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- 02/15/18--07:06: _The Kremlin isn't d...
- 02/15/18--07:17: _5 Russian citizens ...
- 02/15/18--09:15: _Israel was about to...
- 02/16/18--01:16: _More details emerge...
- 02/16/18--01:22: _Turkey proposes the...
- 02/16/18--07:56: _Russian military co...
- 02/16/18--08:17: _Pentagon releases v...
- 02/18/18--13:27: _Turkey cries 'fake ...
- 02/20/18--00:48: _Syrian army shellin...
- 02/20/18--02:29: _Turkey's Erdogan sa...
- 02/20/18--02:43: _UNICEF issues a bla...
- 02/20/18--04:28: _Opposition figure s...
- 02/20/18--08:08: _Moscow warns the US...
- 02/21/18--00:49: _Syrians 'wait to di...
- 02/22/18--01:11: _Merkel says Syria n...
- 02/22/18--03:18: _Heartbreaking video...
- 02/22/18--04:28: _Russia appears to h...
- 02/23/18--01:10: _Human Rights Watch ...
- 02/23/18--06:29: _Pentagon says Russi...
- 02/23/18--07:19: _Trump plans to scra...
- The Kremlin stopped short of a flat out denial that Russians may have been killed in last week's failed attack on a US-Kurdish base in Syria.
- Instead Russia said that they "do not possess detailed information that would enable us to draw conclusions," and that "It cannot be ruled out that there may be citizens of the Russian Federation [fighting] in Syria."
- The Kremlin did say that if any Russians died, "They are not connected to the armed forces of the Russian Federation."
- Israel says it destroyed an Iranian drone in Israeli airspace launched from an air base in Syria on Saturday.
- Israel retaliated by destroying the drone's command center but lost one of its F-16 jets over Israeli airspace when it was returning from the mission, prompting Israel to strike at Syrian and Iranian targets in Syria.
- Ronen Bergman writes in a New York Times op-ed article that Israel had planned further strikes against Iranian and Syrian targets but that Russian President Vladimir Putin prevented an all-out attack by calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directly.
- About 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in Syria last week in a battle with the US, three sources told Reuters.
- The clashes show that Moscow is more deeply involved in Syria militarily than it has said and that it risks being drawn into a direct confrontation with the US in Syria.
- The Russians were killed during a probing mission in which they wanted to see whether the US would respond to their advance, sources told Reuters.
- Turkey reportedly proposed the US and Kurdish YPG fighters withdraw to east of the Euphrates river in Syria and that Turkish and US troops be stationed together in the country's Manbij area.
- Turkey has threatened to move its troops into Manbij, where there is already a US presence.
- More details have emerged from the massive battle in Syria that is said to have killed hundreds of Russian contractors — and it looks as if they tried to test the US.
- Reports have said that the forces loyal to the Syrian government advanced and fired at a US-held position in Syria and that the counterattack obliterated them.
- It looks as if the Russian contractors and their Syrian and Iranian allies may be too weak to budge the US without getting the Russian military involved.
- The US military has released a video of an airstrike it says came from a battle last week between US-backed forces and a force said to include mostly Russian contract fighters.
- Turkey claims it never used chemical weapons in northern Syria's Afrin region in light of accusations against it.
- "It's just a fabricated story," Turkey's foreign minister said.
- Turkey has been engaged in a ground and air assault on Afrin in Northern Syria, which is occupied by US-backed Kurdish forces.
- The UN children's fund UNICEF issued a blank "statement" on Tuesday to express its outrage at mass casualties among Syrian children.
- "UNICEF is issuing this blank statement. We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage," it said.
- Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the US not to "play with fire" in Syria after the US reportedly killed up to 300 Russian nationals in a a massive battle.
- The fighting in Syria has increased on all sides, with allegations of human rights violations being thrown at Syria and Turkey.
- It's not clear what Lavrov meant by "play with fire," but the US has announced its intentions to shut down Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iran's influence in the country, and signaled its willing to use force.
- Residents of Syria's eastern Ghouta said they were "waiting their turn to die" during one of the heaviest bombardments in seven years of war that has killed at least 250 people in 48 hours, a war monitor said.
- "We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say," said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma.
- The United Nations has decried the assault on eastern Ghouta, where hospitals and other civilian infrastructure have been hit, as unacceptable, warning that the bombings may constitute war crimes.
- A heartbreaking video shows the aftermath of Syrian airstrikes on a Damascus suburb, leaving a distraught man holding the body of a lifeless child.
- Syria and its Russian backers have intensified airstrikes on what they call terrorists, but mounting evidence shows their targets are civilians and hospitals.
- In recent days, at least 250 have been reported dead in the airstrikes, and the international community has run out of words to describe the suffering.
- Russia appears to have deployed its most advanced fighter jet to Syria.
- An expert told Business Insider that it could be used to spy on the US's F-22 stealth fighter.
- Russia often uses Syria as a showroom for new hardware, and it most likely wants to market the Su-57, which is still a prototype, as having been combat-tested.
- But the Su-57 isn't ready for combat, and Russia has only 12 of the jets on order as it seeks funding to expand the program.
- Russia Has Been Stalking US in Skies Over Syria, General Says
- F-22s Fire Warning Flares at Russian Jets in Coalition Territory
- The F-22 in Syria: Deconflicting, Not Dog-Fighting
- The Trump administration plans to scrap a special envoy position that coordinates the campaign against ISIS, which has raised concerns of a growing US diplomatic vacuum in Syria and Iraq.
- The move shows the changing realities on the ground, as ISIS continues to retreat, but it also reflects a broader reorganization of the State Department.
- When the planned change will occur, however, is unclear.
The chief Kremlin spokesman has suggested that if any Russians were killed by U.S. air strikes in Syria last week, they were not regular soldiers, continuing to distance President Vladimir Putin's government from reports that several Russian mercenaries -- and possibly dozens -- died after staging an attack on U.S. forces and their allies in the Middle Eastern country on February 7.
"We in the Kremlin do not possess detailed information that would enable us to draw conclusions," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on February 14, amid mounting evidence that Russian contract soldiers fighting on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's side were killed in the incident in Deir al-Zor province.
