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US Slams Turkey Over Population Transfers in Afrin
By Laurie Mylroie

State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert strongly criticized Turkish measures in Syria's Kurdish canton of Afrin, which are preventing residents displaced by the fighting from returning to their homes.

"We've been watching the situation very carefully in Afrin," Nauert said on Thursday in response to a question from Kurdistan 24.

"140,000 people have been displaced from Afrin," she stated, "and as far as we can tell, they are not being allowed back into their homes."

At the same time, the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) militia is bringing in Arabs, displaced by the fighting elsewhere in Syria, to Afrin, where they are offered the houses of the Kurdish inhabitants who have fled.

The UN Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs stated last week that "approximately 71,000 people were transported to northwest Syria since mid-March from eastern Ghouta and eastern Qalamoun," two areas that had been held by rebels and which were recently recaptured by Syrian regime forces.

At the same time, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warned, "a demographic change is being carried out, led by military powers that claim to be protecting Syrians."

More generally, the humanitarian situation in Afrin remains dire. "We have expressed grave concern about it, and it remains a concern of ours," Nauert emphasized.

"We call on all relevant actors operating in the northwest"--including Turkey, Russia, and Syria--"to provide access for international humanitarian aid organizations and to allow for people to come home," Nauert said.

During the last days of Rex Tillerson's tenure as Secretary of State, he appeared to go very far in accommodating Ankara in order to improve US ties with Turkey.

In a highly unusual move, in mid-February, Tillerson met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for over three and a half hours, with no US notetaker or translator present, and reached an understanding on an ill-defined "results-oriented mechanism to resolve outstanding issues," according to a US summary of the meeting.

However, before much progress could be made in implementing that understanding, Tillerson was obliged to resign.

It is unclear if Pompeo is prepared to be as accommodating of Ankara as Tillerson. In 2016, when he was still a Congressman, Pompeo tweeted, following the failed coup attempt, that Turkey was "a totalitarian Islamic dictatorship," although he subsequently deleted that tweet.

Thursday was the 25th anniversary of World Press Freedom Day. Continuing tensions with Ankara were evident in Nauert's remarks about the dismal state of press freedom in Turkey.

"There are more journalists jailed in Turkey than in any another country around the world," she said, "and that is a tremendous concern."

Nauert also noted that "Turkey's potential acquisition" of Russia's S-400 air defense system raised serious concerns in Washington.

Nauert, however, had high praise for Baghdad, which she described as "a steadfast partner of the United States."

Iraq will hold elections on May 12, and 7,000 candidates from 50 parties will compete for the 329 seats in the National Assembly, she explained.

Editing by Nadia Riva.

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