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Erdogan Rejects U.S. Call for Ceasefire

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  • Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, rejected U.S. efforts for a ceasefire between Turkey and Syria for the second time on Wednesday.
  • Speaking during a press conference later, President Trump denied that Erdogan had said he would not agree to a ceasefire and expressed optimism that a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Pence would broker a truce.
  • Over the weekend the Trump administration also announced that it would be imposing sanctions on Turkey while simultaneously withdrawing more U.S. troops from Syria.

Erdogan’s Announcement

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeated his rejection to the United States’ call for a ceasefire between Turkey and Syria on Wednesday.

The announcement comes the same day that a U.S. delegation led by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to travel to Turkey to meet with the Turkish leader and to try to press Turkey for a ceasefire in its incursion into Northern Syria.

The Turkish military operation started last week after the White House released a statement saying the U.S. would step aside while Turkey went ahead with a long-planned offensive against Kurdish forces in the region.

Turkey considers the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) that control the region terrorists and has said the operation is necessary to secure their border.

However, the U.S. has long been allied with the SDF, which has done the bulk of fighting against ISIS on the ground in Northern Syria and also guarded prisons holding tens of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their families.

In a direct rebuke of the U.S., while speaking before the Turkish Parliament, Erdogan said that Turkey would not broker a truce because it has “never in its history sat down at a table with terrorist groups.”

“We are not looking for a mediator for that,” he continued. “Nobody can stop us.”

The president also called for Syrian fighters to lay down their weapons and leave the region immediately.

Although it appears that Pence and Pompeo still intend to make their trip, there have been conflicting reports about whether or not Erdogan would meet with Pence or Pompeo.

“I am standing tall. I will not meet with them. They will meet with their counterparts. I will speak when Trump comes,” he told Sky News Tuesday.

Later, his communications director, Fahrettin Altun, said the president had reversed that decision. 

“He does plan to meet the U.S. delegation led by @VP tomorrow — as confirmed in the below statement to the Turkish press,” Altun said in a tweet.

Sanctions and Ceasefire

Erdogan’s statement Wednesday echoed a similar sentiment he expressed the day before, while also speaking about sanctions imposed by the U.S. 

“They say ‘declare a cease-fire’. We will never declare a cease-fire,” the president said speaking in Azerbaijan. “They are pressuring us to stop the operation. They are announcing sanctions. Our goal is clear. We are not worried about any sanctions.”

In an announcement Monday, President Donald Trump said that he would “soon be issuing an Executive Order authorizing the imposition of sanctions against current and former officials of the Government of Turkey and any persons contributing to Turkey’s destabilizing actions in northeast Syria.”

He added that, among other things, the U.S. would stop negotiations of a trade deal, increase steel tariffs by 50%, and “authorize a broad range of consequences including financial sanctions, blocking of property and barring entry into the U.S.”

U.S. Withdraws Troops & Kurds Side With Assad

Trump’s announcement of sanctions Monday came after a series of rapid developments the day before.

Speaking to CBS’s Face the Nation Sunday, U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that following discussions with the national security team, Trump had directed that the U.S. “begin a deliberate withdrawal of forces from northern Syria.” 

Esper did not say exactly when or how many troops would be withdrawn, but he later told Fox News that the number would be “less than 1,000 troops.” According to reports, the U.S. only has about 1,000 troops in the region.

The announcement also came amid reports from Kurdish officials and others in the area that around 800 people held in ISIS prisons broke free. Erdogan responded by saying the claims were “disinformation” intended to provoke the U.S. and others.

But Kurdish forces maintained that this was a serious security threat.

Many experts and lawmakers have warned that the U.S. removal of troops in Syria would allow ISIS to regroup because Kurdish forces would be stretched too thin fighting a military attack and would not able to keep a stable hold on the region or stop ISIS fighters from escaping from the camps.

Some condemned Esper’s announcement, arguing that the U.S.’ decision to remove even more troops would just make the situation worse.

Just hours after Esper’s statement, Kurdish leaders announced that they had struck a deal with the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and that the Syrian government, which is backed by Russia and Iran, would be sending troops to help the Kurds fight Turkey.

Many described this move as a turning point in Syria’s eight-year-long war because it represents a notable shift in influence from the United States to Russia.

Those critical of the removal of U.S. forces in Syria have argued that it will pave the way for Russian forces allied with the Syrian government to fill the power vacuum created by the U.S. leaving the region.

Trump, for his part, responded to the move in a tweet later on Monday, writing, “Anyone who wants to assist Syria in protecting the Kurds is good with me, whether it is Russia, China, or Napoleon Bonaparte. I hope they all do great, we are 7,000 miles away!”

