Iraqi official briefs Syria’s Assad on campaign against ISIS

Reuters reports: Iraq’s national security adviser briefed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on efforts to counter Islamic State on Tuesday, Syrian state media reported, the first such meeting since the United States launched air strikes on the radical group in Iraq.

The United States and other Western governments have dismissed the idea of cooperating with Syria in the fight against Islamic State, which has seized large areas of Iraq and Syria. Western governments see Assad as part of the problem and say he must leave power.

But the Shi’ite-led government in Baghdad, together with Iran and the Lebanese group Hezbollah, have been important allies for Assad since the uprising against his rule erupted in 2011. Shi’ite Iraqi militias have fought on Assad’s side against the insurgency spearheaded by Sunni Islamists.

The meeting between Faleh al-Fayad, the Iraqi national security adviser, and Assad indicated that the Iraqi government aims to maintain those ties. It also points to the scope for possible indirect cooperation between Syria and the West in the fight against Islamic State via third parties such as Iraq. [Continue reading...]

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War on ISIS will be long and difficult, top defense officials tell Senate

McClatchy reports: In their first public briefing since President Barack Obama laid out his new strategy for defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the nation’s two top defense officials on Tuesday provided few details of their plans and no guarantees of success.

Instead, in response to questions from members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, laid out a litany of likely obstacles to the president’s plan that were daunting in their breadth.

There is no guarantee that Iraqi military forces can be reconstituted to become an effective force against the Islamic State, they said. There’s no certainty a U.S.-trained Syrian force will choose to fight the Islamic State ahead of the government of President Bashar Assad, they said.

Indeed, the chances of success are far less in Syria than in Iraq, Dempsey said, as Hagel nodded agreement. “Five thousand alone is not going to be able to turn the tide,” Hagel said, referring to the number of Syrian rebels likely to be trained under a proposed U.S. program.

Even the pledge that no American soldiers would engage in ground combat operations seemed tenuous. Dempsey said he could foresee circumstances where American advisers would join Iraqi troops, for example, if the Iraqis tried to recapture Mosul, in what he called “close combat advising.”

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey told the committee. [Continue reading...]

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Turkey considers buffer zone along its Iraq, Syria border

Daily Sabah reports: Turkey’s military is studying the prospect of establishing a buffer zone along its border with Syria and Iraq amid the escalating threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was quoted as saying yesterday. The government will evaluate the plans and decide whether such a move is necessary, Turkish television stations quoted Erdoğan as telling reporters on his plane as he returned from an official visit to Qatar.

A presidency official confirmed that Erdoğan had made such remarks but did not specify where along the border the zone might be established and gave no further details. “The general staff is carrying out inspections on whether a buffer zone could be viable, but there is nothing concrete yet,” an official said on the condition of anonymity. Turkey, a NATO member and Washington’s key ally in the region, has been reluctant to take part in combat operations against ISIS, or allow the U.S.-led coalition to use its airbases for strikes against the extremists because the group is holding 49 Turkish nationals hostage, including diplomats and children. [Continue reading...]

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New reality for Israelis on Golan Heights: Islamists now control the other side

McClatchy reports: The green and white flag fluttering above a border checkpoint not far from the Ein Zivan kibbutz on a recent afternoon symbolized the new reality that has taken hold for Israelis who live on the Golan Heights: Islamist rebels now control areas of Syria on the very doorstep of Israeli-controlled land.

For now, the groups, which include al-Qaida’s Nusra Front, are focused on consolidating their positions and pushing toward the Syrian capital, Damascus. But there are worries in Israel that once the Islamist militants establish control, they will turn their guns toward the Israeli-held sector of the Golan.

“Right now it’s not on their agenda, but it’s inevitable,” said Eyal Zisser, an expert on Syria at Tel Aviv University.