"It cannot be ruled out that there may be citizens of the Russian Federation [fighting] in Syria. They are not connected to the armed forces of the Russian Federation,'' Peskov said in a conference call with journalists. His comments echoed previous statements from the Defense Ministry, which has said no Russian servicemen were in the area at the time.
The Pentagon has said its air strikes in Deir al-Zor last week targeted Syrian government troops that had attacked a base housing U.S. and Syrian opposition forces, killing about 100 of the attackers. U.S. officials say they do not know whether Russian mercenaries were among the casualties.
"There is now reporting in the press," U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on February 13. "I don't have any reporting that some Russians, non-Russian Federation soldiers, but Russian contractors, were among the casualties. I can't give you anything on that. We have not received that word at Central Command or the Pentagon."
"I will not speculate on the composition of this force or whose control they were under," said Lieutenant General Jeffrey Harrigian, a spokesman for U.S. Central Command.
U.S. forces are "focused on" fighting Islamic State (IS) militants, he said, adding: "We're not looking for a fight with anyone else, but as Secretary Mattis said last week: 'If you threaten us, it will be your longest, and your worst, day.'"
The U.S. Defense Department said the air strikes, which included fighter and ground-attack aircraft and Marine artillery, were launched after as many as 500 attackers waged a coordinated assault on a base housing Syrian opposition forces, along with U.S. military advisers in Deir al-Zor.
In recent days, news reports, open-source researchers, and relatives and colleagues of Russian mercenary soldiers have said that multiple Russians may have died in the exchange on February 7.
Citing an unnamed U.S. official and three Russians it said were familiar with the matter, Bloomberg reported on February 13 that "U.S. forces killed scores of Russian contract soldiers" in the incident.
Bloomberg cited two of its Russian sources as saying that more than 200 mercenaries, most of them Russians, were killed, and The New York Times cited a Syrian military officer as saying about 100 Russians were killed.
The Moscow-based Conflict Intelligence Team, which monitors Russian involvement in the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, on February 12 identified eight Russians it said were among those killed.
A Cossack organization in the Kaliningrad region posted on social media that one of its members had also been killed, and the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, citing unnamed sources, reported that 13 Russians were killed and another 15 wounded.
The reports of Russian deaths in the incident in Deir al-Zor come amid persistent tension in U.S.-Russian relations, which are strained by disputes over Syria and several other issues.
They also come weeks ahead of Russia's March 18 presidential election. Putin is widely expected to secure a fourth term in the controlled political environment, but analysts say he wants high turnout and a convincing victory to bolster his mandate as he heads into what may his last term.
Asked on February 14 whether Putin had canceled trips and meetings that had been scheduled in the past few days in order to discuss the reports of Russian deaths in Syria, Peskov said that was not the reason.
Peskov said on February 13 that Putin's schedule was changed because he had a head cold.
Russia has given Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government crucial support throughout the seven-year war in Syria, which began with a government crackdown on protests.
Moscow helped turn the tide of the conflict in his favor by launching a campaign of air strikes in 2015 and stepping up its military presence on the ground.
In a surprise trip to Russia's air base in Syria in December, Putin said that Russian and government forces had "crushed" terrorists and ordered a partial withdrawal of the Russian contingent there.
Grigory Yavlinsky, a liberal politician who is running in the election, called on Putin on February 13 to report publicly about "the actions of Russian troops in Syria at present and the number of deaths of Russian citizens regardless of their military status."
"I also think it is essential to account publicly on interactions with the United States, since the danger of an accidental or intentional direct military engagement between Russia and the United States is growing," Yavlinsky said in a statement.
With reporting by Bloomberg, AP, Interfax, Reuters, The New York Times, Novaya Gazeta, and CBS News
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Five Russian citizens may have been killed in Syria in clashes with U.S.-led coalition forces this month, but they were not Russian military personnel, a Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman said on Thursday.
"Based on preliminary information, as a result of an armed encounter, the reasons for which are now being investigated, we could be talking about the deaths of five people," the spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova told a briefing.
"The assumption is that these are Russian citizens. But all that needs to be checked, in particular, of course, their citizenship, are they indeed citizens of Russia, or of other countries," she said.
"These are not Russian service personnel," Zakharova said, referring to the casualties in Feb. 7 clashes near the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor.
Associates of Russian private military contractors fighting alongside government forces in Syriahave said there were large-scale casualties among the contractors when U.S.-led coalition forces clashed with pro-government forces in Deir al-Zor province on Feb. 7.
Zakharova said media reports about dozens or hundreds of Russian dead in the Syria clashes were "disinformation". She added that U.S. actions in Syria were probably designed to undermine the country's territorial integrity.
(reporting by Andrew Osborn and Denis Pinchuk, additional reporting by Anton Zverev, writing by Denis Pinchuk, editing by Christian Lowe)
A simmering conflict between Israel and Iran in Syria could have erupted into another regional war were it not for the intervention of Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to an Israeli investigative journalist.
The drone was shot down a minute and a half after entering Israeli airspace, the investigative journalist, Ronen Bergman, wrote in an op-ed article in The New York Times this week.
Israel responded by sending eight F-16 fighter jets into Syria to destroy the drone's command-and-control center. While flying back to Israel, they came under attack from Syrian anti-aircraft missiles — one of which, an S-200, took down an F-16, forcing the pilots to eject.
Israel hit back, going after Syria's air-defense system. The Israeli military says it hit multiple Syrian and Iranian targets.
Israel has long been worried about Iran's activities and growing influence in the region, especially in Syria, where Iran has backed pro-government forces during the country's years-long civil war.
"The response to the downing of the Israeli jet was intended to be a lot more violent," Bergman wrote, adding that Israeli generals brought out plans "for a huge offensive operation in Syria."
But a "furious phone call" from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose forces in Syria were close by, "was enough to make Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel cancel the plans," Bergman wrote.
A former Israeli army general appeared to confirm Bergman's reporting.
If the F-16 hadn't been shot down, Israel "would be able to keep this issue at a very, very low profile," Udi Dekel, a former Israeli army brigadier general who was the head of the Israel Defense Forces' strategic-planning division, said Wednesday on a call organized by the Israel Policy Forum.
