Coalition risks loss of support unless it clarifies its aims
October 1, 2014 by Frederic C. Hof
In an interview with the Associated Press on Monday, Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem offered a remarkable, if dubious revelation: that Washington sent three separate messages to Damascus 24 hours in advance of the September 23 airstrikes on Islamic State (IS) targets in Syria, each one saying, “We are not after the Syrian army or the Syrian government.” One hopes that Mr. Muallem’s truthfulness in this matter is consistent with the usual standards of Bashar al-Assad’s regime. For if the supposed messages were as described, they would have been read in Damascus as a green light for the continuation of the regime’s barrel bombing, artillery shelling, and starvation sieging of areas held by mainstream Syrian rebels—the same rebels designated by President Obama as the ground component of American-led military operations against IS in Syria.
Muallem was probably either dissembling or misleading. A proper message to Damascus would have been unambiguously curt: “Coalition aircraft will soon commence operations against ISIL in Syria. Any Syrian government anti-aircraft installations detected in target acquisition mode against coalition aircraft will be engaged decisively. Any Syrian government aircraft detected in the skies during coalition operations will be considered hostile.” Regardless of what was actually said, it’s unthinkable that whatever message may have been conveyed to the regime would have been worded consistent with Mr. Muallem’s description.
Unthinkable for two reasons. First: Although Obama claims that the American intelligence community did not grasp the scope of IS’s rise in Syria, neither he nor anyone in his administration will ever express ignorance about the gross criminality of the Assad regime in Syria, and therefore will be exceedingly careful about inadvertent giving the green light for more of the same. And second: Obama has made it clear that the nationalist, mainstream armed resistance to the regime will be the aforementioned ground component against IS in Syria. Indeed, as a matter of logic and military necessity it would have made sense to end any message to Damascus with the following warning: “Barrel bombings, artillery shelling, and starvation sieges should cease immediately.”
Muallem’s mission is to sanctify that which is obscene: the illusory image of the Assad regime’s being allied with the West against IS. The West, according to Muallem in the AP interview, need not coordinate anti-IS operations with the Syrian government: “simply being informed” is good enough. “Until today,” said Muallem, “we are satisfied. As long as they are aiming at ISIS locations in Syria and Iraq, we are satisfied.” No doubt the attitude of the Assad regime toward these strikes would be different if coalition aircraft were hitting IS formations in western Syria: those supplying the hammer to the regime’s anvil against nationalist forces, mainly in and around Aleppo. But for now coalition aircraft are concentrating on IS targets about which the Assad regime is supremely indifferent. The de facto collaboration between the regime and IS against what is left of the armed nationalist opposition in Syria remains undisturbed.
Indeed, when asked about “the loose umbrella rebel group known as the Free Syrian Army,” Muallem claimed that the group “does not exist anymore.” By implying that it once existed, the Syrian foreign minister seemed to part ways with the regime narrative that it faced nothing but terrorists from the very beginning of the uprising in March 2011. Consistent with the commentary of some Western analysts critical of Obama’s decision to support the mainstream, nationalist Syrian opposition, Muallem put all of the regime’s current opponents in the same category: “They have the same ideology. They have the same extremist ideology.” Is Syria now aligned with the West against extremism? According to Muallem, “This is the fact.”
The salient fact governing today’s situation in Syria is that there would be no Islamic State were it not for the criminally sectarian manner in which the Assad regime chose to respond to peaceful political protest. This would be true even if the Assad regime had had nothing to do with sustaining Al Qaeda in Iraq during the years of American occupation. This would be true even if regime-IS collaboration on the ground in western Syria were merely happenstance: an accident produced by the existence of a common enemy. Walid al-Muallem is a skilled diplomat. Yet not even he can erase the organic link between the lawlessness of the regime he represents and the magnetic effect of IS on foreign fighters seeking jihad and some Syrian rebels seeking (among other things) breakfast and some pocket money. Not even he can make the Assad regime part of the answer for Syria.
No doubt Muallem exercised literary and diplomatic license in characterizing messages allegedly received from Washington. No doubt he has a steep hill to climb in trying to re-introduce Bashar al-Assad to polite society. Yet unless Washington finds a way to curb the murderous excess of the Assad regime and breaks the regime’s collaboration with IS in western Syria, who can guarantee that paid and unpaid apologists for the regime will not in the end succeed?
Already that which remains of the armed nationalist opposition wonders what it means to be the ground component of a coalition that bombs IS in eastern Syria while permitting IS’s partner in the western part of the country to terrorize civilians with barrel bombs, artillery, chlorine, and starvation. It is not a bad question. Any answer from the lips of Walid al-Muallem will be unsatisfactory. Yet accuracy may be something else entirely. That will depend on what the United States, Turkey, and others actually do to neutralize both forces—the regime and IS—that are causing the failure of the Syrian state.
October 1, 2014 by Bassem Barabandi and Tyler Jess Thompson
The first American bomb that fell on Syria this week started a countdown. When this clock reaches zero, the soul of the democratic movement in Syria will be lost. The strikes on ISIS have a high potential to be helpful in the fight for stability in Syria, but they can also be extremely damaging. While these strikes may harm ISIS’s short-term capability, they also boost its legitimacy and serve as a recruitment tool. No bombs have hit the assets of the Assad regime, the largest purveyor of death and chaos in Syria. As a result of this omission, the Syrian people are starting to feel a sense of betrayal. The United States and its international coalition can correct this path by taking steps to eliminate Assad’s ability to kill civilians and to empower moderate opposition forces and local governance to fill the vacuum as ISIS retreats.
Many Syrians interpret the one-sided nature of the strikes as proof of American coordination with the Assad regime and the Iranian government. It is almost certain that the United States is not coordinating with Assad in this effort. However, pro-Assad media claim there is a clear partnership. Protest signs held in Idlib and Aleppo show that many Syrians believe these strikes are helping the regime.
