Pentagon chief says keeping some troops in north Syria under discussion

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper addresses reporters during a media briefing at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, U.S., October 11, 2019. (Reuters)
Updated 21 October 2019

Pentagon chief says keeping some troops in north Syria under discussion

  • US troops crossing into Iraq under Trump’s withdrawal plan
  • Truce halting Turkish offensive in NE Syria expires late Tuesday

DOHUK/KABUL: The Pentagon is considering keeping some US troops near oilfields in northeastern Syria alongside Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to help deny oil to Daesh militants, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday.
US troops are crossing into Iraq as part of a broader withdrawal from Syria ordered by President Donald Trump, a decision that allowed Turkey to launch an offensive against the SDF which for years was a US ally battling Daesh.
More than 100 vehicles crossed the border into Iraq early on Monday from the northeast tip of Syria, where Turkey agreed to pause its offensive for five days under a deal with Washington.
The truce expires late on Tuesday, just after Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is set to discuss next steps in the region at a meeting in Russia with President Vladimir Putin.
Speaking to reporters during a trip to Afghanistan, Esper said that, while the US withdrawal was under way, some troops were still with partner forces near oilfields and there had been discussions about keeping some of them there.
He said that was one option and no decision had been made “with regard to numbers or anything like that.” The Pentagon’s job was to look at different options, he added.
“We presently have troops in a couple of cities that (are)located right near that area,” Esper said. “The purpose is to deny access, specifically revenue to ISIS (Daesh) and any other groups that may want to seek that revenue to enable their own malign activities.”
Trump’s shift has opened a new chapter in Syria’s more than eight-year war and prompted a rush by Turkey and by the Damascus government and its ally Russia to fill the vacuum left by the Americans.
Trump’s decision has been criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of Kurdish allies who had fought for years alongside US troops in a region rich in oil reserves and farmland.
The New York Times reported late on Sunday that Trump was now leaning in favor of a new military plan to keep about 200 US troops in eastern Syria near the Iraq border. The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“NECESSARY STEPS“
Turkey is seeking to set up a “safe zone” along 440 km of border as a buffer against the YPG militia, the main component of the SDF. Ankara sees the YPG as a terrorist group due to its links to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey.
Erdogan has said Ankara will resume its assault when the deadline expires on Tuesday if the SDF has not pulled back.
Turkish sources said that the priority for Ankara was to see the YPG withdraw from a 120-km long strip where Turkish troops and their Syrian rebel allies have focused their assault, rather than the full border region.
They said it remained Turkey’s goal to establish the “safe zone” the full length of the border, which includes areas where Syrian and Russian troops have already moved in.
“We will take up this process with Mr.Putin and after that we will take the necessary steps” in northeastern Syria, Erdogan told a forum in Istanbul hosted by broadcaster TRT World on Monday, without elaborating.
Erdogan has also said Turkey will set up a dozen observation posts in the “safe zone,” prompting criticism from Iran.
“We are against Ankara’s establishing of military posts in Syria,” Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi told a weekly news conference on Monday broadcast live on state TV.
“The issues should be resolved by diplomatic means ... Syria’s integrity should be respected,” said Mousavi, whose country is a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Echoing such concerns, Kremlin aide Yuri Ushakov said Russia believed long-term regional security could only be achieved by restoring Syrian unity and also by taking into account the interests of all the country’s ethnic and religious groups.
He reiterated that Putin and Erdogan would discuss Turkey’s military offensive in their talks on Tuesday in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was quoted as saying that 12 Syrian prisons holding foreign militants as well as eight refugee camps had been left unguarded as a result of Turkey’s military operation.
Turkey’s nearly two-week old offensive has displaced some 300,000 people and led to 120 casualties among civilians and 470 among SDF fighters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Sunday. Turkey says 765 terrorists but no civilians have been killed in its offensive.
On Monday, Reuters video images showed armored vehicles carrying US troops through the Sahela border crossing into Iraq’s northern province of Dohuk.
About 30 trailers and Hummers carrying heavier duty equipment crossed, with troops in cars coming through, an Iraqi Kurdish security source said.
The Turkish security sources said on Monday Kurdish YPG forces were advancing toward Al Hasakah, which is south of the proposed safe zone, adding some 125 vehicles had already left. They also said more than 80 Kurdish militants had been captured alive or surrendered to Turkish forces.


‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Afghan envoy Daudzai

Updated 09 July 2020

‘Political reconciliation’ with Pakistan top priority: Afghan envoy Daudzai

  • Pakistan played positive role in US-Taliban peace talks, says diplomat

PESHAWAR: Afghanistan’s newly appointed special envoy for Pakistan has had put “mending political relations” between the two estranged nations as one of his top priorities.

Mohammed Umer Daudzai, on Tuesday said that his primary focus would be to ensure lasting peace in Afghanistan and maintain strong ties with Pakistan, especially after Islamabad’s key role in the Afghan peace process earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview, the diplomat told Arab News: “Two areas have been identified to focus on with renewed vigor, such as lasting peace in Afghanistan and cementing Pak-Afghan bilateral ties in economic, social, political and other areas.”

In order to achieve these aims, he said, efforts would be intensified “to mend political relations” between the neighboring countries.

Pakistan and Afghanistan share a 2,600-kilometer porous border and have been at odds for years. Bonds between them have been particularly strained due to a deep mistrust and allegations of cross-border infiltration by militants.

Kabul has blamed Islamabad for harboring Taliban leaders after they were ousted from power in 2001. But Pakistan has denied the allegations and, instead, accused Kabul of providing refuge to anti-Pakistan militants – a claim rejected by Afghanistan.

Daudzai said his immediate priority would be to focus on “political reconciliation” between the two countries, especially in the backdrop of a historic peace agreement signed in February this year when Pakistan played a crucial role in facilitating a troop withdrawal deal between the US and the Taliban to end the decades-old Afghan conflict. “Afghanistan needs political reconciliation which the Afghan government has already been working on to achieve bottom-up harmony,” he added.

Daudzai’s appointment Monday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani took place days after Islamabad chose Mohammed Sadiq as Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s special representative for Afghanistan.

Reiterating the need to maintain strong bilateral ties with all of its neighbors, Daudzai said Pakistan’s role was of paramount importance to Afghanistan.

“Pakistan has a positive role in the US-Taliban peace talks, and now Islamabad could play a highly significant role in the imminent intra-Afghan talks. I will explore all options for a level-playing field for the success of all these initiatives,” he said, referring in part to crucial peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban which were delayed due to a stalemate in a prisoner exchange program – a key condition of the Feb. 29 peace deal.

Under the agreement, up to 5,000 Taliban prisoners and around 1,000 government prisoners were to be freed by March 10. So far, Afghanistan has released 3,000 prisoners, while the Taliban have freed 500. Daudzai said that while dates had yet to be finalized, the intra-Afghan dialogue could begin “within weeks.”

He added: “A date for intra-Afghan talks hasn’t been identified yet because there is a stalemate on prisoners’ release. But I am sure they (the talks) will be kicked off within weeks.”

Experts say Daudzai’s appointment could give “fresh momentum” to the stalled process and revitalize ties between the two estranged neighbors.

“Mohammed Sadiq’s appointment...could lead Kabul-Islamabad to a close liaison and better coordination,” Irfanullah Khan, an MPhil scholar and expert on Afghan affairs, told Arab News.

Daudzai said that he would be visiting Islamabad to kickstart the process as soon as the coronavirus disease-related travel restrictions were eased.

Prior to being appointed as the special envoy, he had served as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Pakistan from April 2011 to August 2013.

Related