Turkey, US Decide to Meet to Solve Diplomatic Row

Turkey- US

Turkish and US authorities decided to meet to settle the strategic emergency between the two NATO partners, Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag said on Thursday.

The spat erupted last week when Turkey arrested a Turkish employee of the American consulate on suspicion of links to the group blamed for last year’s failed coup.

In response, the United States suspend non-immigrant visa services there. Hours later, Ankara issued a similar suspension on visas for US citizens in a tit-for-tat move.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu spoke by telephone with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Wednesday to discuss the reciprocal suspension of visa services — their first talks since the eruption of one of the worst crises between Washington and Ankara in years. Tillerson expressed his “profound concern” about the arrests, the US State Department said in a statement.

“Talks between the foreign minister and (US Secretary of State) Tillerson were very constructive. Representatives from both sides decided to meet and work together,” Bozdag said in an interview with broadcaster Haberturk.

He also said a US consulate employee arrested in Turkey had not demanded lawyer access and the US mission could apply to send a lawyer to see him.

During the conversation, Tillerson said Turkey needed to present evidence for the accusations against the consulate employee, State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday that US and Turkish military forces continue to work well together amid the diplomatic row.

“We maintain a very close collaboration, very close communication, the military-to-military interaction and integration has not been affected by this,” Mattis told reporters as he traveled to a military headquarters in Florida.

“We are doing good work with them, military to military,” he stressed.

On Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman said the spat had not affected NATO or US military ties with Turkey.

The United States relies heavily on an air base at Incirlik in southern Turkey to launch air strikes against the ISIS group in neighboring Syria and Iraq. Yet, US-Turkish relations have been strained over US military support for Kurdish fighters in Syria and the United States’ unwillingness to extradite Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen, a former Erdogan ally whom Ankara views as the mastermind behind last year’s failed military coup.

Mattis Defends Nuclear Deal with Iran

US Secretary of Defense James Mattis testifies before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the "Political and Security Situation in Afghanistan" on Capitol Hill in Washington

Washington- United States Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday that remaining in the Iran nuclear accord is in Washington’s national security interests contradicting with President Donald Trump, who has called the deal agreed between Iran and six world powers in 2015 an “embarrassment.”

During testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, the country’s top defense official was asked by a senator if remaining in the deal is in the national security interests of the US. After a lengthy pause, he answered: “Yes senator, I do.”

“If we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement, if we can determine that this is in our best interest, then surely we should stay with it,” he added.

“I believe at this point in time, absent indication to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with,” he said, according to AFP.

Trump must notify Congress every 90 days whether Iran is abiding by the accord and whether the lifting of sanctions against Tehran is in the US national interest.

He has so far certified that Iran is in compliance with the agreement but has indicated the next deadline on October 15 will be crucial.

Iran and the other signatories — China, Russia, France, Britain and Germany — defend the deal, which was signed in 2015, as a guarantee of the peaceful, non-military purposes of Tehran’s nuclear program.

Mattis also warned earlier in his remarks that a US withdrawal from Afghanistan would be “to our ultimate peril,” as he briefed Congress on plans to increase US troop levels.

“Based on intelligence community analysis and my own evaluation, I am convinced we would absent ourselves from this region at our peril,” he said.

Mattis said that more than 3,000 additional US troops are being sent to Afghanistan to reinforce the 11,000 US troops already stationed in the country.

He also said that the United States will soon decide whether to keep open a Taliban office in Qatar as America steps up its Afghan war effort.

Mattis said he and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had been “in contact on this issue three times in the past 10 days.”

“He is looking to make certain we have the right [Taliban representatives], so it’s just not an office in existence,” he added.

In this context, the US has ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats on Tuesday, accusing Havana of failing to protect their American counterparts from harm in a series of attacks on their health.

Tillerson said, however, that Washington would maintain diplomatic relations even though the size of the US mission in Havana would be reduced to a minimum.

“Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm,” he said.

“This order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations,” he said.

The attacks, which US officials initially suggested could have been carried out with some sort of covert acoustic device, have affected at least 22 US embassy staff in Havana over the past few months.

Those affected have exhibited physical symptoms including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping.

US Senate Approves Massive Defense Policy Bill

US

The United States Senate approved on Monday a huge defense policy bill, at a budget of $700 billion, reflecting President Donald Trump’s call for a bigger and stronger military.

Putting the US armed forces on track for a budget greater than at any time during the decade-plus wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the move is likely to lead to disputes over government spending levels later this year.

