Posts Tagged ‘Bashar al-Assad’

France Wants Major Powers to Make ‘Proposals’ to Syrian Warring Parties

July 19, 2017

PARIS — France wants major powers involved in the Syrian crisis to join a contact group that would make proposals to warring parties, in an effort to break a deadlock in political negotiations, the French foreign minister said.

Emmanuel Macron’s election victory has given Paris a chance to re-examine its policy on Syria. The change being proposed is to drop demands that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down as a pre-condition for talks, although French officials still insist he cannot be the long-term future for Syria.

France now appears to be aligning its foreign policy with the U.S. priorities of fighting terrorism and seeking better ties with Russia, a move that it calculates could give it a role as a go-between between the two powers, especially on Syria.

“This initiative presumes that we don’t set a pre-condition to the talks that Bashar al-Assad must leave,” Jean-Yves le Drian told CNews in an interview carried Wednesday on its website. That should encourage Russia to enter the process, he said.

Image result for Jean-Yves le Drian, photos

Jean-Yves le Drian

Le Drian gave no details on what new proposals might be offered, a potential format for the contact group or how it would affect existing peace efforts under the auspices of the United Nations, which have limped on for several years with no visible progress.

The foreign ministry and president’s office did not respond to questions on the initiative.

Macron has said he hoped that such a group would comprise the five permanent members of the Security Council – Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States – regional powers and opposition and government officials.

A Middle Eastern diplomat said the U.S. President Donald Trump had agreed in principle to the idea during last week’s visit to Paris, although he wanted the group to comprise only the Security Council members.

Macron, a centrist elected in May, said in June he no longer considered Assad’s departure a pre-condition for a negotiated settlement to the conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and driven more than 11 million from their homes.

Speaking to reporters in Geneva on Wednesday, Russia’s ambassador Alexei Borodavkin said Moscow saw this as a positive development.

“What is important I think is that this initiative is also based on the assumption which was announced by President Macron that France is no longer demanding that Assad should immediately resign,” he said.

The French idea of a contact group has already been broached to some of the potential parties, although several French diplomats said it the idea was still vague.

Steffan de Mistura, the UN mediator for the Syria talks now being conducted, commented on the proposal in Geneva last Friday, after the seventh round of those talks in Geneva.

“In fact the UN would be in a position therefore of doing what we’re doing at the moment but with one difference, that you would have those countries who are actually very influential, being in a position also perhaps influencing directly during the talks,” de Mistura said. “Should I be against that? That’s exactly what the UN needs to have and wants to have.”

(Reporting by John Irish and Tom Miles, editing by Larry King)

Islamist Insurgents Clash Across Syria’s Idlib

July 19, 2017

BEIRUT — Clashes between rival insurgent groups broke out in Syria’s Idlib region in some of the heaviest fighting between Islamist factions which hold sway in the northwestern province, war monitors reported on Wednesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Hayat Tahrir al-Sham – a jihadist alliance that includes al Qaeda’s former Syria branch – had attacked positions of Ahrar al-Sham, a more moderate rival Islamist group allied with mainstream rebel factions.

The clashes began late on Tuesday, the British-based Observatory said and an online statement from Ahrar al-Sham blamed Tahrir al-Sham for starting the violence.

The two sides clashed earlier this year in a long-standing fight for influence in Idlib, where insurgents maintain a stronghold even as much of the rest of western Syria has been recaptured by government forces and their allies.

Fighting had on Wednesday spread to areas across Idlib, including the town of Saraqeb in the east, Dana and Sarmada in the northeast and Bab al-Hawa near the Turkish border, the Observatory reported.

Several fighters and at least two civilians had been killed, it said.

Idlib province is dominated mainly by Islamist groups although the moderate Western-vetted Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups have a presence there.

The province, which borders Turkey, has long witnessed infighting between the main jihadist groups vying for power.

Although opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, insurgents are riven by deep divisions on ideology and rivalry that erupts occasionally in deadly clashes. Rebels including Ahrar al-Sham say it takes the focus away from the fight against Damascus and weakens insurgents.

Ahrar al-Sham has sided with FSA groups in the fight with Tahrir al-Sham which was formed in January from a merger of several Islamist factions and Syria’s former al Qaeda affiliate, known as the Nusra Front until it cut ties with al Qaeda last year.