"Because we lost the F-16, we decided to respond against many important targets inside Syria," Dekel said, among them air defenses, Syrian army positions, and Iranian positions around Damascus.
Israel wanted "to send a message that we could not accept any idea that they would try to shoot down our aircraft in our skies," Dekel said.
Dekel said Israel did not pursue further strikes because it wanted to see the Syrian and Iranian response. But he added that there was "intervention by the Russians, who asked us not to escalate the situation anymore and to try and calm down the situation."
These recent actions are likely to increase tensions in the Middle East — but Dekel says he doesn't think this is the "end of the story."
"We killed Iranians operating the UAV and in other locations, so I assume they will try to find any opportunity for revenge against us," he said, referring to the drone with the abbreviation for an unmanned aerial vehicle.
MOSCOW — About 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in Syria last week, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
A Russian military doctor said about 100 had been killed, and a source who knows several of the fighters said the death toll was in excess of 80 men.
The timing of the casualties coincided with a battle on February 7 near the Syrian city of Deir al-Zor where, according to US officials and associates of the fighters involved, US-led coalition forces attacked forces aligned with Moscow's ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Russian officials said five citizens may have been killed, but they had no relation to Russia's armed forces.
The clashes show that Moscow is more deeply involved in Syria militarily than it has said and that it risks being drawn into a direct confrontation with the United States in Syria.
The casualties are the highest that Russia has suffered in a single battle since fierce clashes in Ukraine in 2014 claimed more than 100 fighters' lives. Moscow denies sending soldiers and volunteers to Ukraine and has never confirmed that figure.
The wounded, who have been medically evacuated from Syria in the past few days, have been sent to four Russian military hospitals, according to five sources familiar with the matter.
The military doctor, who works in a Moscow military hospital and was directly involved in the treatment of wounded men evacuated from Syria, said that as of Saturday evening there were more than 50 such patients in his hospital, of which about 30% were seriously wounded.
The doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not allowed to disclose information about casualties, said at least three planeloads of injured fighters were flown to Moscow between last Friday and Monday morning.
He said they were flown back on specially equipped military cargo planes that can each accommodate two or three intensive-care cases and several dozen fewer severely wounded patients.
Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia's foreign ministry, said initial information was that five Russian citizens in the area of the battle may have been killed, but they were not Russian troops. She said reports of tens or hundreds of Russian casualties were disinformation inspired by Russia's opponents.
Russia's defense ministry did not respond to Reuters' questions about casualties in Syria. A Kremlin spokesman, asked about Russian casualties on Thursday, said he had nothing to add to previous statements. The Kremlin said earlier this week it had no information on any casualties.
Reuters was unable to make direct contact with the contractors' employers, the Wagner Group, whose fallen fighters have in the past received medals from the Kremlin.
The military doctor said that a fellow doctor who flew to Syria on one of the recent medevac flights told him that about 100 people in the Russian force had been killed as of the end of last week and 200 others injured.
The doctor who spoke to Reuters said most of the casualties were Russian private military contractors.
Yevgeny Shabayev, the leader of a local chapter of a paramilitary Cossack organization who has ties to Russian military contractors, said he had visited acquaintances injured in Syria at the defense ministry's Central Hospital in Khimki, on the outskirts of Moscow, on Wednesday.
He said the wounded men had told him that the two units of Russian contractors involved in the battle near Deir al-Zor numbered 550 men and that of those, there were now about 200 who are not either dead or wounded.
Shabayev said the ward he visited contained eight patients, all evacuated from Syria in the past few days, and there were more in other wards in the hospital.
"If you understand anything about military action and combat injuries then you can imagine what's going on there — that's to say, constant screams, shouts," Shabayev told Reuters. "It's a tough scene."
A source with ties to the Wagner organization who has spoken to people who took part in the clashes on February 7 told Reuters that his contacts told him more than 80 Russian contractors were killed.
The source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the total of about 300 killed or injured was broadly correct.
He said many of the injured had shrapnel in their bodies that was not showing up on X-rays, making treatment difficult.
"The prognosis for most of the wounded is dismal," he said.
Other military hospitals treating the contractors are the Third Vishnevskiy hospital in Krasnogorsk, near Moscow, the Burdenko hospital near Moscow's city center, and the Military Medical Academy in St. Petersburg, according to the doctor, Shabayev, and three other people who know dead or wounded fighters.
When Reuters contacted those hospitals by phone on Thursday, staff members either declined to comment or denied having any patients evacuated from Syria.
A Reuters reporter visited the Burdenko hospital on Wednesday and spoke briefly to patients who said they knew nothing about anyone evacuated from Syria. Reporters also visited the hospital in Krasnogorsk, and a fifth military hospital, at Balashikha, near Moscow, but were denied entry.
Russia launched a military operation in Syria in September 2015 that has turned the tide of the conflict in favor of Assad.
Russian officials deny they deploy private military contractors in Syria, saying Moscow's only military presence is a campaign of air strikes, a naval base, military instructors training Syrian forces, and limited numbers of special forces troops.
But according to people familiar with the deployment, Russia is using large numbers of the contractors in Syria because that allows Moscow to put more boots on the ground without risking regular soldiers, whose deaths have to be accounted for.
The contractors, mostly ex-military, carry out missions assigned to them by the Russian military, the people familiar with the deployment said. Most are Russian citizens, though some have Ukrainian or Serbian passports.
The United States and Russia, while backing opposite sides in the Syria conflict, have taken pains to ensure their forces do not accidentally collide. But the presence of the Russian contractors adds an element of unpredictability.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said last week that a force aligned with Assad — backed with artillery, tanks, rockets, and mortars — had on February 7 attacked fighters with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces near Deir al-Zor.
The US's special forces were accompanying the SDF forces that came under attack, officials in Washington said.
The US-led coalition in Syria retaliated, killing about 100 of the pro-Assad forces, according to the official.
Since the battle, associates of Russian military contractors have said Russians were part of the pro-Assad force involved in the battle and among the casualties.
Shabayev, the Cossack leader, said casualties were so high because the force had no air cover, and because they were attacked not by poorly equipped rebels — their usual adversaries — but by a well-armed force that could launch air strikes.
