After all, few experts foresaw Anwar al-Sadat's trip to Jerusalem in 1977, which led to the first peace treaty between Israel and an Arab state, nor did they predict the Iranian Revolution of 1978-79 or the Arab uprisings of 2010-11.
Having taught and written about the Middle East for three decades, however, I feel confident in making the following forecast for the region in 2018.
The Syrian conflict will drag on without resolution.
In Syria, the government will continue to reconquer territory, but will not be able to expand its control across the entire country.
There are four reasons for this.
First, regime opponents who have borne the brunt of the regime's brutality for the past seven years know better than to throw themselves on its mercy now. In the past, they have treated government offers of amnesty with scorn. They will continue to do so.
Second, the government is too weak. Most of the territorial gains the government made during the past two years were accomplished by subcontractors — Hezbollah, Iranian units, Iranian-trained and controlled militias and private militias — not by the depleted government forces.
Third, the overwhelming majority of opposition groups operate within the confines of a single province. This indicates that they are local forces under the control of a local power broker. Having experienced the lighter hand of the government for the past six years, they are unlikely to willingly surrender their hard-won autonomy.
Finally, the Syrian civil war has been a proxy war with the West and Saudi Arabia and its Gulf allies supporting the opposition. While that aid will certainly decline as a result of donor fatigue and logistical problems, it will probably not end. As a result, the opposition will not surrender from sheer exhaustion.
The former Arab League and United Nations peace envoy to Syria, Lakhdar Brahimi, will be proved correct. Several years ago, he predicted the Syrian civil war would end with the "Somalization" of Syria.
Like Somalia, Syria will have an internationally recognized government and permanent representation at the United Nations. It will continue to issue and stamp passports and, if it so chooses, will send a team to the Olympics. However, like the government of Somalia, the government of Syria will reign, not rule, over the entirety of its internationally recognized borders.
Saudi Arabia's 'reforms' will fizzle.
Saudi Arabia will continue to make reforms under the direction of Crown Prince Muhammed bin Salman, but those reforms will be purely cosmetic.
Although the crown prince has been portrayed as a reformer, it is important to remember that Bashar al-Assad, the president of Syria, once played that role as well.
The crown prince will continue to try to consolidate power in his branch of the ruling family. So far, he has imprisoned other princes and economic elites on charges of corruption, while spending US$300 million on a house in France.
He has also taken power away from another pillar of the Saudi ruling group – the religious establishment. In fact, the so-called "loosening" of restrictions in Saudi Arabia – allowing women to drive, opening entertainment centers, stripping the religious police of the power to make arrests and promoting a "more moderate" Islam – are all aspects of his campaign to divest the religious establishment of its power and centralize power in the hands of his immediate family.
Only by releasing prisoners of conscience from Saudi jails and ending the barbaric war in Yemen might the crown prince demonstrate he is a true reformer.
The crown prince’s push to liberalize the Saudi economy will also fail. Two years ago he announced his "Vision 2030." It includes a list of off-the-shelf neo-liberal recommendations intended to turn Saudi Arabia into a market economy within 14 years.
The implementation of Vision 2030 would mean ending a governmental tradition of buying the loyalty of Saudi citizens through subsidies and employment. It would mean ensuring a free flow of information in a country that, in 2017, Reporters Without Borders ranked 168th of 180 countries in terms of press freedom.
It would mean dramatically increasing female workforce participation from 22% to a stated goal of 30% – still well below the global norm of 49% – and adding 2.5 million private sector jobs. Finally, it means changing attitudes toward work in a country in which 11 million guest workers literally do all the heavy lifting.
All in 12 years.
The caliphate will be gone, but not the Islamic State.
If 2014 was the year in which ISIS seemed unstoppable, 2015 was the year the IS caliphate began to slide into oblivion.
At its height, ISIS controlled 40% of Iraq. At the beginning of 2017, that number slipped to 10%, and ISIS lost 70% of its territory in Syria. The caliphate also lost all the major towns it had taken. The caliphate is finished.
