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Trump official vows Syria pullout won’t impact Iran

White House adviser Brian Hook defends president’s decision to abandon Kurdish allies amid growing GOP criticism

  • US President Donald Trump meets with Italian President Sergio Mattarella (not pictured) in the Oval Office of  the White House in Washington, DC, on October 16, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
    US President Donald Trump meets with Italian President Sergio Mattarella (not pictured) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 16, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)
  • This picture taken on October 16, 2019 from the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa shows smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the eighth day of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish forces. (Ozan KOSE / AFP)
    This picture taken on October 16, 2019 from the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa shows smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the eighth day of Turkey's military operation against Kurdish forces. (Ozan KOSE / AFP)
  • Kurdish civilians flee the town of Kobane on the Turkish border on October 16, 2019 as Turkey continues its assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria. (Bakr Alkasem/AFP)
    Kurdish civilians flee the town of Kobane on the Turkish border on October 16, 2019 as Turkey continues its assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria. (Bakr Alkasem/AFP)
  • A convoy of pickup trucks transports Turkey-backed Syrian fighters on the road between Tal Abyad and Kobane on October 16, 2019 as Turkey continues its assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria. (Bakr ALKASEM / AFP)
    A convoy of pickup trucks transports Turkey-backed Syrian fighters on the road between Tal Abyad and Kobane on October 16, 2019 as Turkey continues its assault on Kurdish-held border towns in northeastern Syria. (Bakr ALKASEM / AFP)
  • Workers set tents in preparation to receive Syrian refugees who have been newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, at the Bardarash camp, near the city of Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on October 16, 2019. (SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
    Workers set tents in preparation to receive Syrian refugees who have been newly displaced by the Turkish military operation in northeastern Syria, at the Bardarash camp, near the city of Dohuk, in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region, on October 16, 2019. (SAFIN HAMED / AFP)
  • President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and leader of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party addresses party members during a party meeting at the Turkish National Assembly in Ankara, on October 16, 2019. (Adem ALTAN / AFP)
    President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and leader of the ruling Justice and Development (AK) Party addresses party members during a party meeting at the Turkish National Assembly in Ankara, on October 16, 2019. (Adem ALTAN / AFP)
  • Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters fire a heavy machine-gun towards Kurdish fighters, in Syria's northern region of Manbij, October 14, 2019. (AP Photo)
    Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters fire a heavy machine-gun towards Kurdish fighters, in Syria's northern region of Manbij, October 14, 2019. (AP Photo)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they unfolded.

IDF chief to update Gantz on regional ‘security challenges’

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz and IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi will meet later today to discuss “security challenges and regional developments,” according to a statement from the army.

The statement says that Gantz, who is Kohavi’s predecessor, requested the meeting, which was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is also defense minister.

The meeting comes a week after Turkey launched a military operation in northeast Syria after US President Donald Trump withdrew American troops from Kurdish areas. The US pullback from northeastern Syria, essentially abandoning its Kurdish allies, has sparked deep concern in Israel, where there are growing fears that Iran could be emboldened by what appears to be an increasingly hands-off American policy in the region.

Turkey’s Erdogan rules out talks with Syrian Kurdish forces

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan firmly rules out any negotiations with Kurdish militants in Syria, saying their only option was to lay down arms and retreat.

He dismisses calls from foreign powers, including the United States, who have demanded a ceasefire in Turkey’s week-old operation in northern Syria.

“There are some leaders who are trying to mediate… There has never been any such thing in the history of the Turkish republic as the state sitting at the same table with a terror organization,” Erdogan says in a speech to parliament.

“Our proposal is that right now, tonight, all the terrorists lay down their arms, their equipment and everything, destroy all their traps and get out of the safe zone that we have designated,” he says, adding that this was “the quickest way of solving the problem in Syria.”

— AFP

Kremlin recognizes Turkey’s right to ‘security’

The Kremlin says it expects Turkey’s military action in Syria to be proportionate to its declared goal.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov says that Russia respects “Turkey’s right to take measures to ensure its security” but also expects it to be “proportionate to the task.” He declines to comment on how long Moscow believes the Turkish offensive should last.

Russia moved quickly to fill the void left by the US troops’ withdrawal from northern Syria yesterday, deploying its military to act as a buffer as Syrian government forces moved north under a deal with the Kurds, who have sought protection from the Turkish offensive.

