Posts Tagged ‘Turkey’

Turkey again demands that the Iraqi Kurds cancel a scheduled referendum for independence — Erdogan worries about losing influence, territory

August 23, 2017

BAGHDAD — Turkey’s foreign minister has reiterated his country’s demand that the Iraqi Kurds cancel a scheduled referendum for independence.

Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Baghdad that Turkey’s expectation from Irbil, the capital of the autonomous northern Iraqi Kurdish region, is “very plain and clear — and that is the annulment of this referendum decision.”

Masoud Barzani, the Kurdish region’s president, announced the vote on whether to secede from Iraq would be held on Sept. 25.

Cavusoglu says Turkey has been saying all along that “the referendum decision is wrong” and that he would tell the Iraq Kurdish leaders so “once more” when he visits Irbil later on Wednesday.

Turkey — which has a large Kurdish population and is battling Kurdish rebels — is strongly opposed to an independent Kurdish state.

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US defence chief in Turkey for talks on Syria, Kurds

August 23, 2017

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis with President Masoud Barzani of Iraq’s Kurdish autonomous region on Tuesday in Erbil. CreditAzad Lashkari/Reuters

ANKARA (AFP) – Pentagon chief Jim Mattis arrived in Ankara on Wednesday for talks with Turkish leaders expected to focus on Washington’s arming of a Syrian Kurdish militia, which Turkey views as a terror group, in the fight against Islamic State.Mattis flew in for the one-day visit after stopping in Iraq to review progress in the campaign against IS militants, where he urged coalition partners to prevent other political issues from disrupting the growing momentum against the jihadists.

In Ankara, he will hold talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Defence Minister Nurettin Canikli.

Turkey, an important NATO ally of the United States and part of the coalition against IS, is incensed that Washington has been arming the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG) militias in the assault on the jihadists’ stronghold Raqa, in northern Syria.

Turkey regards the YPG as the Syrian affiliate of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

In May, the Pentagon said it had begun transferring small arms and vehicles to the YPG to support their role as part of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-Syrian Arab alliance fighting IS.

The weapons include AK-47s and small-calibre machine guns.

The SDF is currently leading the assault on Raqa, with artillery and air support from US-led coalition forces.

– Kurdish referendum concerns –

US officials on Tuesday said the grinding fight was the “priority” in the counter-IS campaign since the fall of Mosul last month, the jihadists’ Iraqi hub.

The Kurdish regional government in northern Iraq — which is also playing a key role in the fight against IS — is planning its own independence referendum in September.

Mattis met Tuesday with Iraqi Kurdish leader Massud Barzani in Erbil to express US opposition to the referendum.

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Barzani

On the same day, Erdogan vowed Turkey would thwart any attempt by the YPG and its political wing the Democratic Union Party (PYD) to carve out a Kurdish state in northern Syria.

“We do not and will never allow a so-called state to be established by the PYD, YPG in northern Syria,” Erdogan said.

The US is also concerned about warming ties between Iran and Turkey. Iranian armed forces chief General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri visited Turkey last week.

Erdogan on Monday said a joint operation with Iran against Kurdish militants which “pose a threat,” including the PKK, is “always on the agenda.” Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, however, denied the claim.

German Ambassador Meets With 2 Citizens Imprisoned in Turkey

August 23, 2017

BERLIN — The German Foreign Ministry says its ambassador to Turkey has met with two of its citizens imprisoned in Turkey and both are “doing well, considering the circumstances.”

The ministry said in a brief statement released early Wednesday morning that Ambassador Martin Erdmann had met with German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yucel and German human rights campaigner Peter Steudtner.

The two are among about 10 Germans arrested in recent months by Turkey on charges the German government considers dubious and has protested. The arrests have contributed to worsening relations between Berlin and Ankara.

The ministry said Erdmann had “intensive” talks with both prisoners, each meeting lasting about an hour. It gave no further details.

Iran Extends Reach With Fight for Land Link to Mediterranean

August 23, 2017

BEIRUT — Thousands of Iranian-backed fighters in Syria’s central desert region are advancing east, bringing Tehran closer to its goal of securing a corridor from its border, through Iraq and all the way to the Mediterranean and providing it unhindered land access to its allies in Syria and Lebanon for the first time.

The land-route would be the biggest prize yet for Iran in its involvement in Syria’s six-year-old civil war.

© TURKISH PRESIDENT PRESS OFFICE/AFP | Iranian armed forces chief of staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on August 16, 2017

It would facilitate movement of Iranian-backed fighters between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as well as the flow of weapons to Damascus and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s main proxy group. It also positions Iran to play a prime and lucrative role in what is expected to be a massive rebuilding effort in both Iraq and Syria, which have been devastated in their ongoing wars.