"First of all, the bombers attacked, and then they cleaned up using Apaches," US-made attack helicopters, Shabayev said, citing the wounded men he visited in hospital. The source with ties to Wagner said they told him the force struck by the US-led coalition was made up mainly of Russian contractors, with a few Syrians and Iranians in support roles.
He said that on February 7 the force had advanced toward the settlement of Khusham, in Deir al-Zor province, into a zone designated as neutral under a deal between the Russian military and the US-led coalition.
The aim was to test whether the US-led coalition would react. The force advanced to within less than 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the SDF and American positions, he said.
He said that the US-led forces, in line with procedure agreed with the Russians, warned Russian regular forces that they were preparing to strike. He does not know whether the warning was passed on to the contractors.
"The warning was 20 minutes beforehand," the source said. "In that time, it was not feasible to turn the column around."
He said that once the strikes began, the contractors did not return fire because they believed that would provoke even more strikes from the US-led coalition.
ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Turkey has proposed to the United States that Kurdish YPG fighters withdraw to east of the Euphrates river in Syria and that Turkish and U.S. troops be stationed together in the country's Manbij area, a Turkish official said on Friday.
The official, who declined to be identified because the information had not been made public, said the United States was considering the proposal, which was made to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during his two-day visit to Ankara.
Tillerson arrived in Turkey on Thursday for two days of what officials have said would likely be uncomfortable discussions between the allies, whose relations have frayed over a number of issues, particularly U.S. support for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, seen as terrorists by Turkey.
He and President Tayyip Erdogan on Thursday had a "productive and open" discussion on improving ties, a U.S. State Department spokesman traveling with Tillerson said, following weeks of anti-American rhetoric from Ankara.
Turkey launched an air and ground assault last month in Syria's northwest Afrin region to drive the YPG from the area south of its border. Ankara considers the YPG to be an arm of the PKK, a banned group that has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.
Ankara has long called for YPG forces to move east of the Euphrates river in Syria. It has also previously threatened to push its troops to the town of Manbij, some 100 km (60 miles) east of the Afrin region. U.S. troops are already stationed near Manbij.
More details have emerged from a massive battle in Syria that is said to have pitted hundreds of Russian military contractors and forces loyal to the Syrian government against the US and its Syrian rebel allies — and it looks as if it was a mission to test the US's resolve.
Bloomberg first reported this week that Russian military contractors took part in what the US called an "unprovoked attack" on a well-known headquarters of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a rebel cohort the US has trained, equipped, and fought alongside for years.
Reuters cited several sources on Friday as confirming that Russian contractors were among the attackers and that they took heavy losses. The purpose of the attack, which saw 500 or so pro-government fighters get close to the US-backed position in Syria, was to test the US's response, Reuters' sources said.
How the battle played out
Initial reports said pro-government forces launched a coordinated attack that included about 500 troops, 122mm howitzers, tanks, and multiple launch rocket systems.
A source close to Wagner, the Russian military contracting firm, told Reuters that most of the troops were Russian contractors and that they advanced into a zone designated as neutral under a deal between the Russian military and the US-led coalition against the terrorist group ISIS.
The troops reportedly sought to find out how the US would react to the encroachment into that zone.
Forces operating Russian-made T-55 and T-72 tanks fired 20 to 30 tank rounds within 500 feet of the SDF base, which held some US troops, said Dana White, the Pentagon press secretary, according to the executive editor of Defense One.
The US-led coalition responded with "AC-130 gunships, F-15s, F-22s, Army Apache helicopter gunships, and Marine Corps artillery,"according to Lucas Tomlinson, a Fox News reporter. CNN also reported that Himars and MQ-9 drones were used in the attack.
"First of all, the bombers attacked, and then they cleaned up using Apaches," attack helicopters, Yevgeny Shabayev, a Cossack paramilitary leader with ties to Russia's military contractors, told Reuters.
The Reuters report cites an unnamed source as describing Bloomberg's report that 300 Russians died as "broadly correct."
The US reported more than 100 dead. According to Reuters, Russia says only five of its citizens may have died in the attack.
The Pentagon says only one SDF fighter was injured in the attack.
What might the Russians have learned from the 'test'?
The pro-government forces operated without air cover from Russia's military. The US-led coalition apparently warned Russia of the attack, but it's unclear whether Russia's military passed on notice to the troops on the ground.
"The warning was 20 minutes beforehand," a source told Reuters. "In that time, it was not feasible to turn the column around."
Reports have increasingly indicated that Russia has used military contractors as a means of concealing its combat losses as it looks to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad's flagging forces. Russia has denied it has a large ground presence in Syria and has sought to distance itself from those it describes as independent contractors.
According to the news website UAWire, Igor Girkin, the former defense minister of the self-described Donetsk People's Republic, a separatist region backed by Russia in eastern Ukraine, said last week that Russian mercenaries operating in Syria who died in combat were cremated on sight to hide the true cost of Russia's involvement.
As the US's stated mission in Syria of fighting ISIS nears completion, others have taken center stage. The US recently said it would seek to stop Iran from gaining control of a land bridge to Lebanon, its ally, citing concerns that Tehran would arm anti-US and anti-Israeli Hezbollah militants if given the chance.
The US also appears intent on staying on top of Assad's oilfields in the east both to deny him the economic infrastructure to regain control of the country and to force UN-sanctioned elections.
The US military has released footage it says came from a massive battle that reports have indicated took place between Russian military contractors and the US and its Syrian allies last week.
The battle, wherein as many as 500 or so combatants loyal to the Syrian government were said to have advanced toward a known US position in western Syria and fired with tanks and artillery, reportedly ended with up to 300 attackers killed by US airpower and artillery.
The Pentagon says the video it shared showed the US responding to an "unprovoked attack." News reports indicated the attacking force included mostly Russian nationals, potentially making this one of the deadliest clashes between US and Russian fighters in decades.
The Russian military has denied having a large ground presence in Syria and has sought to distance itself from those it describes as independent contractors. According to Reuters, Russia said only five of its citizens may have been killed in the battle last week.
The US said it called the Russian military to inform it of the strike before letting loose what multiple reports called a significant air offensive. Sources later told Reuters that Apache helicopters cleaned up what was left of the advance after an initial wave of airstrikes.
