Hill Republicans to fast-track Turkey sanctions
BEIRUT, Oct 16, (Agencies): Russian forces have crossed the Euphrates River in northern Syria and reached the outskirts of the city of Kobani, pushing eastward with Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the Syrian Observatory said on Wednesday. The troop movement comes days after the SDF cut a deal with the Syrian government for army troops to deploy at the Turkey-Syria border following a Turkish invasion of northeast Syria last week. “Russian forces reached an area outside of Kobani, about 4-5 km outside the city, after crossing the Euphrates,” said Rami Abdulrahman, the director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-based war monitor. Asked about the report, an SDF official said he had not yet received information about such a Russian advance. The SDF military agreement with Damascus and its ally Moscow marks an abrupt shift in policy following the United States announcement that its forces would be withdrawing from northeast Syria, where it had allied with Kurdish-led SDF forces to oust Islamic State. Russia called Turkey’s military incursion into northeast Syria “unacceptable” and said on Tuesday the operation had to be limited in time and scale, a rare broadside that suggests Moscow’s patience with Ankara is wearing thin.
In Russia’s strongest criticism since Turkey launched its military operation last week, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy for Syria indicated Moscow wanted Ankara to wrap up its offensive soon. “We didn’t agree with the Turks any questions about their presence in Syria and we don’t approve of their actions,” envoy Alexander Lavrentiev told reporters in Abu Dhabi during an official visit there by Putin. He said Turkish troops had the right under an agreement struck between Damascus and Ankara in 1998, the Adana pact, to temporarily push up to a maximum of 10 km (6 miles) into Syria to conduct counter-terrorism operations. “But it doesn’t give them (Turkish troops) the right to remain on Syrian territory permanently and we are opposed to Turkish troops staying on Syrian territory permanently,” he said.
Lavrentiev made his comments as Turkey pressed ahead with its offensive in northern Syria despite US sanctions and growing calls for it to stop, while Syria’s Russia-backed army moved on the key city of Manbij that was abandoned by US forces. The Kremlin said late on Tuesday that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had phoned Putin. The Russian leader had used the call to complain about the humanitarian situation on the Turkish- Syrian border and had stressed the need to avoid a clash between Turkish and Syrian forces, it said. Putin told Erdogan that the situation whereby Islamic State prisoners being held in custody by Syrian Kurds were exploiting the chaos by trying to escape was unacceptable, the Kremlin said. Putin had also invited Erdogan to visit Russia in the coming days for urgent talks, a proposal Ankara had accepted, it added.
Lavrentiev, Putin’s Syria envoy, earlier on Tuesday told Russian news agencies that Moscow had always considered any kind of Turkish military operation on Syrian territory unacceptable. His comments, which suggest growing tensions between Turkey and Russia, came a day after the Kremlin complained that Turkey’s incursion was “not exactly” compatible with Syrian territorial integrity. “The security of the Turkish-Syrian border must be ensured by the deployment of Syrian government troops along its entire length,” said Lavrentiev. “That’s why we never spoke in favour or supported the idea of Turkish units (being deployed there) let alone the armed Syrian opposition.” Meanwhile, Republicans in the US House of Representatives plan to introduce legislation on Wednesday that will impose sanctions on Turkey in response to Ankara’s incursion into Syria, Representative Liz Cheney told reporters on Wednesday.
Even though Republicans do not control the chamber, the measure has a good chance of passing, with members of both parties condemning the swift eruption of violence from Turkey, a NATO ally. In the Republican-led Senate top Democrat Chuck Schumer on Wednesday called for the House to quickly pass the resolution and for his chamber to then immediately take it up. Republican President Donald Trump has announced sanctions on Turkey, ratcheted up tariffs on the country’s steel imports and suspended a major trade deal, but many lawmakers say the US response must go even further. The Trump administration, meanwhile, dispatched its top officials to Turkey on Wednesday for emergency talks to try to persuade Ankara to halt an assault on northern Syria, while Russian troops swept into territory abandoned by Washington in a sudden retreat.
Robert O’Brien, White House national security adviser since last month, arrived in Turkey aiming to meet Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu on Wednesday. Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are expecting to meet the following day with Erdogan. The administration is trying to contain the fallout from Erdogan’s decision to send forces last week to attack Syrian Kurdish militia that were Washington’s close allies. Erdogan repeated his insistence there would be no ceasefire, and said he might call off a visit to the United States next month because of the “very big disrespect” shown by US politicians. He also denounced the United States for taking the “unlawful, ugly step” of imposing criminal charges against a Turkish state bank over allegations it broke sanctions on Iran.
The Turkish assault, launched after a phone call between Erdogan and Trump, has forced Washington to abandon a strategy in place for five years and pull its troops from northern Syria. It has spawned a humanitarian crisis, with 160,000 civilians taking flight, a security alert over thousands of Islamic State fighters abandoned in Kurdish jails, and a political maelstrom at home for Trump, accused by congressional leaders, including fellow Republicans, of betraying loyal US allies, the Kurds.
The United States criminally charged a major Turkish bank with helping to evade sanctions against Iran, potentially raising diplomatic tensions as the US tries to contain Turkey’s military offensive in Syria. The charges against Halkbank, a state-owned bank, were announced Tuesday, years after a wealthy gold trader was arrested in Florida. Before pleading guilty and testifying against a co-defendant, the Turkish-Iranian businessman, Reza Zarrab, hired Rudy Giuliani to lobby the administration of Trump to drop the charges as part of a prisoner exchange.
The timing of the charges could be significant as the Trump administration tries to press Turkey to limit its military incursions in Syria, a move Trump himself allowed by declaring US troops would be withdrawn. In a release, US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said senior officials at Halkbank had designed and carried out the scheme to move billions of dollars of Iranian oil revenue illegally.
According to the indictment, Halkbank illegally moved about $20 billion worth of otherwise restricted Iranian funds. It said the bank let Iranian oil and gas money be used to buy gold that was not exported to Iran and let transactions fraudulently designed to appear to be purchases of food and medicine by Iranian customers proceed, qualifying those funds for a “humanitarian exception” allowed under the sanctions. Berman said the crimes were supported and protected by highranking Turkish government officials who received millions of dollars in bribes to promote and protect the scheme.