The potential for a physical artery for Iran’s influence across the region is raising concern in predominantly Sunni Arab countries and in Israel, the nemesis of both Iran and Hezbollah. It poses a challenge to the Trump administration, which has vowed to fight Iran’s growing reach.

The route is largely being carved out by Iran’s allies and proxies, a mix of forces including troops of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias on both sides of the border aiming to link up. Iran also has forces of its own Revolutionary Guard directly involved in the campaign on the Syrian side.

Concerns over their advances are expected to come up when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds talks Wednesday in the Russian resort of Sochi with President Vladimir Putin, whose country is an ally of Iran and Assad.

The talks will focus “first and foremost (on) preventing Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria,” David Keyes, a spokesman for Netanyahu, said.

“Iran’s aggression in the region continues to grow. The regime is trying to entrench itself militarily on Israel’s border. Israel cannot and will not allow this,” he said. “Any cease-fire which allows Iran to establish a foothold in Syria is a danger to the entire region.”

A corridor would be a boost for Israel’s powerful enemy Hezbollah, which has an arsenal of tens of thousands of rockets and missiles. Iran currently ships weapons to Hezbollah mostly by flying them to Syria to be shipped on the ground to Lebanon.

Israel has warned it would do what it can to keep Iran from threatening its borders and has carried out airstrikes in Syria against suspected weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. Israel pushed hard for a U.S- and Russia-brokered truce that came into effect recently in southern Syria to keep Iranian-backed militias at a distance from the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967.

The land route is by no means a fait accompli. Any road link will likely be a frequent target by Sunni insurgent groups.

But Iran’s allies are making progress on both sides of the border, taking territory from the Islamic State group.

In recent months, Syrian troops and allied militiamen have marched forward on three fronts toward areas bordering Iraq. One of their main targets is the IS-held eastern city of Deir el-Zour, where the militants have imposed a siege for years on a small government-held pocket.

Syrian troops and pro-Iranian Iraqi militiamen do already meet at one small area on the border — at the Jamouna region on the Iraqi side and Wadi al-Waer on the Syrian side. But the area is too dangerous to be used as a corridor, since militants continue to launch hit-and-run attacks.

Syrian troops reached another part of the border in June, but much of the adjacent territory on the Iraqi side is still IS-held.

Inside Iraq, Iranian-backed Shiite militiamen are gaining more influence in predominantly Sunni areas bordering Syria. Militiamen are involved in the battle to retake the Iraqi town of Tel Afar, which would boost the militias’ hold on the nearby border region. The Shiite militiamen are also present in Iraq’s western Anbar province bordering Syria.

“Our aim is to prevent any barriers from Iraq to Syria all the way to Beirut,” said Jaafar al-Husseini of Iraq’s Kataeb Hezbollah militia. “The resistance is close to achieving this goal.”

Al-Husseini warned that if the Americans try to act against the advances on the Syrian side, Iraqi militiamen will target U.S. troops in Iraq.

U.S.-backed Syrian fighters had aimed to move up from southeastern Syria to the north through IS-held territory along the Iraqi border, an assault that would have blocked pro-Iranian forces’ moves to link up. But in June, Assad’s forces succeeded in reaching the border first, cutting them off. Now the American allies are preparing to try to from the other direction, moving south along the border from the northeastern province of Hassakeh, according to Syrian activists.

In addition to hundreds of members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard corps, thousands of pro-Iranian fighters are deployed in Syria and have played instrumental role in shoring up Assad’s forces. They include Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Afghanistan’s Fatimiyoun, Pakistan Zeinabiyoun as well as Iraq’s Nujbaa and Kataeb Hezbollah groups.

Iranian leaders avoid publicly speaking about their aim to link to so-called “axis of resistance,” referring to Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and other anti-Israel forces. But its allies have no qualms about showing their ambition.

“The aim is for a geographical connection between Syria, Iraq and the axis of resistance,” Syrian Information Minister Ramez al-Turjuman said in a TV interview.

Earlier this year, Washington helped broker a deal between the Iraqi government and Olive Green, an American private security company, to secure the highway linking Baghdad with the Jordanian border. That was seen by Iran’s allies as an attempt to impede the land link.

Qais al-Khazaali, who heads the Iranian-backed Iraq militia Asaib Ahl al-Haq, warned that the Iraqi people “will not allow the return of American security companies.”

