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Leader of Chemical Weapons Panel Is Not Optimistic About Its Future

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Edmond Mulet, a veteran United Nations diplomat, seen in Haiti in 2011. He leads the panel investigating chemical weapons use in Syria, and its mandate expires next week. Credit Allison Shelley/Getty Images

The leader of the United Nations investigative panel that has found that Syria used chemical weapons expressed pessimism on Wednesday about his panel’s future, and he said Russian diplomats had warned him regularly that the Kremlin was prepared to reject its findings.

In an interview, the panel’s leader, Edmond Mulet, a veteran United Nations diplomat, also said he was mystified as to why the Russians had tenaciously defended the Syrian government when, in his view, the proof of its chemical weapons attacks was overwhelming.

“I didn’t know what the conclusions would be of our investigations,” Mr. Mulet said. “Maybe they knew, and so they were preparing the ground for this already.”

The panel’s mandate from the United Nations Security Council expires in just over a week, with no clear sign it will be renewed.

On Tuesday, the panel’s latest findings — that Syrian forces were responsible for a lethal assault using sarin nerve agent on the village of Khan Sheikhoun this past April 4 — were rejected by Russian and Syrian diplomats at a Security Council meeting.

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Russia’s deputy permanent representative, Vladimir Safronkov, ridiculed Mr. Mulet in his objections to the findings, which were based on witness interviews, photographs, videos and chemical analysis of soil samples that the Syrian government had provided.

Mr. Mulet said he had not been surprised by the criticism, given what he described as Russia’s protests of the panel’s research methods in the months leading up to the report.

He said Russian diplomats would tell him how the panel should operate, warning him that “if you don’t do it this way, we will not accept your conclusions.”

Messages left with the press office of Russia’s United Nations Mission for comment on Mr. Mulet’s assertions were not immediately returned.

The 26-member panel, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, also has found that Syrian forces used chlorine bombs in the conflict, and that Islamic State militants have used mustard poison.

But the Khan Sheikhoun finding was the first by an independent investigative panel to blame Syrian forces for an attack using sarin, a lethal nerve agent that had once been stockpiled by President Bashar-al Assad of Syria. He was thought to have purged the stockpile under Russian and American pressure after Syria joined the treaty that bans chemical weapons in 2013.

Mr. Mulet’s panel was formed two years later to determine who was still using chemical weapons in the Syria conflict. The panel is a collaboration of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a group based at The Hague that monitors compliance with the treaty.

The use of chemical weapons is a war crime, and the pattern of chemical attacks in Syria, with no accountability so far, has raised alarms that a major 20th-century advance in eliminating such weapons has been weakened.

Mr. Mulet said the Russian objections to his panel’s work appeared to reflect a larger calculation by the Kremlin that Mr. Assad’s legitimacy as the leader of the Syrian government must be insulated from Western subversion.

“They’re very protective of Assad, of the structure there,” he said, “so anything that could really dent Assad in any way, they’re trying to cover up, protect, defend and justify — which on the chemical weapons file, I find it indefensible.”

Russia vetoed an American resolution at the Security Council last month to extend by one year the panel’s mandate, which expires on Nov. 16.

After the panel’s Khan Sheikhoun report came out a few days later, Russia circulated a Security Council draft resolution that the panel’s findings were flawed and needed further research, and proposed extending its mandate for six months.

The United States has offered a rival resolution that accepted the findings and would extend the panel’s mandate for 18 months.

Most members of the Security Council appear to support the American resolution, but it risks a Russian veto.

Mr. Mulet said his panel, facing possible dissolution in a matter of days, was already winding down its other investigations.

“The two draft resolutions are so far apart,” he said. “So in a week to bring that together, I don’t know. We would need a miracle.”

As for his own tensions with the Russians, he said, “I’m sure they would be extremely pleased if someone else took over.”

Continue reading the main story

The leader of the United Nations investigative panel that has found that Syria used chemical weapons expressed pessimism on Wednesday about his panel’s future, and he said Russian diplomats had warned him regularly that the Kremlin was prepared to reject its findings.