But what about IS, the movement? Some ISIS fighters have already given up. They have tried to melt into local populations or return home, although they have met resistance from populations out for vengeance and fearful foreign governments.
For the rest, there are two likely scenarios. First, since a significant number of ISIS fighters from Iraq, along with their leaders, joined ISIS because they harbored grievances against the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, it is entirely possible that they will continue to wage an insurgency against that government. This is just what the Taliban in Afghanistan did after the Americans overthrew their government.
Second, it is even more likely that former fighters and freelancers will continue their attacks globally, with or without organizational backing. The world is not lacking in gullible and disturbed individuals.
Nevertheless, because ISIS will lack a base from which to disseminate its sophisticated propaganda, and because the appeal of high-risk but ineffectual ideologies wane over time, so too will IS’ appeal.
See the rest of the story at Business Insider
The Syrian regime and Russia began a new air and land offensive on December 31 to take back the rebel-held rural Eastern Ghouta region outside of Damascus.
New figures show how the offensive has devastated the local population.
177 civilians, including 51 children, have been killed in the last two weeks, and 811 more have been wounded, according to a statement released on Sunday by the White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer rescue group.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights also said on Sunday that the offensive has killed about 190 people.
"One particular heavy attack on residential buildings was so strong it reportedly injured 80 civilians including children and women," Fran Equiza, UNICEF's representative in Syria, said in a statement on Sunday.
The White Helmets said that Syrian regime forces fired three surface-to-surface missiles filled with poisonous gas on Saturday between the cities of Harasta and Douma.
Five women and one child were injured from the strikes, the White Helmets said. A medical center in Douma confirmed it treated six people with symptoms similar to chlorine gas poisoning, according to CNN.
The White Helmets have also released a number of brutal images and videos, including the short video below, which appears to show them rescuing civilians from Doumas on Saturday.
CNN also reported that hospitals in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib are being targeted, and UNICEF said that two medical facilities were hit in Eastern Ghouta in the last few days.
Russia and and the Syrian regime have been repeatedly accused in the past of targeting hospitals.
Idlib is one of the rebels' last remaining strongholds, and part of the de-escalation zone established by Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
Russia may be increasing bombing runs on Idlib in response to attacks on its air and naval bases by a swarm of 13 drones on January 5 and January 6.
The Russian Ministry of Defense claimed the attack originated from Idlib, and hinted that a US Navy spy plane helped with the targeting. The US strongly denied the insinuations.
The US-led coalition in Syria acknowledged on Sunday that it's training a Kurdish-dominated "Border Security Force" to operate in northern and eastern parts of Syria.
And the move has enraged Russia and Turkey.
Russian State Douma Defense Committee Chairman Vladimir Shamanov on Sunday threatened to “undertake certain measures,” according to a report from the Russian state media outlet Sputnik. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed on Monday to 'strangle it before it's even born.'
Half of the 30,000-strong BSF will be made up of Syrian Democratic Forces veterans fresh off their long fight against ISIS, while the other half are currently being recruited and trained.
The BSF will deploy to the northern border with Turkey, the southeastern border with Iraq and along the Euphrates River, which acts as a border between the US-backed SDF and Syrian regime and Russian forces.
"They will be providing border security through professionally securing checkpoints and conducting counter-IED operations," the coalition told Reuters, adding that coalition and SDF forces were still engaging remaining ISIS fighters in Deir al-Zor province.
The development comes as tensions between the US and Russia in Syria remain high, and a power vaccum from ISIS's diminishing presence appears to have opened up.
In the last few months, the US has accused Russia of conducting unsafe maneuvers in the skies along the Euphrates, and Russia recently hinted that the US helped a rebel group target a swarm of 13 drones in an attack on its Hmeymim air base and Tartus Naval Facility in the country.
Tensions between the US and Turkey have also been high for the last couple years.
Washington not only refused to extradite Fethullah Gulen, a former imam who Anakara accused of organizing the attempted coup in 2016, but also supplied the Kurdish YPG with weapons to fight ISIS, some of which may have been used against Turkish forces.
Turkey views the Kurdish YPG as a terrorist group and an extension of the PKK.