The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdurrahman, said it is almost impossible to prevent Iran from achieving its goal, after it spent hundreds of millions of dollars and sent arms and fighters to help keep Assad in power.

“Iran’s influence in Syria is unstoppable even if Bashar Assad leaves power because Iran has deep links and presence in Syria,” Abdurrahman said. “Had it not been for Iran, the regime would have collapsed in 2013.”

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Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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© Saudi Royal Palace/AFP/File / by Ali Choukeir | A handout picture provided by the Saudi Royal Palace on July 30, 2017 shows Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (R) receiving prominent Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Jeddah

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Iran denies joint operation against Kurds with Turkey

August 22, 2017

AFP

© TURKISH PRESIDENT PRESS OFFICE/AFP | Iranian armed forces chief of staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara on August 16, 2017

TEHRAN (AFP) – Iran’s Revolutionary Guards on Tuesday denied claims by Turkey that the two countries were planning joint military operations against Kurdish rebels in Iraq.

“We have not planned any operations outside Iran’s borders,” said a statement from the Guards’ regional ground forces headquarters published by the ISNA news agency.

“But as always we will strongly confront any group, team or person who wants to penetrate into Iran’s territory for anti-security or terrorist operations,” it added.

The statement came a day after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said a joint Turkish-Iranian operation against Kurdish militants was “always on the agenda”.

A leading Turkish newspaper also claimed Iran made a “surprise proposal” to Ankara to jointly attack Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq during a rare visit by armed forces chief of staff General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri earlier this month.

Turkey has battled the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) for decades, while the Iranian security forces have also fought its affiliate, the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). Both groups have rear bases in neighbouring Iraq.

Despite denying that specific operations were planned, the Revolutionary Guards did threaten the possibility of cross-border attacks in the future.

“Although Iran has no plan to take widespread operational actions outside its borders, if any terrorist group… aims to take the slightest measure to create insecurity on our borders, they will be faced with our intensive and fierce response, and their remnants will be targeted wherever they are,” the statement said.

Erdogan said on Monday that the two countries’ military chiefs had discussed how to work against Kurdish militants.

“The work will continue because you know that the PKK terror organisation has a foot in Iran,” he said.

“We believe that if the two countries cooperate, we can reach a conclusion in a much shorter period of time.”

Tensions between Turkey and Iran — both of which see themselves as historically powerful regional leaders — have often been tense, and they currently back opposing sides in the Syrian conflict.

Bagheri’s visit — hailed as the first by an army chief of staff since Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution — was therefore seen as a key sign of warming ties.

“The actions of Turkey and Iran complement themselves. We reached good agreements to prevent terrorists passing from one side of the border to the other,” Bagheri said during the visit.

German FM Gabriel says Erdogan backers threatened his wife — Red Line?

August 22, 2017

AFP

© dpa/AFP | German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel

BERLIN (AFP) – German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel has accused supporters of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of threatening his wife amid a festering diplomatic crisis.He said that Erdogan’s strident style “had apparently led some to feel motivated to try to threaten and harass my wife,” in comments broadcast Tuesday by news channel NTV.

“Of course, this is a terrible outcome,” he said without giving further details, at a time when relations between the NATO allies have plunged to their lowest point in years.

On Saturday, Erdogan launched a bitter personal attack on Gabriel, who has frequently criticised the president’s leadership and his treatment of opponents and critics.

“Who are you to talk to the president of Turkey?” Erdogan said in a televised speech. “Know your limits. He is trying to teach us a lesson… How long have you been in politics? How old are you?”

Relations between Turkey and Germany, home to three million ethnic Turks, have deteriorated sharply, particularly since a failed coup against Erdogan over a year ago and a subsequent mass crackdown on its alleged plotters.

Among the alleged state enemies and terrorist supporters behind bars in Turkey are several German or dual Turkish-German citizens, including journalists and rights workers.

Erdogan has charged that Germany is sheltering Kurdish militants, coup plotters and terrorists.

In recent days he has angered Berlin by urging ethnic Turks in Germany to vote in September 24 elections against Merkel’s conservatives and two other parties he labelled “enemies of Turkey”.

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Germany’s Gabriel Hits Back at Erdogan With Call to Back Turkish Democracy

August 22, 2017

BERLIN — Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel said Berlin and the rest of Europe should back the “democratically minded” majority of Turks who did not support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in a dramatic hardening of Germany’s posture towards Ankara.

His remarks, at a campaign event for his Social Democratic Party (SPD), come amid sharply deteriorating relations between the NATO allies, after Erdogan urged German Turks to boycott Germany’s main parties in next month’s election.

