In Syria, Turkey Finds Itself Boxed In: What’s Next?

Aaron Stein and Rao Komar

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After months of halting and costly progress, the Turkish military and allied Syrian rebels are in a good position to take the Syrian city of al-Bab from the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). With the capture of al-Bab, Turkey will have accomplished the clearly defined goals of its “Operation Euphrates Shield” intervention in northern Aleppo governorate: driving ISIL from the Turkish border and blocking hostile Kurdish forces from linking their territory to Turkey’s south.

But after al-Bab, Euphrates Shield has nowhere to go, and, if Turkey’s gains are to be sustainable, its forces may be unable to leave. With Euphrates Shield, Turkey may have thrown itself into a Syrian quagmire. It has no clear exit strategy and only a poor set of options for escalation. Turkey seems committed to an indefinite but precarious occupation of a piece of northern Aleppo governorate that, perversely, may further weaken Syria’s political and territorial integrity and strengthen Turkey’s adversaries.

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The Syrian regime is poised to take Tadif from ISIL, while al-Bab will likely fall to the Turkish military and Syrian rebels. (SyrianCivilWarMap.com, February 2017)

Where to After al-Bab?

The Turkish government has not announced a plan to govern the territory it now controls in Syria or to transfer power to a civilian authority capable of administering services in war-torn Syria. Instead, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has recently signaled his intention to expand the operation to target the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the People’s’ Protection Units (YPG). The YPG is the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the Kurdish-led militia that has waged an insurgent campaign in southeast Turkey since 1984. The YPG also acts as the backbone of the SDF, the United States’ closest partner in the Syrian conflict. This proposal, it seems, is part of a Turkish effort to create a 5,000-square kilometer “safe zone” free of the Islamic State and the YPG. This zone would include both Manbij and Afrin, two well-defended YPG and SDF-controlled areas along the Turkish-Syrian border.

Turkey’s actions after al-Bab falls could have considerable implications for the ongoing American-backed SDF offensive north of Raqqa, the Islamic State’s administrative hub in Syria. A Turkish offensive against Manbij, for example, would force the YPG to move forces from the outskirts of Raqqa, perhaps delaying a planned offensive against the city. The Turkish military could expand its operations after al-Bab, but its potential adversaries are prepared to defend against a Turkish-backed assault. The defenses are similar to those that have slowed Turkey’s operations around al-Bab, risking another set of bloody battles for Syrian cities without any coherent mechanism to govern and then withdraw from territory taken.

The risks of a prolonged Turkish occupation are considerable. Turkey’s difficulties around al-Bab have also allowed for the Syrian Arab Army and allied militias, backed by Russian airstrikes, to push east from Aleppo City. The Syrian Arab Army and its allies are now in control of the high ground overlooking the main road connecting al-Bab with Raqqa, effectively blocking any Turkish offensive toward Raqqa. At the time of writing, the Turkish and Syrian armies appear to be pushing to take the same city, Tadif, although Russia may have succeeded in brokering a ceasefire along the dividing line between northern Tadif and the southern entrance to al-Bab.

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Turkey and its rebel allies are slowly advancing in al-Bab, and will eventually push ISIL out of the city. To the south, regime forces have pushed towards Tadif and have cut the al-Bab/Raqqa road, rendering a Turkish offensive towards Raqqa unlikely. (SyrianCivilWarMap.com, February 2017)

The division of territory has temporarily calmed tensions around the city, but the reality is that Turkish forces and a coalition of loosely aligned proxy militias now share a frontline with the Syrian regime, embedded Russian advisers, and Alawite militias. These two fractious coalitions are now within mortar range of one another, a state of affairs that is inherently destabilizing.

Further still, the regime’s advance south of al-Bab limits Turkey’s options and all but rules out any potential Turkish plan to expand Operation Euphrates Shield to push south toward Raqqa.  Ankara had previously touted this proposal to U.S. officials and to the international media as an alternative to a SDF-led offensive for the ISIL-held city. Now, Turkish forces could only do this if they were willing to fight through the Russian-backed regime positions to the south of al-Bab and then come back into contact with ISIL on the outskirts of Raqqa. As this would trigger open war with the Syrian regime, it seems like an unlikely path for Turkey. Instead, Turkish forces could still seek to expand operations around Tel Rifaat or Manbij, two cities Turkey has occasionally pledged to target as part of Euphrates Shield.