Russia appeared to have taken that to heart, and announced Tuesday that they would be sending their own troops to patrol between Turkish and Syrian forces.

Trump Press Conference

Trump on Wednesday maintained that he will try to mediate discussions between Turkey and the Kurds.

While speaking to reporters Wednesday, Trump claimed that Erdogan did not refuse to agree to a ceasefire, and downplayed U.S. involvement in the crisis.

“The Kurds are much safer right now, but the Kurds know how to fight,” he said. “And as I said they’re not angels, they’re not angels, if you take a look, you have to go back and take a look. But they fought with us and we paid a lot of money for them to fight with us, and that’s okay.” 

“So, if Russia wants to get involved with Syria, that’s really up to them. They have a problem with Turkey. They have a problem at a border. It’s not our border, we shouldn’t be losing lives over it,” he continued. 

The president also later seemed to echo what Erdogan said when Kurdish forces reported that ISIS prisoners had escaped.

“Some were released just for effect, to make us look a little bit like ‘oh gee, we got to get right back in there,’” Trump said.

Meanwhile, the violent military standoff between Turkey and Syria continues.

It is currently unclear how many military personnel and civilians have died, but what is clear is that the Turkish incursion is tearing up a country already ravaged by war, and displacing hundreds of thousands of people in a country where there are already millions of refugees.

On Tuesday, the United Nations reported that “at least 160,000 civilians have been displaced since the offensive began,” also adding that “hospitals and schools and other public infrastructure hit or affected by the fighting.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (Al Jazeera) (Axios)

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Russia Takes Over 900 Azovstal Fighters Prisoner as Mariupol Surrenders

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Ukraine said the soldiers successfully completed their mission, but the fall of Mariupol represents a strategic win for Putin.


Azovstal Waves the White Flag

Russia’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday that it had captured 959 Ukrainians from the Azovstal steelworks, where besieged soldiers have maintained the last pocket of resistance in Mariupol for weeks.

A ministry spokesperson said in a statement that 51 were being treated for injuries, and the rest were sent to a former prison colony in the town of Olenivka in a Russian-controlled area of Donetsk.

The defense ministry released videos of what it claimed were Ukrainian fighters receiving care at a hospital in the Russian-controlled town of Novoazovsk. In one, a soldier tells the camera he is being treated “normally” and that he is not being psychologically pressured, though it is unclear whether he is speaking freely.

It was unclear if any Ukrainians remained in Azovstal, but Denis Pushilin, the head of the self-proclaimed republic of Donetsk, said in a statement Wednesday that the “commanders of the highest level” were still hiding in the plant.

Previously, estimates put the number of soldiers inside Azovstal around 1,000.

Ukraine officially gave up Mariupol on Monday, when the first Azovstal fighters began surrendering.

Reuters filmed dozens of wounded Ukrainians being driven away in buses marked with the Russian pro-war “Z” symbol.

Ukraine’s deputy defense minister said in a Tuesday statement that the Ukrainian prisoners would be swapped in an exchange for captured Russians. But numerous Russian officials have signaled that the Ukrainian soldiers should be tried.

Mariupol Falls into Russian Hands

After nearly three months of bombardment that left Mariupol in ruins, Russia’s combat mission in the city has ended.

The sprawling complex of underground tunnels, caverns, and bunkers beneath Azovstal provided a defensible position for the Ukrainians there, and they came to represent the country’s resolve in the face of Russian aggression for many spectators.

Earlier this month, women, children, and the elderly were evacuated from the plant.

The definitive capture of Mariupol, a strategic port city, is a loss for Ukraine and a boon for Russia, which can now establish a land bridge between Crimea and parts of Eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian separatists. The development could also free up Russian troops around Mariupol to advance on the East, while additional reinforcements near Kharkiv descend from the north, potentially cutting off Ukrainian forces from the rest of the country.

The Ukrainian military has framed events in Mariupol as at least a partial success, arguing that the defenders of Azovstal completed their mission by tying down Russian troops and resources in the city and giving Ukrainians elsewhere more breathing room.

It claimed that doing so prevented Russia from rapidly capturing the city of Zaporizhzhia further to the west.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (BBC)

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Convoy of Up to 1,000 Vehicles Evacuates Refugees From Mariupol as Russian War Effort Stalls

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Russia may have lost a third of its ground invasion force since the war began, according to British military intelligence.


Hundreds Make It Out Alive

A convoy of between 500 and 1,000 vehicles evacuating refugees from the southern port city of Mariupol arrived safely in the Ukrainian-controlled city of Zaporizhzhia on Saturday.