In yesterday’s call, Russian President Vladimir Putin invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to visit Russia to discuss Syria.

— AP

Gazans call on Saudi Arabia to free imprisoned relatives

Several families of Palestinian detainees imprisoned by Saudi Arabia are holding a rare protest in Gaza and are calling on Riyadh to free them.

The families are gathered outside the International Committee of the Red Cross office in Gaza City, holding banners against the detention and calling for an end to their “torture” in Saudi prisons.

Most of the nearly 50 detainees are believed to be affiliated with Hamas, the Islamic terrorist group that controls Gaza.

Hamas says Saudi authorities intensified a crackdown on the Islamist group’s supporters in the kingdom this year. It apparently came as Hamas announced it has fully restored ties with Iran, Riyadh’s archrival in the region.

Hamas says Saudi Arabia arrested the Palestinians for collecting donations for Palestinian charities, not on security charges.

— with AP

Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s offer to plead guilty rejected by prosecutors

Lawyers for the man accused of shooting to death 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year say in a filing that the case would be over if federal prosecutors had accepted his offer to plead guilty in return for life-without-parole.

Lawyers for Tree of Life shooting defendant Robert Bowers made the statement yesterday in a response to prosecutors’ proposal to start trial in mid-September 2020.

Driver’s License photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers. (Pennsylvania DOT)

“Against the hazards of a September-October 2020 trial, the government invokes the rights of crimes victims to be free from unreasonable delay,” Bowers’ lawyers said. “The court’s view of this invocation of rights should be informed by the fact that this case would already be over — and interests in a speedy resolution vindicated — had the government accepted the defendant’s offer to plead guilty as charged and be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.”

Bowers’ attorneys told a judge in May that he wanted to plead guilty in return for a life sentence.

The US attorney’s office in Pittsburgh notified the court in August it is pursuing the death penalty against Bowers, 47, for what was the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.

Police say Bowers expressed hatred of Jews during and after the October 2018 rampage.

— AP

UN envoy calls on Turks, Kurds to cease fighting

The UN Special Envoy for Syria says there must be a cessation of hostilities between Turkish troops and Kurdish fighters as the world is “extremely alarmed by the humanitarian consequences of the crisis.”

Geir Pedersen speaks to reporters after meeting with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem saying that he wants to make sure that the fighting in the north is not threatening “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of Syria.”

Pedersen says there is only a political solution also to the crisis in the northeast and “we are appealing on all parties to participate in this.”

Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters fire a heavy machine-gun towards Kurdish fighters, in Syria’s northern region of Manbij, October 14, 2019. (AP Photo)

The UN envoy said he is very optimistic that the committee that will draft a new constitution for Syria will start meeting at the end of the month.

He says it will work “as a door opener for the broader political process that is necessary to find a solution for the crisis in Syria.”

— AP

Erdogan refuses to meet Pence, Pompeo to discuss Syria offensive

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he won’t meet with US Vice President Mike Pence during his visit to Ankara to discuss Turkey’s military operation in Syria.

“I am standing tall. I will not meet with them,” he tells Sky News, referring to Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

“They will meet with their counterparts. I will speak when Trump comes,” he says.

— AFP

US charges Turkish bank with evading Iran sanctions

The United States criminally charges a major Turkish bank with helping to evade sanctions against Iran, potentially raising diplomatic tensions as the US tries to contain Turkey’s military offensive in Syria.

The charges against Halkbank, a state-owned bank, are announced years after a wealthy gold trader was arrested in Florida. Before pleading guilty and testifying against a co-defendant, the Turkish-Iranian businessman, Reza Zarrab, hired Rudy Giuliani to lobby the administration of US President Donald Trump to drop the charges as part of a prisoner exchange.

In a release, US Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman said senior officials at Halkbank had designed and carried out the scheme to move billions of dollars of Iranian oil revenue illegally.

People walk by a branch of the Turkish bank Halkbank in Istanbul on December 1, 2017. (AFP Photo/Ozan Kose)

The timing of the charges could be significant as the Trump administration tries to press Turkey to limit its military incursions in Syria, a move Trump himself allowed by declaring US troops would be withdrawn.

The US imposed limited sanctions on Turkey this week and has threatened more. While the charges against Halkbank are not related, they could give the US leverage as Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser Robert O’Brien travel to Turkey today.