(Reporting by John Davison; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warn U.S. against terrorist designation, new sanctions — U.S. announces new sanctions

July 18, 2017

BEIRUT (Reuters) – A senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned the United States on Monday that if it designated the group a terrorist organization and applied new sanctions its action could be perilous for U.S. forces in the region.

U.S. officials said earlier this year that President Donald Trump’s administration was considering a proposal that could lead to potentially categorizing the powerful Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization.

In Mid-June the U.S. Senate voted for new sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program and other activities not related to the international nuclear agreement reached with the United States and other world powers in 2015.

To become law, the legislation must pass the House of Representatives and be signed by Trump.

“Counting the Revolutionary Guards the same as terrorist groups and applying similar sanctions to the Revolutionary Guards is a big risk for America and its bases and forces deployed in the region,” said Armed Forces Chief of Staff Major General Mohammad Baqeri, according to Sepah News, an official news site of the Guards.

He did not give details on what form of risk he foresaw for U.S. forces and bases.

The Revolutionary Guards are the most powerful security force in Iran, overseeing vast economic holdings worth billions of dollars and wielding huge influence in its political system.

Baqeri said on Monday that Iran’s missile program was defensive and would never be up for negotiation, according to Sepah News.

Three days after the U.S. Senate voted on the new sanctions, Iran fired missiles into eastern Syria, targeting bases of Islamic State which had claimed responsibility for attacks in Tehran which killed 18 people.

The Revolutionary Guards are fighting in Syria against militant groups which oppose President Bashar al-Assad.

Baqeri was also critical of recent remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis that regime change would be necessary before the United States could normalize relations with Iran.

“American officials should speak a little more wisely, thoughtfully and maturely about other countries, particularly a powerful country like Iran which has stood against all plots with strength and pride,” he said, according to Sepah News.

Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Richard Balmforth

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U.S. targets Iran with new sanctions over missile program

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Tuesday unveiled new economic sanctions against Iran over its ballistic missile program and for contributing to regional tensions and said it was deeply concerned about its “malign activities across the Middle East.”

The announcements came a day after President Donald Trump’s administration warned Tehran that it was not following the spirit of its 2015 nuclear agreement with world powers.

The U.S. Department of Treasury said in a statement it was targeting 16 entities and individuals for supporting what is said was “illicit Iranian actors or transnational criminal activity.”

Those sanctioned had backed Iran’s military or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) by developing drones and military equipment, producing and maintaining boats, and procuring electronic components, it said. Others had “orchestrated the theft of U.S. and Western software programs” sold to Iran’s government, the Treasury Department said.

The U.S. State Department had also designated two Iranian organizations involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program, according to the Treasury Department.

“The United States remains deeply concerned about Iran’s malign activities across the Middle East which undermine regional stability, security, and prosperity,” the State Department said in a statement.

It said the activities “undercut whatever ‘positive contributions’ to regional and international peace and security were intended to emerge” from the nuclear agreement.

The statement listed Iranian support for groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas movement as well as the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad and Houthi rebels in Yemen.

The Trump administration declared on Monday that Iran was complying with the nuclear deal concluded between Iran and six world powers under which Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief.

Reporting by Susan Heavey and David Lawder; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Marguerita Choy

EU sanctions 16 more Syrians over chemical attacks

July 17, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley holds photos of victims as the UN Security Council meets in an emergency session in April about a suspected deadly chemical attack that killed civilians, including children, in Syria

BRUSSELS (AFP) – The European Union on Monday imposed sanctions against 16 more high-ranking military Syrian officials and scientists over chemical weapons attacks on civilians, a statement said.

The move by the bloc’s foreign ministers brings to 255 people now facing a travel ban and an assets freeze over President Bashar al-Assad’s violent crackdown on civilians during a five-year civil war.

“The EU added these 16 persons for their role in the development and use of chemical weapons against the civilian population,” an EU statement said.

The EU will release the names of those hit by the sanctions on Tuesday, it said.

The UN’s chemical watchdog, the OPCW, last month concluded that sarin was used as a chemical weapon in the April 4 attack in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhun that killed at least 87 people including children.

The sanctions decision “shows the resolve of the UK and the rest of our friends in Europe in dealing with those who are responsible for chemical weapons attacks,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told reporters just before the decision was announced.

Syria is already subject to an oil embargo, restrictions on certain investments, a freeze of the assets of the Syrian central bank held in the EU, as well as export restrictions.