The Republican-controlled chamber voted 89-8 for the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018, or NDAA, which authorizes the level of defense spending and sets policies controlling how the money is spent.

The 1,215-page measure defies a number of White House objections, but President Donald Trump hasn’t threatened to veto it. The bill helps him honor a pledge to rebuild an American military that he said had become depleted on former President Barack Obama’s watch.

The measure authorizes $700 billion in military spending for the budget year that begins October 1, expands US missile defenses in response to North Korea’s growing hostility and refuses to allow excess military bases to be closed.

With North Korea’s nuclear program a growing threat to the US and its allies, the bill includes $8.5 billion to strengthen US missile and defense systems. That’s $630 million more than the Trump administration sought for those programs, according to a committee analysis.

The bill also bans Moscow-based Kaspersky Labs products from federal government use.

The House of Representatives passed its version of the NDAA at a similar spending level in July.

The two versions must be reconciled before Congress can consider a final version. A fight over spending is expected because Senate Democrats have vowed to block big increases in funds for the military if spending caps on non-defense programs are not also eased.

The versions of the bill increase military spending well beyond last year’s $619 billion, defying “sequestration” spending caps set in the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Trump wants to find more money for the Pentagon by slashing non-defense spending. His fellow Republicans control majorities in both the House and Senate, but they will need support from Senate Democrats to change the rules and allow a bigger Pentagon budget.

Senator John McCain, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been shepherding the legislation through Congress as he undergoes treatment for an aggressive type of brain cancer.

Arguing for increased spending, McCain said more men and women in uniform are dying in avoidable training accidents than in combat. “Where’s the outrage? Where’s our sense of urgency to deal with this problem?” he asked before the vote.

Both the Senate and House rejected Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ plan to close more bases starting in 2021.

Despite partisan divides that have kept Congress from passing much major legislation recently, the NDAA has been passed for 55 straight years.

Trump has criticized parts of the NDAA, but has not threatened a veto.

US Secretary of Defense in Surprise Iraq Visit to Discuss ISIS Fight

ISIS

US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis made a surprise visit to Iraq on Tuesday to hold talks with officials on the battle against the ISIS terrorist group.

He made the trip just days after Iraqi forces launched an operation to recapture the city of Tal Afar from the organization, warning that the end of ISIS is far from close.

“ISIS’ days are certainly numbered, but it is not over yet and it is not going to be over anytime soon,” Mattis told reporters in Amman.

Mattis said that after retaking Tal Afar, Iraqi forces would move against the western Euphrates river valley. He added that Iraqi security forces were capable of carrying out simultaneous operations.

Iraqi security forces launched an offensive to take back the city of Tal Afar on Sunday, their latest objective in the US-backed campaign to defeat ISIS. The city lies 80 km (50 miles) west of Mosul in Iraq’s far north.

Brett McGurk, the US special envoy to the coalition against ISIS, told reporters that while the battle for Tal Afar would be difficult, Iraqi forces had retaken 235 square kilometers (90.7 miles) in the first 24 hours.

In Baghdad, Mattis was meeting with senior Iraqi government leaders and with US commanders. He also planned to meet in Irbil with Masoud Barzani, leader of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region.

US officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mattis, who will meet Abadi and Defense Minister Arfan al-Hayali, would discuss the future of US forces in Iraq after the fall of the remaining cities under ISIS and the role they could play in stabilizing operations.

The officials said that while major cities like Mosul have been largely been cleared of ISIS militants, there were concerns about the ability of Iraqi forces to hold territory.

The US Defense Secretary said pockets of resistance remained in west Mosul, including sleeper cells, and attention would be turned after they were cleared.

“It is not going to happen overnight…it is going to be a heavy lift for them going forward, but the proper governance would involve local representation in their day to day lives,” Mattis said.

Expelled from their main stronghold in northern Iraq, ISIS militants are now trapped in a military vise that will squeeze them on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border, he added.

ISIS is also on the back foot in Syria, where Kurdish and Arab militias backed by a US-led coalition have captured swathes of its territory in the north and are assaulting its former Syrian “capital” of Raqqa.

McGurk said that about 2,000 ISIS terrorists remained in Raqqa and as much as 60 percent of the city had been retaken. The terrorist group is now falling back deeper into the Euphrates valley region of eastern Syria.

He credited the Trump administration for having accelerated gains against the militants.