The Tel Rifaat Offensive: Turkish Options and Limitations

In the northwest of Syria, the YPG holds the Afrin canton, a mountainous and largely Kurdish area abutting the Turkish-held territory in Syria. One option, often floated by Syrian rebels and the Turkish government, is an assault on the YPG in Afrin to capture Tel Rifaat, an Arab-majority town near the western border.

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A rebel offensive on Tel Rifaat (Tall Rif’at) in Afrin would involve an attack along the entire frontline south of A’zaz. (SyrianCivilWarMap.com, February 2016)

Tel Rifaat has been under YPG control since February 2016, when the group captured it from rebels with the support of the Russian and Syrian air forces. The Syrian rebels are therefore motivated and willing to fight the YPG in this area. The Turkish military and its rebel allies have clashed with YPG in the past around Tel Rifaat. On October 22, 2016, Free Syrian Army factions, backed by Turkish air and artillery strikes, began their assault on the town, but were pushed back. Three days later, Turkish-backed rebels lost two villages southeast of Tel Rifaat to a YPG counterattack.

Unlike the rebels of Operation Euphrates Shield, who have been constantly fighting ISIL since March 2016, the YPG in Afrin is well-rested and has largely not been involved in the grueling back-and-forth civil war. Turkish-backed rebels have a manpower deficit. They are heavily dependent on poorly trained fighters recruited from Syrian refugee populations in Turkey, local fighters from northern Aleppo, and some rebels who moved from Idlib. While these manpower sources would be appropriate for administering a smaller sized territory, they have been significantly depleted by the recent internecine conflict in Idlib and years of battle with ISIL and the Syrian regime. This manpower deficit would complicate any attack on Tel Rifaat. With over 175 kilometers of militarized frontline to defend, Syrian rebels would have to mass their forces in one area for an offensive without leaving other frontlines dangerously undefended from an Islamic State counter attack, SDF forces outside of Manbij, or regime forces south of al Bab. The Afrin YPG has a much shorter frontline to defend, so they can bring more forces to bear if needed.

The YPG has been expecting a rebel offensive to retake Tel Rifaat ever since it captured the town in early 2016. The YPG and its SDF allies have spent over a year building up defensive fortifications, such as earthen berms, checkpoints, and trenches. Afrin now has some of the most extensive defensive fortifications seen in northern Syria, similar to those ISIL employed to great effect to slow the Turkish-backed offensive on the al-Bab’s western entrances.

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A satellite image of the defenses surrounding Sheikh Issa, one of the satellite towns that Euphrates Shield would have to take before reaching the Tel Rifaat defensive lines. (Terraserver, November 2016)

Tel Rifaat’s extensive defensive network, consisting of a web of walls and fortified towns, would impose costs on advancing Turkish forces, risking a prolonged campaign to take the city. With the Afrin YPG, Russia, and the Syrian regime in a tacit alliance, Turkey and its rebel allies may end up facing off with YPG ground forces backed up by two air forces if they attack and risk escalation with Russia or the Syrian regime. Russia and the regime have already demonstrated a commitment to use force in the area, even when Syrian troops are within mortar range of Turkish soldiers. A Russian airstrike killed 3 Turkish soldiers in February, while a second strike, attributed at various times to Russian, regime, or Iranian air assets, also killed Turkish soldiers operating near al-Bab in late November 2016.

Consolidating the Eastern Flank: Options for Manbij

South of al-Bab, the Syrian regime, backed by Russian airstrikes, have advanced to within 1.5 kilometers of the city. Regime forces now share a 10 kilometer-long frontline with Turkish-backed forces on the city’s southwestern outskirts. This Syrian move threatens to link its frontline just south of Tadif with SDF-held positions west of Manbij, potentially creating an alternative route to link SDF-held territory with Afrin, south of al-Bab. This would undermine the intended goal of Euphrates Shield of preventing the formation of a contiguous Kurdish region in Syria. The Syrian regime could use this as a point of leverage with the YPG in future peace negotiations, and Russia is working to facilitate this course of action with various Kurdish and regime interlocutors.