In response, Ankara has moved closer to Moscow, and has even recently purchased Russia's S-400 missile defense system.
The development also comes as the Syrian regime and Russia have increased bombing runs in Idlib province and Eastern Ghouta, the latter of which have killed at least 177 civilians in the last two weeks alone.
LONDON (Reuters) - Iran said on Tuesday a new U.S.-backed, 30,000-strong force inside Syria would "fan the flames of war", echoing the vehement response of Syria, Turkey and Russia to the plan.
On Sunday, the U.S.-led coalition said it was working with its Syrian militia allies, the mainly Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to set up a force that would operate along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, as well as within Syria.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad responded by vowing to crush the new force and drive U.S. troops from Syria. Strong Syria ally Russia called the plans a plot to dismember Syria and place part of it under U.S. control, and Turkey described the force as a "terror army."
Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said such a force would raise tensions in Syria. Iran supports Assad in the nearly seven-year civil war against rebel forces and Islamic State militants, sending weapons and soldiers.
"The U.S. announcement of a new border force in Syria is an obvious interference in the internal affairs of this country," Qasemi was quoted as saying by state news agency IRNA.
Qasemi urged all U.S. forces to leave Syria immediately.
The United States is at the head of an international coalition using air strikes and special forces troops to aid fighters on the ground battling Islamic State militants in Syria since 2014. It has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria.
The US-led coalition in Syria acknowledged over the weekend that it's training a Kurdish-dominated "Border Security Force" to operate in northern and eastern parts of Syria.
It has especially angered Ankara, which views Kurdish YPG as a terrorist organization — an extension of the Kurdish PKK that has waged an insurgency in Turkey for decades.
Business Insider reached out to the Defense Department and Operation Inherent Resolve, but spokespersons at both did not comment on why the coalition has created the border force.
While acknowledging that the US-led coalition does not have an official explanation yet, Defense Department spokesman Eric Pahon told Business Insider that the US has "maintained full accountability and transparency with the Turkish government" and "are keenly aware of the security concerns of our coalition partner Turkey."
"We want to reassure the people and government of Turkey that the US is committed to preventing additional security risks and protecting our NATO ally," Pahon said.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vowed on Monday to "strangle it before it's even born," and the Guardian reported on Tuesday that Turkish troops and tanks on the border with Syria were poised to strike most likely along a 60 mile-long area between Afrin and Manbij.
It's been reported that the BSF will be about 30,000-strong, and deploy to Syria's northern border with Turkey, the southeastern border with Iraq and along the Euphrates River, which acts as a border between the US-backed SDF and Syrian regime and Russian forces.
"They will be providing border security through professionally securing checkpoints and conducting counter-IED operations," the coalition told Reuters, adding that coalition and SDF forces were still engaging remaining ISIS fighters in Deir al-Zor province.
The BSF will be largely made up of SDF veterans, most of whom are Kurdish YPG fresh off their fight against ISIS.
The coalition appears to be in a quagmire, neither wanting to upset Turkey over its continued support for the Kurdish YPG, nor wanting to leave the YPG high and dry to Turkish forces after supporting them against ISIS.
The United States on Wednesday signaled an open-ended military presence in Syria as part of a broader strategy to prevent Islamic State's resurgence, pave the way diplomatically for the eventual departure of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and curtail Iran's influence.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in a speech at Stanford University, called for "patience" on Assad's departure - the clearest indication yet of an acknowledgment that Russia and Iran have bolstered Assad and that he is unlikely to leave power immediately.
Billed as the Trump administration's new strategy on Syria, the announcement will prolong the risks and redefine the mission for the U.S. military, which has for years sought to define its operations in Syria along more narrow lines of battling Islamic State and has about 2,000 U.S. ground forces in the country.
While much of the U.S. strategy would focus on diplomatic efforts, Tillerson said:
"But let us be clear: the United States will maintain a military presence in Syria, focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge," while acknowledging many Americans' skepticism of military involvement in conflicts abroad, Tillerson said.
U.S. forces in Syria have already faced direct threats from Syrian and Iranian-backed forces, leading to the shoot-down of Iranian drones and a Syrian jet last year, as well as to tensions with Russia.