Watch the strike footage below:
MUNICH (Reuters) - Turkey never used chemical weapons in its operations in Syria, and takes the utmost care of civilians, its foreign minister said, after Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group accused it of carrying out a gas attack in Syria's Afrin region.
"It's just a fabricated story. Turkey has never used any kind of chemical weapons," Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters at the Munich Security Conference.
Cavusoglu dismissed the reports as propaganda by organizations close to the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) that has waged a three-decade insurgency on Turkish soil.
He said Turkey took the utmost care to protect civilians in the military operation, while the YPG was using civilians as "human shields" in areas under its control.
Syrian Kurdish forces and a monitoring group said the Turkish military carried out a suspected gas attack that wounded six people in Syria's Afrin region on Friday.
Turkey launched an air and ground offensive last month on the Afrin region, opening a new front in the multi-sided Syrian war, to target Kurdish fighters in northern Syria.
Birusk Hasaka, a spokesman for the Kurdish YPG militia in Afrin, told Reuters that Turkish bombardment hit a village in the northwest of the region, near the Turkish border. He said it caused six people to suffer breathing problems and other symptoms indicative of a gas attack.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told Reuters that Turkish forces and their Syrian insurgent allies hit the village on Friday with shells. The Britain-based war monitoring group said medical sources in Afrin reported that six people in the attack suffered breathing difficulties and dilated pupils, indicating a suspected gas attack.
Syrian state news agency SANA, citing a doctor in a Afrin hospital, said Turkish shelling of the village caused choking in six people.
On Feb. 6, the United Nations called for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in Syria.
Since the onset of the conflict in 2011, the YPG and its allies have set up three autonomous cantons in the north, including Afrin. Their sphere of influence expanded as they seized territory from Islamic State with U.S. help, though Washington says it opposes their autonomy plans.
U.S. support for Kurdish-led forces in Syria has infuriated Ankara, which views them as a security threat along its frontier. Turkey sees the YPG as terrorists and an extension of the banned PKK.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Peter Graff)
BEIRUT (AP) — A Syrian monitoring group and paramedics say government shelling and airstrikes on rebel-held suburbs of the capital, Damascus, killed at least 98 people on Monday.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says it was the deadliest day in three years in the area known as Eastern Ghouta.
The Syrian Civil Defense, also known as White Helmets, said the shelling and airstrikes killed 98 and that some people are still under the rubble.
The Observatory says 20 children and 15 women were among those killed on Monday.
The targeted suburbs have been subjected to weeks-long bombardment that has killed and wounded hundreds of people.
Opposition activists say government forces have brought in reinforcements in preparation for a wider offensive on the area — the last main rebel stronghold near Damascus.
ANKARA (Reuters) - Turkey-led forces will begin besieging the Syrian town of Afrin in the coming days as part of Turkey's operation to drive the Kurdish YPG militia out of the region in northwest Syria, President Tayyip Erdogan said on Tuesday.
Turkey began an operation last month with allied Syrian rebels against the YPG, which Ankara sees as a terrorist group and an extension of the militant PKK which has fought a three-decade insurgency in southeast Turkey.
GENEVA (Reuters) - The U.N. children's fund UNICEF issued a blank "statement" on Tuesday to express its outrage at mass casualties among Syrian children in the besieged enclave of Eastern Ghouta and neighboring Damascus.
"No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones," the release from UNICEF's regional director Geert Cappalaere began.
There followed 10 empty lines with quote marks indicating missing text, and an explanatory footnote.
"UNICEF is issuing this blank statement. We no longer have the words to describe children’s suffering and our outrage," it said.
"Do those inflicting the suffering still have words to justify their barbaric acts?"
Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been besieging almost 400,000 civilians trapped inside Eastern Ghouta for years, but the siege has tightened this year and attacks on the enclave have intensified.
Siege tactics and indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas contravene the internationally-agreed "rules of war".
Pro-government forces carried out air raids on Eastern Ghouta overnight on Monday and early on Tuesday, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
More than 100 people were killed in air raids, rocket strikes and shelling of the area on Monday, it added.
A top Syrian opposition figure says government forces along with Iran and Russia are committing a new "Holocaust" in rebel-held suburbs of the capital Damascus.
Mohammed Alloush of the Army of Islam told The Associated Press Tuesday that the United Nations is also to blame "because of its bankruptcy and lies about protecting security and peace in the world."
Alloush's comments came after opposition activists and paramedics said that more than 100 people have been killed since Monday in the worst daily death toll in the eastern suburbs, also known as eastern Ghouta, in three years.
Alloush, whose militant group is the strongest in eastern Ghouta, described the government and its backers Russia and Iran as a "Satanic alliance" that is "unprecedented since World War II."
Alloush added that "a new Holocaust is being committed by the dirtiest regime on earth."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned the US not to "play with fire" in Syria after a massive escalation in violence took place on all sides of the multi-faceted conflict earlier this month.
"The US should stop playing very dangerous games which could lead to the dismemberment of the Syrian state," Lavrov said at a Middle East conference in Moscow on Monday, according to Bloomberg.
The US has already announced plans to keep Syria divided until UN-sanctioned elections can take place across Syria, and it's made it clear it will respond with force when Russian, Iranian, or Syrian forces threaten that goal.
On February 7, a group of pro-government fighters, who were reportedly majority Russian military contractors, launched what the US called an "unprovoked attack" on one of its positions in eastern Syria. The US responded with airstrikes and shelling killing between 100 and 300, according to a variety of reports.
US not going anywhere as hellish fighting ramps up on all sides
Lavrov also spoke of another front in the Syrian conflict, saying that he and his allies in Iran and Syria "are seeing attempts to exploit the Kurds' aspirations," a reference to the US's support for Kurdish militias in northern Syria, who aspire to a state all their own.
Turkey views the Kurdish milita as part of a terror group and there is strong popular support in the country for an operation to clear the Kurds off its borders. Allegations of human rights abuses and shocking videos depicting violence against captured, unarmed Kurds have come out of the conflict in northern Syria as the US stands by its Kurdish ally, whom they credit for defeating ISIS in the region.