Assad still tortures countless people in prisons, drops bombs on civilians, and gasses thousands with no repercussions from the West. He facilitated the emergence of extremists in Syria and created a further obstruction to the Syrian people’s dreams. As a result, the Syrian people and the moderate opposition are caught between the vice grip of the Assad regime and other terrorist movements. The way that these strikes have occurred shows either a lack of awareness or a lack of respect for the needs and aspirations of the Syrian people.
In order to shift the message and outcome of this mission for the better, the United States should take the following steps within the next few days. First, the United States should coordinate with the vetted fighting groups currently supported by the train and equip program. These groups cannot be treated as mercenaries against ISIS. The United States should instead coordinate as a strategic partnership with the rebels with respect and support for their goal of counter-terrorism and an inclusive political transition in Syria. It seems America has not reached out to them during this campaign, and they are quickly becoming disillusioned.
Second, the United States should conduct outreach with Sunni tribes, local governing committees, and other groups currently under the grip of ISIS. American programs have already vetted these groups as beneficiaries of support programs over the last three years. They should be empowered to fill local civilian governance and security vacuums left by ISIS in retreat, allowing some refugees to return. The United States should provide air power to protect these newly-liberated areas against future incursions from either extremists or Assad.
Third, the United States needs to send a clear and swift threat of force to the Assad regime. This can be accomplished through hitting ISIS targets in the heart of Damascus or through a direct strike on the helicopters and planes from which Assad constantly drops barrel bombs on civilians. Assad has continued attacks on civilian targets very close to where American strikes occur. Thus far, Russia and Iran have been able to play games with the United States as a result of the unfulfilled “red line” threats of 2013. It should not be forgotten that the chemical weapons deal, though flawed, was a result of the credible threat of force from the United States. This week, Obama has shown seriousness once again on Syria. A threat of force against Assad at this stage could pressure him, or his inner circle, to accept a political transition. To achieve this transition and to purge foreign fighters, Iran and Russia will no doubt have a role to play. That said, the threat of force from the United States is the only factor that will drive these processes forward with the least manipulation from Assad’s allies.
Officials within Assad’s inner circle are not satisfied with the way his regime has managed this crisis. There are many patriotic officials in the Syrian bureaucracy who seek to oust the regime without sacrificing the government institutions needed to run and rebuild the state. This dynamic creates a ripe environment for a political transition in Syria. America must show the Syrian people that a transition towards peace and inclusivity has begun. The United States has struck extremists first, and fine. But what it does next will determine whether it will win the hearts and support of the Syrian people or forever alienate them.
Barabandi served as a diplomat for several decades in the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Thompson is an international lawyer and Policy Director at United for a Free Syria.
Beirut, September 30, 2014 by Bassem Mroue
Iran will supply the Lebanese army with military equipment to be used in fighting Muslim extremist groups, a visiting senior Iranian official said on Tuesday.
The announcement marks the first time that Iran has said it would give Lebanon military assistance. Tehran has offered help in the past but such offers did not materialize because of sharp divisions among Lebanese political groups over Iran.
Iran is the main backer of Lebanon’s militant Hezbollah group, which has a force more powerful than the Lebanese national army. The group has thousands of rockets and missiles — many of them from Iran.
Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, did not say what type of military equipment Iran would provide. He told reporters in Beirut on Tuesday that the details would be announced during an upcoming visit by Lebanon’s defense minister to Tehran.
"The state of Lebanon welcomed this grant," Shamkhani added, without elaborating.
However, a Lebanese military official told The Associated Press that any military grant from Iran to Lebanon would still need the approval of the Lebanese government. The official spoke on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.
For the past two months, the Lebanese army has been fighting Muslim militants near the border with Syria. In early August, extremists crossed into Lebanon from Syria, capturing 20 soldiers and policemen. Two of the soldiers have since been beheaded and one has been killed in captivity.
Hezbollah has used the threat posed by the Islamic State group in neighboring Syria to justify sending its militia to fight alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces.
The U.S. has also recently sent several arms shipments to Lebanese troops to fight extremists.
After Lebanon, Shamkhani is to visit neighboring Syria later Tuesday for talks with Syrian officials.
Paris, October 1, 2014 by John Irish
A Syrian Kurdish leader called on Tuesday for Western states to provide weapons to his forces fighting Islamic State in the besieged Syrian border town of Kobani, warning that his fighters were outgunned and risked massacre if help did not arrive soon.
Saleh Muslim, head of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which has close links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, said that his calls for arms had so far been rebuffed by the United States and European nations, blaming Turkey for obstructing his efforts.
"We are asking everybody who can help us to provide weapons to the people fighting against tanks and artillery, but nobody is doing anything. There will be many who are martyred," he told Reuters during a diplomatic mission to Europe.
"We have sent messages to the Europeans and the United States, but I think there are obstacles… Turkey and other countries are preventing this because they don’t want the Kurds to be able to defend themselves."
Turkey, a NATO member with long border with Syria, has so far declined to take a frontline role, fearful partly that the military action will strengthen President Bashar al-Assad and bolster the Syrian Kurdish militants allied to the outlawed PKK in Turkey who have fought for three decades for more autonomy.
This is despite an advance in the past 10 days by Islamic State fighters against the Kurdish YPG forces, the armed wing of the PYD, at Kobani, known as Ayn al-Arab in Arabic, near the frontier that has caused the fastest refugee exodus of the three-year civil war.
The Islamic State has laid siege from three sides to Kobani. The rattle of sporadic gunfire could be heard on Tuesday from across the frontier, and a shell could be seen exploding in olive groves on the western outskirts of town.
"There is heavy fighting," Muslim said. "The Kurdish forces are defending themselves with what they have in their hands to avoid a massacre… but if the Islamic State comes through the city they will destroy everything and slaughter the people.
"In a few days it will be resolved one way or another."
A steady stream of people, mostly men, were crossing the border post back into Syria on Tuesday, apparently to help defend the town. Muslim said most of them were originally from the area and had returned to defend the city after earlier fleeing to Turkey.