“I think that’s quite significant and partially due to the fact we’re moving faster, more effectively,” as a result of Trump’s delegation of battlefield authorities to commanders in the field, McGurk said. He said this “has really made a difference on the ground. I have seen that with my own eyes.”

The ranking US Air Force officer in Iraq, Brigadier General Andrew A. Croft, said that over the past couple of months ISIS has lost much of its ability to command and control its forces.

“It’s less coordinated than it was before,” he said. “It appears more fractured — flimsy is the word I would use.”

It seems likely that in coming months Trump may be in position to declare a victory of sorts in Iraq as ISIS terrorists are marginalized and they lose their claim to be running a “caliphate” inside Iraq’s borders. Syria, on the other hand, is a murkier problem, even as ISIS loses ground there against US-supported local fighters and Russian-backed Syrian regime forces.

Mattis to Discuss Regional Challenges with Jordan’s King, Turkish President

Washington- US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will begin on Saturday a five-day trip to the Middle East and Europe to reaffirm the enduring US commitment to strategic partnerships, the Pentagon said.

Mattis will begin his engagements on Monday in Jordan by meeting with King Abdullah II and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Lt. Gen. Mahmoud Freihat.

Discussions will focus on “Jordanian efforts to combat ISIS,” it said, adding that Mattis will “reaffirm US commitment to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Jordan in facing regional and global challenges.”

“This is the secretary’s first trip to Jordan during his tenure,” the Pentagon said.

Mattis is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Wednesday to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Defense Minister Nurettin Canikli and Foreign Affairs Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu.

The defense secretary will emphasize the steadfast US commitment to Turkey as a NATO ally and strategic partner, “seek to collaborate on efforts to advance regional stability, and look for ways to help Turkey address its legitimate security concerns — including the fight against the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party],” the statement said.

Mattis concludes his trip on Thursday with his first visit to Ukraine as defense secretary.

There, he will meet with President Petro Poroshenko and Defense Minister Stepan Poltorak.

Assad Taking US Threats ‘Seriously’ as Moscow Vows ‘Appropriate Response’ to Washington

chemical

Moscow, London – Russian Foreign Sergei Lavrov announced on Wednesday that his country will respond with “dignity and in proportion” if the United States took preemptive measures against the Syrian regime forces should they launch a new chemical attack.

He hoped during a press conference with his German counterpart that Washington would not use its intelligence assessments about the regime’s intentions as a pretext to mount a “provocation” in Syria.

Meanwhile, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis stated that regime head Bashar Assad appeared so far to have heeded a warning this week from Washington not to carry out a chemical weapons attack.

The White House said on Monday it appeared the Syrian regime was preparing to conduct a such an attack and said that Assad and his forces would “pay a heavy price” if it did so.

The warning was based on intelligence that indicated preparations for such a strike were under way at Syria’s Shayrat airfield, US officials said.

The intelligence consisted of a Syrian warplane being observed moving into a hangar at the Shayrat airbase, where US and allied intelligence agencies suspect the Assad regime is hiding chemical weapons, said a second US official.

“It appears that they took the warning seriously,” Mattis said. “They didn’t do it,” he told reporters flying with him to Brussels for a meeting of NATO defense ministers.

“I think that Assad’s chemical program goes far beyond one airfield,” he said.

The Syrian regime meanwhile said the US warning was baseless, deeming it a ploy to justify a new attack on the country, state television said.

It quoted a foreign ministry source as saying Washington’s allegations about an intended attack were not only misleading but also “devoid of any truth and not based on any facts.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry had said the US statements on Syria’s chemical arsenal are an “invitation” for terrorist and extremist groups and the armed opposition to carry out “new provocative chemical attacks” to prompt Washington to retaliate against the regime.

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) is expected to issue within days the final report on the April Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack that was committed by the Syrian regime and left 74 people dead. The incident prompted the US to strike the Shayrat airbase in response.

Moscow has been insistent that a joint committee be formed to investigate the chemical attack.

The Foreign Ministry said that this committee should not only look into the Khan Sheikhoun incident, but other chemical attacks in Syria and Iraq.

Trump to Let Pentagon Set Troop Levels in Afghanistan

Trump

Kabul, London – US President Donald Trump has granted the Pentagon authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, in a a move that could lead to the deployment of thousands more soldiers.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said now he can directly adjust US troop numbers in Afghanistan.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, an official told AFP “The White House has done the same that it did with Iraq and Syria, which is to grant the secretary of defence the authority to set troop levels,” referring to recent adjustments Trump has approved for the fight against ISIS group in those two countries.