Turkey has announced its intentions to start shelling the Kurdish town of Afrin in the coming days.
Also during mid-February, Israel launched a massive air campaign against Iranian targets in Syria and lost an F-16 to Syrian air defenses. Syria and Russia now stand accused by an opposition figure of launching a "new holocaust" in rebel-held pockets of Syria, where some 98 people, including women and children, were reported killed on Monday.
"No words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers and their loved ones," UNICEF's regional director Geert Cappalaere began a release on the Syrian government's recent bombing campaign. UNICEF left part of the statement blank to express its frustration.
It's unclear what "fire" Lavrov referenced in Syria, as the country has been in conflict for seven years.
What is clear is that the US has a new foreign policy direction in the country, and it isn't afraid of fighting Iran, Syria, and Russia to keep Assad and Tehran out of power in the besieged country.
BEIRUT (Reuters) - Residents of Syria's eastern Ghouta said they were "waiting their turn to die" early on Wednesday, after more pro-government rockets and barrel bombs fell on the besieged rebel enclave.
Five died and over 200 were injured early on Wednesday in the area, hammered by one of the heaviest bombardments in seven years of war that has killed at least 250 people in 48 hours, a war monitor said.
The pace of the pace of the bombardment appeared to slacken overnight, but its intensity resumed later on Wednesday morning said the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. It followed a massive escalation in strikes that began late on Sunday. The enclave is home to 400,000 people.
Pro-government forces fired rockets and dropped barrel bombs from helicopters on the towns and villages of the rural district just outside Damascus, where rebels fighting President Bashar al-Assad have their last big redoubt near the capital, it added.
"We are waiting our turn to die. This is the only thing I can say," said Bilal Abu Salah, 22, whose wife is five months pregnant with their first child in the biggest eastern Ghouta town Douma.
They fear the terror of the bombardment will bring her into labour early, he said.
"Nearly all people living here live in shelters now. There are five or six families in one home. There is no food, no markets," he said.
The United Nations has decried the assault on eastern Ghouta, where hospitals and other civilian infrastructure have been hit, as unacceptable, warning that the bombings may constitute war crimes.
The Syrian government and its ally Russia, which has backed Assad with air power since 2015, say they do not target civilians. They also deny using the inaccurate explosive barrel bombs dropped from helicopters whose use has been condemned by the U.N.
Conditions in eastern Ghouta, besieged since 2013, had increasingly alarmed aid agencies even before the latest assault, as shortages of food, medicine and other basic necessities caused suffering and illness.
Rebels have also been firing mortars on the districts of Damascus near eastern Ghouta, wounding two people on Wednesday, state media reported. Rebel mortars killed at least six people on Tuesday.
"Today, residential areas, Damascus hotels, as well as Russia’s Center for Syrian Reconciliation, received massive bombardment by illegal armed groups from Eastern Ghouta," Russia's Defense Ministry said late on Tuesday.
Eastern Ghouta is one of the "de-escalation zones" agreed by Russia, Iran and Turkey as part of their diplomatic efforts. But a former al Qaeda affiliate is not included in the truces and it has a small presence there.
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BERLIN (Reuters) - German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday condemned the killing of civilians in Syria as a massacre, adding that Berlin would reach out to Russia in its efforts to stop the violence.
"What we currently see, the dreadful events in Syria, a regime fighting not against terrorists, but against its own people, the killing of children, the destruction of hospitals, all this is a massacre which needs to be condemned," Merkel said.
Merkel said that Berlin would discuss the war in Syria with Moscow. "We must do everything that is within our power so that this massacre comes to an end," Merkel added.
A heartbreaking video, purporting to show a father holding and mourning a dead child, has surfaced after another wave of airstrikes from Syria's government and its Russian backers drew international condemnation.
In the video, a man picks up a child's body off the back of a flatbed truck, where six other small bodies lie. The man and the observers weep as he appears to say his final goodbye.
Children in eastern Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, have had their lives ravaged by years of civil war which has recently and sharply turned its focus to their town.
Over just a few days, at least 290 have been reported dead in what the UN described as "hell on earth." Hospitals are among the locations reported as hit. Often in Syria, after years of Russian and Syrian government strikes targeting hospitals, medical care is administered underground.
Russia and Syria maintain they bomb only terrorist targets, but outside assessments routinely prove their targets are often civilian, and allege use of chemical weapons in the attacks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel joined a growing chorus of world leaders on Thursday in saying the targets were not terrorists, and were instead ordinary Syrian citizens being massacred.
A Syrian opposition figure called the campaign to crush resistance to Syrian President Bashar Assad's government a new "holocaust." The UN's children's fund issued a statement on the bombing, saying there were"no words will do justice to the children killed, their mothers, their fathers, and their loved ones."
In the video below, the suffering of one of those Syrians has been captured in heart-wrenching detail:
Heart shattering. One by one, covered bodies lay on a flatbed truck. A father walks over and picks up his dead child for the final embrace. #HowManyMore? #EasternGhouta#Syriapic.twitter.com/yzzCDPT56d— Bint Idlib (@itsmenanice) February 21, 2018
Videos on social media appear to show Russia's Su-57, a prototype of a new, fifth-generation fighter jet, operating in Syria — and it could be a direct threat to US stealth aircraft like the F-22.
Justin Bronk, a combat aircraft expert at the Royal United Services Institute, told Business Insider that initial attempts to geolocate Su-57s shown in the video indicated the deployment may be authentic.
He also said any deployment could be a cynical move to boost Russia's military sales while gaining valuable intelligence on the F-22.
"Russia has deployed pretty much everything in its arsenal in Syria, whether they’re prototypes or heavy strategic bombers in absurdly inefficient strike paths all around Western Europe and through the Mediterranean" to strike targets in Syria, Bronk said.
Indeed, Russia often uses Syria as a showroom for its military exports.
It has deployed advanced, complicated systems like submarine-launched cruise missiles, which are designed for high-end naval warfighting, against unsophisticated, basically defenseless targets in Syria.
On more regular bomb runs, Russia simply drops unguided munitions from Cold War-era fighter jets, which are frequently accused of killing civilians in places like hospitals.