Just how big a threat the rebels fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad are to Israel remains an open topic. Israel has tried to remain aloof from the war in Syria, except to blast Syrian government convoys from the air that Israeli officials feared were transferring sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah, Israel’s Lebanese nemesis. Israel’s reaction even to the beheading by the Islamic State of American journalist Steven Sotloff, who held Israeli citizenship, was muted; officials explained they didn’t want to become embroiled in the conflict.

But with the capture Aug. 27 of the Syrian side of the Quneitra border crossing, Islamist rebels now occupy land adjacent to the Israeli section of the strategic plateau, changing the calculus of concern. Despite attempts by the Syrian army to reassert control, the rebels have captured more villages near the Israeli-held Golan, raising the prospect that the frontier area will become a stronghold of Islamist groups. [Continue reading...]

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Kurds retake Christian villages from ISIS

AFP reports: Kurdish peshmerga forces on Tuesday recaptured several Christian villages in northern Iraq in clashes with Islamic State (IS) jihadists, an officer and a cleric said.

Tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians, most of them Chaldeans, fled their homes when IS militants launched a renewed drive in the north in early August.

Iraq’s largest Christian town, Qaraqosh, and dozens of other villages were all but emptied in what Christian leaders described as the worst disaster for the minority in centuries. [Continue reading...]

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Thousands of Gazans fleeing to Europe, hundreds die at sea

Haaretz reports: Thousands of Palestinians have left the Gaza Strip for Europe using tunnels, traffickers and boats, testimonies obtained by Haaretz show.

Gazans have been fleeing the Strip since the beginning of Operation Protective Edge, but their escape was hardly covered in the media since they have been leaving clandestinely, with the help of paid smugglers.

The sinking of two ships carrying Palestinians from Gaza — one off the coast of Malta last week, and the other off the coast of Egypt — and the drowning of hundreds of passengers have focused attention on the trend.

The Palestinian Embassy in Greece reported yesterday that the ship that sank off the coast of Malta was carrying more than 450 passengers, most of them Palestinians from the Gaza Strip, and that it was rammed intentionally by another ship run by rival smugglers. [Read more...]

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Pentagon: U.S. ground troops may join Iraqis in combat against ISIS

The Guardian reports: The Pentagon leadership suggested to a Senate panel on Tuesday that US ground troops may directly join Iraqi forces in combat against the Islamic State (Isis), despite US president Barack Obama’s repeated public assurances against US ground combat in the latest Middle Eastern war.

A day after US warplanes expanded the war south-west of Baghdad, Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate armed services committee that he could see himself recommending the use of some US military forces now in Iraq to embed within Iraqi and Kurdish units to take territory away from Isis.

“If we reach the point where I believe our advisers should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific [Isis] targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said, preferring the term “close combat advising”.

It was the most thorough public acknowledgement yet from Pentagon leaders that the roughly 1,600 US troops Obama has deployed to Iraq since June may in fact be used in a ground combat role, something Obama has directly ruled out, most recently in a televised speech last week.

Dempsey, who has for years warned about the “unintended consequences” of Americanizing the Syrian civil war that gave rise to Isis, said he envisioned “close combat advising” for operations on the order of taking Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, away from Isis. [Continue reading...]

Middle East Monitor adds: The head of Iraq’s Shia Sadrist movement Muqtada Al-Sadr yesterday threatened the United States’ troops if they decide to return to Iraq.

Al-Sadr said, in a statement posted on his official website: “The Black House [The White House] has decided to resume its attacks on Iraqi territory and perhaps the American decision comes after it had regretted its mockery of a withdrawal from Iraq to avoid the Iraqi fierce military and political and popular resistance.”

Al-Sadr continued: “I say, if you [United States] decide to return to Iraq, we will fight you with all our power and you will regret your decision.”

Al-Sadr called on the Iraqi government not to seek the occupier’s help even under the pretext of defeating the Islamic State, claiming the radical organization is nothing but an “American colonial invention”.