In an interview, the panel’s leader, Edmond Mulet, a veteran United Nations diplomat, also said he was mystified as to why the Russians had tenaciously defended the Syrian government when, in his view, the proof of its chemical weapons attacks was overwhelming.

“I didn’t know what the conclusions would be of our investigations,” Mr. Mulet said. “Maybe they knew, and so they were preparing the ground for this already.”

The panel’s mandate from the United Nations Security Council expires in just over a week, with no clear sign it will be renewed.

On Tuesday, the panel’s latest findings — that Syrian forces were responsible for a lethal assault using sarin nerve agent on the village of Khan Sheikhoun this past April 4 — were rejected by Russian and Syrian diplomats at a Security Council meeting.

Russia’s deputy permanent representative, Vladimir Safronkov, ridiculed Mr. Mulet in his objections to the findings, which were based on witness interviews, photographs, videos and chemical analysis of soil samples that the Syrian government had provided.

Mr. Mulet said he had not been surprised by the criticism, given what he described as Russia’s protests of the panel’s research methods in the months leading up to the report.

He said Russian diplomats would tell him how the panel should operate, warning him that “if you don’t do it this way, we will not accept your conclusions.”

Messages left with the press office of Russia’s United Nations Mission for comment on Mr. Mulet’s assertions were not immediately returned.

The 26-member panel, known as the Joint Investigative Mechanism, also has found that Syrian forces used chlorine bombs in the conflict, and that Islamic State militants have used mustard poison.

But the Khan Sheikhoun finding was the first by an independent investigative panel to blame Syrian forces for an attack using sarin, a lethal nerve agent that had once been stockpiled by President Bashar-al Assad of Syria. He was thought to have purged the stockpile under Russian and American pressure after Syria joined the treaty that bans chemical weapons in 2013.

Mr. Mulet’s panel was formed two years later to determine who was still using chemical weapons in the Syria conflict. The panel is a collaboration of the United Nations and the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, a group based at The Hague that monitors compliance with the treaty.

The use of chemical weapons is a war crime, and the pattern of chemical attacks in Syria, with no accountability so far, has raised alarms that a major 20th-century advance in eliminating such weapons has been weakened.

Mr. Mulet said the Russian objections to his panel’s work appeared to reflect a larger calculation by the Kremlin that Mr. Assad’s legitimacy as the leader of the Syrian government must be insulated from Western subversion.

“They’re very protective of Assad, of the structure there,” he said, “so anything that could really dent Assad in any way, they’re trying to cover up, protect, defend and justify — which on the chemical weapons file, I find it indefensible.”

Russia vetoed an American resolution at the Security Council last month to extend by one year the panel’s mandate, which expires on Nov. 16.

After the panel’s Khan Sheikhoun report came out a few days later, Russia circulated a Security Council draft resolution that the panel’s findings were flawed and needed further research, and proposed extending its mandate for six months.

The United States has offered a rival resolution that accepted the findings and would extend the panel’s mandate for 18 months.

Most members of the Security Council appear to support the American resolution, but it risks a Russian veto.

Mr. Mulet said his panel, facing possible dissolution in a matter of days, was already winding down its other investigations.

“The two draft resolutions are so far apart,” he said. “So in a week to bring that together, I don’t know. We would need a miracle.”

As for his own tensions with the Russians, he said, “I’m sure they would be extremely pleased if someone else took over.”

Nytimes

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Syria

Mixed Messages From U.S. as Turkey Attacks Syrian Kurds

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Turkish soldiers around the area of Mount Bersaya, north of the Syrian town of Azaz, on Tuesday. Credit Saleh Abo Ghaloun/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

WASHINGTON — The White House sent out a message aimed at mollifying Turkey’s president on Tuesday, suggesting that the United States was easing off its support for the Syrian Kurds.

That message was quickly contradicted by the Pentagon, which said it would continue to stand by the Kurds, even as Turkey invaded their stronghold in northwestern Syria.

The conflicting statements appeared to reflect an effort by the administration to balance competing pressures. Turkey, which has been furious over American support for the Kurds, is a NATO ally, while the Kurds have been critical American partners in the war against the Islamic State.