Bronk assessed that Russia wanted to boost its position in the export market and that by deploying the Su-57, a prototype without its proper engines or stealth configuration, it could advertise the platform as "combat-proven."
Though Bronk said the Su-57 was "certainly not combat-proven in the sense of showing it can take on Western fighters," which is its intended purpose, the plane technically will have participated in combat.
But while the Su-57 poses no real air-to-air threat to Western fighters in its current, unrefined state, it has a diverse array of powerful radars Russia could use to perfect anti-stealth techniques and battle plans against the US's F-22.
The Su-57 can't yet fight, but it can spy
According to Bronk, one of the main challenges for the Su-57 is integrating the plane's "really quite innovative radar arrangement." He said it would be a great opportunity to test the configuration in Syria, where a large number of F-22 stealth jets operate.
"The skies over Iraq and specifically Syria have really just been a treasure trove for them to see how we operate," Lt. Gen. VeraLinn "Dash" Jamieson said at an Air Force Association briefing hosted by the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in January.
"Our adversaries are watching us — they're learning from us,"Jamieson said. With the apparent deployment of the Su-57, Russia may be teaching its best pilots in its newest plane how to stalk and fight F-22s, which would rely on stealth as their major advantage in combat with more maneuverable Russian jets.
But Bronk said deploying Su-57s in Syria would be a "double-edged sword" for Russia. That, Bronk said, is because not only would Russia be able to scope out the US's stealth fighters, but their presence in Syria would "give the US a chance to see how the F-22s respond" to Russia's new jet and "allow Western aircraft time to collect signals intelligence on what those radars are doings."
Marketing ploy for a prestige plane?
Overall, if Russia does have Su-57s in Syria, it's most likely a marketing ploy to increase exports as Russia's economy flags under weak oil prices. Though Russia often hypes the Su-57, it has ordered only 12 of them for its own use and "desperately" needs an investment from India to bump up production, Bronk said.
"They’re ordering 12 of them," Bronk said. "How can you sustain a genuine program when your order book is so tiny? In a state that has huge budget problems and a massive military bill," the Su-57 functions as a prestige item, Bronk said.
So while the Syrian civil war rages on, and hundreds of civilians fall victim to airstrikes from the Russian-allied Syrian government, Moscow may be using the opportunity to show off shiny new hardware and gain a military edge against its US competitor.
BEIRUT (AP) — Human Rights Watch is criticizing the way Turkey is conducting its offensive in northern Syria, saying it has failed to take necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties.
The New York-based group cites three attacks in the Afrin region in late January that it says killed a total of 26 civilians, including 17 children.
In a statement Friday, it called on Turkey to thoroughly investigate these strikes and make the findings public.
Turkey launched an air and ground offensive in the Kurdish-controlled region on Jan. 20, saying it aims to clear Afrin of Syrian Kurdish militia which Turkey considers to be an offshoot of its own outlawed Kurdish rebels fighting within Turkey.
According to several estimates around 120 civilians have been killed so far in the offensive. Turkey denies hitting civilians.
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ORLANDO -- Russia's Su-57 stealth fighter, like China's Chengdu J-20, has become a bogeyman to the United States in the competition to possess the best fifth-generation fighters in the world.
But has the Su-57 made its debut in Syria? The Pentagon, won't confirm it.
"The addition of fifth-generation fighters into Syria would certainly not be in keeping with Russia's announced force drawdown," said Eric Pahon, Defense Department spokesman.
"We do not consider these jets to be a threat to our operations in Syria, and will continue to deconflict operations as necessary," Pahon said in a statement Thursday.
"The coalition remains focused on the enduring defeat" of the Islamic State, he added. "We call on all parties, however, to remain focused on defeating ISIS, de-escalating and resolving the Syrian conflict, and protecting innocent civilians."
Russia has been swift to procure and test the fifth-generation-like aircraft in light of the F-35's initial operating capability, which it achieved in 2016.
Russia's new Sukhoi lies "somewhere between the F-22 and F-35," according to Doug Barrie, senior air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
Barrie told Air Force Times in 2016 that even though the T-50 has the sophisticated agility of a future fighter, it will not be as advanced as the most capable U.S. platforms.
On Thursday, Gen Mike Holmes, Air Combat Command commander, said he was unaware of reports surrounding the Su-57 in Syria, but added the situation in Syria grows more complex by the day.
"It's one thing to do the counter-air mission with a long lookout in front of you, it's different to do when everyone's tightly packed in there," Holmes said during a roundtable discussion with reporters here at the Air Force Association's Air Warfare symposium.
"So our guys will continue to prep for the scenarios that they're deployed to face," Holmes said.
When asked whether it was concerning to have another stealth aircraft in the mix, Holmes emphasized the tough environment and constricted air space in the region.
"Certainly, the higher the complexity and the higher the technology ... it raises the level of complexity for the crews to deal with," the commander said.
Russia first deployed forces and aircraft to Syria in 2015, changing the dynamic as U.S. and coalition troops began their air campaign against the Islamic State a year earlier. Russian President Vladimir Putin said a withdrawal of their bulk of troops would begin in 2017.
It's not surprising the Russian air force may want to step up its tactics and procedures in a war environment.
Last month, the Air Force's deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance said that the Russian air force has been focusing on intently watching how fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft perform within the Syrian airspace.
"In the skies over Syria, it's really just been a treasure trove for [the Russians] to see how we operate," Lt. Gen. VeraLinn "Dash" Jamieson told congressional staffers and reporters during an Air Force Association briefing in Washington, D.C.
"Our adversaries are watching us, they're learning from us," she said at the time.
That same month two F-22 fighters intercepted two Russian Su-25 fighter jets, conducting multiple maneuvers, firing warning flares and, in one instance, aggressively flying to avoid colliding with one another.
A Russian Su-35 multi-role fighter was also involved.
An F-22 ended up trailing the Su-35 after it flew across the river into territory deemed unsafe to coalition aircraft.
The Trump administration plans to scrap a special envoy position that coordinates the campaign against the Islamic State, a move that has raised concerns of a growing U.S. diplomatic vacuum in Syria and Iraq.
