ANKARA (AFP) – President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday arrived for a visit to Russia’s increasingly close partner Turkey aimed at launching the construction of a nuclear power plant and coordinating policy on the war in Syria.Putin will hold an afternoon of talks with his counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan before the two strongmen leaders are joined on Wednesday by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani for a summit devoted to Syria.Putin’s visit to Turkey is his first trip abroad since he won a historic fourth presidential mandate in March 18 polls.
Putin and Erdogan — who have both led their post-imperial states out of economic crisis but also into a new era of confrontation with the West — have forged an increasingly close alliance in recent months.
Their meeting comes as ties between Russia and the West are nosediving to post-Cold War lows after the March poisoning of Russian ex-double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK.
While EU powers have rushed to join Britain in condemning Russia and expelling diplomats over the attack on Skripal, Turkey has been much more circumspect.
Erdogan, who in 2017 held eight face-to-face meetings with Putin, has said that Ankara will not act against Moscow “based on an allegation”.
In a move that has troubled Turkey’s NATO allies, Ankara has agreed to buy S-400 air defence missile systems from Russia.
But Ankara-Moscow relations were also tested by a severe crisis from November 2015 when Turkey shot down a Russian warplane over Syria, a confrontation both sides are trying to put behind each other.
Despite being on different sides of the Syrian civil war, key regime backers Russia and Iran have joined with rebel-supporting Turkey to boost peace and also influence when the conflict ends.
Cooperation is also flourishing in other areas. Putin and Erdogan will from Ankara via video conference launch construction of Turkey’s first nuclear power station in the Mediterranean Mersin region.
The Akkuyu power station — a project costing over $20 billion (16 billion euros) and heavily disliked by environmentalists — was already launched once before in February 2015 but then put on hold due to the plane crisis.
Russia and Turkey are also building the TurkStream gas pipeline under the Black Sea that will allow Moscow to pump gas to Europe avoiding Ukraine and increase Turkey’s importance as a transit hub. AFP
The relocation of Turkish troops to the area came a day after U.S. troops were seen patrolling the tense border in Syria. Those patrols followed a Turkish airstrike against bases of Syrian Kurdish militia, the United States’ main ally in combating Islamic State militants in Syria.
More U.S. troops were seen Saturday in armored vehicles in Syria in Kurdish areas. Kurdish officials described U.S. troop movements as a “buffer” between them and Turkey.
But Turkey views Syria’s Kurdish People’s Protection group, known as YPG, as a terrorist organization and an extension of the Kurdish militants who have been waging a three-decade-long insurgency against Turkey.
“The YPG, and you know who’s supporting them, is attacking us with mortars. But we will make those places their grave, there is no stopping,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said.
Footage shot Friday night showed a long line of Turkish trucks and military vehicles driving to the border area. The private Ihlas news agency reported that the convoy was heading to southeastern Sanliurfa province from Kilis in the west. The base is 30 miles from Syria’s Tal Abyad, a town controlled by the Kurdish militia.
Just before the troop location, the agency said, Turkish officials, announced the completion of a phase of Turkey’s cross-border operation of Euphrates Shield in Syria, adding that the force may be used against Syrian Kurdish militants “if needed.”
Tensions in the border area rose last week when Turkey conducted airstrikes against YPG bases in Syria and Iraq on Tuesday. The Turkish military said that it killed at least 90 militants and wounded scores more. The Kurdish group in Syria said that 20 of its fighters and media activists were killed in the strike, which was followed by cross-border clashes.
Erdogan hinted that his country was also ready to repeat its attacks in Sinjar, Iraq, to prevent it from turning into a base for the Kurdish militia.
Kurdish officials said that the U.S. patrols are monitoring the Turkish-Syrian border to prevent an increase in tensions with Turkey, a NATO member, and U.S. ally.
On Saturday, more U.S. troops in armored vehicles arrived in Kurdish areas, passing through the town of Qamishli, close to the border with Turkey. The town is mostly controlled by Kurdish forces, but Syrian government troops hold pockets of territory there, including the airport.
The convoy was followed by another of YPG militia. Some footage posted online showed Kurdish residents cheering U.S.-flagged vehicles as they drove by.
U.S. officials say the troop movement is part of its operations with the Kurdish forces in northern Syria.
Ankara sent its troops into Syria last August in a military operation triggered in large part by the Kurdish group’s expansion along its borders.
The issue has been a source of tension between Ankara and Washington that threatens to hamper the fight against the Islamic State. Instead of working with the Syrian Kurds, Turkey is pressing the United States to let its army join the campaign for Raqqa, the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State.