People have been trickling out of Mariupol for over two months, but the recent evacuation was the single biggest out of the city thus far. Russian troops, who control most of the city, did not allow the convoy to leave for days, but eventually, they relented.

The convoy first traveled to Berbyansky some 80 kilometers to the west, then stopped at other settlements before driving 200 kilometers northwest to Zaporizhzhia. Many refugees told reporters they took “secret detours” to avoid Russian checkpoints and feared every moment of the journey.

Nikolai Pavlov, a 74-year-old retiree, told Reuters he had lived in a basement for a month after his apartment was destroyed.

“We barely made it,” he said. “There were lots of elderly people among us… the trip was devastating. But it was worth it.”

63-year-old Iryna Petrenko also said she had stayed in Mariupol initially to take care of her 92-year-old mother, who subsequently died.

“We buried her next to her house, because there was nowhere to bury anyone,” she said.

Putin’s Plans Go Poorly

In Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters continue to hold the Azovstal steelworks, the only part of the city still under Ukrainian control.

On Sunday, a video emerged appearing to show a hail of projectiles bursting into white, brightly burning munitions over the factory.

The pro-Russian separatist who posted it on Telegram wrote, “If you didn’t know what it is and for what purpose – you could say that it’s even beautiful.”

Turkey is trying to negotiate an evacuation of wounded Ukrainians from the factory, but neither Russia nor Ukraine have agreed to any plan.

After nearly three months of war, Mariupol has been left in ruins, with thousands of civilians reportedly dead.

“In less than 3 month, Mariupol, one of Ukraine’s fastest developing & comfortable cities, was reduced into a heap of charred ruins smelling death, with thousands of people standing in long breadlines and selling their properties out to buy some food. Less than three months,” Illia Ponomarenko, a reporter for The Kyiv Independent, tweeted.

On Sunday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry estimated that Russia has likely lost a third of its ground invasion forces since the war began.

Moscow is believed to have deployed as many as 150,000 troops in Ukraine.

The ministry added that Russian forces in Eastern Ukraine have “lost momentum” and are “significantly behind schedule.” Moreover, it said Russia failed to achieve substantial territorial gains over the last month while sustaining “consistently high levels of attrition.”

“Under the current conditions, Russia is unlikely to dramatically accelerate its rate of advance over the next 30 days,” the ministry concluded.

Sweden also signaled on Sunday that it will join Finland in applying for NATO membership.

See what others are saying: (The Daily Beast) (U.S. News and World Report) (The Hill)

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Israel Moves to Build Over 4,000 West Bank Settlements as Palestinian Homes Demolished

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The Israeli military is proceeding with a plan to evict at least 1,000 Palestinians from the West Bank.


Settlers Get Ready to Move in

On Thursday, a military planning body in the Israeli-occupied West Bank approved the construction of 4,427 housing units, according to the watchdog group Peace Now.

“The State of Israel took another stumble toward the abyss and further deepened the occupation,” Hagit Ofran, an expert at Peace Now, said via the Associated Press.

The plan is the largest advancement of settlement projects since President Joe Biden took office in the United States.

The U.S. opposes settlement expansion and said as much when the plan was first announced last week, but critics say Washington has done little to pressure Israel to stop.

In a statement, U.N. Mideast envoy Tor Wennesland called the settlements a “major obstacle to peace.”

“Continued settlement expansion further entrenches the occupation, encroaches upon Palestinian land and natural resources, and hampers the free movement of the Palestinian population,” he said.

In October, Israel approved some 3,000 settlement homes despite a U.S. rebuke. There are currently over 130 Israeli settlements in the West Bank harboring almost 500,000 settlers, in addition to the nearly three million Palestinians living in the territory.

Palestinians Pushed Off Their Land

On Wednesday, the same day Israeli soldiers allegedly shot and killed Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, the military demolished at least 18 buildings in the West Bank, including 12 residential ones.

Israel’s supreme court has also ruled that eight Palestinian hamlets can be expelled, potentially leaving at least 1,000 Palestinians homeless.

The area targeted is known as the Masafer Yatta, and its residents say they have been herding animals and practicing traditional desert agriculture there for decades, long before Israel took over the West Bank in 1967. Israel, however, claims there were no permanent structures there before the military designated it a firing zone in the 1980s

“What’s happening now is ethnic cleansing,” Sami Huraini, an activist and a resident of the area, told the Associated Press. “The people are staying on their land and have already started to rebuild.”

See what others are saying: (Associated Press) (Peace Now) (Associated Press)

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