Archive for August, 2019


August 27, 2019

MOSCOW (AP) — In a show of burgeoning security ties between Russia and Turkey, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan attended the opening of an annual Russian air show as a guest of President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday and expressed interest in purchasing the latest Russian fighter jets.

NATO member Turkey started taking deliveries last month of Russia’s S-400 air defense system. The United States had pushed Erdogan’s government to scrap the deal, arguing that its purchase would aid Russian intelligence and compromise a U.S.-led fighter jet program.

Erdogan has refused to budge despite the Trump administration kicking Turkey out of the multinational program to produce the high-tech F-35 fighter. Turkish officials have dangled the idea of buying Russian Su-35 fighter jets instead.

While visiting the MAKS air show outside Moscow together, the Turkish leader and Putin called each other “dear friend” and watched Russia’s latest jets perform. Erdogan peeked inside the cockpit of the country’s top-of-the-line fighter, the Su-57, and asked if the plane was available for sale to foreign customers.

“Yes, you can buy it,” Putin responded with a smile. The Russian president noted that another batch of equipment under the S-400 contract with Turkey, estimated to be worth more than $2 billion, was delivered Tuesday. He said Russia was ready to supply its latest fighter jets to Turkey as well and open to joint production of some weapons systems.

“We are ready for that and will actively discuss it with our partners,” Putin said. Erdogan said that the Turkish military was being trained to use the surface-to-air S-400 missile systems. “We want our solidarity to continue in several areas of the defense industry,” he added. “This can be passenger or war planes. What is important is the spirit of cooperation.”

While both leaders supported close economic cooperation between their countries, their discussion about joint efforts to end Syria’s civil war revealed differences in their approaches to the situation in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province.

Russia and Iran have staunchly supported Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government throughout the eight-year war, helping his army to recapture most of the country’s territory, while Turkey has backed the opposition.

Moscow and Ankara nevertheless struck a deal in September to de-escalate tensions in Idlib, the last remaining rebel stronghold. Tensions have heightened amid a recent offensive by Russia-backed Syrian troops to capture the rebel-held areas in Idlib.

Turkey protested the offensive, which has included seizing the town of Khan Sheikhoun and pushing further north. Erdogan on Tuesday described it as a violation of the de-escalation deal Russia and Turkey reached in Sochi. He said that more than 500 civilians have been killed and over 1,200 others have been wounded.

“It is unacceptable for the regime to rain death on civilians from the air and from the ground under the pretext of fighting terrorism,” Erdogan said. “We can bring about our responsibilities concerning the Sochi agreement only if the regime halts its attacks.”

Putin insisted the offensive was necessary to uproot militants who used the area as a base to launch attacks on Syrian government troops and Russia’s military base. “The de-escalation zone can’t serve as a refuge for militants and a platform for launching new attacks,” he said.

But despite their differences, both presidents emphasized their shared interest in stabilizing northern Syria and pledged to respect mutual security interests. “We understand Turkey’s concern about the security of its southern border and view it as Turkey’s legitimate interest,” Putin said.

Erdogan said after the talks that he and Putin have “reached an understanding what and how we can do to solve those issues in Syria.”

Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.

Advertisements

June 30, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albanians were casting ballots on Sunday to elect mayors and city councils, or parliaments, amid a tense political conflict with the opposition boycotting the municipal elections.

While the Socialist-run government is insisting on holding the election, the opposition wants to stop it taking place. The opposition, led by the center-right Democratic Party, blames a corrupt government linked to organized crime and is demanding fresh national elections.

Albania’s President Ilir Meta is sympathetic to the opposition and declared that the vote is canceled, but the government under Prime Minister Edi Rama has refused to abide by that decision. Votes will be cast to pick authorities that will run 61 districts across the country for the next four years.

On late Saturday the Democratic Party’s leader Lulzim Basha called on Albanians to boycott the vote and said they would hold non-violent protests. Police have said protests are not allowed the voting day.