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The Syrian Regime and the Manbij YPG could easily launch a coordinated offensive against ISIL, cutting off Turkey’s route for expansion. With this, the YPG could effectively connect Manbij to Afrin using Syrian regime territory following Russian-facilitated negotiations with the regime. (SyrianCivilWarMap.com, February 2017)

To prevent this, Turkey could choose to launch an offensive against SDF territory to the east of rebel-held northern Aleppo governorate. The end goal of such an operation would be to take Manbij, a city that the SDF, backed by U.S. airstrikes and special operations forces, captured from ISIL after a nearly three month-long battle and siege in summer of 2016.

Turkey has fought the SDF in this area before. At the start of Euphrates Shield, the Turkish and rebel forces rapidly pushed the YPG and their SDF allies back north of the Sajur River in a surprise offensive. With the Sajur River forming a natural boundary between the Manbij YPG and the Euphrates Shield forces, an American-backed ceasefire was put in place and has worked to minimize violence along the tense front line.

Some three months later, the situation has changed significantly. The YPG and SDF have dug in and fortified their positions, so Turkish armor and rebel infantry will not be able to rapidly advance as they did at the start of the operation. Political considerations also play a role in making a large-scale Turkish operation against the YPG in this area unlikely. Unlike the Afrin YPG, who cooperate extensively with the Syrian regime and Russia, the YPG and SDF in this region have a close working relationship with the United States and shared goals of pushing ISIL out of northern Syria.
To the east of the Euphrates River and Manbij, the YPG and its Arab allies in the SDF are preparing for an operation targeting Raqqa. American support in the form of arms, air support, and embedded special operations forces will be key to the capture of the city, but the operation is expected to rely heavily on local Syrian Kurdish and Arab forces.

A Turkish-led attack on Manbij would slow the Raqqa operation, as YPG forces would likely move from Raqqa to defend the frontlines in Manbij. Turkish President Erdogan has sought to offer an alternative option for taking Raqqa that would involve Euphrates Shield forces, rather than the Kurdish YPG and Arab SDF. However, the Turkish military and its allied rebels have struggled to capture al-Bab, a city with a pre-war population of only 63,000. Raqqa is nearly four times larger and sits some 180 kilometers south of the current Turkish-held frontline. An offensive against it would require more troops and more complicated and exposed logistical chain, independent of the capabilities of the local partners.

Turkey has one other option: It could invade Tel Abyad, an SDF-held town. Turkey will retain this option indefinitely, but actually pursuing it would entangle Turkish military forces on third front in Syria’s multi-sided civil war. Moreover, taking territory from Kurdish forces in Tel Abyad would likely boomerang back into Turkey, resulting in cross-border YPG attacks against various Turkish targets along the border.

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Turkey’s final option is to launch a major military operation on Tall Abyad, clearing out the YPG and SDF, then proceeding to Raqqa. This option will lead to open warfare between the YPG and the Turkish government along the Syrian border and would be a major escalation of Turkish involvement in Syria. (SyrianCivilWarMap.com, February 2017)

Boxed In: So, Now What?

The Turkish government has repeatedly stated that it does not intend to stay in Syria in the long term. However, a premature withdrawal may leave the Euphrates Shield rebels weak and ill-equipped to deal with threats from the YPG or the Syrian regime, both of whom have clashed with the rebels in the past.

Prior to the Turkish intervention, the rebels that now constitute Euphrates Shield struggled to defend territory against ISIL attacks. They were nearly wiped out in an ISIL offensive on the city of Marea in the 2016. The Turkish forces will have to reorganize the rebel forces, currently split into dozens of factions, into a force that can independently defend its territory.

Turkey faces a similar problem as other professional militaries that work with local partners to take territory on the battlefield. Tensions between Islamist rebels and less conservative Free Syrian Army factions have often resulted in tit-for-tat kidnappings. Increasingly, internecine warfare breaks out over control of trade revenues and smuggling in Turkish-held territory in Syria. Some Turkish citizens, members of Turkish nationalist groups, have joined the rebel fray in Syria, creating tensions between the conservative and often Arabized Syrian Turkmen and the less religious nationalist Turkish volunteers. The Turkish military presence in Syria has suppressed these tensions for the most part, but they are likely to return once the Turkish military withdraws.