Under Barack Obama, troop levels in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria were closely managed by the White House and commanders complained they felt shackled by the strictures.

The development came just hours after Mattis gave lengthy testimony to lawmakers, some of whom were exasperated at how long it has taken for Trump to come up with a new strategy in Afghanistan.

The official said the final decision to give Mattis the power to adjust troop levels actually came during his testimony, at which he said America still is “not winning” in Afghanistan.

The “Taliban had a good year last year, they are trying to have a good one this year,” Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing about the Pentagon’s budget.

“Right now, I believe the enemy is surging.”

Mattis’ latest assessment comes nearly 16 years after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan and amid a war that continues to claim the lives of US troops each year — and those of thousands of local forces and civilians.

US military commanders have been pushing for a new strategy that could see thousands of additional soldiers deploy to Afghanistan to help train local forces.

Media reports have said Mattis is considering asking for 3,000 to 5,000 additional US and NATO troops, but the defence chief has said little on the matter.

US troops in Afghanistan number about 8,400 today, and there are another 5,000 from NATO allies, who mainly serve in a training and advisory capacity.

UN Chief Sees No Military Solution in Afghanistan as US Senators Slam Delay in Afghan Policy

Afghanistan

As insurgents are making advances on the ground in Afghanistan, United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres declared on Wednesday that there is no military solution to the conflict in the country.

He made his remarks on an unannounced visit to the war-torn country.

Guterres’ first visit as secretary general comes as the Afghan government faces internal turmoil, insurgents make gains nationwide and the international military coalition mulls plans to send thousands more troops to help struggling Afghan forces.

These combined threats have worsened the crisis for refugees and internally displaced people, forcing international bodies like the United Nations to call for emergency funding.

The crisis can only be solved by ending the war, said Guterres, standing in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Kabul that accommodates Afghans displaced by fighting.

“Peace is the solution for the problem,” said Guterres, previously a UN’ high commissioner for refugees.

At least 126,000 Afghans have been forced to flee their homes, the UN says.

More than 218,000 Afghan refugees have also returned this year from neighboring Iran and Pakistan, many citing pressure from authorities there.

The International Organization for Migration estimates that at least 600,000 refugees could return this year, piling strain on aid groups struggling to help the newly displaced.

Guterres was set to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is trying to soothe domestic political tension after recent violence in the capital, Kabul.

Ghani also hosted international delegations last week in a bid to set the stage for peace negotiations with the Taliban, which have remained stalled amid widespread fighting.

If the Taliban do not begin negotiations soon, Ghani will seek new UN sanctions against the group as a sponsor of terrorism, he told the June 6 meeting.

Any sanctions would be up to the UN Security Council, Guterres said. Afghanistan has endured too many “foreign interventions”, however, he added, urging an eventual deal to resolve the war.

Thousands of international troops remain in Afghanistan to train and assist Afghan forces, besides mounting counter-terrorism operations.

US President Donald Trump has given Defense Secretary Jim Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan, opening the door for future troop increases.

US officials, who spoke to the Associated Press on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the decision publicly before an official announcement, said the move gives Mattis the ability to adjust troop levels more quickly. Mattis can also end the current cap on Afghanistan troop levels.

On Tuesday, US senators sharply criticized Pentagon leaders for not completing a new strategy for the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan, as Mattis acknowledged that “the enemy is surging right now.”

At the Senate hearing earlier, Sen. John McCain demanded that Mattis wrap up his plan for the war, threatening that, “unless we get a strategy from you, you’re going to get a strategy from us.” He said he had expected the plan in the first 30 to 60 days of the new administration and snapped: “We want a strategy. I don’t think that’s a helluva lot to ask.”

Mattis, in response, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that he will provide details on the new strategy for the war in mid-July.

The US has about 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. Army Gen. John Nicholson, the top US commander in Afghanistan, has told Congress that he could use an infusion of US and allied troops to bolster support for the Afghan army.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon was considering a request for roughly 3,000 more troops, mainly for training and advising. That decision, however, has been stalled by the broader administration review of Afghan policy and a push for NATO to contribute more troops.

The Afghanistan war has been dragging on since October 2001, and the US-led coalition ended their combat mission against the Taliban in 2014 but they are increasingly involved in backing up Afghan forces on the battlefield.

Washington Worried about Qatar’s Behaviors, Wants to Redirect it to Right Track

Qatar

London, Washington – The White House said on Monday that US President Donald Trump is committed to working to deescalate tensions in Gulf after some countries broke ties with Qatar.