Rama cast his ballot in Surrel, a village near Tirana where he lives. “This day confirms that no one can play with the people … and who dares take sovereignty from the people finds no other end but a failing and a shameful one,” he told journalists.

The opposition has been holding anti-government protests since mid-February when they also relinquished their seats in parliament. They say the political crisis will be resolved when Rama resigns and vote-riggers are jailed.

Small groups of opposition supporters in Tirana and a nearby town rallied in front of some polling stations, shouting “Rama go!” The ruling Socialists are the only candidates in 35 out of 61 districts, with some smaller leftist and center-right parties running against them in the rest.

Thousands of police officers guarded the polling stations Sunday. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights said it was sending 174 election observers, who will give their preliminary findings on Monday.

Audrey Glover, head of the international monitoring mission, found the situation at a Tirana polling station “not conducive to observing.” Holding a free and fair election is considered key for the launch of EU membership talks for the tiny Western Balkan country, already a NATO member.

Voting ends 1700 GMT. Preliminary election results are not expected until Monday. The Central Election Commission, the institution running the election, said turnout at 11 a.m. (0900 GMT) was about 12%.

June 28, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s municipal elections don’t normally provoke much interest beyond the country’s border, but the holding of this weekend’s vote — or failure to do so — appears decisive for the tiny Western Balkan country in its bid to start full membership negotiations with the European Union.

While the Socialist-run government is insisting on holding the election, the opposition is boycotting the vote and says it will stop it taking place. Albania’s president, sympathetic to the opposition, has gone one step further by declaring that the vote is canceled, a decision that the government is refusing to abide by.

“Unfortunately we are showing our democracy is immature, weak and corrupt,” said Skender Minxhozi, an independent analyst. “We are unable to reach a sustainable dialogue and compromises.” After months of rowdy and sometimes violent opposition protests, where demonstrators have hurled projectiles at police officers who have responded with tear gas, the stage is set for a tense confrontation on Sunday.

The United States, the European Union, other international organizations and big Western powers have repeatedly called on the opposition to avoid violence and to engage in a dialogue to resolve the political deadlock. Though violence has been reduced recently, the standoff continues.

Leaders of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is sending 280 election observers, on Friday called on Albanian political leaders to show restraint, engage in a “constructive dialogue” and ensure that Sunday’s election is peaceful. It added that “both the perpetrators and instigators of violent acts should be held legally accountable.”

Holding a free and fair election has been post-communist Albania’s Achilles’ heel, with regular reports of shortcomings, vote rigging and violence. The move toward democracy is considered key for the launch of the EU membership talks for the nation, which is already a NATO member.

Earlier this month, the EU postponed the start of membership talks with Albania, as well as North Macedonia, despite warnings a delay could undermine reform efforts and stability in the Balkans region.

Sunday’s vote is due to elect mayors, town councils and district parliaments for the next four years. Some 3.5 million people are eligible to vote — that in itself is a problem, as the population of Albania is only 2.9 million. The other names on the electoral register represent Albania’s huge overseas diaspora, but no facilities are provided to allow Albanians outside the country to vote.

For the center-right Democratic Party-led opposition of Lulzim Basha, the issue is not really the local vote, however. They are trying to force the calling of early parliamentary elections, claiming widespread corruption in the government, vote-rigging and links to organized crime. They are boycotting the vote. Earlier in June, President Ilir Meta announced that he was canceling the elections, claiming they would be “undemocratic” without the participation of the center-right opposition. On Thursday he said the vote would now take place on Oct. 13.

Prime Minister Edi Rama of the ruling left-wing Socialist Party, however, continues to insist that the elections will take place as scheduled Sunday. Rama accuses the opposition of trying to disrupt efforts to launch EU membership negotiations.

The Socialists have started a lengthy procedure to oust Meta, though they don’t have the two-thirds majority they need in parliament, and the final say anyway is with the Constitutional Court, which has been defunct for the past year after its judges were fired.

Minxhozi says the opposition has failed to topple Rama but has managed to hurt the country’s image. “It has weakened Rama, but has not toppled him. It has damaged elections, but has not stopped them,” he said, adding that “such a tense situation hurts EU negotiations and has withered democratic standards.”