In addition to reorganizing the rebels into an independent and effective fighting force, Turkey faces the challenge of supporting the creation of a unified governing structure across the northern Aleppo governorate rebel territory. Currently governance in the area is split between a mishmash of disconnected and often conflicting sharia courts, civilian-led city councils, rebel militias, and Turkish forces, all operating with little overarching framework. Turkey will have to turn its attention to building institutions to govern the northern Aleppo territory, a slow and complex process with no clear timeframe. Turkey will therefore have to consolidate control over territory taken, regardless of the military choices it makes, either near Tel Rifaat or Manbij.

The consolidation of Turkish-backed governing bodies, while necessary to create the conditions to withdraw, may also contribute to an outcome Ankara has worked to prevent: the decentralization and devolution of the Syrian state, as regional institutions are strengthened at the expense of the central government. This outcome would also help to strengthen the case for empowered local regions, which would benefit the Syrian Kurds’ political aspirations. That said, the decentralization of the Syrian state may now be inevitable regardless of Turkish action.

Turkey will soon achieve its narrowly defined military objective: the defeat of ISIL in al-Bab to ensure that Kurdish-held territory along the Turkish-Syrian border will not be connected. Yet the challenges will persist as Turkey moves to a different phase of operations: state-building. This will create another set of issues to deal with that guarantee Turkish presence in Syria for the foreseeable future.

A special thanks to SyrianCivilWarMap.com for providing maps for this article.

Aaron Stein is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East

Rao Komar (@RaoKomar747) is an Austin based journalist and Middle East/Eurasia analyst.

Untangling the Threads of Terrorism in Turkey

Scott Stewart

Scott Stewart supervises Stratfor’s analysis of terrorism and security issues. Before joining Stratfor, he was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.

Emergency services respond to a March 19 attack on Istanbul’s Istiklal Street, an area popular among tourists. Turkey faces a terrorist threat from three distinct groups, each with its own methods. (BURAK KARA/Getty Image

Three strands of terrorism currently have Turkey wrapped in a deadly embrace. One strand made its presence felt March 19, when a suicide bomber detonated his device among a group of tourists on Istiklal Street, one of Istanbul’s main pedestrian shopping areas, killing at least four people and wounding dozens, including 24 foreigners. The attack occurred near a local government office, in an area that includes restaurants, cafes and foreign consulates. Turkish authorities have since identified the bomber as a Turkish member of the Islamic State they had been seeking to arrest. Unfortunately, he was able to attack before he could be apprehended.

The second thread is the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), a domestic militant group that seeks independence or autonomy in southeastern Turkey and that is a direct offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). On March 13, the TAK detonated a car bomb that killed 37 in a central Ankara neighborhood, its second large vehicle bomb attack in the Turkish capital this year.

The third strand is the Marxist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front (DHKP-C). Two female operatives from the group attacked a police bus with firearms and a hand grenade as it was approaching a police station in Istanbul’s Bayrampasa district on March 3. They succeeded in wounding two officers before being confronted and killed by police.

Though all three of these groups employ terrorism, each does so in a distinct manner. When these strands are unraveled and examined separately, important lessons can be gleaned about the capabilities of each group and the threat each poses.

Focusing on the How

Terrorist attacks do not just happen. They are the result of a process called the terrorist attack cycle. While every terrorist actor must follow the cycle to conduct an attack, the manner in which they do varies. By examining the terrorist tradecraft employed by a specific group and focusing on how attacks are conducted, it is possible to detect discernable patterns. These patterns can then be used to help identify the operative or group responsible for a particular attack. This is especially useful in a case where no organization claims responsibility for an attack or a group uses a false name in an effort to hide its hand.

Terrorists can and do improve their tradecraft, but this is normally an evolutionary process rather than a quantum leap, and there are normally indicators of a group’s evolving capabilities. This process of incremental advancement can be skipped when a terrorist actor receives outside assistance and training by someone with more advanced capabilities. This has historically been a state sponsor such as the Soviet KGB or East German Stasi, or a more experienced terrorist organization such as the Irish Republican Army, which taught bomb making in terrorist camps in Lebanon, Libya and Yemen. In recent years, such a leap occurred in Nigeria in mid-2011 when Boko Haram and Ansaru suddenly transitioned from using small improvised grenades to successfully employing vehicle bombs. This happened after Nigerian militants reportedly received training from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Shabaab.

