Turkey to US: End support for YPG or risk confrontation

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan speaks during a meeting in Ankara, Turkey January 24, 2018. Murat Cetinmuhurdar/Presidential Palace/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE.
Updated 25 January 2018
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Turkey to US: End support for YPG or risk confrontation

ANKARA/BEIRUT: Turkey urged the US on Thursday to halt its support for Kurdish YPG fighters or risk confronting Turkish forces on the ground in Syria, some of Ankara’s strongest comments yet about a potential clash with its NATO ally.
The comments, from the spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government, underscore the growing bilateral tensions, six days after Turkey launched its air and ground operation, “Olive Branch,” in Syria’s northwestern Afrin region.
Turkey’s targeting of the YPG, which it views as a security threat, has opened a new front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war.
Any push by Turkish forces toward Manbij, part of a Kurdish-held territory some 100 km east of Afrin, could threaten US plans to stabilize northeast Syria and bring them into direct confrontation with US troops deployed there.
“Those who support the terrorist organization will become a target in this battle,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said.
“The US needs to review its solders and elements giving support to terrorists on the ground in such a way as to avoid a confrontation with Turkey,” Bozdag, who also acts as the government’s spokesman, told broadcaster A Haber.
The US has around 2,000 troops in Syria, officially as part of an international, US-led coalition against Daesh. Washington has angered Ankara by providing arms, training and air support to Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey views as terrorists.
US forces were deployed in and around Manbij last March to deter Turkish and US-backed fighters from attacking each other and have also carried out training missions in the area.
US President Donald Trump urged Erdogan on Wednesday to curtail the military operation in Syria, the White House said.
However Turkey has disputed that characterization of the conversation.
“President Trump did not share any ‘concerns about escalating violence’ with regard to the ongoing military operation in Afrin,” a Turkish official said.
“The two leaders’ discussion of Operation Olive Branch was limited to an exchange of views,” the official said.
Six days into the campaign, Turkish soldiers and their Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighter allies have been battling to gain footholds on the western, northern and eastern flanks of Afrin.
They appear to have made only limited gains, hampered by rain and clouds, which have limited the air support.
Turkish warplanes struck the northern borders of Afrin, in tandem with heavy artillery shelling, and one civilian was killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
Dozens of combatants and more than 2 dozen civilians have been killed so far since Turkey launched the offensive, the Observatory has said.
Turkey said the US had proposed a 30 km “safe zone” along the border with Syria.
“(But) in order for us to discuss the security zone or any other issue with the US, we have to reestablish trust,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters.
The Afrin operation has also triggered some concern in Germany, another NATO ally, where the caretaker government said on Thursday it would put on hold any decision on upgrading Turkey’s German-made tanks.
Turkey’s use of the Leopard 2 tanks in Afrin has fueled a debate about Berlin’s approval of arms exports.
A senior Kurdish official said on Thursday Syria’s main Kurdish groups would not attend a Syrian peace congress in Russia next week and that there could be no discussion of ending the war while the Turkish offensive continues.


US aid cuts hit Palestinians, further dimming hope for peace

Updated 39 min 56 sec ago
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US aid cuts hit Palestinians, further dimming hope for peace

  • The US government’s development agency, USAID, has provided more than $5.5 billion to the Palestinians since 1994
  • ‘We don’t want their money, we don’t want anything to do with America’