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U.S. strikes in Syria won’t turn locals against ISIS

A columnist for Al-Monitor living in Aleppo writes: [T]he war against IS will be won and lost on the ground through hearts and minds, not through missiles and bombs. This is something I felt acutely while talking to the people of Al Bab, who almost unanimously sang the praises of the Islamic State’s administration and the services the group brought to the areas under its control after years of turmoil.

“My business had never been this good under the local rebels, some of whom were my relatives,” said Abu Riad. “They brought law and order; they went after the criminals and bandits and cleaned up the town. Under the rebels, it was chaos and lawlessness. Now I can be sure my merchandise is safe and I can transport it safely as no one dares steal here anymore,” he added. Even more extraordinary is that some of Aleppo’s industrialists and factory owners opted to move their machinery from the Sheikh Najjar industrial zone into IS territory in Al Bab, as they knew it would be safe from looting there.

Law and order aren’t the only advantages of being under IS rule. The group also provides many services, mostly free of charge. “They fixed roads and power lines; they gave out food to the needy. They have traffic police and free religious schools. The rebels never did that. All they did was steal and fight each other,” said Abu Raid. When I asked him about what hardships under the austere rule of IS, he said, “Yes, they have very strict laws, but they won’t harm or bother you unless you cross the red lines. For me, the only difficulty I had was not being able to smoke in public. The rest wasn’t too bad; we are a very conservative town, after all.” [Continue reading...]

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‘People in Raqqa have to deal with two evils, ISIS or Assad’

The Guardian reports: The city where the western hostages slain by the Islamic State (Isis) terror group were held is nervously preparing for an onslaught. Each night since Barack Obama said he would bomb Isis targets in Syria, residents of the eastern city of Raqqa – those who support the group and those who abhor it – have sat in fear waiting for the air strikes to begin.

Many believe that the city’s civilians will pay the price of a campaign to root out Isis, which after controlling Raqqa for more than a year is now well embedded in its ramshackle neighbourhoods and entwined into much of its social fabric.

Isis has run Raqqa with impunity since it ousted the Syrian regime in mid-2013, fearing no foe and ruthlessly imposing its worldview on a population that has been unwilling to confront them.

There is widespread revulsion at Isis’s brutal ways. Most know of the beheadings of the hostages. The same sort of summary slaughter takes place most days in the city’s main square – routine killings without hearing or mercy. Many families say they have stopped taking their children to public parks.

It is Raqqa’s silent, seething anti-Isis rump on whom the US and its regional partners will depend to eventually rise up. But before that happens, the spectre of a deadly air assault is terrifying many.

“I believe most of the casualties will be civilian,” said Abu Mohammed, 33, a shopkeeper. “The majority will be from Raqqa and very few from Isis. Many of our young men in the city have joined Isis either because of fear or because of the wages they give, which is $400 (£246) per month. This is a very good salary for us here.”

Abu Mohammed said he had adapted to the group’s hardline rule and saw Isis as a better option than the regime of Bashar al-Assad. “We are afraid that after the US air strikes, the regime will take control of the city. Assad is a criminal and his regime is brutal. We had bad experience with the Free Syria Army [FSA], they are corrupt and now we are getting used to Isis’s Islamic rules. Day after day, they are getting better with people.”

Abu Maya Al-Raqawi, 40, a media worker from the city, said: “Some people are already fleeing the city as they know that civilians are going to be the real victims for these air strikes. Raqqa will be completely destroyed. We all know that Isis are spreading themselves among civilians and they occupy the FSA and old regime headquarters, which are in civilian areas. People in Raqqa have to deal with two evils, Isis or Assad. Which one is better? I don’t know the answer.” [Continue reading...]

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Al Qaeda appealed to ISIS to release British aid worker Alan Henning following kidnap

The Independent reports: Al-Qaeda appealed to Isis to release the British hostage Alan Henning because it believed he was an innocent aid worker who was genuinely trying to help suffering Muslims, it can be revealed.