Basha insists “there will be no election without the opposition,” though he has not explained how the election will be prevented. He has said, however, that civic groups around the country will “defend democracy.” The opposition has tried to prevent preparations for the elections in the districts they govern. They tried to destroy election materials and ordered election offices moved from schools.

Currently, the opposition runs 27 districts, while the governing Socialists are in control of 34. With the opposition boycott, the Socialist candidates are uncontested in 35 races, while in the others they face some smaller leftists and center-right parties.

Minxhozi said Sunday’s vote will be a “mysterious day” focused not on a political race but rather on a “logistic, security and public order problem.” Some 7,000 police officers will be on duty for election security.

“June 30 is a negative test for Albania’s image, our economy and the political class too,” he said.

June 25, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s president on Tuesday condemned a decision by electoral authorities in favor of holding municipal elections this weekend, calling on the ruling Socialists to hold talks and not carry out an “imaginary” voting process.

President Ilir Meta said that full membership negotiations with the European Union wouldn’t open if Albania held Sunday’s elections without the opposition, which is boycotting them. The Electoral College ruled unanimously Monday that a small political party must take part in Sunday’s vote, a move against Meta’s decision earlier this month to cancel the elections. Meta said he feared the balloting would be “undemocratic” without the participation of center-right opposition parties.

Meta said the Electoral College was influenced by “political pressure and blackmail.” “Yesterday, the Electoral College considered the request of a political party against a decision of the Central Election Commission which didn’t allow it to deregister from the now imaginary election of June 30,” he said Tuesday.

“Only the Constitutional Court may judge the validity of a decree from the president of the republic,” Meta said. The court has been dysfunctional for about a year after most of its judges were fired.

The Democratic Party-led opposition also doesn’t recognize the ruling by election authorities. The opposition has threatened to physically prevent Sunday’s vote from being held. Last week, opposition supporters damaged ballot boxes and other election documentation to prevent the vote in some opposition-held districts.

“Albanians have united like never before to defend democracy and not allow an electoral farce and the constitutional crime of the autocratic-criminal regime,” Democratic leader Lulzim Basha said late Monday.

Left-wing Socialist Prime Minister Edi Rama insists the elections will go ahead as scheduled. Rama also said the opposition’s main goal is to disrupt the country’s efforts to launch EU membership negotiations.

The opposition has been holding protests since mid-February, accusing the government of links to organized crime and vote rigging. The government rejects the accusations. Basha said the only solution is for Rama to resign and for those convicted of vote-rigging to be sentenced.

Last week, the EU postponed the start of membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia despite warnings a delay could undermine reform efforts and stability in the Balkans region.

June 18, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Public officials in some parts of Albania aren’t cooperating with the independent election workers assigned to prepare for local elections at the end of the month, the Albanian Interior Ministry said Tuesday.

The apparent disruption in regional districts governed by opposition parties are part of a political crisis within the national government. Regional officials in Shkodra tried to prevent election personnel from entering their offices on Monday, while civilian supporters of the opposition stormed the Tropoja election authority office in northeastern Albania on Tuesday.

Interior Minister Sander Lleshaj warned mayors at the helm of opposition-led districts there would be consequences “if they use force” to block the election workers. The opposition runs 27 districts, the governing Socialists in 34.

“If they will do mindless acts or not in line with the law, they will be confronted with the law,” Lleshaj said. President Ilir Meta tried to cancel Albania’s June 30 municipal elections, saying they would be “undemocratic” without opposition participation.

Center-right opposition parties are boycotting the vote after months of demanding an early national election and accusing the government of vote-rigging and other wrongdoing. The Socialist-led government said the president exceeded his constitutional authority and is trying to oust Meta. Prime Minister Edi Rama insists the municipal elections will go ahead as scheduled.