For its part, the White House disavowed a plan by the American military to create a Kurdish-led force in northeastern Syria, which Turkey has vehemently opposed. Turkey, which considers the Kurdish militia a terrorist organization, fears the plan would cement a Kurdish enclave along its southern frontier.

That plan, a senior administration official said Tuesday, originated with midlevel military planners in the field, and was never seriously debated, or even formally introduced, at senior levels in the White House or the National Security Council.

Continue reading the main story

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be identified, also said that the United States had no connection to the Kurds in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin, where the Turkish military has launched an invasion in recent days.

And he drew a distinction between allies — a term he said had legal connotations — and partners in a combat mission, like the Kurds. America’s actions on the ground in Syria, he said, would be driven by a calculation of its interests.

Taken together, the administration’s statements appeared to be a significant attempt to reassure Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers the Kurds a threat to his country’s internal stability.

But the Pentagon issued its own statement on Tuesday standing by its decision to create the Kurdish-led force. And a senior American commander praised the partnership with the Kurds, whose help was critical in a major American airstrike on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, over the weekend.

“U.S. forces are training local partners to serve as a force that is internally focused on stability and deterring ISIS,” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said in the statement. “These local security forces are aimed at preventing the potential outflow of fleeing ISIS terrorists as their physical presence in Syria nears its end and pending a longer-term settlement of the civil war in Syria to ensure that ISIS cannot escape or return.”

The Pentagon has engaged in a rebranding effort, however, as the force was initially described as a border force, leading Turkey to fear the presence of thousands of American-backed, Kurdish troops on its border. Military officials are now saying that its duties will be mainly internal.

The debate over the partnership with the Kurds is taking place as the Kurds continue to play a major role fighting alongside the Americans in Syria.

The military’s Central Command said Tuesday that about 150 Islamic State fighters were killed in American airstrikes near As Shafah, Syria, on Saturday, in one the largest strikes against ISIS in the past year. The Kurdish-led militia, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., helped guide the airstrikes, American officials said.

“The strikes underscore our assertion that the fight to liberate Syria is far from over,” Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, the commander of Special Operations forces in Iraq and Syria, said a statement. “Our S.D.F. partners are still making daily progress and sacrifices, and together we are still finding, targeting and killing ISIS terrorists intent on keeping their extremist hold on the region.”

Senior Pentagon officials and American commanders say that the Syrian Kurds will most likely serve as the backbone of the allied forces on the ground in Syria for months to come.

Echoing earlier comments by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the commander of the United States Central Command, General Joseph L. Votel, said in an interview last month that American forces would remain in eastern Syria, alongside their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies, as long as needed to defeat the Islamic State.

Photo
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey was among those at the funeral of a soldier killed in the country’s operation in Syria. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“What we don’t want to do is leave a mess,” General Votel said, something “worse than what we found.”

Coalition forces are attacking the last remnants of the Islamic State in the Euphrates River valley of Syria, near the Iraqi border. But as that campaign begins to wane, the American partnership with the Kurds is bringing it into ever-more-direct conflict with Turkey.

While the Turkish military incursion into Afrin has seized the world’s attention, American, NATO and Turkish officials have directed their eyes east, to the strategic city of Manbij.

Home to a contingent of United States Special Operations troops who are training and equipping Kurdish forces that control the city, Manbij is increasingly emerging as the ultimate target of the Turkish operation and a far more serious source of tension than the Afrin offensive.

A Turkish assault on Manbij could bring its forces into direct conflict with the Americans, with unpredictable results.

“It may bring a direct military confrontation, as American forces are there,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The death of even one American soldier may completely break ties.”

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, raised Manbij when briefing Turkish journalists on Tuesday morning, having met the day before with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in France.

“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” Mr. Cavusoglu said. “If the United States doesn’t stop this, we will stop it.

Mr. Tillerson said the United States would keep working with Turkey to stabilize the situation and address its security concerns.

The level of concern about Turkish-American relations was reflected in the flurry of meetings this week between officials of the two countries.