Erdogan is due in Washington on May 16 for his first meeting with President Trump.
Claiming that his country is leading the most effective campaign against the Islamic State, Erdogan said: “Let us, huge America, all these coalition powers and Turkey, let us join hands and turn Raqqa to Daesh’s grave,” using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.
The YPG forms the backbone of the U.S.-backed Syria Democratic Forces.
Redur Khalil, a spokesman for the YPG in Syria, said that Turkey is reinforcing its border posts opposite Tal Abyad as well as others.
“We hope that this military mobilization is not meant to provoke our forces or for another purpose linked to entering Syrian territories. We don’t want any military confrontation between us since our priority is to fight Daesh in Raqqa and Tabqa,” Khalil told the Associated Press in cellphone text messages.
Khalil said that his forces were not building up in the area.
MOSCOW — Vladimir V. Putin kept his guest, Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, dangling all day.
It was not clear until around 5 p.m., when the secretary of state’s small motorcade eased out of the Ritz-Carlton in one of the fanciest parts of Moscow and slipped into Red Square that Russia’s president was willing to engage in his first face-to-face meeting with a senior member of President Trump’s administration, even one who is an old business partner who used to show up on behalf of Exxon Mobil.
If a few weeks ago critics of the Trump administration feared that Mr. Tillerson would simply fold on the sanctions imposed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, they need not have worried. In a two-hour meeting, as later described in sketchy terms by Mr. Tillerson, they did not agree on much — certainly not on who was responsible for fatally poisoning Syrian civilians with the nerve agent sarin, or for the interference in the American elections last year and the European elections underway now.
“We need to attempt to put an end to this steady degradation, which is doing nothing to restore the trust between our two countries or to make progress on the issues of the greatest importance to both of us,” Mr. Tillerson said at a news conference with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey V. Lavrov.
Mr. Tillerson went on to describe how the two countries were establishing “a working group to address smaller issues and make progress toward stabilizing the relationship,” a recognition of the fact that the big issues were so big that no working group would have the authority.
Dangling meetings is an old technique for Mr. Putin, used to keep other leaders off balance and demonstrate his control. But when Mr. Putin and Mr. Tillerson did meet, it was clear that they not only have different world views, but that they have different views of the facts. And that made it difficult to achieve anything other than cosmetic accords on the issues over which the two nations, in a revival of Cold War rhetoric, have charged each other with lying about.
For good measure, Mr. Lavrov offered a lengthy tutorial for Mr. Tillerson about all the examples of American-led regime change in the world — from Slobodan Milosevic to Saddam Hussein to Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi — that went bad, suggesting it made no sense to add Mr. Assad to the list.
But there was no talk of reviving the “Geneva process,” the meetings of nearly 20 nations that John Kerry, Mr. Tillerson’s predecessor, had organized to help force a political process to end the civil war in Syria and hold a vote that would decide the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. Mr. Tillerson said, again, that Mr. Assad had to go — in a way he did not specify — and when pressed on whether he agreed with Mr. Trump’s description of the Syrian leader as an “animal,” he said that “characterization is one that President Assad has brought upon himself.”
Mr. Tillerson is in many ways the personality opposite of Mr. Kerry: when asked a hard question he will offer the tersest answer possible, rather than attack with words. Asked at the news conference whether he had raised with Mr. Putin the subject of Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential election, he said, “as to the question of the interference with the election, that is fairly well-established in the United States.”
His answer ignored that such meddling is not a well-established fact in the mind of his boss.
Asked how he explained the difference between Russia’s use of cyber weapons in the election and the American use of them against Iran’s nuclear program and North Korea’s missile program, Mr. Tillerson said simply: “Cyber tools to disrupt weapons programs — that’s another use of the tools, and I make a distinction between those two.”
That was the closest any Trump administration official has come to acknowledging, publicly, the use of cyber weapons against American adversaries.
Mr. Tillerson’s first visit to Moscow as America’s most important diplomat also was striking in what was conspicuously missing: there were no meetings with political dissidents or opponents of Mr. Putin. The subject of crackdowns or human rights in Russia never came up. But the Syria dispute provided plenty of tension.
In the 24 hours before Mr. Tillerson landed in Moscow, the White House accused Mr. Putin’s government of covering up evidence that Mr. Assad had been responsible for the April 4 chemical weapons assault, which the Americans say was launched from a base where Russian troops were operating.
Mr. Putin shot back that the charge was fabricated in ways reminiscent of the run-up to the 2003 American invasion of Iraq.
He quoted two Russian writers, Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov, authors of the 1928 satire “The 12 Chairs,” and said, “‘It’s boring, ladies.’ We have seen this all before.”