The Islamic State in Turkey

Islamic State attacks inside Turkey have been for the most part unsophisticated and aimed at soft targets. In January 2015, the pregnant Chechen widow of an Islamic State fighter detonated a hand grenade at a guard post outside a tourist police station in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, killing herself and one police officer. It is unclear whether the group was responsible for the attack or if the woman planned and executed it herself. But in mid-2015, the Islamic State began a carefully orchestrated campaign of attacking Kurdish interests in Turkey in an effort to increase Kurdish/Turkish tensions. In June 2015, a pro-Kurdish Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) rally was targeted by two bombs left in the crowd in Diyarbakir, leaving four HDP members dead and over 100 injured. In July 2015, a suicide bomber attacked a rally at a Kurdish cultural center in Suruc, killing 33 and wounding over 100. Then in October 2015, a double suicide bombing at an HDP rally killed 103 and wounded more than 400 in the deadliest terrorist attack in modern Turkish history.

In 2016, the Islamic State shifted its focus to tourist targets. On Jan. 12, a suicide bomber attacked a group of foreign tourists near the Blue Mosque in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district, killing 13 — mostly German tourists — and wounding nine. The March 19 suicide bombing on Istiklal Street mirrored this attack.

While the Islamic State has demonstrated that it can reach targets in Istanbul and Ankara, to date, none of the Islamic State attacks in Turkey have demonstrated a high degree of terrorist tradecraft. As we have previously noted, the Islamic State has struggled to project its terrorist power beyond its core areas of operation, and has not exhibited the same type of advanced transnational terrorist tradecraft capabilities that al Qaeda possesses. Because of this, even foreign attacks directly tied to the Islamic State’s core, such as the November 2015 Paris attacks, have been simple attacks directed against soft targets rather than more sophisticated attacks.

To date, relatively simple attacks have met the group’s needs in Turkey, but given the low body count in the March 19 bombing, it might not be surprising to see the group shift to armed assaults in Turkey in an effort to generate higher death tolls. The group will likely have to develop more sophisticated surveillance and other capabilities before it will be able to successfully attack better-protected targets in hostile environments such as Ankara and Istanbul. Because of this, and the current campaign of targeting foreigners, we can anticipate additional Islamic State attacks against locations where foreigners congregate, such as tourist sites, restaurants, hotels, etc. These may include armed assaults in addition to suicide bombings.

The TAK

There is some uncertainty regarding the relationship between the PKK and the TAK. Some observers claim that the TAK is a radical splinter that broke away from the PKK. Others maintain that the TAK is actually a PKK urban warfare unit using another name to deflect blame from the political group, or an autonomous unit that subscribes to the PKK’s general philosophy but does not operate under its direct guidance. Stratfor ascribes to the latter position because of the close correlation between TAK attacks and the PKK’s cease-fire — they ceased attacks before the cease-fire was proclaimed in March 2013, and resumed them shortly after the cease-fire was ended in November 2015. If the TAK was really a more radical splinter of the PKK, it could have been expected to conduct attacks after the PKK proclaimed its unilateral cease-fire. For its part, TAK claims it is separate from the PKK, but Stratfor believes it is more important to judge the group by what it does than what it says for public consumption.

The TAK began their activity with a series of low-level attacks against tourist sites along the Aegean Sea in 2005-2006. Unlike the recent Islamic State attacks in Istanbul, these strikes were meant more to scare tourists away and damage the Turkish economy rather than produce a large body count. In 2008, the TAK shifted its operations to target Istanbul, with deadly effect. The group’s first attack in Istanbul in October 2008 killed 17 and injured more than 150. In October 2010, it initiated a series of suicide bombings in Ankara, targeting police and security forces. As noted, TAK operations correlate closely with PKK sentiments. When the PKK negotiated with the government, proclaiming a cease-fire in 2013, the TAK attacks ended.

But while the TAK temporarily ended hostilities, it appears that the group’s operational activity did not cease. The group announced its reactivation in a spectacular fashion in December 2015 with a mortar attack on Istanbul’s Sabiha Gokcen International Airport. The attack, launched at 2 a.m. local time, killed one airport worker and damaged several aircraft parked on the tarmac. The timing of the attack indicated that it was likely meant to be more symbolic than deadly. A much deadlier attack would come in February when the TAK targeted a military transport bus near a military housing complex in Ankara with a suicide car bomb that killed 29 and wounded dozens more.