It also is under sanctoins on equipment and technology that might be used for internal repression as well as on equipment and technology for the monitoring or interception of internet or telephone communications.

Macron, Netanyahu mark 75 years since Paris roundup of Jews

July 16, 2017

AFP

© AFP / by Gina DOGGETT | Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu joined French President Emmanuel Macron at a ceremony marking the roundup of 13,000 Jews in Paris in 1942 who were then sent to Nazi death camps 
PARIS (AFP) – French President Emmanuel Macron on Sunday marked 75 years since the roundup of some 13,000 Jews to be sent to Nazi death camps, calling France’s responsibility a “stark truth” at a ceremony attended by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.Speaking near the former site of the Velodrome d’Hiver, the indoor cycle track from which the Jews were deported in 1942, Macron said: “It is indeed France that organised” the roundup. “Not a single German” took part.

Netanyahu’s presence at the ceremony sparked controversy, with the Union of French Jews for Peace (UJFP) calling the invitation “shocking” and “unacceptable”.

The UJFP accused the Israeli government of “usurping the memory of the victims of Nazism to make people believe that Israel represents all the world’s Jews”.

The ceremony marked the day when officials of the Vichy regime in Nazi-occupied France began rounding up 13,152 Jews and taking them to the Velodrome d’Hiver, an indoor cycle track in Paris.

Fewer than 100 of those who were detained at the so-called Vel d’Hiv and then sent to the Nazi death camps survived.

Macron was the fourth French president to accept blame for France’s role in the deportations — which totalled more than 75,000 — since Jacques Chirac first did so in 1995.

“Time does its work,” Macron said. “Archives open (and) the truth comes out. It’s stark, irrevocable. It imposes itself on us all,” Macron said.

– ‘Sacred honour’ –

Netanyahu hailed the “special heroism” of the French resistance to the Nazis, praising the “noble French citizens who at great risk to their own lives” saved thousands more Jews from perishing in the death camps where at least six million would die overall between 1941 and 1945.

“For the sacred honour of those who perished… let us remember the past, let us secure tomorrow,” he said.

“The strength of Israel is that it is the one certain guarantee that the Jewish people will never undergo a Holocaust again.”

Among other critics of Netanyahu’s presence was former French ambassador to Israel, Elie Barnavi, who told AFP it made him “a little uneasy”. He added: “This story has nothing to do with Israel.”

Among Sunday’s other speakers were prominent French Nazi hunter Serge Klarsfeld and Pierre-Francois Veil, son of Holocaust survivor and rights icon Simone Veil, who died late last month aged 89.

Netanyahu’s visit is the first since he joined a massive march attended by numerous world leaders held in solidarity with the victims of the January 2015 terror attacks on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine and a Jewish supermarket.

He was to hold talks later Sunday with Macron, the first since the French president’s election in May.

Macron met Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday, when he reiterated both France’s support for a two-state solution to end the Middle East conflict, and its opposition to Israel’s building of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory.

Netanyahu arrives just after a surge of violence in Israel, where a gun attack by three Arab Israelis in Jerusalem’s Old City Friday left two Israeli police officers and the attackers dead.

He is expected to sound Macron out on his position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But it is not yet clear whether Macron will follow the pro-active line taken by his Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande, whose efforts to mobilise the international community on the question angered Israel.

Talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been at a standstill since the failure of US mediation in the spring of 2014.

Since then the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has simmered on, with the occasional surge of violence such as Friday’s killings.

The two leaders are also expected to discuss Israel’s arch-foe Iran, in particular Tehran’s role in the Syrian conflict, where it is backing President Bashar al-Assad.

by Gina DOGGETT
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Russia sees growing acceptance of Assad as key to Syria talks

July 15, 2017

By Tom Miles
Reuters

July 15, 2017

Image result for Bashar al-Assad, photos

AFP photo

GENEVA (Reuters) – U.N.-led Syria talks have a chance of making progress because demands for the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad have receded, Russia’s ambassador in Geneva, Alexei Borodavkin, told reporters on Saturday.

The seventh round of talks, which ended on Friday, had produced positive results, especially a “correction” in the approach of the main opposition delegation, the Saudi-backed High Negotiations Committee, he said.

“The essence of this correction is that during this round the opposition never once demanded the immediate resignation of President Bashar al-Assad and the legitimate Syrian government.”

The HNC and its backers in Western and Gulf capitals had realized that peace needed to come first, and then political reforms could be negotiated, he said.