In evidence that the depravity exhibited by Isis is now repelling Muslims of all views and backgrounds, even the terrorist group behind the 11 September attacks on the US in 2001 decided that kidnapping the aid-convoy volunteer was a step too far.

Mr Henning, a taxi driver from Eccles, Salford, was so moved by the plight of Muslims in Syria that he decided to miss last Christmas with his wife and two children and travel 4,000 miles to deliver medical equipment to refugees holed up in the town of Al-Dana. A local commander – or emir – of Jabhat al-Nusra, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, visited his then-allies in Isis four days after Mr Henning, 47, was captured. The emir confronted the kidnappers, arguing that their actions were “wrong under Islamic law” and “counter-productive”, according to a journalist who interviewed the man immediately after the encounter. [Continue reading...]

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Iraq: Survivors describe government airstrike

Human Rights Watch: The Iraqi government should promptly investigate an airstrike that hit a school housing displaced people near Tikrit on September 1, 2014. The attack killed at least 31 civilians, including 24 children, and wounded 41 others. According to three survivors, no fighters from the armed group Islamic State or other military objects were in or around the school at the time.

The attack occurred around 11:30 p.m. on September 1 on the Al-Alam Vocational High School for Industry in the Alwayi Al-Thawri neighborhood of Al-Alam, 18 kilometers northeast of the city of Tikrit. The area is under the control of Islamic State, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS).

“Iraq’s allies in the fight against ISIS need to put pressure on Baghdad to stop this kind of violence,” said Fred Abrahams, special adviser. “ISIS is incredibly brutal, but that’s no excuse for what the Iraqi government is doing.” [Continue reading...]

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Israeli drone conference is features aircraft recently used to attack Gaza

Quartz: A few weeks after Israel and Hamas signed an open-ended truce to end their nearly two-month-long war in Gaza, Israeli defense contractors are parading weapons used in the conflict at a conference in Tel Aviv. The annual Israel Unmanned Systems conference, which began Sunday and runs through Friday (Sept. 19), is jointly hosted with the US Embassy in Tel Aviv. According to its website, attendees include “senior officials from commercial and government entities” from Europe, Asia, North and South America.

The conference’s sponsors include the largest Israeli private defense contractors, among them Haifa-based Elbit Systems. Elbit’s Hermes 450 (pdf), a “multi-role tactical high-performance unmanned aircraft system” (UAS)—in other words, a battle drone—operated this summer in the Gaza Strip, and may have carried out attacks. [Continue reading...]

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Israel’s worst-kept secret

Douglas Birch and R. Jeffrey Smith write: Israel has a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons.

Former CIA Director Robert Gates said so during his 2006 Senate confirmation hearings for secretary of defense, when he noted—while serving as a university president—that Iran is surrounded by “powers with nuclear weapons,” including “the Israelis to the west.” Former President Jimmy Carter said so in 2008 and again this year, in interviews and speeches in which he pegged the number of Israel’s nuclear warheads at 150 to around 300.

But due to a quirk of federal secrecy rules, such remarks generally cannot be made even now by those who work for the U.S. government and hold active security clearances. In fact, U.S. officials, even those on Capitol Hill, are routinely admonished not to mention the existence of an Israeli nuclear arsenal and occasionally punished when they do so.

The policy of never publicly confirming what a scholar once called one of the world’s “worst-kept secrets” dates from a political deal between the United States and Israel in the late 1960s. Its consequence has been to help Israel maintain a distinctive military posture in the Middle East while avoiding the scrutiny—and occasional disapprobation—applied to the world’s eight acknowledged nuclear powers.