But the diplomatic theater playing out in Moscow on a rainy Wednesday morning was far from boring: Mr. Putin, operating on home turf, was looking for any way to shape the narrative of Mr. Tillerson’s trip.
The Kremlin had initially said Mr. Putin would not meet with Mr. Tillerson, although his spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, held out the possibility of a meeting later in the day.
Russian leaders have greeted virtually all new secretaries of state since the end of World War II.
Mr. Tillerson, who was recognized with an Order of Friendship medal by the Russian government while he was the chief executive of Exxon Mobil, has insisted on a tough line on Russia, ruling out any early end to sanctions unless the country returns Crimea to Ukraine and ceases meddling elsewhere.
On Syria, Mr. Tillerson delivered what sounded much like an ultimatum to the Russians on Tuesday while talking to reporters at a Group of 7 meeting in Italy.
“I think it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end,” Mr. Tillerson said, echoing a theme first heard from Mr. Obama in 2011, when the Arab Spring led many to believe the Syrian leader was about to be overthrown.
Mr. Tillerson essentially demanded that Russia make a choice, severing ties with Mr. Assad and working with the United States on a variety of initiatives in the Middle East.
As Mr. Tillerson entered the Foreign Ministry here to meet Mr. Lavrov, an experienced and wily veteran of many of Russia’s post-Cold War encounters with Washington, the Russian government released another salvo against American intentions here.
The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria V. Zakharova, said it was “useless” for Mr. Tillerson to arrive in Moscow with “ultimatums” and suggested that if he wanted any progress, he should start by getting Mr. Trump and his administration on the same page about Syria strategy.
Officials in the Trump administration on Sunday demanded Russia stop supporting the Syrian government or face a further deterioration in its relations with the United States.
Signaling the focus of talks Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will have in Moscow later this week, officials said Russia, in propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, bears at least partial responsibility for Wednesday’s poison gas attack on villagers in Idlib province.
“I hope Russia is thinking carefully about its continued alliance with Bashar al-Assad, because every time one of these horrific attacks occurs, it draws Russia closer into some level of responsibility,” Tillerson said on ABC’s This Week.
Although officials acknowledged that they have seen no evidence directly linking Russia to the attacks, the top national security adviser, Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said Russia should be pressed to answer what it knew ahead of the chemical attack since it has placed warplanes and air defense systems with associated troops in Syria since 2015.
“I think what we should do is ask Russia, how could it be, if you have advisers at that airfield, that you didn’t know that the Syrian air force was preparing and executing a mass murder attack with chemical weapons,” McMaster said on Fox News.
The timing of the comments, with Tillerson heading soon to Moscow, signaled the administration’s intent to pressure Russia to step away from Assad, who is supported by the Kremlin with military aid and diplomatic cover.
The fallout from the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons on civilians, plus the U.S. missile strike that came in retaliation for it, adds more strain to a rocky relationship that is at its lowest point in decades. A host of issues are responsible, topped by suspected Russian attempts to interfere in the U.S. presidential election and Moscow’s support for separatists in Ukraine that have prompted U.S. and European sanctions. These topics have now been overshadowed by last week’s missile strike.
The Russians had hoped that relations with the United States might improve under President Trump, who expressed admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin during the campaign. Tillerson’s nomination as secretary of state also raised prospects given the former ExxonMobil executive’s experience negotiating a major deal with Rosneft, the state-controlled oil giant.
But 11 weeks into Trump’s presidency, expectations have been substantially lowered.
“This is a big cold shower,” said Samuel Charap, a Russia analyst with the Rand Corp. “Even if behind closed doors they might engage on other issues in a more pragmatic manner, the public posture is going to be one of emphasizing how they disagree about [Syria]. Putin is not going to want to be seen as chummy with the U.S. secretary of state.”
On Sunday, both Tillerson and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley cast doubts on Assad’s legitimacy as Syria’s leader. Haley said that eventually the unrest in Syria cannot end if Assad remains in power.
“In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad,” Haley said. “And in no way do we see peace in that area with Assad at the head of the Syrian government.”
Tillerson noted other instances when Syrian forces deployed chemical weapons, and other attacks on civilians involving barrel bombs and conventional weapons.
“I think the issue of how Bashar al-Assad’s leadership is sustained, or how he departs, is something that we’ll be working [on] with allies and other in the coalition,” said Tillerson, who after weeks of keeping a low profile was making his debut on the Sunday talk shows. “But I think with each of those actions, he really undermines his own legitimacy.”
Neither suggested Assad’s demise was imminent.