“Assad must go” was long the mantra of the HNC and its international backers, a call flatly rejected by Russia, which is widely seen as holding the balance of power in Syria because of its military involvement and alliance with Assad.

But over the past year the opposition suffered military defeats at the hands of forces loyal to Assad, and neither U.S. President Donald Trump nor French President Emmanuel Macron is calling for his immediate ouster.

Assad’s negotiators at the U.N. talks have avoided discussion of any kind of political transition, preferring to focus on the fight against terrorism.

They have not yet had to negotiate directly with the opposition because there is no unified delegation to meet them, since the HNC and two other groups, known as the Cairo and Moscow platforms, all claim to represent the opposition.

In the seven rounds so far, U.N. mediator Staffan de Mistura has met each side separately, a laboriously choreographed negotiation that has succeeded only in deciding what to discuss: a new constitution, reformed governance, fresh elections and fighting terrorism.

The three opposition delegations’ leaders have been meeting to try to find common ground, raising hopes of direct talks at the next round in September.

Borodavkin said the success of such a unified delegation would depend on its willingness to compromise with Assad’s team.

“If they will be ready to make deals with the government delegation, that is one thing. If they again slide into… ultimatums and preconditions that are not realistic, then this will not fly. This will lead the negotiations, be it direct or indirect, into a deadlock.”

He also called for wider opposition representation, citing the Kurds as a striking example, since they were Syrian citizens with their own political and military influence.

But he said it was up to de Mistura to decide how and when to incorporate them in the peace process.

Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Ros Russell

Trump says time to work ‘constructively’ with Russia — Progress starting already in Syria and Ukraine — “Everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections.”

July 9, 2017

AFP

© AFP/File | Russian President Vladimir Putin and US President Donald Trump meeting Friday in Hamburg, Germany

WASHINGTON (AFP) – US President Donald Trump pledged Sunday to work “constructively” with Russia but ruled out an immediate easing of sanctions while the countries remain at odds over the conflicts in Syria and Ukraine.

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In a series of tweets on his return from Europe, Trump said he had confronted his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin over evidence from the US intelligence agencies that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election when the two leaders met for the first time in Germany on Friday.

And while he welcomed an agreement for the start of a ceasefire in Syria, Trump said it was too early to consider any easing of US sanctions on Russia “until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved.”

“I strongly pressed President Putin twice about Russian meddling in our election,” Trump said of their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit. “He vehemently denied it. I’ve already given my opinion…..”

Trump said he and Putin had talked about the idea of setting up what he called “an impenetrable cyber security unit” to prevent hacking in future elections, without giving details.

He also said the two men had discussed the implementation of a ceasefire in Syria which began on Sunday, saying “it will save lives.”

“Now it is time to move forward in working constructively with Russia!”

– Friction over Syria –

Syria has been a particular source of friction between the two countries, as Russia is a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad.

Moscow was furious when the Trump administration launched a cruise missile strike against Syrian forces in April, in retaliation for what Washington said was a chemical weapons attack by Assad’s regime against civilians.

Moscow has warned that a program of sanctions imposed by the US, which was tightened last month, threatens their whole relationship.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama ordered the seizure of two Russian diplomatic compounds in the US last December after accusing Russia of trying to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

And last month, the United States added 38 individuals and entities to its sanctions list targeting Russians and pro-Russian rebels it blames for the fighting in Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea.

“Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin. Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved,” said Trump.

The US president has previously equivocated over whether Russia did try to tilt the outcome of last November’s election contest against Hillary Clinton in his favor, amid an investigation into whether members of Trump’s campaign team actively colluded with Moscow.

– ‘Strategic alliance’ –

So his public assessment that Russia did meddle has triggered questions over whether his administration planned to bring in more sanctions.

Asked on Sunday whether new sanctions were in the pipeline, US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin told ABC television: “We have sanctions that are already on the table and we expect to enforce those sanctions.”

Mnuchin also insisted that Russia and the US could work together on cyber security, despite criticism in some quarters that the two sides had diametrically opposing goals.

“What we want to make sure is that we coordinate with Russia, that we’re focused on cybersecurity together, that we make sure that they never interfere in any democratic elections,” he said.

“This is like any other strategic alliance, whether we’re doing military exercises with our allies or anything else. This is about having capabilities to make sure we both fight cyber (crime) together which I think is a very significant accomplishment for President Trump.”