June 08, 2019

TIRANA, Albania (AP) — Albania’s president has canceled upcoming municipal elections, citing the need to reduce political tensions in the country. President Ilir Meta said he acted because “the actual circumstances do not provide necessary conditions for true, democratic, representative and all-inclusive elections” on June 30.

Thousands of Albanians who support the political opposition assembled for an anti-government protest on Saturday. After sundown, tear gas and flares clouded the streets of Tirana. The opposition, led by the center-right Democratic Party, accuses the left-wing government of links to organized crime and vote rigging. The government denies the allegations.

Opposition leaders are demanding an early general election. The United States and the European Union urged them to disavow violence and sit in a dialogue with government representatives to resolve the political crisis.

June 28, 2019

The US Senate has nominated a new Ambassador to Turkey, the embassy in the Turkish capital Ankara announced today. “We have exciting news!” Tweeted the embassy. “Last night, the US Senate confirmed Ambassador David Satterfield to be the next US Ambassador to Turkey. We look forward to welcoming him in the near future. Stay tuned!”

Satterfield, a senior diplomat across two decades, has served in a variety of posts in the Middle East and was picked for his extensive experience in the region, as well as the fact that besides English he speaks four other languages: Arabic, French, Italian and Hebrew.

He has been Coordinator for Iraq and Senior Advisor to the Secretary of State from 2006 to 2009; Special Advisor to the Secretary of State for Libya in 2014; and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs since 2017. In addition to those posts, Satterfield has also held top positions at US missions in Syria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Lebanon.

The post of Ambassador to Turkey has been vacant for almost two years since the previous Ambassador, John Bass, left his position due to a visa crisis between Washington and Ankara. He now serves as US envoy to Afghanistan.

The new appointment comes at a time when US-Turkish relations have been tense and in decline, with a clash of national interests over regional and foreign policy issues. The US has recently been threatening Turkey with sanctions due primarily to the latter’s purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile defense system, which Washington claims will compromise the security of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and is technologically incompatible with its F-35 fighter jets.

Another issue has been Turkey’s drilling for natural gas in the eastern Mediterranean off the coast of Cyprus. A new pipeline is to be built after a $9 billion agreement was struck between southern Cyprus, Greece and Israel in early June.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190628-washington-appoints-new-ambassador-to-turkey-after-2-years/.

By Michael Mathes, with Dmitry Zaks in London

Washington (AFP)

June 20, 2019

Saudi Arabia’s controversial military campaign in Yemen suffered a double blow Thursday as US lawmakers voted to block President Donald Trump’s arms sales to Riyadh hours after Britain temporarily suspended similar sales.

In Washington, the Senate voted to prevent $8.1 billion in US arms in a symbolic bipartisan rebuke to the president and his close ties with the kingdom.

A handful of Republicans joined Democrats in voting against 22 separate sales of aircraft support maintenance, precision-guided munitions and other weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan at a moment of heightened tensions in the Middle East.

The votes were only assured this week when Republican leadership agreed to hold the sensitive roll calls on the arms sales, which critics say will aggravate the devastating war in Yemen.

Trump’s administration took the extraordinary step of bypassing Congress to approve the sales in May, declaring Iran to be a “fundamental threat” to regional stability.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had said the administration was responding to an emergency caused by Saudi Arabia’s historic rival Iran, which backs the Huthi rebels in Yemen.

But critics in the United States and Britain have expressed concern about the devastating toll that the four-year Saudi bombing campaign in neighboring Yemen has taken on civilians.

“When they target civilians how can we continue to sell those arms?” Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, author of the resolutions, said Thursday.

The conflict has claimed tens of thousands of lives and triggered what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst existing humanitarian crisis.

Britain’s temporary sales suspension was announced by International Trade Secretary Liam Fox after a British court ordered the government to “reconsider” the sales due to their toll on non-combatants.

“We disagree with the judgement and will seek permission to appeal,” Fox said in a statement delivered in parliament, adding authorities “will not grant any new licenses to Saudi Arabia and its coalition partners which might be used in the conflict in Yemen.”