He said that Turkey was preventing some fighters from entering Syria and that there were no Turkish Kurds in Kobani.
Unlike in Iraq, where the U.S.-led air strikes are coordinated closely with the government and Kurdish forces, Washington has no powerful allies on the ground in Syria, making its strategy there riskier and more precarious.
"We have said that we want to be part of the coalition because if they carry out air strikes they will need people to fight on the ground," Muslim said.
The United States and its Western and Arab allies oppose Assad and are wary of helping him by hurting his enemies. They have said they will support moderate opposition forces that are part of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and its military wing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight Islamic State.
Muslim said his fighters were coordinating efforts to fight Islamic State, although the FSA was not in the Kobani region.
The $35m (£22m) Uptown development on the outskirts of Damascus includes an amusement park
Damascus, October 1, 2014 by Lina Sinjab
In the Damascus suburb of Dummar stands a four-storey building overlooking a wide residential street that has been spared the scars of war.
In the first three years of the uprising in Syria, Aliya would peer through the window, watching explosions and smoke as neighbouring areas were bombarded by government forces stationed on nearby Mount Qassioun.
But since the summer, the view has changed dramatically.
Aliya now sees people flying through the sky on a ride at a new amusement park, leisure and shopping centre called Uptown.
Most of the crowd going there is mainly watching the rides rather than going on them because very few can afford such luxury”
President Bashar al-Assad’s feared younger brother, Maher, is believed to be the main backer of the $35m (£22m) development, which was built at a time when almost half of the country’s 22 million population has been displaced and more than half are living in poverty.
The road leading to Uptown is regularly blocked by expensive cars, while its colourful lights are unaffected by the severe power cuts that plague the rest of the area.
"Most of the crowd going there is mainly watching the rides rather than going on them because very few can afford such luxury," Aliya says.
While some Syrians have welcomed Uptown, it has angered many others.
Not far away is the eastern Ghouta, an agricultural belt around Damascus from which rebels launch daily mortar attacks on the city centre in response to the government shellfire and air strikes.
There, members of religious minorities that have largely stayed loyal to President Assad have been more concerned about the reported approach of jihadist militants from Islamic State (IS), known locally in Arabic as Daish.
A few weeks ago, hundreds of residents of Dukhani and Dwaila in the Ghouta fled after members of the National Defence Forces (NDF), a pro-government militia, warned them of the imminent threat from a group that considers Shia Muslims heretics and has told members of other faiths that they must convert to Islam, pay special taxes or die.
October 1, 2014 by Ken Dilanian
The Pentagon is grappling with significant intelligence gaps as it bombs Iraq and Syria, and it is operating under less restrictive targeting rules than those President Barack Obama imposed on the CIA drone campaign in Pakistan and Yemen, according to current and former U.S. officials.
The U.S. military says its airstrikes have been discriminating and effective in disrupting an al-Qaida cell called the Khorasan Group and in halting the momentum of Islamic State militants. But independent analysts say the Islamic State group remains on the offensive in areas of Iraq and Syria, where it still controls large sections. And according to witnesses, U.S. airstrikes have at times hit empty buildings that were long ago vacated by Islamic State fighters.
Human rights groups also say coalition airstrikes in both countries have killed as many as two dozen civilians. U.S. officials say they can’t rule out civilian deaths but haven’t confirmed any.
"We do take extreme caution and care in the conduct of these missions," Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, told reporters Tuesday. "But there’s risk in any military operation. There’s a special kind of risk when you do air operations."
Military officials acknowledge that they are relying mainly on satellites, drones and surveillance flights to pinpoint targets, assess the damage afterward and determine whether civilians were killed.
That stands in sharp contrast to the networks of bases, spies and ground-based technology the U.S. had in place during the height of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials say.
As a result, “it’s much harder for us to be able to know for sure what it is we’re hitting, what it is we’re killing and what it is collateral damage,” said Tom Lynch, a retired colonel and former adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is now a fellow at the National Defense University.
In Iraq, the U.S. is relying for ground reports on the Iraqi military and intelligence services, whose insights into Islamic State-controlled territory are limited.
In Syria, the U.S. is not coordinating the strikes with the main moderate opposition group, the Free Syrian Army, even though it has backed that group with weapons and training, said Andrew Tabler, who follows the conflict for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The CIA is generally unwilling to send American intelligence officers into Syria, and partner Arab intelligence services are often focused on their own agendas.
The intelligence gaps raise questions about the effectiveness of the strikes and about whether the current strategy will achieve the administration’s goal of defeating the Islamic State group.
The group has begun adapting to U.S. airstrikes by seeking to conceal itself, move at night and blend in with civilians, Pentagon officials say.
"They’re a smart adversary," said Air Force Maj. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, briefing reporters at the Pentagon this week.
In terms of tracking the movements of militants, U.S. intelligence coverage of Syria and Iraq is not as good as it was in Pakistan and Yemen at the height of covert CIA drone campaigns there, officials say.
At the same time, the military’s targeting rules are less restrictive. Under rules Obama announced in May 2013, no drone strike would occur without a “near certainty” that civilians would not be harmed. White House spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the near-certainty standard does not govern U.S. strikes underway in Syria and Iraq. It was intended to apply “only when we take direct action outside areas of active hostilities,” she said in a statement.
What’s happening in Iraq and Syria right now is an armed conflict, Hayden said, and targeting is undertaken in compliance with the international law of war. The law of war requires militaries to take precautions to avoid killing noncombatants, but it does not hold them to a near-certainty standard.
After the near-certainty standard was imposed on drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, the frequency of strikes dropped precipitously, and the use of so-called signature strikes — attacks aimed at large groups of armed men who fit the profile of militants but whose names were not all known to the CIA — was curtailed.
There have been just nine drone strikes in Pakistan this year, according to Long War Journal, a website that tracks the strikes based on media reports. That is down from a high of 110 strikes in 2010.