“More than half the country is democratically minded. They didn’t support him,” Gabriel was quoted by press agency DPA as saying at the meeting in the western Saarland region.

“I believe that many in Turkey are counting on Europe and Germany supporting Turkish democracy and not looking on helplessly.”

The remarks, coming after Erdogan told Gabriel to “know his place” and describing Germany’s main parties as “enemies of Turkey”, are likely to anger Turkey.

Erdogan accuses Germany of harboring plotters behind last year’s bloody coup attempt against Erdogan. Turkey has arrested 50,000 in a crackdown, including European-Turkish citizens. Western politicians say the dragnet is a pretext for Erdogan to rid himself of his opponents.

A senior lawmaker from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrat party (CDU) went further. In a radio interview, foreign policy specialist Roderich Kiesewetter urged the government to consider freezing the foreign assets of “the Erdogan clan”.

In his remarks on Monday evening, Gabriel was cautious on sanctions, saying that Germany did not want inadvertently to hit “the small restaurant owners and waiters on the west coast.”

Gabriel said the personal nature of Erdogan’s attacks on him had emboldened people to make threats against his wife at the dental surgery where she worked.

“Erdogan’s approach clearly motivates some people to try to threaten and harass my wife,” he said.

The latest escalation in Ankara’s war of words with Berlin was triggered by Turkey’s use of an Interpol red notice to have Turkish-German writer Dogan Akhanli arrested in Spain. Accused of terrorism, Akhanli has been released but must remain in Spain while authorities assess Turkey’s extradition request.

“I always thought I was safe in European countries and that the long hand of arbitrary arrogance couldn’t reach me here,” said the activist, who spent long periods in jail for left-wing activism before fleeing Turkey in 1991.

(Reporting By Thomas Escritt; Editing by Keith Weir)

Pentagon chief in Baghdad as Iraqi forces press Tal Afar assault

August 22, 2017

AFP

© AFP | The Iraqi government announced the beginning of a military operation to retake Tal Afar from Islamic State group jihadists on August 20, 2017

BAGHDAD (AFP) – US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis arrived in Baghdad on Tuesday as Iraqi forces pressed an assault on Tal Afar, the Islamic State group’s last major bastion in the country’s north.Mattis flew in for talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other top officials, as well as Massud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan Region, saying he wants to help keep the regime focused on eradicating IS jihadists.

“Right now our focus is on defeating ISIS inside Iraq, restoring Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mattis told journalists ahead of his trip to Baghdad, using an alternative acronym for IS.

Iraqi troops, supported by the forces of a US-led international coalition, routed IS fighters in Mosul in July following a gruelling nine-month fight.

On Sunday they launched an assault on Tal Afar, once a key IS supply hub between Mosul — around 70 kilometres (45 miles) further east — and the Syrian border.

In the desert plains around Tal Afar, convoys of tanks and armoured vehicles could be seen heading Monday for the jihadist-held city, raising huge clouds of dust.

Mattis would not make any predictions on the fight.

“ISIS’s days are certainly numbered, but it’s not over yet and it’s not going to be over anytime soon,” he said.

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Mattis in Baghdad as Iraq presses assault on IS bastion

August 22, 2017

AFP

© AFP / by Paul Handley with Ahmad al-Rubaye at Tal Afar Airbase | Map showing Tal Afar in Iraq where Iraqi forces began pounding IS positions on Sunday.

BAGHDAD (AFP) – Pentagon chief Jim Mattis was in Baghdad Tuesday to show US support for Iraqi forces as they pressed an assault on Tal Afar, the Islamic State group’s last major bastion in the country’s north.Mattis flew in for talks with Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and other top officials, as well as Massud Barzani, president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region, saying he wants to help keep the regime focused on eradicating IS jihadists.

PHOTO: U.S. Sec. of Defense Jim Mattis, center, is greeted by U.S. Ambassador Douglas Silliman as he arrives at Baghdad International Airport on an unannounced trip Monday, Feb. 20, 2017. Lolita Baldor/AP Photo FILE PHOTO

 

“Right now our focus is on defeating ISIS inside Iraq, restoring Iraqi sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Mattis told journalists ahead of his trip to Baghdad, using an alternative acronym for IS.

Iraqi troops, supported by the forces of a US-led international coalition, routed IS in Mosul in July after a gruelling nine-month fight for Iraq’s second city.

On Sunday they launched an assault on Tal Afar, once a key IS supply hub between Mosul — around 70 kilometres (45 miles) to the east — and the Syrian border.