Trump administration officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, had previously disclosed elements of the policy but Tillerson's speech was meant to formalize and clearly define it.
A U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran with an opportunity to reinforce its position in Syria, Tillerson said.
As candidate, U.S. President Donald Trump was critical of his predecessors' military interventions in the Middle East and Afghanistan. As president, however, Trump has had to commit to an open-ended presence in Afghanistan and, now, Syria.
The transition to what appears to be open-ended stability operations in Syria could leave those U.S.-backed forces vulnerable to shifting alliances, power struggles and miscommunications as Assad's allies and enemies vie for greater control of post-war Syria.
After nearly seven years of war, hundreds of thousands of Syrians killed and a humanitarian disaster, Tillerson asked nations to keep up economic pressure on Assad but provide aid to areas no longer under Islamic State's control.
Tillerson said free, transparent elections in which the Syrian diaspora participate "will result in the permanent departure of Assad and his family from power. This process will take time, and we urge patience in the departure of Assad and the establishment of new leadership," Tillerson said.
"Responsible change may not come as immediately as some hope for, but rather through an incremental process of constitutional reform and U.N.-supervised elections. But that change will come," he said.
Syrian opposition member Hadi al-Bahra welcomed Tillerson’s announcement but urged more details.
“This is the first time Washington has said clearly it has U.S. interests in Syria that it is ready to defend,” Bahra told Reuters.
However, he said, more clarity was needed on how Washington will force the implementation of the political process and how it “will force the Assad regime into accepting a political settlement that leads to establishing a safe and neutral environment that leads to a transition through free and fair elections."
The top U.S. diplomat said Washington would carry out "stabilization initiatives" such as clearing landmines and restoring basic utilities in areas no longer under Islamic State control, while making clear that "'stabilization' is not a synonym for open-ended nation-building or a synonym for reconstruction. But it is essential."
Tillerson said the United States would "vigorously support" a United Nations process to end the conflict, a so-far stalled process, and called on Russia, a main supporter of Assad, to "put new levels of pressure" on the Syrian government to "credibly engage" with U.N. peace efforts.
The United Nations Special Envoy for Syria said on Wednesday he had invited the Syrian government and opposition to a special meeting next week in Vienna.
But it was not immediately clear how or why Moscow would heed Washington's oft-repeated demands.
James Jeffrey, a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq who served as a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, said that while Tillerson set down the broad parameters of a first comprehensive U.S. strategy for Syria, he left major questions unanswered.
“It’s full of holes like Swiss cheese, but before we just had the holes,” said Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Key questions that Tillerson left unaddressed, he continued, included how long Assad should remain in power and whether he would play a role in any political transition.
Tillerson praised Turkey's role in taking on Islamic State. Ties between the two countries have been strained over U.S. support for the Syrian Democratic forces, the mainly Kurdish-led militias fighting Islamic State in northern Syria with the help of U.S. forces.
The U.S.-led coalition said on Sunday it was working with the SDF to set up a 30,000-strong force that would operate along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, as well as within Syria.
Assad responded by vowing to crush the new force and drive U.S. troops from Syria. Russia called the plans a plot to dismember Syria and place part of it under U.S. control, and Turkey described the force as a "terror army."
(Reporting by David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, David Alexander and Jonathan Landay; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by James Dalgleish)
HATAY, Turkey (Reuters) - Turkey said on Wednesday it would not hesitate to take action in Syria's Afrin district and other areas unless the United States withdrew support for a Kurdish-led force there, but Washington denied such plans and said "some people misspoke".
Turkish President Erdogan has repeatedly warned of an imminent incursion in Afrin after Washington said it would help the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), led by the Kurdish YPG militia, set up a new 30,000-strong border force.
The plan has infuriated Turkey, which considers the Syrian YPG as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) militant group, which has fought an insurgency in southeast Turkey since 1984. The PKK is considered a terrorist group by the European Union, Turkey and the United States.