The United States does not want to see a “permanent rift” among Gulf countries, a senior US administration official said, Reuters reported.

The official, however, added: “There’s an acknowledgment that a lot of Qatari behavior is quite worrisome not just to our Gulf neighbors but to the US.”

“We want to bring them in the right direction.”

For his part, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called on Gulf states to stay united and work out their differences.

“We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences,” he said while in Sydney.

“If there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC Remain united.”

Tillerson said despite the impasse, he did not expect it to have “any significant impact, if any impact at all, on the unified fight against terrorism in the region or globally,” which was supported by US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.

Mattis, speaking alongside Tillerson in Australia, also said he doesn’t believe the rift will affect the ISIS fight.

“I am positive there will be no implications coming out of this dramatic situation at all, and I say that based on the commitment that each of these nations that you just referred to have made to this fight,” Mattis said.

Mattis also criticized Iran because of its efforts to destabilize the region, noting the Iranian support for the Head of Syrian regime and its role in the war in Yemen.

For his part, Spokesman at US Air Forces Central Command Lieutenant Colonel Damien Pickart told Reuters: “We’ve seen no impact to our operations and all flights continue as planned.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, in a phone conservation with his Qatari counterpart Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani on Monday, called for a resolution to differences between Qatar and other Arab countries through talks, the ministry said.

It also said “a serous concern has been expressed by the appearance of a new hotbed of tension within the Arab world”.

UN: Civilians Struggle with Lack of Food, Medicine in Ongoing Mosul Battle

Mosul

The United Nations expressed late on Sunday concern over the humanitarian situation of tens of thousands of civilians still caught behind ISIS lines as US-backed Iraqi government troops launched a new offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul.

Up to 200,000 civilians in Mosul’s Old City and three other districts are struggling to get food, water and medicine, UN Humanitarian Coordinator Lise Grande told Reuters.

People who had managed to get out of the militant areas “report a dramatic situation including lack of food, limited water and severe shortages of medicines,” Grande said by phone.

“We know that there have been health facilities in these areas, but we don’t know whether they are still functioning.”

On Saturday, Iraq’s army said it had launched a new offensive to take the militant zones on the western side of the Tigris river.

Progress has been slow, an Iraqi government adviser told Reuters, also late on Sunday. “The fighting is extremely intense … the presence of civilians means we have to be very cautious,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Overnight, planes dropped “thousands of leaflets on the Old Mosul, Al-Zinjili, Al-Shifaa and Al-Saha areas urging citizens to leave toward our security forces,” it said.

“We have been informed by authorities that the evacuation is not compulsory … If civilians decide to stay … they will be protected by Iraqi security forces,” said Grande.

“People who choose to flee will be directed to safe routes. The location of these will change depending on which areas are under attack and dynamics on the battlefield,” she added.

International aid organization Save the Children has said it is “deeply concerned that any calls to leave west Mosul will mean that civilians, particularly children, are in significant danger of being caught in the crossfire.”

The latest Iraqi government push is part of a broader offensive in Mosul, now in its eighth month. It has taken longer than planned as the militants are dug in among civilians, retaliating with suicide car and motorbike bombs, booby traps, snipers and mortar fire.

Its prime target is the medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque with its landmark leaning minaret in Mosul’s Old City, where ISIS’s black flag has been flying since mid-2014.

The fall of Mosul would, in effect, mark the end of the Iraqi half of the so-called “caliphate” declared nearly three years ago by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a speech at the mosque.

About 700,000 people, about a third of the pre-war city’s population, have already fled, seeking refuge either with friends and relatives or in camps.

Meanwhile, in an interview on Sunday, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said civilian casualties are inevitable in the war against ISIS, but the United States is doing “everything humanly possible” to avoid them.

Interviewed on CBS’s “Face the Nation” program, Mattis said that “civilian casualties are a fact of life in this sort of situation.”

But he quickly added that “we do everything humanly possible, consistent with military necessity, taking many chances to avoid civilian casualties — at all costs.”

Some NGOs have blamed the rising civilian death toll on a push by President Donald Trump’s administration to accelerate the pace of combat in an effort to “annihilate” the extremists.

But the Pentagon contests both the NGOs’ death counts and the charge that a new sense of urgency under Trump is to blame.

“We have not changed the rules of engagement,” Mattis said. “There is no relaxation of our intention to protect the innocent.”