In the desert plains around Tal Afar, convoys of tanks and armoured vehicles could be seen heading Monday for the jihadist-held city, raising huge clouds of dust.

Mattis would not make any predictions on the fight.

“ISIS’s days are certainly numbered, but it’s not over yet and it’s not going to be over anytime soon,” said the US defence secretary.

Iraqi forces “fought like the dickens in Mosul, (it) cost them over 6,000 wounded, somewhere over 1,200 killed,” he noted.

Yet that comeback restored the confidence of the Iraqi security forces after their shock loss of Mosul to Islamic State group in 2014.

Mattis stressed that retaking Mosul would not have happened “without… Abadi’s steady hand reconstituting that army, that was so shattered in 2014, an army he inherited.”

But the comeback also leaned crucially on extensive training, planning and firepower support from the US military.

The future of that support still must be settled, and there will be resistance from Shiite militia and Iranians, said Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.

– Kurdistan referendum challenge –

Mattis said discussions will focus on the way ahead, including how to keep Iraq from again politically fragmenting or falling further under Iran’s influence, after four years united around battling the jihadists.

“Secretary Mattis is going to be very much focused on a pathway for the United States to continue to have to a residual force in Iraq to continue to train Iraqi security forces” and avoiding a successor from IS rising up, said Heras.

A key issue is Iraqi Kurdistan’s plan for an independence referendum on September 25, strongly opposed by the US as an event that could undermine Abadi politically and distract from the fight against IS.

“A referendum at this time would be potentially catastrophic to the counter-ISIS campaign,” said Brett McGurk, the White House envoy to the anti-IS coalition.

“It’s not just the United States; every member of our coalition believes that now is not the time to hold this referendum.”

McGurk said the initial push on the outskirts of Tal Afar was “going well”, with 235 square kilometres (90 square miles) cleared in the first 24 hours.

“That will be a very difficult battle,” he said, but added that Iraqi and US forces are “moving faster, more effectively, more efficiently,” in part due to US President Donald Trump having given Mattis more authority to decide on tactics and resources needed.

Mattis, who is on a five-day swing through Jordan, Iraq, Turkey and Ukraine, said he would also talk about reconstruction and resettlement of hundreds of thousand of Iraqis driven from their homes and towns by the fighting, especially Mosul.

“It’s not going to happen overnight. It’s going to be a heavy lift for them going forward.”

But Heras said Mattis, whom he said has earned firm trust among Iraqis, needs to help Abadi further build his power as a moderate for the post-war, with elections looming for next year.

“That will be a political pickle that Mattis will have to work Abadi through,” he said.

For Mattis’s meeting with Barzani, Heras added: “All signs point to it being one of those tough-love talks.”

by Paul Handley with Ahmad al-Rubaye at Tal Afar Airbase

Turkey, Jordan call for ‘serious’ Mideast peace talks — “Unilateral Israeli action threatening the identity of east Jerusalem.”

August 21, 2017

AFP

© Jordanian Royal Palace/AFP | Jordan’s King Abdullah II (R) greets Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the royal palace in Amman
AMMAN (AFP) – Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called on Monday for new “serious and effective” peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the royal palace said.Meeting in Amman, they urged “the resumption of serious and effective negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel to end the conflict on the basis of a two-state solution to assure an independent Palestinian state with June 1967 borders and east Jerusalem as capital”.

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

“New peace negotiations must take place according to a precise timetable and be based on international resolutions,” Erdogan and Abdullah said.

They also expressed their “unequivocal rejection of any attempt to change the legal and historical situation in the Al-Aqsa mosque and any unilateral Israeli action threatening the identity of east Jerusalem”.

Jordan, the only Arab country apart from Egypt to have signed a peace treaty with Israel, is custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem.

The sensitive Al-Aqsa mosque compound in the eastern sector’s Old City — which Jews call the Temple Mount — was the focus last month of a tense standoff after Israel introduced new security measures following an attack that killed two policemen.

Jordan’s king said earlier this month that a peaceful solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians was becoming more and more difficult.

In January, US President Donald Trump came to power promising to push Israelis and Palestinians towards a peace deal, raising brief hopes among Palestinians that his unconventional approach could achieve results.

But Palestinians have become increasingly frustrated by what they see as his negotiating team’s one-sided approach.

Abdullah and Erdogan on Monday also underlined the importance of a political solution to end the war in Syria.

All diplomatic efforts to end to the conflict that has caused more than 330,000 deaths and displaced millions since 2011 have failed.

However, the two leaders welcomed an agreement that followed trilateral talks between Jordan, the United States and Russia that resulted in a truce in three regions of southern Syria.