Deputy Prime Minister and Government Spokesman Bekir Bozdag told reporters after a Cabinet meeting the planned U.S.-backed force posed a threat to Turkey's national security, territorial integrity and the safety of its citizens.
"We emphasized that such a step was very wrong," he said. "Turkey has reached the limits of its patience. Nobody should expect Turkey to show more patience."
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson denied that the United States had any intention of building a Syria-Turkey border force and said the issue had been "misportrayed, misdescribed".
"Some people misspoke. We are not creating a border security force at all," Tillerson told reporters on board an aircraft taking him back to Washington from Vancouver, where he had attended a meeting on North Korea.
"I think it’s unfortunate that comments made by some left that impression," he said, without giving details. "That is not what we’re doing."
He said Turkish officials had been told U.S. intentions were only "to ensure that local elements are providing security to
The Pentagon said in an earlier statement it was training "internally focused" Syrian fighters with a goal of preventing the Islamic State group's resurgence and ensuring Syrians displaced by the war could return to their communities.
"We are keenly aware of the security concerns of Turkey, our coalition partner and NATO ally. Turkey's security concerns are legitimate," it said.
Some Turkish troops have been in Syria for three months after entering northern Idlib province following an agreement with Russia and Iran to try to reduce fighting between pro-Syrian government forces and rebel fighters.
The observation posts which the Turkish army says it has established are close to the dividing line between Arab rebel-held land and Kurdish-controlled Afrin.
Turkey's National Security Council said earlier on Wednesday Turkey would not allow the formation of a "terrorist army" along its borders.
As the council met, a Reuters reporter witnessed the Turkish army deploying nine tanks to a military base just outside the city of Hatay, near the border with Afrin, to the west of the area where the border force is planned. That followed earlier reports of a military buildup in the area.
"When the Turkish people and Turkish state's safety is in question, when it is necessary to remove risks and destroy threats, Turkey will do so without hesitation," Bozdag said.
On Monday, with relations between the United States and Turkey stretched close to breaking point, Erdogan threatened to "strangle" the planned U.S.-backed force in Syria "before it's even born".
Turkey and the United States, both allies in NATO, were on the same side for much of Syria's civil war, both supporting rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. But a decision by Washington to back Kurdish forces fighting against Islamic State in recent years has angered Ankara.
The United States has about 2,000 troops on the ground in Syria.
Bozdag reiterated Ankara's demand that Washington cease its "inexplicable" and "unacceptable" support of the YPG.
"In the case that Turkey's demands are not met, we will take determined steps in Afrin and other regions to protect our interests. We will take these steps without considering what anyone can say," Bozdag said. "When will this happen? Suddenly."
The Cabinet also agreed to extend a state of emergency imposed after a failed 2016 coup attempt from Jan. 18, Bozdag said, in a move likely to prolong a post-putsch crackdown that saw more than 50,000 people arrested and 150,000 others sacked or suspended from their jobs.
Turkey launched a massive air and ground campaign against US-backed Kurds in Syria's Afrin province on Saturday, which its military has code-named operation "Olive Branch," according to state-run Anadolu Agency.
Turkish warplanes struck Kurdish observation posts and many other targets, Anadolu reported, while its ground forces launched at least 15 rounds of artillery.
The YPG released statements on Saturday saying they "harbor no hostile intent towards Turkey," and asked Ankara to "halt its unjustified threats." The YPG added that multiple civilians and YPG fighters have already been killed.
Turkey considers the YPG to be an extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has carried out a deadly, decades-long insurgency in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast.
Sporadic cross-border artillery exchanges between the two sides have been ongoing at least since August, but increased on Thursday after the US announced it would maintain and train a 30,000-strong Kurdish-dominated force in northern and eastern Syria to stabilize the regions against ISIS.
The YPG's growing strength across a swath of northern Syria has alarmed Ankara, which fears the creation of an independent Kurdish state on its southern border.
But the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces — of which the YPG is a major component — accused Turkey on Saturday of using cross-border shelling as a false pretext to launch an offensive in Syria.
Differences over Syria policy have further complicated Turkey's already difficult relationship with the US, a NATO member. Washington has backed the YPG, viewing it as an effective partner in the fight against ISIS.