“Once the ISIS threat has been reduced or eliminated, I think we can turn our attention directly to stabilizing the situation in Syria,” Tillerson said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
The U.S. missile strikes in Syria carry the implicit threat of a larger U.S. role in the conflict. Tillerson said Sunday that they function as a warning to any country acting outside of international norms, in an apparent reference to North Korea.
“At least in the short run, it will further complicate efforts to improve the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, which seemed to be Tillerson’s objective in going to Moscow,” said Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “In the longer term, the threat of further U.S. intervention is a card that the U.S. can play to get the Russians to tighten the screws on Assad — on both the chemical weapons and possibly on accepting a political deal with the opposition.”
Tillerson departed around dawn Sunday for Italy to attend a meeting of the G-7 nations, a bloc of industrialized democracies. He is due to arrive late Tuesday in Russia for his first visit as secretary of state.
He and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov are scheduled to meet, but it is not known if the secretary of state will also see Putin, who personally bestowed the Order of Friendship on Tillerson in 2012.
Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said the Russians still hold out hope for a breakthrough, but that depends on whether Putin and Trump hit it off, not on anything Tillerson and Lavrov say.
“Things will only happen as a result of direct personal, sustained contact between Putin and Trump,” he said. “That’s the way things work with Putin.”
But closer ties with Russia also carry political risks for Trump. Should the Trump administration ease sanctions imposed over Ukraine, for instance, critics would label it payback for Russia’s pre-election hacks targeting Democrats.
Several analysts said Assad has humiliated Putin by using chemical weapons despite Russia’s guarantee that Syria’s stockpiles would be whisked away. Moscow’s interest in getting sanctions eased is greater than its loyalty to Assad. And that could provide maneuvering room for Tillerson.
That appears to be Tillerson’s calculation, too.
“I do not believe that the Russians want to have worsening relationships with the U.S.,” he said on “This Week.” “But it’s going to take a lot of discussion and a lot of dialogue to better understand what is the relationship that Russia wishes to have with the U.S.” (The Washington Post)
MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin believes that U.S. cruise missile strikes on a Syrian air base broke international law and have seriously hurt U.S.-Russia relations, Russian news agencies cited the Kremlin as saying on Friday.
The Russian leader, a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, regarded the U.S. action as “aggression against a sovereign nation” on a “made-up pretext” and as a cynical attempt to distract the world from civilian deaths in Iraq, Dmitry Peskov, Putin’s spokesman, was cited as saying.
The United States fired dozens of cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase earlier on Friday from which it said a deadly chemical weapons attack was launched this week.
Moscow had been hoping to cooperate with new U.S. President Donald Trump to jointly fight the Islamic State militant group in Syria, a move it was banking on to improve battered U.S.-Russia ties which are languishing at a post Cold War low.
But the U.S. action caused consternation in Russia, angering the Kremlin and pro-Kremlin lawmakers who suggested it had dealt a significant blow to any hopes of doing business with Trump.
“Putin views the U.S. strikes on Syria as aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and on a made-up up pretext,” Peskov was cited as saying.
“Washington’s step will inflict major damage on U.S.-Russia ties.”
Peskov was also quoted as saying that Russia did not believe that Syria possessed chemical weapons and that the U.S. move would inevitably create a serious obstacle to creating an international coalition to fight terrorism, an idea that Putin has repeatedly pushed.
Russia would now call for an urgent meeting of the U.N. Security Council to discuss the matter, the RIA news agency cited Viktor Ozerov, the head of the upper house of parliament’s defence and security committee, as saying.
No Russian citizens had been hurt in the strikes, another lawmaker said, while Konstantin Kosachev, chairman of the upper house’s international affairs committee, said it looked like Trump may have been bounced into approving military action by the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies.
“One way or another, Russian cruise missiles are continuing to strike terrorists and American ones government troops who are heading the war against the terrorists,” Kosachev wrote on social media.
“I fear that with these approaches the hoped-for U.S.-Russian anti-terrorism coalition in Syria … is breathing its last before it is even born.” (REUTERS)
President Donald Trump released a statement Tuesday blaming a chemical attack in Syria on Obama administration’s policies.
Dozens of people were reportedly killed on Tuesday when a hospital treating civilians injured in chemical attacks was bombed. Activists described the attack as among the worst in the country’s six-year war.
“Today’s chemical attack in Syria against innocent people, including women and children, is reprehensible and cannot be ignored by the civilized world,” Trump said in a statement. “These heinous actions by the Bashar al-Assad regime are a consequence of the past administration’s weakness and irresolution.”