JERUSALEM: Tens of thousands of Palestinians are no longer getting food aid or basic health services from America, US-funded infrastructure projects have been halted, and an innovative peace-building program in Jerusalem is scaling back its activities.
The Trump administration’s decision last year to cut more than $200 million in development aid to the Palestinians is forcing NGOs to slash programs and lay off staff as the effects ripple through a community that has spent more than two decades promoting peace in the Middle East.
The US government’s development agency, USAID, has provided more than $5.5 billion to the Palestinians since 1994 for infrastructure, health, education, governance and humanitarian aid programs, all intended to underpin the eventual creation of an independent state.
Much of that aid is channeled through international NGOs, which were abruptly informed of the cuts last summer and have been scrambling to keep their programs alive.
President Donald Trump says the USAID cuts are aimed at pressuring the Palestinians to return to peace talks, but Palestinian officials say the move has further poisoned relations after the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year. The aid groups, many of which have little or no connection to the Palestinian Authority, say the cuts hurt the most vulnerable Palestinians and those most committed to peace with Israel.
“If you want to maintain the idea of the peace process, you have to maintain the people who would be part of the peace process,” said Lana Abu Hijleh, the local director for Global Communities, an international NGO active in the Palestinian territories since 1995.
Before the aid cuts were announced, it provided food aid — branded as a gift from the American people — to more than 180,000 Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza on behalf of the World Food Program. USAID had planned to contribute $19 million a year for the next five years to continue the project but pulled out in August.
Global Communities can now only provide aid to 90,000 people through March, and Abu Hijleh had to lay off around 30 staff, including in Gaza, where unemployment exceeds 50 percent.
“It really hurts, because you’re talking about the most basic level of assistance,” she said. The average family receives a monthly voucher worth around $130.
Sadeqa Nasser, a woman living in Gaza’s Jebaliya refugee camp, used her voucher to support her disabled husband, their six children and four grandchildren.
She says her sons each bring in less than $5 a day from odd jobs. “They cannot afford to buy food for their families, so I help them out,” she said.
Since the aid was cut off, she’s been able to qualify for welfare payments from the Palestinian Authority, which itself relies heavily on foreign aid. “Without it we would go hungry,” she said.
Funding has also been cut for a five-year, $50 million program run by a coalition of NGOs to provide health services, including clinical breast cancer treatment for some 16,000 women and treatment for some 700 children suffering from chronic diseases.
Infrastructure projects, including desperately needed water treatment facilities in the blockaded Gaza Strip, have also been put on hold.
Anera, which has carried out development projects in the Middle East for more than 50 years, said it was forced to halt five infrastructure projects in the West Bank and Gaza before completion and cancel three more in Gaza that were pending funding approval. It says the projects would have benefited more than 100,000 people.
The NGOs are reaching out to other donors, but USAID is one of the biggest sources of funding for a global aid community overwhelmed by conflicts in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.
The Trump administration has also cut off funding for peace-building initiatives involving Palestinians — even residents of east Jerusalem, which Israel considers to be part of its capital. The Palestinians want east Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, to be the capital of their future state.
Kids4Peace, a group founded by Israeli and Palestinian families in Jerusalem in 2002, brings Jewish, Christian and Muslim teenagers together for seminars and summer camps where they can share their experiences and learn more about one another.
The group’s organizers acknowledge the longstanding criticism of such initiatives — that campfires and singalongs won’t bring peace to the Middle East, especially after a decade of diplomatic paralysis and little hope for resuming meaningful negotiations.
But they say that with a $1.5 million USAID grant in 2016 they tripled the number of annual participants to around 70 and revamped programs. USAID takes a hands-on approach, requiring regular audits and demanding concrete accomplishments.
Participants now take part in a Youth Action Program in which they plan and execute projects in their communities. One group is campaigning for Arabic subtitles in Jerusalem cinemas. Another set up a community garden in a tense neighborhood where Jews and Arabs had rarely interacted.
Kids4Peace was a finalist for another $1.5 million grant this year, but that has been indefinitely postponed because of the funding cuts. It will continue to run programs with the help of private donors, but its growth prospects are in doubt.
“We see the trend lines moving in a negative direction, in terms of more hostile attitudes toward the other, less interaction between Israelis and Palestinians, more resistance to peace negotiations,” said the Rev. Josh Thomas, executive director of Kids4Peace International. “We see that as a need for greater investment rather than less.”
Trump also halted aid to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, which provides basic services to more than 5 million Palestinians across the Middle East, but UNRWA was able to narrow the funding gap with aid pledges from other countries.
Palestinian officials say they won’t bow to pressure.
“We don’t want their money, we don’t want anything to do with America,” said Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “If (Trump) thinks he can put pressure on us through his money, it won’t work.”
Critics of the policy fear that cutting off aid will further diminish Washington’s ability to manage a conflict that remains highly combustible.
“When America vacates the Middle East space, we do so at our own risk and we do it to the benefit of our adversaries,” said Dave Harden, a former USAID mission director in the West Bank and Gaza.