American officials, led by the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Jonathan R. Cohen, flew to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, for meetings scheduled for Wednesday, including with security officials. They were joined there by Rose Gottemoeller, the deputy secretary general of NATO, who was in Turkey for a planned, two-day visit.

In an interview with the NTV news channel, Ms. Gotemoeller treaded carefully, saying that “Turkey has legitimate reasons to be concerned about the Kurdish armed organizations in Syria,” but adding that “one should keep a balance between the threat and the reaction to it.”

Turkey has long complained about American support for Syrian Kurdish militias, which it says have emboldened the Kurdish separatist movement that Ankara considers a threat to its territorial sovereignty and is prepared to go to great lengths to counteract. Turkish officials say that this has allowed weapons and support to reach the outlawed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe and has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Turkey, which shares a long border with Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria, has been particularly incensed by the Kurdish militias’ seizure of Arab villages and towns in the area.

Manbij is in many respects the gateway to those areas, a regional center some miles west of the Euphrates. It is now under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and has been since last August, when it expelled the Islamic State.

Robert S. Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former Ambassador to Syria, wrote in an analytical column that Turkey’s military operations in Syria demonstrated the difficulties of the American position. Turkey’s brushoff of American concerns made the United States look weak, Mr. Ford wrote, adding that some Kurdish observers were accusing America of being an unreliable ally.

“Over the longer term, it is hard to see how the U.S. will secure its stated political goal of stabilization in eastern Syria and genuine governance reforms in Syria,” he wrote.

Continue reading the main story

WASHINGTON — The White House sent out a message aimed at mollifying Turkey’s president on Tuesday, suggesting that the United States was easing off its support for the Syrian Kurds.

That message was quickly contradicted by the Pentagon, which said it would continue to stand by the Kurds, even as Turkey invaded their stronghold in northwestern Syria.

The conflicting statements appeared to reflect an effort by the administration to balance competing pressures. Turkey, which has been furious over American support for the Kurds, is a NATO ally, while the Kurds have been critical American partners in the war against the Islamic State.

For its part, the White House disavowed a plan by the American military to create a Kurdish-led force in northeastern Syria, which Turkey has vehemently opposed. Turkey, which considers the Kurdish militia a terrorist organization, fears the plan would cement a Kurdish enclave along its southern frontier.

That plan, a senior administration official said Tuesday, originated with midlevel military planners in the field, and was never seriously debated, or even formally introduced, at senior levels in the White House or the National Security Council.

The official, who spoke to reporters on condition that he not be identified, also said that the United States had no connection to the Kurds in the northwestern Syrian city of Afrin, where the Turkish military has launched an invasion in recent days.

And he drew a distinction between allies — a term he said had legal connotations — and partners in a combat mission, like the Kurds. America’s actions on the ground in Syria, he said, would be driven by a calculation of its interests.

Taken together, the administration’s statements appeared to be a significant attempt to reassure Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who considers the Kurds a threat to his country’s internal stability.

But the Pentagon issued its own statement on Tuesday standing by its decision to create the Kurdish-led force. And a senior American commander praised the partnership with the Kurds, whose help was critical in a major American airstrike on the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, over the weekend.

“U.S. forces are training local partners to serve as a force that is internally focused on stability and deterring ISIS,” Maj. Adrian Rankine-Galloway, a Pentagon spokesman, said in the statement. “These local security forces are aimed at preventing the potential outflow of fleeing ISIS terrorists as their physical presence in Syria nears its end and pending a longer-term settlement of the civil war in Syria to ensure that ISIS cannot escape or return.”

The Pentagon has engaged in a rebranding effort, however, as the force was initially described as a border force, leading Turkey to fear the presence of thousands of American-backed, Kurdish troops on its border. Military officials are now saying that its duties will be mainly internal.

The debate over the partnership with the Kurds is taking place as the Kurds continue to play a major role fighting alongside the Americans in Syria.

The military’s Central Command said Tuesday that about 150 Islamic State fighters were killed in American airstrikes near As Shafah, Syria, on Saturday, in one the largest strikes against ISIS in the past year. The Kurdish-led militia, called the Syrian Democratic Forces, or S.D.F., helped guide the airstrikes, American officials said.