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, a London-based group that has been critical of drone strikes, found no instance of civilian casualties in Pakistan in 2013 after the policy took effect.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which opposes the Syrian government, says U.S. airstrikes have killed up to 19 civilians, including several when bombs hit a grain silo Sunday in the town of Manbij.
In Iraq, according to a report in by the National Iraqi News Agency, four civilians were killed in a U.S. airstrike Sept. 26 in Mosul.
Pentagon spokesman Col. Steve Warren said this week that the U.S was investigating the reports of civilian casualties but that, so far, “we’ve found nothing to corroborate” that civilians have been killed.
The U.S. has relied on intelligence-gathering technology — or ISR, which stands for “intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance” — such as satellites, drones and overhead surveillance flights to determine whether there have been civilian casualties. Few if any human spotters are believed to be on the ground assessing the results of U.S. and coalition airstrikes.
Warren acknowledged that the Pentagon could not say for sure that every person killed in the bombing of Iraq and Syria has been a combatant.
"The evidence is going to be inconclusive often," he said. "Remember, we’re using ISR to determine the battle damage assessment."
Jennifer Cafarella, the top Syria analyst with the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, said the Syrian Observatory reports are generally regarded as credible.
"I think it is likely," she said, "that airstrikes will inevitably result in some civilian casualties."
Source: Business Insider
The safe haven will not include any region in northern Syria that is under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). AA Photo
Turkey is drawing up plans for a safe haven on the border in Syria that will secure regions controlled by the Free Syrian Army and the Islamic Front, possibly manned only by Turkish troops, according to security sources.
Ankara would prefer any safe haven to be established by U.S.–led coalition forces, but the Turkish Armed Forces is preparing to establish a safe haven even unaccompanied by foreign troops, sources said.
The safe haven will not include any region in northern Syria that is under the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL), so the Turkish forces will not come into contact with those groups, they added.
Turkey is willing to declare a safe haven in Syria in order to contain the mass influx of Syrians into Turkish territory before they cross into the border. Ankara also plans to transfer Syrian refugees that are currently taking shelter in Turkish territory to new camps in the intended safe haven in northern Syria.
Meanwhile, the Turkish government is set to ask Parliament for authorization to allow foreign soldiers to use its bases for cross-border incursions against Islamic State militants, and to send Turkish troops into Syria and Iraq.
“Information that ISIS and the Nusra Front exist in Jezzine is not true,” says Ajaj Haddad. (AFP Photo/Ali Diya)
September 25, 2014 by Nadine Elali
Hezbollah is believed to be arming Christian groups affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) in villages east of Saida under the pretext of thwarting an Islamic State (ISIS) threat in Jezzine. While some officials and residents deny these claims, others believe that the move – although perhaps limited to FPM affiliates – is meant to bolster Hezbollah’s resistance brigades in the area and implicate Christian Lebanese in the Shiite party’s fight against Sunni Islamic groups.
NOW met with a social and human rights activist in Saida, who, on condition of anonymity, said that secret meetings have been taking place in private homes in Jezzine between Hezbollah officials and FPM affiliates on the issue of security. According to the source, Hezbollah is believed to be establishing Christian resistance brigades among local Christians whose cadres and members are affiliated with the Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) similar to those formed in Saida and elsewhere in Lebanon. “Under the pretext of thwarting threats from the Islamic State and Nusra Front sleeper cells,” he told NOW, “Hezbollah is arming young Christian men in order to guard their villages for a monthly salary of $500, along with ammunition.”
In an interview with the Lebanese Broadcast Channel, MTV, Change and Reform parliamentary bloc MP Ziad Aswad refuted these allegations, saying that they are an attempt to distort the party’s image and political stances. FPM’s head of security, Joseph Farhat, said that the party’s leadership rejects the idea of arming Christians, but according to local media outlet Janoubia, he did confirm that area residents – though maybe not on a large scale – are actually buying weapons.
A delegation from Hezbollah’s political bureau, headed by Ghaleb Abou Zeinab, visited Christian clergymen from Saida and Jezzine earlier this month to discuss the issue of security. Some days later, the same delegation met with prominent officials, municipality heads and mayors from the area. NOW spoke to Nicolas Andraos, head of Salhieh Municipality, and to Bishop Elie Haddad of the Catholic Diocese, both of whom were present at the meetings. They told NOW that Hezbollah’s delegates made no mention of arming but stressed a need for groups to put political differences aside and “unite against the Islamic State’s threat to Lebanon.” They also expressed the party’s command readiness “to collaborate with locals in order to thwart such threats.”
The FPM and their allies control 55% of the Federation of Municipalities of Jezzine, whereas the Lebanese Forces (LF) and their allies control 45%, as of the Federation’s elections in 2010. NOW spoke to Ajaj Haddad, an LF member whose family has presided over Roum’s municipality for decades and who is well-informed on political and security activities in the region.
Haddad says that LF supporters in Jezzine reject the idea of carrying arms and believe that security is the responsibility of the state and state institutions alone. “Others,” he said – in reference to Aounists who are arming – “are only a few and are not representative of the majority of Christians.”
Haddad went on to say that while rumors of Nusra Front and ISIS sleeper cells in Lebanon have reinforced a general fear among the Lebanese public, their circulation in tandem with news of Lebanese Army raids on Syrian workers’ households are meant to reinforce a sense of threat by Islamic forces against Christians in particular. “Information that ISIS and the Nusra Front exist in Jezzine,” he said, “is not true,” adding that Syrians were arrested recently for purportedly entering Lebanon illegally, with some being released and others transferred to General Security.
Hezbollah, Haddad says, is “spreading this propaganda and exerting these efforts today, to justify the party’s existence.” Since 2007, he continued, “the party has been committing grave mistakes and its interference in the Syrian war has turned the Lebanese against it. Hezbollah’s plan to arm groups is meant to create more chaos in Lebanon to weaken the state and justify Hezbollah’s need to continue carrying arms – and what better pretext is there today than the threat of the Islamic State?”