The US and Russian sides have issued sharply conflicting accounts of Friday’s meeting, with Putin saying on Saturday that Trump had been “satisfied” by his denials of any Russian interference in the polls.

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Nikki Haley

Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the United Nations, said the Russian denials had been expected but cut no ice.

“This is Russia trying to save face,” she told CNN. “And they can’t. They can’t.

“Everybody knows that Russia meddled in our elections.”

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Trump hamstrung at home as he seeks closer ties with Moscow

July 4, 2017

Reuters

By Roberta Rampton | WASHINGTON

During his presidential campaign, Republican Donald Trump praised Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “strong leader” with whom he’d like to reset tense U.S.-Russian relations.

But as Trump heads to his first face-to-face meeting as president with Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany on July 7-8, he is under pressure at home to take a tough line with the Kremlin.

Allegations of Russian meddling in last year’s U.S. elections have alarmed both Republican and Democratic lawmakers, who are pushing to extend tough sanctions placed on Russia following its 2014 annexation of Crimea, a peninsula belonging to Ukraine.

Lawmakers including Cory Gardner, a Republican senator from Colorado, are also concerned Russia has prolonged the civil war in Syria by backing its President Bashar al-Assad, a strongman whose forces have used chemical weapons against insurgents and civilians. The chaos has fueled instability in the region and a flood of migrants to Europe.

“President (Trump) needs to make it clear that the continued aggression by Russia around the globe … is unacceptable, and that they will be held accountable,” said Gardner, who was among six lawmakers invited by the White House last month to discuss foreign policy with Trump over dinner.

Meanwhile, the appointment of a special counsel who is investigating potential links between the Russian government and members of the Trump campaign has weakened the president’s ability to maneuver with Russia, foreign policy experts say.

The U.S. intelligence community has concluded Russia sponsored hacking of Democratic Party groups last year to benefit Trump over his Democrat challenger Hillary Clinton. Russia has denied those allegations while Trump has repeatedly dismissed the idea of any coordination between his campaign and Russia as a “witch hunt.”

Still, just the optics of Trump meeting with Putin, a former KGB agent, are fraught with risk, foreign policy experts say.

“If (Trump) smiles, if he wraps his arm around Putin, if he says ‘I’m honored to meet you, we’re going to find a way forward,’ … I think Congress is going to react extremely negatively to that,” said Julie Smith, a former national security aide in the Obama administration.

EVOLVING U.S. POLICY

Trump has signaled an interest in cooperating with Russia to defeat Islamic State in Syria and to reduce nuclear stockpiles.

The White House has been mum on what Trump would be willing to give Russia in exchange for that help. But there has been speculation he could ratchet down sanctions, or even return two Russian diplomatic compounds in Maryland and Long Island. President Barack Obama seized those facilities and expelled 35 Russian diplomats just before he left office as punishment for the election hacks.

While some administration officials, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, also support engagement, others, such as Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley, have taken a hawkish line on Russia.

The lack of a unified strategy has left U.S. allies anxious. And it has lowered expectations for American leadership to help resolve crises in Syria and Ukraine, where Russian cooperation would be critical.

“Trump is like a horse with his front legs tied,” said a German diplomat, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity. “He can’t make any big leaps forward on Russia. If he tried people would immediately suspect it was all part of some big conspiracy.”

Trump’s administration is still reviewing its Russia policy, a process that may not be wrapped up for a couple of months, a U.S. official said.

Speaking with reporters last week about Trump’s upcoming meeting with Putin, White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster said his boss would like “the United States and the entire West to develop a more constructive relationship with Russia. But he’s also made clear that we will do what is necessary to confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior.”

THIRD TRY AT A RESET

Trump is just the latest president to grapple with the complicated U.S.-Russia dynamic.

George W. Bush and Obama sought to improve the U.S. relationship with Russia early in their administrations only to see relations deteriorate later.

Among the concerns for this president is Trump’s apparent lack of interest in policy details and his tendency to wing it with foreign leaders.

McMaster told reporters that Trump has “no specific agenda” for his meeting with Putin and that topics would consist of “whatever the president wants to talk about.”

Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama, said he feared Trump might be headed to the meeting without clear objectives.

“I hope that he would think about first: what is our objective in Ukraine? What is our objective in Syria? And secondarily, how do I go about achieving that in my meeting with Putin?” McFaul said.