A US State Department official on Friday said military intervention by Turkey in Syria would undermine regional stability and would not help protect Turkey's border security.
Instead, the US called on Turkey to focus on the fight against ISIS. Ankara accuses Washington of using one terrorist group to fight another in Syria.
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Rescue workers in a Syrian rebel-held enclave east of Damascus accused government forces of using chlorine gas during bombardment of the area on Monday, and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said at least 13 people had suffered suffocation.
The Syrian army and government have consistently denied using chlorine or other chemical weapons during Syria's conflict, now in its seventh year.
The White Helmets civil defense rescue force, which operates in rebel-held parts of Syria, said 13 civilians including women and children had been "injured after (the) Assad regime used Chlorine gas in Douma city in Eastern Ghouta".
Douma is in the eastern Ghouta, a suburb east of Damascus where almost 400,000 people have been under siege by the Syrian government and allied militia since 2013. Eastern Ghouta is the last major rebel position close to the capital.
The health directorate for opposition-held areas in the Damascus region said patient symptoms "suggest they have been exposed to chlorine gas inhalation".
It said patients said the smell around the attack site resembled chlorine.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, quoting local medical and other sources, said "gasses" released during a dawn rocket attack on Douma city caused "cases of suffocation".
The Observatory said a gas was also used during a rocket attack last week on the enclave.
A witness in the area said people had fled the area of the attack and were receiving treatment for breathing problems at medical centers.
In the past two years, a joint U.N. and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inquiry has found the Syrian government used the nerve agent sarin and has also several times used chlorine as a weapon.
It has also said Islamic State has used sulfur mustard.
United Nations aid group UNRWA alleges that US aid money pledged to the organization was specifically earmarked for refugee services in certain areas and could not be used for services in Syria and Lebanon.
This marks the first time the US has specifically exempted their funds from being used in those countries, according to Elizabeth Campbell, Director at The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
The organization is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from UN member states, and the United States has historically provided about one-third of UNRWA’s humanitarian budget, Campbell told Business Insider.
Last week, the US announced it would cut its aid to UNRWA by half, and pledged $60 million to the group. The US State Department said it was withholding another $65 million from the group until it made "unspecified reforms."
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a press briefing that the $60 million the US has pledged to the group would be used to "sustain schools and health services" and ensure that "teachers and also health care providers can be paid their salaries." The Department did not go into specifics about the services set to benefit by their aid contribution, but added that the US would like to "take a look at UNRWA, trying to make sure that the money is best spent."
According to Campbell, all of UNRWA's funding goes toward operating "700 schools across Gaza, the West Bank, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan" and helps maintain operations in "140 clinics across the five areas."
"This is the biggest funding crisis the Agency has ever experienced," Campbell said. "None of the funding can be used toward Lebanon and Syria."
Campbell says the organization was shocked to discover the US' plans for major cuts to the organization. "We don’t know why this is the case. It’s the first time they have geographically earmarked funding to us, normally it goes to all branches."
Campbell explained that the group's operations are the same in each of their five branches.
"Our mandate is the same in those areas so we provide education, access to healthcare, and emergency relief and other services in all five areas." Campbell said there was no distinct differences in the group's contributions in Lebanon and Syria, other than the political climate.
Aid cuts reflect Trump's changing policies in the Middle East
According to Campbell, UNRWA had little warning that the US was even considering slashing its aid contributions to the group. She said she learned of US plans to cut the organization's aid when UN Ambassador Nikki Haley said earlier this month at a press conference that President Donald Trump said he was considering cutting some or all aid to the group. "Shortly thereafter we received funding. We weren’t informed in advance of that."
When asked to speculate about the US' motives for reducing UNRWA's aid budget, Campbell said they could be part of Trump's greater strategy to cut back on foreign aid.
"There are a lot of dynamics in play, one of which is US withdrawing foreign assistance generally."
Campbell also said Trump's political interests in the Middle East have affected aid.
"Another piece is obviously related to Trump’s decision on Jerusalem," said Campbell, referring to Trump's controversial move to declare Jerusalem the capital of Israel and plans to move the US embassy.