“This is an opportunity for Hezbollah to approach people again by warning them of the fear of ISIS and offering their help for protection,” he said. “If such threats from the Islamic State do exist, then why didn’t Hezbollah protect the border when it had the chance to? when it won battles in Qusayr and in Qalamoun? And why is Hezbollah today against the alliance to combat the Islamic State?”
NOW’s social activist source in Saida agrees, saying that Hezbollah is trying to implicate Lebanese Christians in its battles against Sunni Islamic groups by using ISIS as a pretext for them to carry arms.
“We’ve had our experiences with arms,” says Haddad, “and we have come to the conclusion that the fight for existence is not one fought with weapons – Hezbollah needs to understand that. They are dragging us into committing the same mistakes we committed before during the civil war, but we won’t.”
Karaca, September 27, 2014 by Anne Barnard and Mark Landler
No American ally is closer to the threat of the Islamic State than Turkey, and no country could play a more important role in a coalition that President Obama is assembling to combat the extremist Sunni militants. Yet Turkey has been reluctant to enlist, in part because of the desperate conflict playing out on its border with Syria.
On hilltops within sight of frontier outposts like this one, black-clad Islamic State fighters have been battling for the last week with Kurdish militants defending Kobani, a besieged Kurdish area that has become the prize in a fierce strugglebetween Syria’s embattled Kurds and the rampaging Islamic State militants. Turkish fighters have watched from behind the border fence.
It is a violent, murky situation, with the Turkish authorities preventing Kurds from crossing into Syria to help their Kurdish brethren fight, while Syrian Kurds are fleeing into Turkey to escape the militants. The chaos on the border, and Turkey’s ambivalent reaction, is a reflection of Turkey’s complex role in the Syrian civil war raging to its south. Turkey is caught between conflicting interests: defeating Islamic militants across its border while not enhancing the power of its own Kurdish separatists.
Cars abandoned by Syrian Kurdish refugees were parked at a border position, with a Turkish armored vehicle nearby. Nearly 150,000 refugees from Kobani have crossed in the last week. Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
The dilemma played out on Saturday here as outgunned Kurdish fighters battled the militants at close range, within several hundred yards of the border fence. At the same time, the United States conducted its first strikes against the Islamic State moving into Kobani villages from another direction.
Mr. Obama wants Turkey to stop the flow of foreign fighters traveling through the country to join the Islamic State. As a NATO ally, Turkey could also take part in military operations and provide bases from which to carry out airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
Turkish leaders have condemned the brutality of the Islamic State, but they worry that the American-led campaign against the militants will strengthen the Syrian Kurds, whose fighters maintain ties to Kurdish separatists in Turkey. Adding to that pressure is the fact that the United States is allied with Kurds in Iraq.
After intense lobbying by the Obama administration at the United Nations General Assembly last week, Turkey finally appears ready to take a more active role in the fight.
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who met with Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Thursday, returned home to declare that Turkey would no longer be a bystander. “Our religion does not allow the killing of innocent people,” he said. But on Saturday, in comments published in the newspaper Hurriyet, Mr. Erdogan said Turkey would defend its frontier pending authorization of military action in Syria expected at a special meeting of the Turkish Parliament on Thursday.
But the recruitment has been arduous, and Turkey’s military role is likely to be constrained by its complex interests in Syria. In a statement, the Obama administration said Mr. Biden and Mr. Erdogan had discussed the urgency of building a broad-based coalition to defeat the Islamic State “through a variety of means, including military actions.”
Mr. Obama did not meet Mr. Erdogan in New York, but called him from Air Force One to thank Turkey for taking care of “the massive influx of refugees flowing into Turkey, including tens of thousands this week alone.”
Turkey was initially reluctant to take an openly aggressive stance toward the Islamic State, because the militants had taken 46 Turkish citizens and three Iraqis hostage in Mosul, Iraq. On Sept. 20, Turkey obtained the release of the hostages in a covert intelligence operation. The circumstances of the release were murky — there were reports that Turkey had swapped prisoners for the hostages — but the return of the Turkish captives nevertheless stirred hopes that Turkey would feel less constrained in acting against the group.
Turkey’s most immediate concern, however, is the rise of tensions on its border. The United States and its Arab allies have carried out numerous airstrikes in eastern Syria, but until Saturday there had been no attacks around Kobani, a collection of mostly Kurdish farming villages, also known as Ayn al-Arab. Kurdish fighters had issued urgent calls for help, saying they had only light weapons and were struggling to hold off the extremists, whose fighters are armed with tanks and artillery.
Kurds on both sides of the border were angry that the United States did not do more earlier to protect Kobani, especially since an assault on Kurds from the minority Yazidi religious sect in Sinjar, Iraq, last month triggered the first American airstrikes against the Islamic State. Some Kurds suspected that the United States was ignoring Kobani to mollify Turkey.
A Turkish political analyst said the scenes at the border raised the possibility that Turkey sees the Kurds, and the semiautonomous zone they have carved out around Kobani during three years of civil war in Syria, as “a greater threat” than the Islamic State, which has seized parts of Iraq and Syria, imposing harsh rule in areas under its control.
Those competing priorities, said the analyst, Soli Ozel, a newspaper columnist and a lecturer at Kadir Has University in Istanbul, were likely among the remaining “sticking points” with the United States.
“Turkey will do something militarily,” he said, citing Mr. Erdogan’s comments to Hurriyet that he would consider using Turkish ground forces to set up a secure zone inside Syria. But one of Turkey’s goals, Mr. Ozel said, might be “to crush or dissolve the Syrian Kurdish autonomous zone” or to dilute its Kurdish identity by resettling the 1.5 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey — the vast majority of them Arabs — in the area. Several male residents of Kobani said in recent days that they had brought their families to safety in Turkey and planned to head back to fight. Some, presenting themselves as civilians, were allowed into Turkey after checks at a border post.