Trump cited President Barack Obama’s inaction after issuing a “red line” in 2012 that suggested that the US would intervene militarily if the Assad regime used chemical weapons.
When evidence emerged that Syrian forces did use chemical weapons to attack civilians, the US declined to use military action in retaliation, instead opting to broker a deal in which the Assad regime agreed to remove chemical weapons from Syria.
“President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing,” Trump said. “The United States stands with our allies across the globe to condemn this intolerable attack.”
But it doesn’t appear that the Trump administration is planning to urge Assad to step down. And Trump didn’t seem to want Obama to enforce the red line at the time, tweeting in 2013, “AGAIN, TO OUR VERY FOOLISH LEADER, DO NOT ATTACK SYRIA — IF YOU DO MANY VERY BAD THINGS WILL HAPPEN & FROM THAT FIGHT THE U.S. GETS NOTHING!”
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters while he was in Turkey last week that the “longer-term status” of Assad would “be decided by the Syrian people.” And US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley told reporters that the Trump administration’s “priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.”
The remark signaled a shift in America’s official position on the Syrian strongman. Though they were criticized for failing to act against Assad, Obama and former Secretary of State John Kerry had long called for Assad to step down in a monitored transition of power.
Tillerson released his own statement on the chemical attack on Tuesday, saying the US “strongly condemns” such actions.
“While we continue to monitor the terrible situation, it is clear that this is how Bashar al-Assad operates: with brutal, unabashed barbarism,” Tillerson said in the statement, which stopped short of calling on him to leave power.
Tillerson instead shifted responsibility to Russia and Iran, two of Assad’s biggest allies, saying they “bear great moral responsibility for these deaths.”
“Those who defend and support him, including Russia and Iran, should have no illusions about Assad or his intentions,” Tillerson said in the statement. “Anyone who uses chemical weapons to attack his own people shows a fundamental disregard for human decency and must be held accountable.”
Tillerson called on Russia and Iran to “exercise their influence over the Syrian regime and to guarantee that this sort of horrific attack never happens again.”
TEL AVIV, Israel — An Israeli aircraft reportedly launched a strike into Syria on Sunday that left one person dead, in what appeared to be the second cross-border attack in three days as tensions between the neighbors escalated over the weekend.
The Israeli attack was reported by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which said that the strike targeted a car traveling on a road between Damascus and Quneitra, a town in the Golan Heights near the border with Israel. An Israeli army spokesman declined to comment on the report.
The Lebanese news service Al Mayadeen said the attack killed Yasser Hussein Asayeed, whom it described as a member of a militia aligned with the Syrian government. It said he was based in Golan.
Just two days earlier, Syrian forces shot several several surface-to-air missiles at Israeli jets that were carrying out an attack in Syria against what Israel said was a weapons shipment bound for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
Israel fired its Arrow interceptor missile to knock down one of the surface-to-air rockets headed for its territory, forcing the nation’s army to issue a rare confirmation that it had carried out an attack inside Syria. It marked the first time Israel had used the Arrow missile, which has been jointly developed with the U.S. over years to defend against long-range missiles from Iran.
After the incident, Russia’s Foreign Ministry summoned the Israeli ambassador to Moscow to protest the attack. Russia is a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, vowed to continue to carry out attacks in Syria against weapons shipments that it believes to be bound for Hezbollah.
On Sunday morning, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded to the incident with a saber-rattling warning. “The next time that the Syrian air defenses fire at us, we will destroy them completely without thinking twice,” he said in an interview with Israel Radio.
The heightened tension highlights how Russia’s assistance to Assad has raised the stakes along the border with Israel. For most of the Syrian civil war, Israel has watched from the sidelines, except for occasional strikes against Hezbollah weapons shipments that it says could be strategic game changers in the balance of power. Those attacks haven’t been challenged by Syria, for the most part.
Since Russia’s entry into the war, Israel and Moscow have come up with an understanding mechanism to avoid clashes between their militaries.
But as the fighting tips in the Assad government’s favor, Israeli officials have expressed concern that Iran and Hezbollah may gain a permanent foothold in Syria and possibly establish a presence along the border in the Golan Heights. This month, Netanyahu traveled to Moscow to try to convince Russian President Vladimir Putin that Iran shouldn’t be strengthened by the war.
Putin is unlikely to be persuaded by Israel’s entreaties to rein in one of his allies, said Eyal Zisser, a professor of political science at Tel Aviv University. The attacks over the weekend highlight the question of whether Moscow will continue to tolerate Israeli forays into Syria against its Shiite allies, he said.
“We need to ask: Will Russia accept the continuation of Israeli activity in Syria, or will it decide to put an end to it?” he said.