Since speaking with Ms. Campbell, the US announced it was withholding an additional $45 million from the group in the form of food aid.
Business Insider has reached out to the State Department for comment.
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey seeks to avoid any clash with Syrian, Russian or U.S. forces during its operation in northern Syria but will take whatever steps it needs for its security, Turkey's foreign minister was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
The United States and Russia have both urged Turkey to show restraint in its military campaign, Operation Olive Branch, to crush Kurdish YPG control over the Afrin district on its southern border. Syria has condemned the incursion.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, who says the YPG is an extension of a Kurdish group waging a decades-long insurgency inside Turkey's borders, has also pledged to drive Kurdish fighters out of the mainly Arab town of Manbij.
Manbij, to the east of the Afrin region, is part of a far larger area of northern Syria controlled by mainly Kurdish forces. Any attack there would raise the prospect of protracted conflict between Turkey and allied Free Syrian Army factions against the U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters.
"Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots. If the United States doesn't stop this, we will stop it," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was quoted as saying on Tuesday.
"Our goal is not to clash with Russians, the Syrian regime or the United States, it is to battle the terrorist organisation," broadcaster Haberturk quoted him as saying.
"I must take whatever step I have to. If not, our future as a country is in jeopardy tomorrow. We are not afraid of anyone on this, we are determined... We will not live with fear and threats," Cavusoglu said.
Preventing Turkey from driving Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the U.S.-backed umbrella group dominated by the YPG, out of Manbij is a central goal for Washington, U.S. officials say.
The United States hopes to use the YPG’s control in northern Syria to give it the diplomatic muscle it needs to revive U.N.-led talks in Geneva on a deal that would end Syria’s civil war.
Ankara has been infuriated by U.S. support for the YPG, which it sees as a domestic security threat, one of several issues that have brought relations between the United States and its Muslim NATO ally close to breaking point.
"The future of our relations depends on the step the United States will take next," Cavusoglu said.
He said Turkey, which carried out a seven-month military operation in northern Syria two years ago to push back Islamic State and YPG fighters, would continue to act where it thought necessary.
"Whether it is Manbij, Afrin, the east of the Euphrates or even threats from northern Iraq, it doesn't matter," Cavusoglu said. "If there are terrorists on the other side of our borders, this is a threat for us."
The Syrian government may still be using chemical weapons after a suspected chlorine attack in the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta, the United States said on Tuesday, adding that Russia ultimately bore responsibility.
"Only yesterday more than 20 civilians, mostly children, were victims of an apparent chlorine gas attack," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said after a conference on chemical weapons in Paris. "The recent attacks in East Ghouta raise serious concerns that Bashar al-Assad may be continuing to use chemical weapons against hiss own people."
The White Helmets, a Syrian volunteer rescue group, posted on Twitter on Monday two videos of the children and adults appearing to be suffering from chlorine gas poisoning near Douma.
The White Helmets also accused the Syrian regime on January 13 of firing three surface-to-surface missiles filled with poisonous gas on between the cities of Harasta and Douma.
Five women and one child were injured from the strikes, the White Helmets said, and a medical center in Douma confirmed it treated six people with symptoms similar to chlorine gas poisoning.
Tillerson said that whoever conducted the attacks, "Russia ultimately bears responsibility for the victims in eastern Ghouta and countless other Syrians targeted with chemical weapons since Russia became involved in Syria".
U.S. military officials say American airstrikes in Syria on Saturday killed up to 150 Islamic State fighters in a command center in the Middle Euphrates River Valley.
The U.S.-led coalition fighting the Islamic State says the strikes were near As Shafah, which is north of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria. They targeted an IS headquarters and were assisted by Syrian Democratic Forces who watched the area before the attack.
The coalition says there was a heavy concentration of fighters at the site and they appeared to be "massing for movement." The large number of fighters killed in the attack underscores U.S. assertions that the Islamic State group continues to be a threat in Syria and hasn't been defeated.
The coalition says only IS fighters were killed in the strikes.