But the U.S. policy of shielding the Israeli program has recently provoked new controversy, partly because of allegations that it played a role in the censure of a well-known national-laboratory arms researcher in July, after he published an article in which he acknowledged that Israel has nuclear arms. Some scholars and experts are also complaining that the government’s lack of candor is complicating its high-profile campaign to block the development of nuclear arms in Iran, as well as U.S.-led planning for a potential treaty prohibiting nuclear arms anywhere in the region. [Continue reading...]

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Tom Engelhardt: The great concentration or the great fragmentation?

Power drain: Mysteries of the twenty-first century in a helter-skelter world
By Tom Engelhardt

It’s possible I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong planet — and if that sounds like the first sentence of a sci-fi novel maybe, in its own way, it is. I thought I knew where I was, of course, but looking back from our helter-skelter world of 2014, I wonder. 

For most of the last several hundred years, the story in view might be called the Great Concentration and it focused on an imperial struggle for power on planet Earth. That rivalry took place among a kaleidoscopic succession of European “great powers,” one global empire (Great Britain), Russia, a single Asian state (Japan), and the United States. After two world wars that devastated the Eurasian continent, there emerged only two “superpowers,” the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They were so stunningly mighty and over-armed — great inland empires — that, unlike previous powers, they could not even imagine how to wage war directly upon each other, not without obliterating much of civilization. The full planet nonetheless became their battlefield in what was known as the Cold War only because hot ones were banished to “the peripheries” and the conflict took place, in part, in “the shadows” (a situation novelist John le Carré caught with particular incisiveness).

Those two superpowers divided much of the planet into mighty blocs, as the “free world” faced off against the “communist” one. What was left, often called the Third World, became a game board and sometimes battlefield for influence and dominance. From Havana to Saigon, Berlin to Jakarta, whatever happened, however local, always seemed to have a superpower tinge to it. 

This was the world as it was presented to me in the years of my youth and for decades thereafter.  And then, unexpectedly, there was only one superpower. In 1991, something like the ultimate step in the concentration of power seemed to occur. The weaker and less wealthy of the two rivals, its economy grown sclerotic even as its nuclear arsenal bulged, its vaunted military bogged down in an unwinnable war with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan (backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan), suddenly vanished from the planet.  It left behind a dismantled wall in Berlin, a unified Germany, a liberated Eastern Europe, a series of former SSRs in Central Asia fending for themselves, and its bloc partner (and sometimes-rival-cum-enemy) China, still run by a “communist” party, gunning the automobile of state onto the capitalist highway under slogans like “to get rich is glorious.”   

Full Spectrum Dominance on a Unipolar Planet

As with the famous cheese of children’s rhyme, the United States now stood alone.  Never before had a single power of such stature, wealth, and military clout been left so triumphantly solitary, without the hint of a serious challenger anywhere. Economically, the only other system imaginable for a century had been banished to the history books. There was just one power and one economic system left in a moment of triumph the likes of which even the leaders of that winning state had neither imagined nor predicted. 

Initially, Washington was stunned. It took the powers-that-be almost a decade to fully absorb and react to what had happened. After all, as one observer then so famously put it, “the end of history” had been reached — and there, amid the rubble of other systems and powers, lay an imperial version of liberal democracy and a capitalist system freed of even the thought of global competitors and constraints. Or so it seemed.

[Read more...]

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Music: Jazzanova — ‘L.O.V.E and You and I’

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UN commission: ISIS not the primary agent of death and destruction in Syria

The Associated Press reports: As nations mount an offensive against the Islamic State militants that have gained a stronghold in Iraq and Syria, a U.N. human rights commission emphasized Tuesday that the Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government has committed the bulk of atrocities in the civil war.

The head of the commission, Brazilian diplomat and scholar Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, told the U.N.’s top human rights body that the government’s killing of civilians — often through the use of ubiquitous checkpoints — exceeds the crimes against civilians perpetrated by the militants and other anti-government armed groups.

The Islamic State extremists and anti-government armed groups are not “the sole agents of death and destruction inside Syria,” Pinheiro told the 47-nation Human Rights Council in Geneva.