“If they need to locate them, I can insert a smart chip in my heart and go to the Islamic State fighters,” said Hajjar Sheikh Mohammad, 22, a Syrian Kurd trying to return to Syria to fight, suggesting that he would sacrifice himself to spot Islamic State targets.
On Friday, as the Islamic State fighters came closer, large crowds gathered on both sides of the border fence and broke it down. Hundreds of people streamed across. Entering Turkey were women, children and older men, one leading a cow. Entering Syria were hundreds of men, some carrying backpacks, one riding a motorcycle.
At first, the police and army forces withdrew, and the atmosphere was almost jovial, with people singing and standing on the fence. But then security forces returned, firing tear-gas canisters. A crowd of perhaps 1,000 people scattered in panic, and the security forces continued firing tear gas as the crowd fled on foot and in cars.
On Saturday, Syrian and Turkish Kurds cheered from hilltops dotted with fig and olive trees and foxholes as Kurdish fighters scaled a ridge and fired a heavy machine gun mounted on a pickup truck. Muzzle flashes could be seen as Islamic State fighters returned fire and zipped toward the front line in cars and on motorcycles.
Kurds argued with a Turkish officer who refused to let them cross.
“We are fighting on your behalf,” the soldier said. “You are not fighting,” one man said. “Aren’t we all Turkish, from the same nation?”
Complicating the geopolitical issues is the fact that the Kurdish militants defending Kobani, the People’s Protection Units, are linked to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., the Turkey-based Kurdish militia that Turkey and the United States consider a terrorist group.
But the Kurdish militants in Kobani and Afrin further west have been among the more effective groups in Syria at carving out safe areas where Christians and Muslims have lived in relative safety and harmony.
Mr. Obama’s top military adviser, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, has suggested that the Kurds could be a ground force partner in Syria much as they have been in Iraq.
Though that prospect unsettles the Turks, some longtime experts say that Turkey’s interest in defeating the Islamic State is ultimately no different than that of the United States and its allies, even if it avoids military action.
“Perhaps Turkey will come to judge that they should participate or overtly support other allies in the airstrikes,” said Francis J. Ricciardone, who recently retired as the American ambassador to Turkey, “but less visible forms of support also can be important.”
Source: The New York Times
United Nations, September 30, 2014
The United States is focusing its efforts on defeating Islamic State militants wreaking havoc in Iraq and Syria but has not changed its position that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations said on Tuesday.
The United States and five Arab allies began bombing Islamic State positions in Syria this month. The group, which is also known as ISIL and ISIS, has seized vast areas of Syria and Iraq and is accused of massacres and beheadings of civilians and soldiers.
"We continue to believe that the Assad regime is a magnet for terrorism," Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters. "The moderate Syrian opposition provides the best alternative to the Assad regime and the best counterweight to ISIL."
"We did not see over these last years anywhere near the same effort by the regime to take on ISIL that we have seen by the moderate opposition groups at great expense for them, at great sacrifice," she added.
Power said the moderate opposition has “engaged in pitched battles against ISIL” since December. She noted that Washington has concluded that Assad’s government is neither willing to nor capable of defeating Islamic State, which she said had enjoyed a safe haven in Syria for a long time.
Despite the U.S. position that Assad must go, the current priority, Power said, is defeating the hard-line Sunni Islamist militants of Islamic State, an operation that diplomats and analysts say will benefit Assad’s government in the short term.
"We are focused now on the monstrous threat posed by ISIL," Power said. "This is a threat that has cost not only the lives of two American journalists but an untold number of Syrian and Iraqi lives, also by summary execution and by beheading and so forth."
So far, air strikes by the United States and allies have failed to halt the militants’ expansion into new territory.
Islamic State militants have beheaded two U.S. journalists and one British aid worker and distributed videos of the killings on line.
Residents inspect damaged buildings in what activists say was a U.S. strike in Kafr Daryan, in Syria’s Idlib Province, on Sept. 23, 2014. (REUTERS/Abdalghne Karoof)
The White House has acknowledged for the first time that strict standards President Obama imposed last year to prevent civilian deaths from U.S. drone strikes will not apply to U.S. military operations in Syria and Iraq.
A White House statement to Yahoo News confirming the looser policy came in response to questions about reports that as many as a dozen civilians, including women and young children, were killed when a Tomahawk missile struck the village of Kafr Daryan in Syria’s Idlib province on the morning of Sept. 23.
The village has been described by Syrian rebel commanders as a reported stronghold of the al-Qaida-linked Nusra Front where U.S officials believed members of the so-called Khorasan group were plotting attacks against international aircraft.
But at a briefing for members and staffers of the House Foreign Affairs Committee late last week, Syrian rebel commanders described women and children being hauled from the rubble after an errant cruise missile destroyed a home for displaced civilians. Images of badly injured children also appeared on YouTube, helping to fuelanti-U.S. protests in a number of Syrian villages last week.
“They were carrying bodies out of the rubble. … I saw seven or eight ambulances coming out of there,” said Abu Abdo Salabman, a political member of one of the Free Syria Army factions, who attended the briefing for Foreign Affairs Committee members and staff. “We believe this was a big mistake.”
Asked about the strike at Kafr Daryan, a U.S. Central Command spokesman said Tuesday that U.S. military “did target a Khorasan group compound near this location. However, we have seen no evidence at this time to corroborate claims of civilian casualties.” But Caitlin Hayden, a spokesperson for the National Security Council, told Yahoo News that Pentagon officials “take all credible allegations seriously and will investigate” the reports.
At the same time, however, Hayden said that a much-publicized White House policy that President Obama announced last year barring U.S. drone strikes unless there is a “near certainty” there will be no civilian casualties — “the highest standard we can meet,” he said at the time — does not cover the current U.S. airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.