Then, on March 13, the organization conducted another suicide car bomb attack against a bus, this one near a transportation hub in the heart of Ankara. That particular action killed 37 and wounded more than 120. In a statement claiming credit, the TAK said that the attack had been intended to target security forces rather than civilians but noted that further civilian casualties are inevitable.

The TAK and PKK have long focused their attacks on security forces, so the statement’s claim that civilians were killed by mistake could be true. However, the Turkish military’s recent operations against the PKK in southeastern Turkey have been heavy-handed, and a number of civilians have died as a result. Because of this, it is possible that the TAK was retaliating for the Kurdish civilian deaths and glossing over that fact for the international audience. These Kurdish terrorist groups have no real motive to attack foreigners, and indeed, they are attempting to appeal for outside support to pressure Turkey to stop its campaign against them. So, directly attacking foreigners makes little sense. Still, with the TAK using powerful suicide car bombs in its current campaign, there is a possibility of foreign citizens being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. The TAK does not appear to be experiencing a shortage of explosives or willing suicide operatives. In addition, the group seems to have a robust planning and logistics capability. Therefore, we can expect more attacks directed against security forces in Ankara and elsewhere. However, to date the TAK has not exhibited the ability to directly attack hardened targets, such as ministry buildings or government officials with protective details.

Foreigners visiting government buildings and security force installations are at risk, as are foreigners living near government installations or along routes used by security force transport buses. Given that the group has at least one mortar, it is likely that they will conduct other indirect fire attacks at government facilities in addition to continued suicide bomb attacks.

The DHKP-C

The Marxist Revolutionary People’s Liberation Party-Front can trace its lineage back to the old Revolutionary Left or Dev Sol militant group that has been fighting the Turkish government since the 1970s. Yet despite this long and violent heritage, the DHKP-C is more ambitious than it is capable. Since 2000, the group has carried out only about a dozen effective armed assaults, suicide bombings and assassinations. Many of the group’s attempted attacks have been thwarted or botched, including a May 2003 attack in which a DHKP-C member accidentally discharged her suicide device inside a restroom. The group was also behind the failed February 2013 suicide bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara.

What the group lacks in capability it makes up for in persistence. Two members of the group stormed an Istanbul courthouse and took a prosecutor hostage before being gunned down — the prosecutor was also killed during the exchange of fire. In August 2015, the DHKP-C employed a car bomb and armed assault against a police station in Istanbul’s Sultanbeyli district in an attack that killed one police officer. The same day, two of the group’s members also attempted an amateurish armed assault against the U.S. Consulate in Istanbul.

The March 3 attack against a police bus in Istanbul was perhaps inspired by or modeled after the February TAK bus attack in Ankara, but its execution displayed the hallmarks of a typical DHKP-C attack. Security camera footage of the attack showed that the female operatives were ill at ease with their firearms and displayed poor marksmanship fundamentals. Also, the hand grenade they threw at the bus did not detonate. With this amateurish execution, it is not surprising that despite choosing a soft target, only two police officers were wounded and none killed.

The DHKP-C is mostly focused on attacking the Turkish government and U.S. diplomatic facilities. Because of this, tourists and business travelers are not likely to be directly targeted but could be unintended casualties or be caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

These three groups differ in capability, motivation, intent and tradecraft, but they are all deadly, and can all be expected to continue to go after soft targets in Turkey for the foreseeable future. Of these, the TAK is the most capable at the present time, but the Islamic State is the most likely to directly target foreigners.

UK: Israel’s ambassador sorry over ‘take down’ Sir Alan Duncan comment

Israel’s ambassador to the UK has apologized after a senior member of his staff was secretly filmed saying he wanted to “take down” Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan.

Israeli Embassy senior political officer Shai Masot made the comment in footage filmed in a London restaurant and obtained by the Mail on Sunday.

He told a reporter that Sir Alan was creating “a lot of problems”.

Ambassador Mark Regev said this was not the embassy or government’s view BBC reported.

Secret recording

The conversation involved Mr Masot and Maria Strizzolo, an aide to education minister Robert Halfon, the former political director of Conservative Friends of Israel, as well as an undercover reporter.

It was recorded in October 2016 as part of an investigation by Al Jazeera.