“The strikes underscore our assertion that the fight to liberate Syria is far from over,” Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, the commander of Special Operations forces in Iraq and Syria, said a statement. “Our S.D.F. partners are still making daily progress and sacrifices, and together we are still finding, targeting and killing ISIS terrorists intent on keeping their extremist hold on the region.”

Senior Pentagon officials and American commanders say that the Syrian Kurds will most likely serve as the backbone of the allied forces on the ground in Syria for months to come.

Echoing earlier comments by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the commander of the United States Central Command, General Joseph L. Votel, said in an interview last month that American forces would remain in eastern Syria, alongside their Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies, as long as needed to defeat the Islamic State.

“What we don’t want to do is leave a mess,” General Votel said, something “worse than what we found.”

Coalition forces are attacking the last remnants of the Islamic State in the Euphrates River valley of Syria, near the Iraqi border. But as that campaign begins to wane, the American partnership with the Kurds is bringing it into ever-more-direct conflict with Turkey.

While the Turkish military incursion into Afrin has seized the world’s attention, American, NATO and Turkish officials have directed their eyes east, to the strategic city of Manbij.

Home to a contingent of United States Special Operations troops who are training and equipping Kurdish forces that control the city, Manbij is increasingly emerging as the ultimate target of the Turkish operation and a far more serious source of tension than the Afrin offensive.

A Turkish assault on Manbij could bring its forces into direct conflict with the Americans, with unpredictable results.

“It may bring a direct military confrontation, as American forces are there,” said Gonul Tol, director of the Center for Turkish Studies at the Middle East Institute in Washington. “The death of even one American soldier may completely break ties.”

Turkey’s foreign minister, Mevlut Cavusoglu, raised Manbij when briefing Turkish journalists on Tuesday morning, having met the day before with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson in France.

“Terrorists in Manbij are constantly firing provocation shots,” Mr. Cavusoglu said. “If the United States doesn’t stop this, we will stop it.

Mr. Tillerson said the United States would keep working with Turkey to stabilize the situation and address its security concerns.

The level of concern about Turkish-American relations was reflected in the flurry of meetings this week between officials of the two countries.

American officials, led by the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, Jonathan R. Cohen, flew to Ankara, Turkey’s capital, for meetings scheduled for Wednesday, including with security officials. They were joined there by Rose Gottemoeller, the deputy secretary general of NATO, who was in Turkey for a planned, two-day visit.

In an interview with the NTV news channel, Ms. Gotemoeller treaded carefully, saying that “Turkey has legitimate reasons to be concerned about the Kurdish armed organizations in Syria,” but adding that “one should keep a balance between the threat and the reaction to it.”

Turkey has long complained about American support for Syrian Kurdish militias, which it says have emboldened the Kurdish separatist movement that Ankara considers a threat to its territorial sovereignty and is prepared to go to great lengths to counteract. Turkish officials say that this has allowed weapons and support to reach the outlawed the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and Europe and has waged a decades-long insurgency in Turkey.

Turkey, which shares a long border with Kurdish-controlled areas of northeastern Syria, has been particularly incensed by the Kurdish militias’ seizure of Arab villages and towns in the area.

Manbij is in many respects the gateway to those areas, a regional center some miles west of the Euphrates. It is now under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, and has been since last August, when it expelled the Islamic State.

Robert S. Ford, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former Ambassador to Syria, wrote in an analytical column that Turkey’s military operations in Syria demonstrated the difficulties of the American position. Turkey’s brushoff of American concerns made the United States look weak, Mr. Ford wrote, adding that some Kurdish observers were accusing America of being an unreliable ally.

“Over the longer term, it is hard to see how the U.S. will secure its stated political goal of stabilization in eastern Syria and genuine governance reforms in Syria,” he wrote.

Nytimes

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Syria

US chemical blame-game: Well-timed PR stunt or trick to justify military presence in Syria?

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Syria

US rejects Moscow-proposed UN mechanism to probe Syria chemical attacks based on facts

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