The “near certainty” standard was intended to apply “only when we take direct action ‘outside areas of active hostilities,’ as we noted at the time,” Hayden said in an email. “That description — outside areas of active hostilities — simply does not fit what we are seeing on the ground in Iraq and Syria right now.”
Hayden added that U.S. military operations against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in Syria, “like all U.S. military operations, are being conducted consistently with the laws of armed conflict, proportionality and distinction.”
The laws of armed conflict prohibit the deliberate targeting of civilian areas and require armed forces to take precautions to prevent inadvertent civilian deaths as much as possible.
But one former Obama administration official said the new White House statement raises questions about how the U.S. intends to proceed in the conflict in Syria and Iraq, and under what legal authorities.
“They seem to be creating this grey zone” for the conflict, said Harold Koh, who served as the State Department’s top lawyer during President Obama’s first term. “If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.”
Questions about civilian deaths from U.S. counterterrorism operations have confronted the Obama administration from the outset, after the president sharply ramped up drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, resulting in sometimes heated internal policy debates.
Addressing the subject last year in a speech at the National Defense University, Obama acknowledged for the first time that U.S. strikes have resulted in civilian casualties, adding: “For me and those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live.”
Sources familiar with the new “near certainty” standard Obama announced at the time said that, as a practical matter, it meant that every drone strike had to be signed off on by the White House — first by Lisa Monaco, Obama’s chief homeland security adviser, and ultimately by the president himself. The policy, one source said, caused some Pentagon officials to chafe at the new restrictions — and led to a noticeable reduction in such strikes by the military and the CIA.
While the White House has said little about the standards it is using for strikes in Syria and Iraq, one former official who has been briefed on the matter said the looser policy gives more discretion to theater commanders at the U.S. Central Command to select targets without the same level of White House oversight.
The issue arose during last week’s briefing for two House Foreign Affairs Committee members and two staffers when rebel leaders associated with factions of the Free Syria Army complained about the civilian deaths — and the fact that the targets were in territory controlled by the Nusra Front, a sometimes ally of the U.S.-backed rebels in its war with the Islamic State and the Syrian regime.
But at least one of the House members present, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Illinois Republican who supports stronger U.S. action in Syria, said he was not overly concerned. “I did hear them say there were civilian casualties, but I didn’t get details,” Kinzinger said in an interview with Yahoo News. “But nothing is perfect,” and whatever civilian deaths resulted from the U.S. strikes are “much less than the brutality of the Assad regime.”
Credit Bryan Denton for The New York Times
Mursitpinar, September 29, 2014 by Anne Barnard
There is a wistfulness to standing here on the border and looking across the yellow, rolling fields and olive groves that sweep from Turkey into northern Syria, a place my colleagues and I cannot go.
Early in the morning, as the fields seem to glow and all is quiet, you seem far from war until the Turkish police drive up for their daily shift, standing in a line with riot shields in case crowds of refugees should charge the border.
The thud of artillery and the percussion of heavy machine guns can be heard in the distance as Islamic State militants close in. A year ago, when the possibility of being kidnapped by the extremists — or by myriad other criminal and insurgent groups — shifted from a manageable risk to a near-certainty, many news organizations, including The Times, declared northern Syria off limits for their correspondents.
That leaves us reporting a war from around its edges: traveling on visas to government-held Syria, interviewing people over the phone and by messaging, and circling the rim of the conflict to peer at it from the outside — from Iraqi Kurdistan, from Jordan, from Lebanon. And now, as American airstrikes hit Syria for the first time, we are driving the rutted roads that trace the border with Turkey, looking for the ripple effects of this new entry into the war.
From the border, the story of the airstrikes is also a story of absence. You cannot see nor hear the United States’s attacks far to the east and west. There have been none close by, despite the pleas of Syrian Kurds for help in stopping the assault on their villages. The Islamic State fighters, too, are largely unseen, though one of their black flags flutters within sight of a farmhouse, just behind a chain-link border fence. One of them is hiding right now, a farmer tells us, in a Turkish army watchtower.
A polite argument ensues. He considers it an obligation of hospitality to lead us closer, to get a better look. We try to explain the calculus that makes the risk not worth the modest reward: a closer glimpse but not close enough for a publishable picture. Stymied and no doubt convinced we are tenderfoot cowards — his family’s laundry is flapping on a line a hundred yards closer to the terrorist group’s territory, after all — he invites us for tea instead.
The war seems even further away in Gaziantep, an industrial city an hour from the border that has become a base for aid groups and Syrian opposition groups. Its wide boulevards are lined with colonnades of plane trees and vast, gleaming shopping malls, monuments to a booming country that sees itself as a rising power. The well-maintained buses, trams and public parks speak of a state in control — dazzling to me when I visit from Lebanon, where government is rickety and notional, and ample public transportation, parks and city planning are only a dream.
Yet for all that, Turkey’s deep state has not been so efficient when it comes to border control, leading opponents of the government — including Turkish Kurds fearful for relatives across the border — to accuse it of aiding the Islamic State. Fighters from around the world pass through to join the group. Many blend in along the way, saving tunics and long beards for the Syrian towns where militant fighters throng Internet cafes and shops cater to them with Afghan-style caps.
Even in this manicured city, one can spot people who might be among them, speaking in various dialects of Arabic on cellphones. “I’ve shaved my beard and now I’m drinking tea,” went one snatch of conversation; the speaker mentioned being smuggled out of Syria, and his lower face was paler than the rest.
Turkey has a long history of conflict with separatist Kurdish militias here where their communities straddle both countries. Authorities are blocking roads, on the lookout for Kurdish citizens of Turkey headed for the border. Many are trying to enter Syria to fight the Islamic State alongside a Kurdish militia that has ties to the Turkey-based PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, separatists the Turkish government considers to be terrorists. Many Kurds consider the government’s interference evidence of their theory that it created the Islamic State to kill them.