— AP

Egypt says archaeologists uncovered 20 ancient coffins in Luxor

Egypt’s Antiquities Ministry says archaeologists have uncovered at least 20 ancient wooden coffins in the southern city of Luxor.

A brief statement from the ministry says archaeologists found the coffins in the Asasif Necropolis. The necropolis, located in the ancient town of West Thebes, includes tombs dating back to the Middle, New Kingdom and the Late Periods (1994 BC to 332 BC).

Photos from the ministry show colored coffins with inscriptions and paintings. The ministry described it as one of the “biggest and most important” discoveries in recent years.

The ministry says it will release further details at a news conference on Saturday.

Egypt has sought publicity for its archaeological discoveries in the hopes of reviving its tourism sector, which was badly hit by the turmoil following the 2011 uprising.

— AP

Second French academic detained in Iran since June

The Iranian government has been holding a second French researcher in custody for the past four months, according to his colleagues.

Roland Marchal, a sub-Saharan Africa specialist at Paris university Sciences Po, was arrested in June when he traveled to Iran to visit his partner, Fariba Adelkhah, according to Sciences Po professor Richard Banegas.

Iranian authorities disclosed in July that they had arrested Adelkhah, a prominent anthropologist who holds dual French-Iranian nationality, on charges that have not been made public.

There was no immediate acknowledgement of Marchal’s arrest in Iranian state media.

It’s unclear exactly what charges Marchal faces, but Banegas told The Associated Press that he and his colleagues consider him “an academic prisoner.”

The French Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

— AP

Pence will go to Ankara despite Erdogan snub

Vice President Mike Pence will travel to Turkey later today as scheduled even though President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says he will not meet with him, according to spokeswoman for Pence.

“The vice president is traveling to Turkey today,” spokeswoman Katie Waldman says.

The White House had hoped Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would meet with Erdogan tomorrow to demand a ceasefire in Turkey’s assault on Kurdish forces in northeastern Syria.

— AFP

Cars in Palestinian village vandalized in apparent hate crime

Half a dozen cars in a Palestinian village outside Ramallah were vandalized early this morning in an apparent anti-Arab hate crime.

Residents of Deir Ammar say they discovered six vehicles with punctured tires, spray-painted Stars of David, and Hebrew graffiti that read: “When brothers are murdered, our duty is not to forget.”

Police say they are investigating the incident.

Turkish presidency says Erdogan will meet Pence after all

Despite an earlier statement by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan that he would not meet visiting US Vice President Mike Pence, his office says the meeting will go ahead after all.

“Earlier today, the President told @SkyNews that he won’t receive a US delegation that is visiting Ankara today. He does plan to meet the US delegation led by @VP (Pence),” Erdogan’s communications director Fahrettin Altun posts on Twitter.

— AFP

Alleged IS recruit who enslaved Yazidis goes on trial in Germany

A German-Algerian woman accused of membership of the Islamic State group and keeping three captive Yazidi women as slaves in Syria has gone on trial in Germany.

Proceedings against the 21-year-old, identified only as Sarah O. in line with German privacy rules, opens at the Duesseldorf state court.

News agency dpa reported that judge Lars Bachler ruled that the proceedings should be closed to the public because the defendant was aged between 16 and 19 at the time of the alleged crimes.

Prosecutors say she traveled to Syria as a teenager in 2013, joined IS and married a fellow German IS recruit. Both allegedly conducted “guard and police duties” in IS-controlled areas, and also forced a Yazidi girl and two Yazidi women to work in their household.

— AP

Jordan calls on Israel to release jailed woman on hunger strike

Jordan is calling on Israel to release a Jordanian woman detained for over a month without trial on security charges.

Heba al-Labadi’s attorney said Wednesday that she was arrested August 20 at the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the Israeli-controlled West Bank and has been on a hunger strike since September 26.

Al-Labadi, 32, who is of Palestinian descent, is being held in “administrative detention,” an Israeli policy that permits detaining people for months without formal charges.

Heba al-Labadi in an undated photo (Courtesy)

The Shin Bet internal security agency says she is detained “because of suspicion of her involvement in serious security violations,” without elaborating.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry says the hunger strike “makes the need for her immediate release more urgent.”

—  with AP

Turkey FM vows to retaliate for sanctions linked to Syria invasion

Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says Turkey won’t be affected by “sanctions and threats” against Turkey over its military incursion into northeast Syria.

In a speech to Parliament, Cavusoglu also says that Turkey will retaliate against sanctions imposed on the country.

Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu speaks to a journalist at the parliament in Ankara on December 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Burhan Ozbilici)

He says: “No sanctions or threats are acceptable and will not affect our resolve.”

“We will give the appropriate answer to these sanctions. We will take the necessary steps,” he adds.

The United States has announced a limited set of sanctions on Turkey and US President Donald Trump warned he could obliterate Turkey’s economy.

— AP

Turkey’s Halkbank says US sanctions case punishment for Syria operation

Turkey’s state-run Halkbank denies any wrongdoing after US prosecutors charged it with a scheme to evade sanctions on Iran, saying the case was introduced to punish Turkey for its military operation in Syria.

The US Department of Justice said it had charged the bank with six counts of fraud, money laundering, and sanctions offenses — arguing Halkbank was guilty of “illegally giving Iran access to billions of dollars’ worth of funds.”

US prosecutors say Halkbank was involved in a massive gold-for-oil scheme that allowed around $20 billion of illegal Iranian money to be deposited with it between 2012 and 2016.

The logo of the Turkish Halkbank in Istanbul. (AFP PHOTO / OZAN KOSE)

The charges “were filed as part of the sanctions introduced against our country by the US government in response to Operation Peace Spring, heroically launched by the Turkish Army to secure our borders and establish peace in the region,” Halkbank says in a statement.

Halkbank says the case “relies heavily on unreliable testimony from witnesses who lack the necessary credibility” and that prosecutors had ignored evidence and witnesses proposed by the bank.

The case comes at an extremely sensitive time between Washington and Ankara, with the US slapping sanctions on Turkey on Monday over its military offensive against Kurdish fighters in northeastern Syria.

— AP

EU says sharp rise in number of migrants crossing from Turkey

The European Union border agency Frontex says the number of people trying to enter Europe from Turkey without authorization rose sharply last month.

Frontex released new statistics Wednesday showing that more than 11,500 attempts to enter the EU via the eastern Mediterranean Sea were recorded in September, up 16% from the month of August.

Migrants with a child, helped by rescuers arrive on the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey, on September 16, 2019. (ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

It says most attempts were made by Afghans, and that two-thirds of all people trying to enter the EU in September came in via the east.

Greece’s eastern islands are struggling to cope with a surge in arrivals of migrants and asylum-seekers that has undermined efforts to ease severe overcrowding at refugee camps.

Frontex says it detected almost 50,600 border crossing attempts in the eastern Mediterranean in the first nine months of this year, up 22% from last year.

— AP

Teen struck by lightning yesterday dies of injuries

Asher Hazut, the 14-year-old boy who was badly injured after being struck by lightning on Zikim beach yesterday succumbed to his injuries, according to the Barzilai Medical Center.

Asher Hazut. (Courtesy)

A Barzilai spokesperson says four other members of the Hazut family remain hospitalized; three in moderate condition and one in serious condition.

The family was visiting Zikim beach yesterday afternoon when a powerful lightning storm rolled in. Eyewitnesses said it looked like the five touched a piece of metal equipment on the beach just as it was struck by lightning.

Trump says US troops ‘largely out’ of Syria region

President Donald Trump says US troops are “largely out” of a region of Syria where Turkish forces are attacking Kurdish fighters.

Turkey launched a military operation against Kurdish fighters allied with the US after Trump pulled troops from the region this month. As he met Wednesday with Italy’s president, Trump says: “If Syria wants to fight to take back their land, that’s up to them and Turkey.”

Trump adds: “There’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

But as Trump defends removing troops from northeastern Syria, he’s talking up his recent decision to send more troops to Saudi Arabia to help the kingdom defend against Iran.

Trump says the US is sending missiles and “great power” to the Saudis, and adds: “They’re paying for that.”

–AP

Abbas thanks Saudi king for support during visit to Riyadh

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met Saudi King Salman in Riyadh and thanked him for “the kingdom’s supportive positions of the Palestinian people on all levels,” the official PA news site Wafa reports.

The PA president also told Salman that Palestinian people stand with Saudi Arabia in “its fight against the terrorism its being subjected to,” the Wafa report adds.

Abbas arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday, where he watched the first-ever match between the Saudi and Palestinian national soccer teams in the West Bank.

Pompeo to visit Israel Thursday for Syria talks — report

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to arrive in Jerusalem Thursday for talks with Israeli officials on Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish fighters in the wake of President Trump pulling troops from northeastern Syria, according to the Axios news site.