The proposed move comes at a moment of renewed bloodshed and diplomatic chaos in Syria, with a NATO ally, Turkey, locked in combat with U.S.-armed and trained Kurdish forces. Some Western government officials and experts said it was too soon to consider withdrawing the envoy, particularly when the United States has struggled to articulate a coherent political strategy following military successes against the Islamic State.
“Now more than ever, the U.S. needs some figure at the top who is out there doing this diplomatic work,” said Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.
The possible change to the special envoy’s office, headed by veteran diplomat Brett McGurk, reflects changing realities on the ground, where Islamic State militants are on the retreat. The move also would fit into a broader reorganization led by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has sought to rid the State Department of various special envoy positions, congressional staffers, and current and former government officials told Foreign Policy.
Congressional aides with knowledge of the changes said the envoy’s duties will most likely be scaled back and folded into the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau, as well as other offices. Contracts for employees who are not career civil servants would not be extended, and the remaining career State Department staff would be assigned to other bureaus.
The timing of the planned change remained unclear, as well as whether McGurk would take up another diplomatic post in the administration. “The idea is that [he] might be offered something else in some corner of government,” said a congressional aide familiar with the discussions.
The State Department said the diplomat was still on the job and could not confirm any plan to dissolve the special envoy position. “ISIS remains a lethal threat and a top priority of Secretary Tillerson and this Administration,” said spokesperson Heather Nauert. “We will continue to ensure the effort receives the high-level attention and necessary resources required to achieve the enduring defeat of ISIS.”
McGurk’s likely departure and the elimination of the counter-Islamic State envoy position would leave a potentially significant gap in U.S. diplomacy in the region, particularly amid criticism that Washington has for years failed to formulate a clear strategy beyond the military defeat of the Islamic State.
By most accounts, McGurk led the Iraq portfolio and played a significant role in shaping Syria policy. “Frankly, no one knows Iraq like he does,” another congressional aide told FP.
McGurk, who took over as special envoy from retired Gen. John Allen in 2015, is a rare survivor among political appointees in Washington’s foreign-policy establishment. Originally assigned to the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad in 2004, he has served for nearly 14 years in high-level positions under both Democratic and Republican presidents.
The planned shift in McGurk’s office, however, has been a long time coming. Tillerson has made eliminating “redundant” special envoys throughout the State Department bureaucracy a cornerstone of his reorganization plan, and a department document released last year noted that the envoy position would be “reassessed as ISIS becomes a more diffused threat.”
That time appears to have come for the Trump administration: The Islamic State has lost control of nearly all the territory it held in Syria and Iraq three years ago. The Iraqi government declared victory over the group after pushing its fighters out of Mosul, and crucial national elections are scheduled for May.
Still, according to current and former officials, the move could aggravate a perception that Washington is not fully engaged in diplomacy in the Middle East and is beginning to withdraw now that the military side of the counter-Islamic State fight is nearing an end. More than a year since U.S. President Donald Trump entered office, numerous ambassadorships and senior diplomatic positions, including the assistant secretary of state who oversees the region, remain vacant. Other diplomats are serving temporarily in acting roles, but they lack the authority and weight that come with a presidential nomination and a Senate confirmation.
The administration also has yet to name a new envoy for Syria. One top candidate, John Hannah, who worked as national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney in George W. Bush’s administration, reportedly turned down the position.
Without a specific office within the State Department, some current and former officials worried that the diplomatic and military campaign against the Islamic State could lose momentum and the authority necessary to manage a fractious coalition of more than 70 nations. “Organizing the coalition was a hellish thing to deal with,” a senior Western official told FP. “The Americans ran it, disciplined it, and kept everyone herded in.”
The proposed move also comes at a delicate time, as the coalition transitions from battlefield operations to a more nuanced diplomatic role, aimed at preventing the return of the Islamic State and the political conditions that allowed it to spread. Leaving the task to other, less empowered bureaus in the State Department could mean the diplomatic work receives a lower priority, experts said.
“I almost feel like it’s inevitable,” said Brian Katulis, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. “Look what happened the last time we diverted attention from al Qaeda and didn’t look at the political dynamics that gave rise to the Islamic State.”
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and a former Pentagon official, said it could be premature to declare victory and that a diplomatic drawdown could mean repeating the mistakes of past administrations. “To get rid of the office and to get rid of the coordination could be Trump’s ‘mission accomplished’ moment,” he said.
Other current and former officials, however, saw the the proposed changes as a move in the right direction. With the Islamic State largely defeated militarily, the office had outlived its usefulness, they said, while others questioned the potential duplication of special envoys in the State Department bureaucracy.
“The head of the CT [counterterrorism] bureau has had his eyes on it for a while, and if you look at the org chart, there’s nothing that the special envoy is doing that the counterterrorism bureau couldn’t do,” said Eric Rosand, a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former counterterrorism bureau official at the State Department. “This is totally consistent with Tillerson’s view.”
McGurk’s role at the State Department has also become a sore spot for some career officials in other bureaus, who saw his office gradually taking more and more responsibility away from the normal hierarchy. Special envoys have proliferated over the past several administrations, to the chagrin of those who see them as a way of making a political statement rather than addressing real policy issues.
“For every envoy like Brett McGurk who is a major player in Washington, you’ve got half a dozen who are just getting in the way,” said James Jeffrey, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East policy and a former U.S. ambassador to Turkey and Iraq.
Whether or not the envoy position is eventually retained, McGurk has left his mark on the counter-Islamic State fight, and U.S. policy in the Middle East more generally. He worked with commanders during America’s military surge in Iraq and helped draft the status of forces agreement with Iraq that led to the U.S. military’s withdrawal in 2011. Given his striking longevity and singular focus on Iraq and Syria, he will be difficult to replace, congressional aides and foreign diplomats said.
The length of time McGurk has spent focused on Iraq, dating back to the early days of the U.S. occupation, has allowed him to build relationships throughout the region. And while he has at times provoked the ire of regional actors, particularly Turkey, which resents his support for arming Kurdish fighters, he has generally gotten high marks, both from U.S. officials and military officers and high-level members of the coalition.
“He’s politically adept, tactically, strategic, and exceptional,” said the Western official. “A lot of the coalition’s successes are due to Brett McGurk.”