The Council authorized the commission to investigate all alleged violations of international human rights law since March 2011 in Syria and to identify whenever possible those responsible, so that they can be prosecuted.

“The Syrian government remains responsible for the majority of the civilian casualties, killing and maiming scores of civilians daily — both from a distance using shelling and aerial bombardment and up close, at its checkpoints and in its interrogation rooms,” Pinheiro said. “Checkpoints are often the starting point of a horrific journey of disappearance, torture, sexual abuse and, for many, death. Checkpoints are used to enforce sieges and to trap civilians in areas under indiscriminate bombardment.” [Continue reading...]

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U.S. prepared to destroy Syria’s air defenses if planes are attacked

The Associated Press reports: The United States would retaliate against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s air defenses if he were to go after American planes launching airstrikes in his country, senior Obama administration officials said Monday.

Officials said the U.S. has a good sense of where the Syrian air defenses, along with their command and control centers, are located. If Assad were to use those capabilities to threaten U.S. forces, it would put his air defenses at risk, according to the officials, who insisted on anonymity in order to discuss the administration’s thinking on the matter.

On Saturday, the New York Times reported that in the event that Syria fired at U.S. planes: “Mr. Obama said he would order American forces to wipe out Syria’s air defense system, which he noted would be easier than striking ISIS because its locations are better known. He went on to say that such an action by Mr. Assad would lead to his overthrow, according to one account.”

Foreign Policy reports: Syria has “no reservations” about dealing directly with the United States on airstrikes, Faisal Mekdad, the country’s deputy foreign minister, told NBC News last week, adding that the countries are “fighting the same enemy” in the Islamic State. “When it comes to terrorism, we should forget our differences … and forget all about the past,” Mekdad said. “It takes two to tango…. We are ready to talk.”

The Syrians shouldn’t hold their breath, Obama officials say. And yet rumors persist that there’s a lot more than chitchat about terrorists going on between the two countries. According to a report in the Syrian newspaper Al-Watan on Monday, the United States is giving the Syrians intelligence about the location of Islamic State fighters through a third party, which the publication didn’t name. Haaretz reported that “Western diplomatic sources” had confirmed the intelligence sharing, which includes “movements of Islamic State convoys, meetings of the organization’s leaders, and weapons and ammunitions armories that IS fighters have seized in Iraq or on Syrian territory.”

“According to the sources, Washington will ultimately be forced to admit the cooperation indirectly, due to the precise attacks by the Syrian army on [Islamic State] sites, which are hard to find without precise intelligence information,” the Israeli publication claimed.

Syrian airstrikes have targeted Islamic State members, but there’s no evidence that the Americans told the Syrians where to aim. A U.S. official, who declined to speak on the record when discussing intelligence matters, dismissed any suggestion that Washington was working with Assad.

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ISIS attacks education system — no music, art and literature for Mosul kids

The Associated Press/CBS reports: The extremist-held Iraqi city of Mosul is set to usher in a new school year. But unlike years past, there will be no art or music. Classes about history, literature and Christianity have been “permanently annulled.”

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has declared patriotic songs blasphemous and ordered that certain pictures be torn out of textbooks.

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Fighting ISIS: Former CIA deputy director on call to send U.S. troops to Iraq, Syria

But instead of compliance, Iraq’s second largest city has – at least so far – responded to the Sunni militants’ demands with silence. Although the extremists stipulated that the school year would begin Sept. 9, pupils have uniformly not shown up for class, according to residents who spoke anonymously because of safety concerns. They said families were keeping their children home out of mixed feelings of fear, resistance and uncertainty.

“What’s important to us now is that the children continue receiving knowledge correctly, even if they lose a whole academic year and an official certification,” a Mosul resident who identified himself as Abu Hassan told The Associated Press, giving only his nickname for fear of reprisals. He and his wife have opted for home schooling, picking up the required readings at the local market. [Continue reading...]

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