Government figures analyzed by CAAT show that Britain, which accounts for 23 percent of arms imports to Saudi Arabia, has licensed nearly 5 billion pounds ($6.4 billion, 5.6 billion euros) in weapons to the kingdom since its Yemen campaign began in 2015.

Germany halted all arms sales to Saudi Arabia in response to Saudi opposition columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s 2018 killing and called on other EU governments to follow suit.

– ‘Resolve or weakness’ –

The process in Washington, traditionally a major provider of weaponry to the kingdom, is more protracted.

The measures, which passed with votes of 53-45 and 51-45, now go to the Democratic-led House of Representatives, where they are expected to win approval and then head to the president’s desk.

Trump is likely to veto them, and it will remain an uphill climb for Congress to come up with a two-thirds vote to override a veto.

Some of the president’s allies in Congress are outraged by Saudi Arabia’s behavior.

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said he hoped his vote to block the sales would “send a signal to Saudi Arabia that if you act the way you’re acting, there is no space for a strategic relationship.”

Khashoggi’s murder in Turkey by Saudi agents triggered a full-blown crisis in Riyadh’s relations with the West.

“There is no amount of oil that you can produce that will get me and others to give you a pass on chopping somebody up in a consulate,” Graham said.

Senator Tom Cotton, a hawk who backs Trump’s policies in the Gulf, warned colleagues that Tehran would be watching the Saudi arms sales votes “for signs of resolve or weakness” by Washington.

Congress rebuked Trump in March with a historic resolution curtailing the president’s war-making powers and ending American support for the Saudi-led coalition.

Trump vetoed the measure in April.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_Senate_votes_to_block_Saudi_arms_sales_UK_suspends_licenses_999.html.

by Ed Adamczyk

Washington DC (UPI)

Jun 20, 2019

The United States is considering economic and military sanctions against Turkey if it proceeds with buying a Russian air defense system, officials said.

At issue is a plan by Turkey, a NATO member, to purchase the S-400 surface-to-air missile defense system. On Friday the Pentagon announced it would remove Turkey from participation in manufacturing elements of the F-35 Lightning II fighter plane by moving industrial operations to other countries. Turkey is one of nine countries in which parts of the plane are made. Turkish companies currently manufacture 937 of the plane’s parts, largely in the landing gear and the main body.

Receipt of the Russian defense system would also mean that no new F-35s would enter service in the Turkish military, and Turkish pilots would no longer have access to training. U.S. officials fear that the S-400 system, which is not compatible with NATO systems, will allow Russia to gather closely guarded data on the F-35.

“As we have very clearly communicated at all levels, Turkey will not receive the F-35 if Turkey takes delivery of the S-400 system. Thus, we need to begin unwinding Turkey’s participation in the F-35 program,” Ellen Lord, undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said Friday. She added that Turkish involvement would end by 2020 in a “very disciplined and graceful wind-down. We want to have a process that is not disruptive to the program and allows the Turks to wind down their activities, as well. We do not want to have the F-35 in close proximity to the S-400 over a period of time because of the ability to understand the profile of the F-35.”

The White House is considering hindering the Turkish economy through sanctions, unnamed officials familiar with the matter said. Representatives of the National Security Council, the State Department and the Treasury Department are currently involved in discussions.

Several Turkish defense companies could be targeted with sanctions under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which penalizes entities involved in business with Russia. The sanctions would have the effect of removing those companies from the U.S. financial system by severely reducing their ability to buy U.S. components or sell their products in the United States.

The already-battered Turkish lira was trading 0.6 percent weaker against the U.S. dollar in Istanbul at noon on Wednesday, after falling as much 1.5 percent. The currency lost 30 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar in 2018, and another 11 percent thus far in 2019. Bonds and stocks fell on Wednesday, with the yield on 10-year government debt jumping 38 basis points to 18 percent. The benchmark Borsa Istanbul 100 Index was headed for it first downturn in four days.

Source: Space War.

Link: http://www.spacewar.com/reports/US_considers_sanctions_on_Turkey_over_plans_to_buy_Russian_air_defense_system_999.html.