Pompeo’s visit will come a day after a trip to Ankara, where he and Vice President Mike Pence are set to discuss the military operation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

According to the report, Pompeo will brief Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on their talks with the Turkish leader.

Trump disparages Kurds, says they’re ‘not angels’

US President Donald Trump disparages the Kurds, saying the US allies in the war against Islamic State in Syria “are not angels.”

Trump, who has come under intense criticism for abandoning the Kurds in the face of a Turkish offensive in northern Syria, tells reporters at the White House that “the Kurds are very well protected.”

“By the way, they are not angels,” he adds.

US President Donald Trump speaks during a meeting with Italian President Sergio Mattarella in the Oval Office of the White House, October 15, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Trump says the Turkish invasion of northeastern Syria is “not our problem,” and says that the Assad regime will protect the Kurds after he abruptly withdrew US forces from the Turkish border area.

The president says the Kurds and Turkey have “got to work it out,” and describes the US military withdrawal that he ordered as “strategically brilliant.”

— with agencies

Former governor stands by tweet comparing Trump to Hitler

Former New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman says she stands by a tweet she deleted in which she compared President Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler.

The Republican tweeted Hitler “has nothing on” Trump.

Whitman’s tweet was in response to reports that a violent parody video depicting a likeness of Trump shooting and stabbing opponents and members of the media was played during a conference at his Miami golf resort.

Whitman tells WNBC-TV in New York the comparison was “inflammatory” but she hoped the shock value would make people realize the severity of the situation.

Whitman, who also served as administrator of the United States Environmental Protection Agency, says she is “really frightened for the country.”

After the White House condemned the video, Whitman tweeted again saying the video was “the stuff of dictators.”

— AP

Brussels says 2 Belgian jihadists escape Syrian jail

Two Belgian jihadists have escaped from detention in northeast Syria since Turkey launched an offensive against Kurdish forces in the region, the head of Belgium’s national anti-terrorist agency says.

According to MPs, Paul Van Tigchelt, head of Belgium’s OCAM counter-terror analysis body, told a parliamentary commission: “It happened in recent days, certainly after the Turkish offensive began.”

— AFP

Iraqi president talks Syria security with US diplomat

Iraqi President Barham Saleh has discussed the situation in northern Syria with a visiting US official and he says they focused on ways of preventing Islamic militants from taking advantage of the chaos to rise again.

A statement by Saleh’s office says he spoke in Baghdad with David Schenker, US assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs, about ways of supporting Iraq to preserve its security “amid the current challenges.”

There have been concerns that the Turkish military operation against Kurdish fighters in northern Syria might affect the protection of prisons where some 10,000 the Islamic State group members are being held.

The statement said both officials said the extremists should not be given a chance “to revive their criminal activities and threaten the region and world’s security.”

— AP

Right-wing parties pledge not to join minority government that includes Arabs

Right-wing parties Shas, United Torah Judaism, Jewish Home and the National Union have pledged not join a minority government under Blue and White leader Benny Gantz that includes Arab parties, according to a Likud statement.

The statement from Netanyahu’s party says all the right-wing faction heads (except for Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett who is traveling abroad) have signed on to the pledge.

Netanyahu has until October 24 to form a government after deadlocked elections, but he is struggling to form a majority coalition.

His main rival Benny Gantz and his centrist Blue and White alliance have suggested Likud members abandon their longtime leader in favor of someone else in order to form a unity government, but the party is standing by Netanyahu.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz at the President’s Residence on September 23, 2019. (screen capture: GPO)

Netanyahu was tasked by Rivlin with trying to form a government based on the strength of his pact with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties to negotiate as a bloc of 55 MKs. Gantz heads a bloc of 54 MKs from the center, left and Arab parties, but the 10 Arab MKs in that group would not join a Gantz-led coalition.

Neither candidate has a clear path to a 61-strong Knesset majority without the other.

If Netanyahu fails, President Rivlin is expected to give Gantz 28 days to try to form a government.

Trump’s Syria move draws criticism from Graham, Rubio

US President Donald Trump’s decision to pull US troops from northeastern Syria, essentially abandoning the Syria Kurd fighters who fought alongside US against the Islamic State group, is drawing criticism from Republicans on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of Trump’s closest allies, says Trump’s decision will allow IS to reemerge. The South Carolina Republican says Trump will “be held accountable.”