The BBC understands that Ms Strizzolo has resigned from the civil service.

Mr Masot asked her: “Can I give you some names of MPs that I would suggest you take down?”

Ms Strizzolo replied that all MPs have “something they’re trying to hide” and Mr Masot responded by saying “I have some MPs”, adding “she knows which MPs I want to take down” before specifying “the deputy foreign minister”.

Sir Alan, who has described expanding Israeli settlements as a “stain on the face of the globe”, was seen as more of a problem than Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson – who was “basically good”, according to Mr Masot in a transcript of the conversation.

“He just doesn’t care. He is an idiot but has become minister of foreign affairs without any responsibilities. If something real happened it won’t be his fault… it will be Alan Duncan.”

Sir Alan launched a scathing attack on Israel in 2014, when MPs backed Palestinian statehood, deeming Israeli settlements as an “act of theft”.

“Occupation, annexation, illegality, negligence, complicity – this is a wicked cocktail which brings shame on Israel,” he told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme.

Sir Alan, who was special envoy to Yemen and Oman at the time, said “international law must be upheld” to prevent further settlements.

Labour has demanded an immediate inquiry into the extent of Israeli “interference” in British politics.

Shadow foreign secretary Emily Thornberry said improper interference was “unacceptable whichever country was involved” adding Mr Masot’s comments were “extremely disturbing”.

She said it was a national security issue and that the Foreign Office’s response was “not good enough”.

‘Completely unacceptable’

Crispin Blunt, Foreign Affairs Select Committee chairman, said Mr Masot’s “apparent activity” was “formally outrageous and deserving of investigation”.

But Sir Craig Oliver, David Cameron’s former communications director, said the undercover video was a “classic piece of mischief-making” by the Mail on Sunday.

He told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that Mr Masot’s comments should be viewed as “extremely comic” rather than “extremely chilling”.

“The Israeli government just wants to shut [the story] down,” he added. “It’s embarrassing”.

Lord Stuart Polak, director of Conservative Friends of Israel, said: “We utterly condemn any attempt to undermine Sir Alan, or any minister, or any member of Parliament.”

Ms Strizzolo told the newspaper that her conversation with Mr Masot was “tongue-in-cheek and gossipy”.

In a statement, the Israeli Embassy said it “rejects the remarks concerning minister Duncan, which are completely unacceptable”.

“The comments were made by a junior embassy employee who is not an Israeli diplomat, and who will be ending his term of employment with the embassy shortly,” it said.

“Ambassador Regev on Friday spoke with minister Duncan, apologised for the comments and made clear that the embassy considered the remarks to be completely unacceptable.”

A Foreign Office spokesman said: “The Israeli Ambassador has apologised and is clear these comments do not reflect the views of the embassy or government of Israel.

“The UK has a strong relationship with Israel and we consider the matter closed.”

Benjamin Netanyahu accused of offering newspaper owner commercial favours in return for positive coverage

Israeli Prime Minister already being investigated for accepting gifts of champagne and cigars but denies any wrongdoing

According to the Independent Benjamin Netanyahu has been caught on tape offering commercial favours to an Israeli newspaper owner in return for more positive coverage, reports suggest, in a development commentators are describing as an “earthquake” in the police investigation.

The Israeli Prime Minister, who is being investigated for alleged corruption offenses, is said to have been recorded proposing a commercially beneficial deal to Arnon Mozes, the owner of one of Israel’s biggest newspapers, Yedioth Ahronoth.

He has denied any wrongdoing.

Israel’s Channel Two television station claimed Mr. Netanyahu had offered to reduce the circulation of Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu newspaper that is owned by U.S. billionaire and Republican Party donor Sheldon Adelson, if Mozes instructed Yedioth Ahronoth to be more favourable towards the Prime Minister.

Cutting the circulation of Israel Hayom, which is distributed free of charge, would be of clear benefit to Mr Mozes because it is the main competitor of his newspaper in the battle for advertising revenues.

The conversation is reported to have taken place several months ago, although the precise date is unknown. Reports suggest the recording was made by Mr Mozes.

Mr Netanyahu is already under investigation for alleged corruption relating to receiving illegal gifts and donations. He has disputed the allegations and his lawyer said receiving gifts from friends is not illegal.