Other Washington veterans say Trump won’t be able to make meaningful progress with Russia on anything until he confronts Putin about the suspected election meddling.

“(Trump) really has to raise the Russian election hacking last year, and has to say something like, ‘Vladimir, don’t do this again. There will be consequences,'” said Steve Pifer, a long-time State Department official focused on U.S.-Russia relations.

So far Trump has shown little inclination to do so, a situation that has heightened speculation about the potential impact from his coming encounter with the Russian leader.

“The shadow of all these investigations hangs over this,” said Angela Stent, a professor at Georgetown University and former National Intelligence Officer for Russia.

(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Arshad Mohammed, Warren Strobel, Richard Cowan, Jonathan Landay, John Walcott in Washington; John Irish in Paris; Noah Barkin in Berlin; Christian Lowe in Moscow; Editing by Caren Bohan and Marla Dickerson)

Erdogan hosts Russia defence chief amid Syria border tensions

July 2, 2017

AFP

© AFP | The United States views the YPG fighters as the most effective fighting force against IS jihadists in Syria

ISTANBUL (AFP) – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Sunday held talks with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu in Istanbul as tension soared on the Syrian border between Turkish troops and a Kurdish militia.

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Sergei Shoigu

Turkey and Russia were long at loggerheads over the Syrian conflict, with Ankara seeking the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and Moscow remaining his chief international ally.

But cooperation had tightened markedly since last year, with the two countries jointly sponsoring peace talks in the Kazakh capital Astana.

Sunday’s meeting took place at Istanbul’s Tarabya Palace by the Bosphorus, the presidency said, with images showing Turkey’s top general Hulusi Akar and spy chief Hakan Fidan were also in attendance.

Last August, Turkey launched its Euphrates Shield cross-border operation aimed at clearing the border zone in northern Syria of both Kurdish militia fighters and jihadists.

The operation was wound up in March but Erdogan has not excluded a new cross-border offensive should the need arise.

Turkish troops and Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) have repeatedly exchanged cross-border fire in recent days and there is speculation Ankara may be planning an assault on the group in Afrin.

Ankara considers the YPG a terrorist group and the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) which has waged an insurgency inside Turkey since 1984.

But Washington is arming the YPG and the group is heavily involved in the US-backed operation to oust Islamic State (IS) jihadists from their stronghold of Raqa.

The Sabah daily said Sunday that pro-Ankara Syrian rebels were on standby for an operation against the YPG and Russia could ensure security in the air.

Asked about the possibility of an operation around Afrin, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin said Saturday: “We take all measures to protect our borders and national security.”

He said the Turkey would “instantly” hit back against any threat from Syria, be it from IS, the PKK or the YPG.

Syria conflict: Suicide car bomb chase in Damascus

July 2, 2017

BBC News

Damaged cars are seen at one of the blast sites in Damascus in this handout picture posted on SANA on July 2, 2017
Police said the attackers had intended to target busy areas in the capital. SANA VIA REUTERS

Suicide bombers has launched an attack in the Syrian capital Damascus, killing at least eight people, state TV report.

Syrian police had been chasing three suspected car bombers that were trying to enter the capital, reports said.

Police stopped two of the vehicles, but the third driver entered Tahrir square in the east of the city and reportedly blew himself up after being surrounded.

Syria is in the midst of a six-year-long civil war, with Damascus still mostly under government control.

At least 12 people were injured in Sunday’s blast, reports said.

State TV said the attackers had planned to bomb crowded areas in the capital on the first working day after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

“The terrorist bombings killed and wounded several civilians and caused physical damage to the area,” a police official told state news agency SANA.

A local resident told AFP he heard “gunfire at around 06:00 (03:00 GMT), then an explosion which smashed the glass of houses in the neighbourhood”.

People inspect the site of a car bomb blast in Damascus in this handout picture posted on SANA on July 2, 2017, Syria
Syria state TV released pictures of the attack.  SANA VIA REUTERS

No group has said it carried out the attack.

More than 300,000 people have lost their lives in the Syrian war, which began with anti-government protests in 2011.

The UN’s refugee agency says that since the conflict began about 5.5 million people have left the country, and another 6.3 million have been left internally displaced.

Damascus has remained mostly under the control of President Bashar al-Assad, and avoided much of the fighting.

However, the capital has experienced a number of suicide bomb attacks, including an attack on a court complex that killed at least 31 people in March.

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-40472202

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