Graham says Trump’s decision “is against all sound military advice.” Graham says he hopes Trump “will reconsider, stop the bloodshed and reset the table before it’s too late.”

Graham says that if Trump continues along those lines, “then our foreign policy is in a very bad spot in the Middle East and to those who think the Mideast doesn’t matter to America, remember 9/11 we had that same attitude on 9/10 2001.”

Another Republican senator, Florida’s Marco Rubio, tells reporters that he doesn’t know what can be done to undo the harm that’s resulted from the withdrawal. Rubio says “there are some mistakes that are not easy to reverse. And there are some that are irreversible.”

Syria regime forces enter Kobane under deal with Kurds

Syrian regime troops and Russian soldiers enter the key border town of Kobane, following a deal struck with Kurdish authorities amid a deadly Turkish offensive, according to a war monitor.

“Syrian regime and Russian troops have entered the town of Kobane,” the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

— AFP

Trump official vows Syria pullout won’t impact Iran

A senior US administration official insists that US President Donald Trump’s pullout from Syria will not change his hard line on Iran, a key ally of President Bashar Assad.

Brian Hook, the US special representative on Iran, replied: “The president’s decision with respect to Syria is not going to change our Iran strategy or the efficacy of it.”

Brian Hook, the US Special Representative for Iran, speaks during a press conference in Kuwait City on June 23, 2019. (Yasser Al-Zayyat / AFP)

“Our forces in northeast Syria have never had an Iran mission-set,” he said.

A growing number of Democrats and Republicans say Trump’s move will only serve to strengthen adversaries by pulling US troops who had permitted de facto autonomy in northeastern Syria by Kurdish fighters, a force that led the battle to crush Islamic State extremists.

Administration officials, notably former national security adviser John Bolton, had cited the Iranian presence in Syria as a reason to maintain US forces.

— AFP

Merkel says Brexit deal talks in ‘final sprint’

The leaders of the two biggest European Union nations are convinced the Brexit negotiations are in their final stages and that a deal is ready to be adopted by EU leaders on Thursday.

At a joint press conference in Toulouse, France, French President Emmanuel Macron says that “We have the hope and willingness to adopt an agreement” at the two-day summit with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “What we heard today is positive.”

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) gestures during a press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, one day before a key EU summit that may approve a divorce deal with Britain, in Toulouse, France, on October 16, 2019. (Pascal Pavani/ AFP)

Standing beside Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel also expresses her hopes a deal could be finalized in the next hours, saying “we are in the final sprint.”

— AP

Trump denies giving Erdogan ‘green light’ for Syria invasion

US President Donald Trump denies that he gave Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a “green light” to launch operations against Kurdish militants in Syria.

“President Erdogan’s decision didn’t surprise me because he’s wanted to do that for a long time,” Trump tells reporters at the White House. “He’s been building up troops on the border with Syria for a long time.

“I didn’t give him a green light,” Trump claims. “Just the opposite of a green light.”

— with AFP

UK minister hints of consequences if Israel annexes Jordan Valley

The UK minister in charge of the Middle East, Andrew Murrison, hints that Israel will face consequences if it annexes the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank.

Britain “made it clear to the Israeli authorities that we oppose unilateral annexation of all, or part, of the West Bank,” he writes in a response to a parliamentary inquiry.

“Such a move would be contrary to international law and could not pass unchallenged,” Murrison says.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points at a map of the Jordan Valley as he gives a statement, promising to extend Israeli sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and northern Dead Sea area, in Ramat Gan on September 10, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

During the recent election campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to annex some areas of the West Bank currently under full Israeli control, including settlement blocs and much of the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu was roundly condemned for the last-minute pledge that was seen by many as a play for vital right-wing nationalist votes.

— with Raphael Ahren

Trump says Kurdish PKK ‘probably more of terrorist threat’ than Islamic State

US President Donald Trump says the Kurdish rebel PKK, who have waged a decades-long insurgency against Ankara, are “probably” a bigger terror threat than the Islamic State group.

“The PKK, which is a part of the Kurds, as you know, is probably worse at terror and more of a terrorist threat in many ways than ISIS,” Trump tells a news conference at the White House.

US President Donald Trump meets with Italian President Sergio Mattarella (not pictured) in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on October 16, 2019. (Brendan Smialowski / AFP)

Tens of thousands have died since the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) took up arms against the Turkish state in 1984. The PKK is considered a terror group by Ankara, the United States and the European Union.