The Prime Minister is accused of accepting thousands of pounds worth of gifts, including cigars and champagne, from Israeli billionaire Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan. Reports suggest Mr Netanyahu lobbied US Secretary of State John Kerry on Mr Milchan’s behalf while the producer was attempting to acquire a new US visa.

Mr Netanyahu has denied the allegations. Sources said he told his ministers: “This is wrong, incessant pressure from the media on law enforcement. They release balloons and the hot air comes out of them time after time. That will be the case here too.”

Israeli news outlets quoted Mr Netanyahu’s lawyer, Yaakov Weinroth, as saying:  “Any reasonable person knows that there is nothing remotely criminal involved when a close friend gives his friend a gift of cigars.”

The Israeli Prime Minister has been interviewed twice by police in the last week and is reported to have been surprised by the evidence against him.

“He didn’t expect it”, a source who knows the Prime Minister well told Haa’retz.

The evidence of the conversation between Mr Netanyahu and Mr Mozes is said to have been passed to the Israeli Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, by investigators early last year. It is unclear what caused the delay in interviewing Mr Netanyahu, although there are suggestions state prosecutors were not clear whether a deal of the nature allegedly proposed by the Prime Minister was actually illegal.

The conversation between the pair was reported by Israeli media to have been initiated by Mr Netanyahu in an attempt to convince the newspaper publisher not to print a story about his son, Yair. The nature of the story is unclear.

Mr Netanyahu is also accused of having accepted a accepted €1 million (£850,000) from Arnaud Mimran, a French businessman currently serving eight years in prison for committing a huge carbon-tax fraud. Mimran claimed during his trial that he had given the money to Mr Netanyahu during the 2009 Israeli election campaign – something the politician has consistently denied.

Last year a spokesperson for the Israeli Prime Minister said: “Mr. Netanyahu received no prohibited contribution from Mimran. Any other claim is a lie.”

The Prime Minister did, however, admit accepting $40,000 (£33,000) from Mimran in 2001.

Following reports last month that investigators had been given permission by Mr Mandelblit to open a formal investigation into Mr Netanyahu, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister told Haaretz the allegations were “all nonsense”.

He said: “Since Netanyahu’s victory in the last elections and even before, hostile elements have used heroic efforts to attempt to bring about his downfall, with false accusations against him and his family.

“[The allegation] is absolutely false. There was nothing and there will be nothing.”

Mr Netanyahu is not the first Israeli prime minister to be accused of corruption and his allies have pointed out that such accusations have often come to nothing. Other charges have been proven, however: Ehud Olmert, for example, is currently serving an 18-month prison sentence after being convicted of breach of trust and bribery. Mr Olmert held office from 2006 to 2009 before giving way to Mr Netanyahu.

Civil servant resigns after discussing how to ‘take down pro-Palestine MPs’ with Israeli diplomat Footage secretly recorded by a media outlet appeared to show the civil servant discuss plans to ‘take down’ Tory MP

A former Westminster official has resigned after footage emerged appearing to show her discuss “taking down” pro-Palestinian MPs.

According to Independent Maria Strizzolo, who is a former chief of staff to Conservative MP Robert Halfon, was recorded talking to Israeli embassy official Shai Masot.

The footage, obtained by Al Jazeera, shows Mr. Masot say: “Can I give you some MPs that I would suggest you would take down?” In response, Ms Strizzolo appears to laugh, before responding: “Well you know, if you look hard enough, I’m sure there is something that they’re trying to hide.”

Ms. Strizzolo has reportedly now resigned from her post at the Skills Funding Agency.

Israel’s ambassador to the UK Mark Regev has apologized for Mr. Masot’s comments, describing them as “unacceptable”.

Labour has demanded an investigation to probe alleged Israeli “interference” in British politics.

During the conversation between the pair, which took place at the Aubaine restaurant near the Israeli embassy in Kensington, Mr. Masot also described Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson as “an idiot”.

Ms. Strizzolo told the Mail on Sunday that her conversation with Mr. Masot was “tongue-in-cheek and gossipy”, adding: “Any suggestion that I … could exert the type of influence you are suggesting is risible.”

She said she knew Mr. Masot “purely socially and as a friend. He is not someone with whom I have ever worked or had any political dealings beyond chatting about politics, as millions of people do, in a social context.”