The police are jumpy. On Friday, our colleague, Bryan Denton, was knocked down in a stampede as police fired tear gas into a crowd, aiming the canisters dangerously close to head level. Hundreds of Kurds had broken through a fence and streamed across: fighters in, refugees out.
But in these towns, also mostly Kurdish, refugees openly sing PKK anthems. Kurdish men are happy to declare, on the record, their plans to sneak in and fight. As a howling wind whipped dirt into his face from loosely plowed fields, one man described how a group of 15 had recently dug up a border-fence post and headed in. He mentioned plans to open a supply line from Iraqi Kurdistan.
The dirt whips into thick yellow clouds as refugee children, crying, receive vaccines at a medical tent. Turkish guards search the belongings of families as they trickle in through the official crossing. Turkish officials register them, and they clamber into cars and buses or hitchhike away, many headed for relatives in other cities.
Nearly 150,000 have entered in a week, but besides the few thousand sleeping in mosques and public buildings in the border town of Suruc, they have melted away among the hundreds of thousands already across Turkey — yet another absence, another ripple from the war hiding in plain sight.
But by the haphazard logic of war, there are also those who want to go back home, no matter what. Dozens milled around one afternoon at another crossing, pleading to be let in by Turkish guards. One stooped, elderly man wore a pinstriped suit yellowed with dust and carried his belongings in a burlap sack. Nearby, a woman waited, holding a baby girl wearing gold, star-shaped earrings.
“Better we die in our homes,” said another man in the crowd, Abu Hishaar. “On our soil.”
But on Saturday, the war came much closer. From the border fence, we watched Kurdish fighters, black dots on a yellow hill, climb a ridge and fire a heavy machine gun from the back of a pickup truck as Islamic State fighters less than a mile from them zipped to the front on motorcycles. A crowd of Kurdish men cheered from a hilltop in Turkey when the Kurdish fighters fired, and groaned when shots fell short. Turkish soldiers, and refugees trapped on the Syrian side of the fence, also looked on. By Monday, shells were not only hitting the main town of Kobani, but landing in Turkish fields.
One couple who had returned to Kobani that morning turned around and returned to the refugee crossing. Their daughter Marga, 2, wore a gray flannel dress with a blue bow, yellow dust clinging to its nubby fabric. Tears of frustration reddened her father’s eyes.
Then a Turkish official stormed through with a phalanx of television cameras, practically stepping on the family. He was wearing a fuchsia tie and a shirt so blindingly white that he looked like a paper cutout superimposed on the dusty scene. He bent down to pat the girl and acted like he was starting a conversation with the parents, but as soon as photos were taken, cut off and rushed away.
When the dust cleared, the previously friendly family, didn’t want to talk to us any more. “Leave us alone,” the mother said. “We’re dealing with enough.”
But the Kurds remain determined. Even sitting in the dirt at a refugee transit point, Salikha Bouzan, 57, exuded warmth and toughness. She had fled Kobani with her son and grandchildren after the Islamic State shelled her town. She left behind the graves of her husband and a daughter who had died at the age of 4.
“ISIS already kidnapped her once,” her son joked. “But she was too much trouble, so they let her go. ”
Source: The New York Times
September 30, 2014 by Emily Kassie
In the early morning hours of June 9, 2011, Raed Saleh fled for his life. With his wife and two young children by his side, Saleh, then 30, estimates he was one of 2,200 Syrian refugees to cross into Turkey within a 72-hour period.
"We crossed the border at 3 a.m.," Saleh said in an interview with The Huffington Post last week. He remembers the time for a reason: It was the moment he attained relative safety for himself and his family. Crossing into Turkey meant they had successfully outrun the Syrian army’s airstrikes. Saleh never imagined it would one day be his job to run back toward the bombing.
But three years after he escaped from Syria, that’s exactly what this former electronics merchant is doing. Saleh left his family in Turkey and returned to Syria to become a member of the White Helmets, a group of local volunteers who carry out search-and-rescue operations amid the country’s increasing violence and mounting destruction.
The White Helmets, also known as the Syrian Civil Defence, are apolitical, refusing to align themselves with any one group or military faction. Founding members of the White Helmets were trained by the Red Cross, and the Syria Campaign, a nonprofit registered in the U.K., helps coordinate fundraising efforts for the group.
"We work with everybody to help everybody," Saleh said. Not concerned with the allegiances of the bombers or of those bombed, their focus is saving lives — and they routinely put their own lives on the line to do it.
"When we hear the sound of an airplane, we respond quickly. We ask civilians where the bombing took place. We ask the neighbors if they know if there is still anybody under the destruction," Saleh explained. "Sometimes we’re able to rescue lives, when we have the proper equipment. And sometimes we can’t."
In the three years since the start of the Syrian civil war, an estimated 191,000 lives have been lost, according to a United Nations report released in August — although the report noted that the real number is likely higher.
When it comes to death and dying, Saleh has seen more than his fair share. The weapons of war in Syria — shelling, chlorine gas, barrel bombs — are inaccurate, indiscriminate and incredibly destructive. That’s precisely why Saleh believes the work of the White Helmets is so important. By going where nobody else will go, the more than 1,000 members of the group serve as a source of hope in otherwise hopeless situations.
Saleh takes immense pride in being a member of the group, but he acknowledged that the work is physically and emotionally exhausting — not to mention dangerous. According to the group’s website, more than two dozen members of the White Helmets have been killed in the past four months.
"It’s difficult, our work, but we will continue our work to rescue people. We will continue our mission. But of course, we feel pain," he told HuffPost. "We deal with […] burned bodies all day. We dream of a day that children will be able to go safely to their schools […] so that people can live without fear, without waiting for a bomb to fall."
"We dream of peace," Saleh continued. "We want to continue our mission and our job even in peacetime, but then we might respond to fight fires in roads or respond to a fire in a kitchen, in a house. But we don’t want to see blood anymore."
Until that day comes, Saleh insists that while others are running away from the violence, he and the White Helmets will continue running toward it.
Source: The Huffington Post