Under fire for abandoning America’s Kurdish allies in the anti-IS fight to face a Turkish assault in northern Syria, Trump disparaged the Kurds earlier today saying they “are not angels.”

— AFP

Security Council warns of ‘risk of dispersion’ of Syria jihadists

The UN Security Council warns in a unanimously adopted statement of a risk of “dispersion” of jihadist prisoners in Syria, but stops short of calling for a halt to Turkey’s offensive against Kurdish forces there.

“Members of the Security Council expressed deep concerns over the risks of dispersion of terrorists from UN-designated groups, including ISIL,” the statement says, using an acronym for the Islamic State group.

This picture taken on October 16, 2019 from the Turkish side of the border at Ceylanpinar district in Sanliurfa shows smoke rising from the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain on the eighth day of Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish forces. (Ozan Kose/AFP)

All 15 Council members including Russia, a key player in the conflict, declared themselves “very concerned (about) a further deterioration of the humanitarian situation” in northeastern Syria.

— AFP

Trump claims IS prisoners deliberately being released to make him look bad

President Donald Trump says members of the Islamic State group who were being held in prisons by Kurdish fighters in Syria have been deliberately released in an effort to make him look bad.

But senior US officials are casting doubt on those claims. Those officials say some Syrian Kurdish forces have moved north to fight Turkish troops who launched an attack across the border against the Kurds. The US officials say other Kurds have stayed to guard the detention centers that hold thousands of IS militants.

US President Donald Trump answers questions during a joint press conference with Italian President Sergio Mattarella (not pictured) at the White House in Washington, DC, on October 16, 2019. (Olivier Douliery / AFP)

The officials say the US doesn’t have good on-the-ground information about what’s going on in some of the detention centers as American forces pull back from the border region. The officials say they believe only a small number of detainees have escaped.

These officials aren’t authorized to public discuss ongoing operations in Syria and are speaking on condition of anonymity.

— AP

French FM in Iraq for talks on jailed jihadists in Syria

BAGHDAD — France’s top diplomat holds talks in Baghdad today about transferring foreign jihadists from northern Syria, where a Turkish offensive has triggered fears of mass jailbreaks, to be tried in Iraq.

European governments are worried that the Turkish operation will allow the escape of some of the 12,000 suspected Islamic State (IS) fighters — including thousands of foreigners — held by Syrian Kurds.

The issue is at the top of the agenda for French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian in his talks with his Iraqi counterpart Mohammed Ali al-Hakim, President Barham Saleh and Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi.

Le Drian says he discussed with Iraqi leaders “the way to implement an appropriate judicial mechanism” to try French and other fighters “in the best conditions.”

The aim is for foreign jihadists to be tried in Iraqi courts while upholding certain principles of justice and respect for human rights, a French diplomatic source says.

One issue will be Iraq’s use of the death penalty, which is outlawed throughout the EU.

Belgium, Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden sent officials on a technical mission to Baghdad this week to assess the situation.

— AFP

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali al-Hakim (R) meets his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Baghdad on October 17, 2019. (Sabah Arar/AFP)
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Pittsburgh synagogue shooter’s offer to plead guilty rejected by prosecutors

Lawyers for the man accused of shooting to death 11 worshipers in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year say in a filing that the case would be over if federal prosecutors had accepted his offer to plead guilty in return for life-without-parole.

Lawyers for Tree of Life shooting defendant Robert Bowers made the statement yesterday in a response to prosecutors’ proposal to start trial in mid-September 2020.

Driver’s License photo of Pittsburgh synagogue massacre suspect Robert Bowers. (Pennsylvania DOT)

“Against the hazards of a September-October 2020 trial, the government invokes the rights of crimes victims to be free from unreasonable delay,” Bowers’ lawyers said. “The court’s view of this invocation of rights should be informed by the fact that this case would already be over — and interests in a speedy resolution vindicated — had the government accepted the defendant’s offer to plead guilty as charged and be sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.”

Bowers’ attorneys told a judge in May that he wanted to plead guilty in return for a life sentence.

The US attorney’s office in Pittsburgh notified the court in August it is pursuing the death penalty against Bowers, 47, for what was the deadliest attack on Jews in US history.

Police say Bowers expressed hatred of Jews during and after the October 2018 rampage.

— AP